When life is larger than art

by HRM on June 10, 2011

An interview with Sahar Elmougy

Sahar Elmougy

Egyptian novelist Sahar Elmougy wears a bandana; the wild mane underneath is revealed when we arrive at the hammam. Her eyes are alive, alert. We disrobe calmly and wait on the bench with our towels and black mitts.

BakingThis interview was conducted in three parts: in the back of an orange taxi on the unpaved streets of Agadir, and then in the industrialized and unadorned hammam where the women who work there spent half an hour going over our skin with the rough mitt, thrice until raw. Our skin red and fresh, our host drove us to her friend’s house where we were welcomed into the salon with the most elaborate of tea-ceremonies: home-made pastries and oily crepes awaited us along with their selection of accompaniments arranged in white porcelain bowls. The conversation continued there: five women in a circle talking literature, politics and revolution.

Interview by Harriet Alida Lye, as part of the Agadir Literary Conference

HRM: How does physical space affect narrative and character in your work, and the way you see contemporary Arabic literature in general?

SE: Needless to say that “space” is an integral part of the fiction text, be it a novel or a story though in varying degrees. As for my own work, all my writings take as their focal point the inner transformations of the characters, their moments of illumination, moments of seeing differently. This usually happens in a space that acts as a womb for such transformations. It does not have to be the classical romantic setting of the desert (though there are instances of this in my last novel “Noon”), but it could happen in a mundane surrounding such as the character’s own home.

However, in the Agadir conference, I chose not to talk about space in my work. I rather talked of the desired space, the space not yet written. Tahrir Square, the throbbing heart of the Egyptian revolution. I talked of my experience there on 28th January, the bloodiest day of the revolution. How, within the span of eight or nine hours I had retrieved my sense of belonging to the homeland. Seeing the spirit of resistance of all the thousands who were there fighting the bloody vampire of the Egyptian security body. The teargas, running towards Tahrir, the soul of a whole country returning, rising like a long dormant Phoenix out of its own ashes. This is a space that acted like a crucible of transformation for many, actually for a whole nation. It is quite an intimidating moment to write because at that moment, “life” was much larger, more amazing then “art”.

Sahar Elmougy

HRM: The novel has been said to be a Western invention. Do you agree? How do you feel about working within this convention?

SE: Though this may be true, I do not think this distinction should be a problem. On the one hand, the East has produced various narrative forms long before the novel was born as a Western genre. The Arabian Nights is a witness to this fact. But cultures have kept inseminating one another throughout history. Can one say that “ideas” have a nationality? Look at Facebook, isn’t that a Western invention? But did its inventors ever imagine it would be used as a tool of throwing up dictatorships as in the case of the Arab revolutions! I view your question in the same light. What matters is how you use and develop the genre.

HRM: Does the female writer have a different role than her male counterpart in contemporary Arabic literature? Regarding your particular role in this conference, how did it feel to be the only woman participating?

SE: Well, they share with the male writers some basic grounds. How they portray their societies, diagnose their illnesses…etc. But since women have entered the field of writing no more than a century and a half ago (with few exceptions), they are performing a long awaited task, that of speaking out women’s lives, saying the unsaid. Male writers have written men, women and the world. It is high time women write men, women and the world. Adjusting the intellectual balance of humanity is the goal. As the only woman writer in the Agadir conference, I simply felt I was a comrade to my fellow writers.

Sahar ElmougyHRM: Siri Hustvedt, an American writer, recently said at a reading in Paris that women writers will always be “barking from the margins.” What do you think of that statement?

I do not agree with this opinion. If we, as women, believe we are “barking from the margins”, that will be the case. It is true the literary arena hosts more male than female writers, but readers also crave the “other” point of view. How can we ever write if we believe ourselves to be on the margin? In order to write, we have to believe we are in the throbbing heart of literature.

HRM: And what are you currently working on?

SE: I am working on a new novel where the five main characters are women, obsessed women. Like the characters of my other works, I guess they will be going through inner transformations. But it is far too early to know what will happen to them.

A lecturer of American and British poetry at the Faculty of Arts in Cairo University, Elmougy is also a radio presenter of a cultural show concerned with writing. The show is presented on the English Local Service of Radio Cairo every Tuesday. She also works as a part time gender and creative writing trainer, translator and columnist in Elmasry Elyoum daily. Having started writing in 1994, Elmougy now has four books, two collections of short stories and two novels. Her two novels have received prizes in the Arab world as well as internationally.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

houssaine bachoud June 12, 2011 at 1:07 am

au début nous félicitons votre présence dans ce forum littéraire et nous vous remercions d’avoir donner ce grand intérêt à la langue arabe et surtout les romans, je te souhaite la réussite dans tes recherches et tes études.et nous souhaitons votre présence dans les prochains forums dans tous les pays arabes. merci

Anne Marsella June 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I enjoyed this! And it looks like I’ll be meeting Sahar in El Gouna on Friday. Thanks, Harriet. Well done.

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