A Conversation with Ahmed Alaidy

What does it take to be a renegade in Egyptian literature? The following is a conversation between two writers of distinctly different generations, though both famously underground. Ahmed Alaidy, at thirty-one, has been the talk of Cairo’s literary scene since the 2003 publication of his novel An Takoun Abbas al-Abd (Being Abbas El-Abd). Alaidy’s novel, radical in form, recounts the tale of a disturbed video rental clerk, his psychiatrist uncle, and a nihilistic cosmetics salesman, Abbas El-Abd. Some have gone as far as to call it the first truly popular Arab novel since the 1950s, an irreverent look at middle-class culture replete with jabs at mall life, dating, and street fights. His original use of language, a cut and paste vernacular drawn from international consumer culture as well as the streets of Cairo, stands as a landmark in a literary tradition that tends toward the rigidly classical. The English translation of his debut novel, by Humphrey Davies, will be available from the American University in Cairo Press this fall.

Mustafa Zikri, at thirty-nine, paved the way for the likes of Alaidy. His first collection of short stories was published by Egypt’s Kafkaesque Supreme Council for Culture in 1995. He has since published four novels and written two film scripts, one an original story, the other an adaptation of a novel by Brazilian author George Amadou. Zikri’s works seem consumed by violence, of both the literal and figurative variety; his novels and screenplays are explorations of the peripheral, even ugly, characters that give a city like Cairo its contours. His commitment to form — or better, non-form — has been deemed unconventional, if not outright controversial, and his Center Ahmed Alaidy, left films, low-budget, rough around the edges, have developed a cult following. Afarit al-Asfalt (Devils of the Tarmac, 1996), for example, delved into the secret lives of Cairo’s ubiquitous microbus drivers, recounting the fantasies of both drivers and passengers in a context in which anything goes. His Hura’ Mataha Qutiya (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997) documents a breathless stream of consciousness, care of a protagonist named, interestingly enough, Mustafa. In one scene, a couple — acquaintances of the protagonist—take part in a love scene in the basement of their posh home. Later, the narrator describes the sensation of sleeping in a room in which the ceiling seems to be constantly descending, weirdly echoing the subterranean nature of the love scene. One rarely knows what is real or fiction, as it all seamlessly collapses into a single claustrophobic state, an amalgamation of turn-ons and neuroses. And finally, al-Risa’il (The Messages, 2006) takes on the stream of consciousness form again, though in its midst, one is left feeling that the protagonist — or is it the author? — is addressing the novel as a sort of letter. To whom, we never learn.

Mustafa Zikri: Before we get into the writing of Being Abbas El-Abd, how was it getting started? There’s always a difficult stage right before the writing. How was it for you?

Ahmed Alaidy: For me, getting something published meant paying money, so there was no possibility of my writing literature. All I could do was write what was in demand in the market, which is entertaining light writing, detective novels or humorous stuff. So I used to write short humorous stories for a small publishing house as part of a satirical series.They commissioned pieces from me as part of a collective series.

MZ: But you, being by nature a writer, couldn’t. You had to have your own series.

AA: I won’t lie to you. I tried but I couldn’t. Like I’ve always wanted to write a detective novel, but I couldn’t. I’m not going to claim that I was above that kind of thing. I just couldn’t. Then I left that first small publisher and went to another publisher, and there I did a long story in book form. For the next work, he said to me, “Look. You don’t come across as a comic writer. You write in a different style. So write whatever you like.”

This is what later became Being Abbas El-Abd. After he read it, he told me he couldn’t finish it and he said, “You’ve called it ‘boring’… This stuff isn’t boring, it’s shit!”… After that there was Muhammad Hashim, the owner of the publishing house Dar Merit, who has a reading committee of writers and journalists. I thought, “Anyway, the work’s been rejected by an ‘under the stairs’ publishing house, so I wonder what a heavy-duty house like Merit will do with it. I’ll give it to him to read, so he can give it a final slapping around. I’ll learn some things, and then I can throw it in a drawer.” So I told him, “Look. Read it. I’m not thinking about publishing it, and I don’t have any money to publish it. I know you don’t read [things submitted for publication] yourself and it’s already been turned down, so I’d really like you to tell me why it’s bad so I can have the benefit of your opinion.” A little while later, I was surprised to hear him telling me he was going to publish it. At the beginning, there was no chance that it might sell.

MZ: What kind of preparation went into the writing?

AA: Part of the “research” for the book was listening to a psychiatrist on a radio program who did “psychodramatherapy.” I spoke to him on the air, and he thought I was genuinely sick, meaning he thought that instead of my telling him about my problem by saying, “I’ve got this friend whose problem is thus and so,”I was telling him,“I’ve got this novel and this character has got this, that, and the other.” Also part of the research was that I had a colleague who worked for a time in the Abbasiya Hospital for Mental Disorders. He used to tell me about the secret world there. Even things that may have been the least of what went on were so terrifying that I couldn’t use them in a novel.

Are you fond of mind games?

MZ: I’m always governed by the narrowness of my world. It’s a semi-neurotic world. Neurotics are always that way. They repeat themselves a lot and they don’t forget their obsessions and they try a lot. The neurotic is always like a child. He doesn’t give up because he can’t reach a packet of cigarettes because he’s too small. He may try twenty times,and those twenty times don’t mean to him that it’s impossible, and he’ll go on trying—

AA: Till either he grows taller or the table grows shorter.

MZ: That’s right. Nothing is impossible for him. In my work you always find paragraphs or sentences or characters or situations or the use of a certain accessory, such as the telephone, and cigarettes and coffee, in an obsessive way. I squeeze them dramatically in order to get something out of them. It’s like having an obsession. You can’t get rid of it. And the law that says, “That’s enough!” or “It’s impossible!” just isn’t there. It’s that kind of obsession that more or less makes you — when you’re reading a sentence,and it’s repetitive, for example, in Mirror 202, in a dialogue on the telephone — transfer the same dialogue to another place in a different form, with slightly different pronouns. Anyway, as far as I can, I change the perspective and I change the constructions. That’s why I’m always in need of an arsenal of games and formats, very large numbers of pronouns,so that I can feel that there’s a difference. I always need huge numbers of formal stratagems, to a morbid degree. I also really love drama,so much so that people say, “If you could just build drama [in your writing] the way you build it in your movies and keep going down that road, you’d be really great.” But the problem is I’m greedy. The moment I start writing with a pen, and I become aware that it’s a pen, that’s it — I’m not going to build drama the way I do it in the movies.

AA: You don’t need to?

MZ: Right. I don’t need to. It’s a great pleasure in literature that one can fragment the drama, like in The Messages. There’s a general context, as it were, that a man is sending messages to his beloved—a classic theme in literature from long ago.

AA: You yourself used a code inside the text of The Messages: a letter addressed to a certain person and the reader can’t decode it, but he’s aware that something’s going on right beneath his nose.

MZ: I felt when reading the novel Being Abbas al-Abd that its language was very new. Did you think about that? Or did it come naturally, on the basis that you think about language that way?

AA: There are things I was aware of. I knew I was going to manage the chapters as though they were short stories. I knew I was going to have a flashback chapter and a present-tense chapter, but what was going to happen and how, no, of course, I didn’t know that. And then there was the problem that after five rounds of deletion and writing, I said to myself, “What do you think you’re doing? What have you got to do with literature? You’re a marketing person.”

MZ: But the mixed language you used in your writing was something unusual.

AA: Quite simply the idea was that the hero has schizophrenia, which means, to put it extremely loosely, that the human brain makes two signals “Act!” and “Don’t act!” — like the zero and the one on a computer. It sends one signal for each action from the brain to the body, but the brain of a schizophrenic sends the two signals at the same time, so you find him hesitating or talking disjointedly. So the question that I asked myself was, “Can I write a novel with a disjointed narrative without losing the reader?”

Now, you always choose characters that are deformed and very marginal.

MZ: They’re not even marginal because even the marginal characters of the eighties in the movies by directors such as Muhammad Khan and Khayri Bishara are really footnotes to a main text. They [my characters] belong to something basic, what I call the “underground” and the genuine underground never has any class ambitions whatsoever. The person who has class ambitions is the one who is able to leave his own class and join another. The genuine underground type resembles the middle-class type in that the underground character lives and dies in [his own class]. The middle-class person always or usually stays where he is. He has no ambitions and he can’t achieve success. The person who realizes a shift from below to the middle class is the one who moves ahead. That’s why there’s nothing strange in the fact that the history of the novel emerges from the middle class. And that’s a magical world, because it’s a slightly schizophrenic world.

AA: There are two of your novels — Mirror 202 and Nudge From a Strange World—where you speak sometimes of the novelist’s dream of starting a work at page 200, then going to page 199, and so on, and the closer he gets to the beginning the more mysterious it becomes. In Mirror 202, the work begins at the middle of the book. What I mean is there was a movie called Memento and before that there was Irreversible, where the events start at the end and finish at the beginning. Was that what you had in mind?

MZ: You know… I always have ideas like that in mind.

AA: And the easiest thing, then, if you can’t do them, is just to write about them?

MZ: Right. Because I’m well aware that that’s impossible, that it would even be a bit naïve to carry out a project of that sort, so there’s a certain novelty in your imagining a project of that sort and writing about it. What I mean is that what I’m talking about in Mirror 202—the form of the book that I’m imagining, with half of the book an introduction to the middle page and the other half an introduction to the back [of the book] — isn’t something that I ever thought could be implemented, it’s just an imagining of the project in that form. I really love form, and I’m always attracted by things that relate to form.

AA: In Mirror 202 you used a special technique that’s akin to putting down splinters from the mirror and then reassembling them so that we see our complete reflection in the mirror, which thus is completed itself — the reuse of the same excerpts more clearly arranged.

MZ: In the first arrangement versus the second the pronouns change, the connecting sentences increase, or there are figurative and metaphorical uses.

AA: Was this the work you found most exhausting?

MZ: That’s correct. And it’s one of my works that’s closest to me.This is the most “formal” (dependent on form) of my works and at the same time, when I look at it, I find in it parts that are highly classical, in the feelings, in the dramatic structures.

MZ: Do you keep to a particular genre when you write?

AA: The novel not only has to compete with other novels, it also has to compete with the movies, with going out with your friends, and with great drugs. It has to get past a lot of things to reach a demanding reader. Just like, at the level of reading, comic strips are considered to be the highest level of autism, because except for the reader’s moving his eyes from one picture to the next, there’s no movement. I write comic strip stories, too, and I’ve done screenplay drafts. So I tried to mix a number of genres of writing so as to draw the reader in, in order to make him responsible for the novel as a whole and as though the novel didn’t belong to the person who wrote it, but to the person who’s reading it as well. As an attempt to involve the reader, I omitted the end of the last chapter; I’m not talking about leaving the ending open but about a chapter that the reader can sit down and finish for himself.

There’s a story told about you that when the storage space for graduation projects was converted into a cafeteria, they came across your graduation project and the professor had written comments on it asking for changes in the screenplay, and that you’d written beneath his signature thanking him and refusing to make any changes.

MZ: [Laughs] I passed and that’s enough. The objections of the ones who passed me were along the lines of, “Why didn’t you do a graduation project that could be shown outside, on the market?” and I was against that. I wanted to test the institute’s resources to the limit. In other words, I had more integrity than they did. I couldn’t accept doing something two-faced. I knew that I was writing a screenplay that would be my graduation piece [for consumption] inside the institute, and so I made it very experimental and extremely different,and there was virtually no possibility of doing the things depicted outside because there was a lot of sex and stuff.

AA: You don’t have a copy?

MZ: No.

AA: You’re famous for not keeping your screenplays.

MZ: Right. For the cinema, even though for literature it’s not that way.

AA: Is the cinema as a medium stronger than literature and of more impact on the public?

MZ: On the contrary,literature is the stronger medium. But the cinema has more influence on the public, without a doubt.

AA: Do you do a lot of research before working on your novels?

MZ: No. Because generally speaking, for novels, research is suspect artistically. Are you supposed to go to some place and live with the people there so that you can write about them? That’s nonsense. Even research connected to books is suspect, in the sense that… like in the novel Perfume or The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That’s all research but it’s very intrusive. It’s all homework.

AA: The novel The Yacoubian Building [by Alaa El Aswany] deals with political life in Egypt and tries, in one way or another, to reform society. It goes beyond the idea that it’s just an enjoyable or literary work. Does literature owe politics anything?

MZ: When you sit down with Alaa, you find that these are his convictions, that literature has a “moral” and a goal.

AA: Like [Egyptian writer] Sonallah Ibrahim?

MZ: Of course, Sonallah Ibrahim’s the same. The problem is that there’s nobody who’s working against his convictions. Alaa is a politicized person, the [real] people he writes about are politicized, and they all play the same game. At this point it’s finished, you’ve moved far away from literature, from art, because high art has never been about reclaiming your rights or blackening people’s reputations. Rather, there’s a spirit in the arts that is one of total abstraction. There shouldn’t be in art a narrow view that says, “Art has to be this way.” It’s no surprise to discover that when Yacoubian was translated into English, they took out that whole superciliousness of the writer, as when he speaks of al-shadhdh jinsiyan [the sexual deviant] — all that moral superciliousness they took out! It was changed and they made it as though he was talking about [homosexuals] magnanimously, because in the West that’s a taboo.

AA: Every writer has a taboo. What are your taboos?

MZ: What do you mean by “taboo”?

AA: Things you would never think of doing in your writing.

MZ: I suppose my taboo is writing that is political or social.

AA: What do you think of the saying that there is no new writing?

MZ: No. Of course there’s new writing. And because every writer gets old and becomes “old hat,” there can’t be a solution. Meaning that I remember my reaction to Being Abbas al-Abd. I felt that I’d become old, even though the difference in age between us… you know, you were born in 1974 and I was born in 1966. It’s a feeling that’s a little painful as well. But it has its own consolation. There can be an old writing and a new writing, but there’s always a new writing. This is the writer’s consolation: though he may be a bit old in his area, it’s still an area over which he has mastery and where he’s strong, and strength has nothing to do with time, which is why in the end literature — or music or the arts in general — is one of the least historically bound things,very much so. There is no time, or the time is a bit different. They remain in the end things that concern mankind, outside of time.

AA: What’s your view of the literary scene in Egypt at the present time?

MZ: Depressing. It calls for despair, but a bearable despair, not one to incapacitate the writer. Meaning that there are outlets, albeit meager. You have to confront the despair through writing.