Monday, January 29, 2007

An Interview with Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of The Map of Love, Sandpiper, In the Eye of the Sun and Aisha.
The Map of Love (London, 1999) has been translated into 16 languages - including Arabic. It was on the six-book short list for the UK's prestigious Booker Prize and has sold more than half a million copies in English alone.
Ms Soueif is also a political and cultural commentator. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. Her translation (from Arabic into English) of Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah also came out in 2004.
Born and educated in Egypt she obtained her PhD in English Linguistics from the University of Lancaster in the UK.
She lives with her children in London and Cairo.
I Think of You, a selection of short stories from Aisha and Sandpiper, is published by Bloomsbury in London and Anchor in New York in March 2007.

Ahmede: Coming from a region where the language of the majority is Arabic, where does fiction in English really stand in North Africa and the Middle East?

Ahdaf Soueif: Well, when you talk about where fiction in general stands – or even literature in general stands, you’re really talking about its ‘standing’ with a tiny minority anyway. I don’t know what the figures are but I would be surprised if more than one percent of the population read novels. Films and TV serials are really the medium of popular culture. Now, in the Arab world, maybe a quarter of this one percent will read a novel by an Arab author in a European language. So if you ask in general ‘where does fiction in English really stand in North Africa and the Middle East?’ the answer would be nowhere very much. If your question is ‘where does fiction in English stand among the fiction-reading public in North Africa and the Middle East? One would say that it does have a place. I believe a fair proportion of the sales of my books, for example, are to people whose first language is Arabic. Also the Arabic media take a lot of interest in every new book that comes out. And, I know, that many literature postgraduate students in Egyptian universities are now doing research on topics related to ‘Arab Fiction in English’.

Ahmede: You have translated Mourid Barghouti's "I Saw Ramallah" (with a foreword by Edward Said) from Arabic into English; will you please share your experience of translating such a complex text into English? The way Arabic and English syntax differs, it must have been a difficult venture…

Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, Ra’aytu Ramallah is a fascinating book: a poet’s (so far only) venture into prose narrative. It appears utterly direct and intimate; it allows the reader into each feeling as it hits the writer, as the writer thinks about it, as it develops. At the same time, as you would expect from a poet of Mourid Barghouti’s stature, its language is, in fact, highly structured and knows exactly what it’s doing.

After several false starts I found that over-deliberateness was producing a stale text. I found myself whispering the English as I read the Arabic and I had the idea to translate it straight into a tape-recorder. I was concerned to preserve the immediacy and freshness of the effect of the Arabic. Also, this technique gave me total immersion. I kept my eyes on the words on the page and spoke the English into the tape-recorder as I read the Arabic. Of course I edited the text twice after it was transcribed. But I kept the English in line with the contours of the Arabic in terms of the tense, for example, the focus of the sentence, the word order where possible.

There were some things that I changed, and it was my privilege that Mourid Barghouti is a personal friend so I was able to put the problem to him and he was always extremely helpful. For example, he mostly refers to the people he meets by their title: I met Dr so-and-so, Mrs X showed us round…. In Arabic this habit is unremarkable and fades into the text. In English it sticks out and screams “Foreign! Weird!” We agreed I would remove all titles. Or sometimes the text would crescendo into a series of rhetorical questions. Again, familiar in Arabic, but too odd in English. We worked around all this. Ra’aytu Ramallah is still a far better book than I Saw Ramallah – but I tried.

Ahmede: How do you perceive the threat of religious extremism in the globe?

Ahdaf Soueif: I don’t believe we can discuss all ‘religious extremism’ as one category. Christian Zionism in the USA, for example, is a very different phenomenon from Salafi activities in Egypt. I find the Christan Zionism that is taking hold in the United States very troubling because it is, essentially, manipulated by politicians and has as its aim to facilitate Armageddon and the actual ‘end of the world’. Jewish religious extremism is very interesting. It results, on the one hand, in Israeli settlers behaving in aggressive, brutal and racists ways to the Palestinians whose lands they are stealing. But on the other hand, it results also in Jewish movements, like Natura Kartei, that believe that Zion cannot be created on earth and that the State of Israel is heretical. Islamic extremism, I think, is born of a sense of extreme political injustice and of a fear and dislike of the form that the dominant western culture is taking in relation to the Muslim world. Of course it is very worrying that political and economic actions in so many parts of the world now are being clothed in the robes of religion.

Ahmede: In countries like South Asia, social reality takes a primary role over art, many say. How do you perceive this issue? Are the roles of a novelist different in our part of the world where an artist has to deal with basic issues like women's rights or freedom of speech?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think the artist has to deal with the themes and the problems that he/she feels most passionately about. But then the things that you feel passionately about are, in a sense, determined by where you come from. But in the end, there is a common humanity that unites us all - which is why an Egyptian can read and empathise with and enjoy a novel by a Russian or an Indian or an American.

Ahmede: Coming from a rich and vibrant tradition that you have and the fact that you are still called (wrongly, I would say) an Egyptian novelist, how free do you think you are as an Arab woman?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think I am, yes, an Egyptian novelist writing in English. What else could I be? And I guess I’m as free as anyone can be. I write about the things I care about, the things that I want to explore. I’m not aware of any particular constraints that come with being an Arab woman and a novelist.

Set in 1900, your 'The Map of Love' is, in a way, about an English woman falling in love with an Egyptian nationalist. How do you see the role of an individual in history?

Ahdaf Soueif: Well, I think that most of the people I know, and certainly the people I find interesting, are people who are aware of the way in which politics and public concerns affect their – and everybody else’s - life, and are people who try to act on that public life for the better. I find the notion that the individual can just get on with her/his own life without minding the public life very odd. And I truly cannot conceive of a life that can be lived untouched by the political. I think this is reflected very much in my work: the genre I work in is the ‘realistic’ novel. So my characters live in a specific time and a specific place in our real world. And in that time and place things happen – political things, or public things, if you like. And they affect the characters and the characters in turn strive to affect them.

January 2007