Tuesday, January 06, 2015

I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000: Ahdaf Soueif

My interview with Ahdaf Soueif in The Hindu, Literary Review, January 3, 2015

Lit for Life 2015
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran

The events following the “Arab Spring” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have not unfolded quite the way protestors had imagined. In 2011, Egyptians looked forward to a change. Today, three years later, the object of their protests, former President Hosni Mubarak, has been exonerated by Egyptian courts, the experiment with a non-military democratically government has failed and instead today, another military man, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is at the helm.

One of the strongest voices during the protests in Egypt and since then has been the remarkable writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif. Born in Cairo and a PhD in linguistics, Soueif caught the world’s attention when her book, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999. Of late, however, she is known for her documentation of the Egyptian struggle for democracy, evocatively captured in her book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and her columns in The Guardian. Despite the turn events have taken in Egypt since the heady days of 2011, Soueif continues to write and protest and believes that is what writers like her must do.
Would you say that your involvement in the “Arab Spring” and the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 marked a transition in your writing from fiction to non-fiction?

Well, actually, I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000. I got caught up in a kind of cultural activism where it always seemed that the next article, the next event had to have priority over any longer project. So the longer projects never got done. This became even more acute with the Egyptian revolution (and, yes, we still call it a “revolution”) and even got formalised in a weekly column for the Egyptian national daily, Shorouk. So Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (second edition: Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed) is the only sustained text of length that I have managed to write in 15 years.
Since 2011, Egypt has gone through tremendous change and turbulence. How do you see the situation now, particularly against the background of Hosni Mubarak’s exoneration by the court?

The revolution forced the regime (or maybe gave the regime the opportunity?) to dislodge the Mubarak family. But the revolution never took power. What we’re now seeing is Regime Version 4. Version 1 being Mubarak; 2, the year of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to whom Mubarak delegated power; 3, the year of Dr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; and 4 the period of Judge Mansour and General Sisi — post-July 2013. Every group that has taken power since Mubarak fell has tried to continue in his same mode of government but with its own players, and every one of them has sought accommodations with the establishment to do so. We now have a situation where army, police, judiciary, media, bureaucracy, big business have all identified their interests as anti-revolutionary and are working — lying and perjuring and killing — to protect and enhance them.
Many of the activists involved in the Tahrir square uprising are still in jail. What about the others who escaped arrest? Have they managed to continue organising, albeit in a clandestine manner?

People are still active, but also a lot are downhearted and divided.
In an article in The Guardian on June 29, 2014, you accused the present government lead by President Sisi of “waging a war on the young”. You saw the expedited trial of 24 human rights activists, including your niece, as a sign of this. Do you see any prospect of this changing? Will international pressure make any difference?

At the moment there is no international pressure on Egypt to respect human rights. In fact, the regime is being courted by the West as an ally in the ‘War on Terror’ and rewarded for its rhetoric and its activities in Sinai and who knows where else. Money and promises of money are pouring in from the Gulf countries, loans from the international financial institutions, and contracts, aid packages and arms from Western governments. Having said this, it’s really important to note that there is great concern and solidarity from civil society across the world. The pressure that is coming is coming from citizen groups, human rights groups and professional bodies: Universities, Bar Associations, medical associations and so on. This is the solidarity and the co-operation that we’re seeking now.
In another article in The Guardian you wrote, “The great slogan of the revolution — Bread, Freedom, Social Justice — has been whittled down to grateful for a crumb and a quiet corner.” Is this an expression of despair for the future or do you still believe that once people have been awakened to demand their rights, you cannot push them back?

I don’t feel despair. I just feel very sad at all the lives lost and the lives ruined. And that we will have to go through more sorrow and violence before we can start working to create a better society. There were reasons for the revolution, objective reasons: the difficulty of making a living, of providing a decent life for your children, the obscenely widening gap between rich and poor, the breakdown of education and healthcare plus, of course, the ever-worsening police brutality. All these conditions still exist. They’re getting more acute as the state insists on its economic path and tightens its grip on spaces of opposition, and they will lead to the new uprising. The difference next time will be that each faction has learned a different lesson from the events of the last four years, and that the country is awash with arms.
One of your remarkable initiatives has been the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) where you believe in ‘the power of culture over the culture of power’, quoting Edward Said. What role do you think interventions of this kind make in informing the world about the realities in Palestine? The media only covers this region when there is conflict. Why do you think arts, literature, cinema coming out of that region needs exposure and recognition?

PalFest (www.PalFest.org) is really a unique literary festival. It travels through the Israeli checkpoints between Palestinian cities, so every day it is with its audience in a different place. The writers do workshops and seminars in universities and literary and cultural events in the evenings. They really get to know the Palestinians as people — not just as a “cause” or a “conflict” or a “problem”. It’s really important that the world understands that in Palestine there is a people who are trying to live, work, write, bank, dance, marry, learn — in other words to live a normal life on what’s left of their land, in the face of tremendous aggression and constant incursions and attempts at take-over by Israel. One of the most immediate ways of conveying the “realness” and the normal humanity of the Palestinians is through their own cultural production and that of their friends and allies.
About Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is a political and cultural commentator and novelist. Her account of recent Egyptian events, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in 2012, and an updated edition, Cairo: A City Transformed, was published in January 2014. She is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999), as well as the well-loved In the Eye of the Sun and the collection of short stories, I Think of You. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah from Arabic into English and commissioned and edited Reflections on Islamic Art. In 2007, Soueif founded Engaged Events, a U.K.-based charity. Its first project is the Palestine Festival of Literature, which takes place annually in the cities of occupied Palestine and Gaza. She has received the Metropolis Bleu and the Constantin Cavafy Awards (2012). She was the first recipient of the Mahmoud Darwish Award (2010) and was shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Award (2013).

No comments: