Literary City: Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo

With Cairo still in turmoil and bombs exploding, writer Ahdaf Souief shares her worries over the stifling of cultural life, her love for Naguib Mahfouz, and the power of the Nile.

02.07.14 10:45 AM ET

Ahdaf Soueif is a pillar of Cairo. Coming from a family of activists (she has a nephew in jail for allegedly encouraging a demonstration, a sister whom, after her son was faced with a court marshal, went on hunger strike, and a niece in full-time human rights activism) she is held in high regard in the city in which she was born. Soueif pens a weekly column for a national paper, has written two novels and three story collections, and then, during the Egyptian revolution, produced Cairo, an often very personal account of the inception of the Arab Spring.

When we spoke, it was the eve of the third anniversary of the uprising, and four bombs had detonated in the city through the course of the day. She talked about the relevance of literature in a war zone, sitting in the middle of the revolution to write a book, and the place where, in amongst all the chaos, she can find some solace.

Before anything, I just heard about the bombs. I hope you’re ok? How you’re able to deal with that kind of thing on a day-to-day basis is something I can’t fathom.

You know, it’s very close. Part of your mind is thinking, Ok, what can one do? When will one start writing? Should one phone somebody? People come on the phone and we’re exchanging thoughts about what to do, and you’re also trying to carry on with your work, and you’re also trying to keep up with what’s happening. It’s constant, it’s ongoing, it’s in everything - in every thought you have, but you learn to just take it as part of the texture.

You open your book by saying: “I wanted more to act the revolution than to write it,” although it could be argued that they are both important and perhaps this has given a much greater sense of intimacy to that time than say a television camera could have done, or rolling news.

My son, who is a filmmaker, he at one point said, not of the whole book but of bits of it, that it was doing what only writing could do. You know, it’s funny because in this situation you are constantly needing to be useful.

How did it actually happen? Did you sit in Tahir Square and write? What was that process?

I was writing immediate bits from Tahir from time to time for the papers and sometimes, yes, I did just sit and if something really struck me or if there was a particular feeling in the air or something then I would note it. So, you know, I can’t really remember whether I went back. I know I went back to articles and back to columns I’d written because I thought I could just use them, but I couldn’t just use them as they were because they were material. If I needed to check an actual fact there were the films, short films that this collective that my son was one of the founders of did, and they just went out and shot footage of what was going on.

What area of Cairo do you live in and what sort of state is it in?

I live in Zamalek, which is on an island in the middle of the Nile. It’s ten minutes from downtown but it’s an island. It’s kind of an upscale district. It’s got the embassies and it’s got cafes and restaurants and those sorts of things. So there was never, well there was once, violence on its streets but maybe the protests that were there were not violent and were kind of easy.

What do you do around Cairo when you’re not writing?

Well, I’ve been to three excellent exhibitions in the last week. One was installations and paintings and so on and one was a photography exhibition and one was a graffiti art exhibition. Obviously they are all protest based and all very different and they were all brilliant. Also, there are the meetings of this group [The Part of the Revolution], which is trying to carve out a space in all of this. And also there are meetings for a group that are trying to decide whether to run a revolution candidate for president.

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And then there are ordinary family things because part of what you do is keep up as normal a life as possible so that everyone can carry on, because you can’t be in crisis mode all the time. You’ve got to normalize as much as possible.

How has this period affected your relationship with Cairo? Is it stronger now or do you feel like a stranger?

I think that during the first year, possibly the second year as well, it was like at last you could really love your city because part of that relationship is feeling so sorry for what has been done to it over 30 years. For a couple of years we had a real sense of the possibility of action and the possibility of intervention and you could do things with and to the city. Right now? Right now, with the really vicious return of the security state it makes it hard to feel so positive because you’re not aligned anymore with the feeling in the street. So, theoretically and intellectually, you believe that it will all come around again, because ultimately the things the people all went out for are the things they want and so need. It’s just that they think this regime is going to provide them and they’re not. It’s like, you’re really trying to keep the faith that again it will be possible to engage with the city in that sort of positive, caring way.

What has this done to the literature coming out of the city?

I think it’s too early to say what it’s done to fiction. I think the couple of fiction things that have come out have been very much on the surface. They’ve not ripened. But poetry, we’ve had a burst of poetry, quite a lot of it vernacular, that has been turned into song and that has been - actually not since the military takeover. Until the military takeover there was a real burst of poetry and since then, after the Rabaa Massacre on 14th August, there has been, I think, one poem which is called Prayer of Fear that has been amazing. Otherwise the real voices have been quiet. The air is filled with the most vulgar celebratory military type of songs.

What about bookshops?

There’s the old style bookshops with lots and lots of shelves but there are also, and have been for about 10 years now, bookshops with coffee shops inside and they do signings and events and so on. I don’t know if they are doing well or badly. The signings have dropped. I’ve actually got bookshops within a few steps of where I live and there was easily something there every night. Now it can be four or five weeks between things.

Why do you think that is?

I think the space for discussion is closing down. I think people are nervous. The people who own bookshops are nervous of their livelihood and nervous of being raided or being told they don’t control the safety regulations or whatever. So they’re playing it safe. There was a poetry book signing for one of the very, very, very young poets who became well known during the revolution and that was very well attended. Everything is subdued. The voice, the jingoistic voice, bordering on fascist voice, is what is so very loud now.

Can you recommend some of these new voices coming out of Cairo at the moment?

Absolutely but they are in Arabic. There are no poets writing in English. Poetry comes from such a deep place in the culture. There was a brilliant, little, tiny book called Manifesto that came out last year by a young man who nobody had ever heard of before and it was everywhere. I mean, it was quoted everywhere, it was put to music, it sold out of five editions in like two weeks. Again, it’s very Arabic.

What about the literary heritage of Egypt, is that still relevant or is it just about new voices now?

It’s relevant in that so much of the literary culture for the last 120 years has been about the resistance, even if it’s Mahfouz’s novel it is about what is happening, you know, how people’s lives are affected. For the last four or five years before the revolution we had a splurge of dystopian novels, some which were almost surrealistic, but most of that energy has been going into articles, as mine has. It has been going into the immediate articles.

Although recently, I have thought, as the scene becomes more and more murky and more and more layered, that while I’m trying to write my weekly column, I’ll sometimes find it really hard to pair stuff down to a simple idea and I started thinking that maybe the real way for me to engage with what’s happening now is actually to take that horrible plunge, that horrible risk, and try to engage with it in a more imaginative way and see if I can find a novel in there somewhere. It’s a really scary thought.

Can you articulate what Cairo has done to your writing?

Cairo was always there in both my novels before and in the majority of the short stories. I think Cairo was always present and there were always passages about it. I think that my fiction was always firmly located in place. I think that having to write the Cairo book in the heart of the revolution, with all those feeling. As I was translating it into Arabic, I found some passages that were very me. They were passionate. Obviously it’s affected what I write.

What are your favorite works of literature that are set in Cairo?

It has to be Naguib Mahfouz. He’s the one who really kind of brought certain quarters of Cairo alive—where the city comes to life. I will say though that I don’t like most of the translations, but that’s always a problem that I have.

Is there a certain spot in the city that you find yourself continually returning to? Maybe to read, or to write, or perhaps you find some kind of peace there?

The river. I always gravitate towards the river. When I was living half in London and half in Cairo it would be, you know, you’d start the drive from the airport and it was when you’d hit the bridges on the river. I always came in at night, of course, because of the flight from London, and there would be the lights and boats and people on the bridges and that was when I was like, Ah, yes, I’m home. It’s always the river.