Bahaa Taher: Edinburgh Taster
25. January 2010 11:42
Transcription an interview of Bahaa Taher and Elias Khoury by Maya Jaggi
Maya Jaggi: Bahaa Taher won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, dubbed “The Arabic Booker,” for Sunset Oasis, his sixth novel. He was born in Cairo in 1935 to parents from Upper Egypt and studied history at Cairo University. He helped found Cairo’s cultural radio program in the 1950s and worked as a radio journalist until he was sacked in 1975 under the Sadat regime. Prevented from publishing and forced into exile, he spent 14 years as a UN translator in Geneva before returning to Cairo in the mid 1990s. He began to write fiction in the 1960s and four of his novels so far have been translated to English, including Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, Love in Exile, and As Doha Said. He’s also written plays, non-fiction and five short story collections, including his latest book which came out in Cairo this month, I Didn’t Know that Peacocks Could Fly. He’s received Egypt’s State Award of Merit in Literature and also recently donated a plot of land in his ancestral hometown of Luxor to build a cultural center. Sunset Oasis, first published in 2007 in Cairo, is published by Septa next week in an English translation, also by Humphrey Davis. Set in 19th century Egypt under British colonial rule, it begins as an Egyptian police officer, Mahmoud, is posted as District Commissioner and Tax Collector to the rebellious outpost of Siwa, a Berber speaking oasis town on the Libyan border. He’s being punished for his sympathies with the Urabi revolt in 1881, a failed nationalist uprising that led to the Anglo-Egyptian War and colonial rule. His Irish wife accompanies him hoping to find Alexander the Great’s tomb and to rescue their faltering marriage. Mahmoud is partly based on a real police chief who dynamited part of the temple complex there in the late 19th century, and the novel explores possible motivations behind this act of vandalism amidst the workings of power, occupation and rebellion.
Now, [Sunset Oasis is] in a sense about individuals and perhaps countries caught in layers of history trying to negotiate the past from the present. With Sunset Oasis, it’s a history of occupation and rebellion […] what is your interest in history in your fiction, this novel and perhaps more generally, and also how you see that thread to the present?
Bahaa Taher: Yes, thank you… I don’t think I wrote something with historical background except this novel. I mean, I don’t consider myself a novelist of historian acts, historian episodes. But this novel I didn’t write because of the historical facts mentioned but because the character did fascinate me, this character about whom you have spoken, the District Commissioner […] Why did he did what he did? And why did it… he left an everlasting impact on the oasis, but why? And why did his wife follow him to this dangerous place, which was already known as two of his predecessors were murdered in the oasis? Of course I had to read a lot of history and reading history brought me back to Alexander the Great who had a very close relation with this oasis, he was declared God there by the Egyptian priests of the god Amon, he was declared the son of god Amon there in Siwa. And in his last words he asked to be buried there in Siwa.
So that’s how history came. I didn’t intend it to be like that but it happened, something after the other. And I think that after all it’s not history, it’s a kind of search of human soul, it happens that this takes place in a historical period in the 19th century but actually it can happen at any time, anywhere, where a consensus may exist, as Mahmoud is himself a victim and an aggressor at the same time because he is supposedly to have suffered from being colonized by the British, but he is playing the role of colonizer at Siwa and the same things of which he was complaining about the British occupiers he is himself practicing as an occupier of Siwa.
MJ: Would you like to elaborate on the concept of victim/victimizer, tortured/torturer that you were talking about?
BT: I think there are other things related to this point that are most important to get… for instance, in my novel I think this idea of the victim being a victimizer is reflected in all the chapters, or in all the themes of the novel. For example, Alexander the Great, who is supposed to be a very important character in the novel, he is supposed to be the victorious leader and victorious warrior of old history, and he is supposed to be a man who saw many glorious things. But inside himself he felt, according to how I portrayed him, he felt that he was defeated in a way. He could not achieve what he hoped to achieve; he wanted to make a one world, what God could not do he wanted himself to do, but he could not make a one world, one race in this world. He didn’t succeed to do that, of course, and no one can succeed to do that.
But also, while he was victimizing others, he was at the same time defeating himself, and this novel you see step by step how he was betraying himself. Aristotle taught him his philosophy of tolerance, of being in the middle of things, to achieve goodness, but he didn’t succeed to do that. He was impressed more by the Egyptian priests who made him a god in the oasis of Siwa, and who made him a Pharaoh at the same time and he wanted to govern the world the same way the Pharaoh would govern Egypt, that is, for eternity. He said, in Greece, why in Greece there is always this civil war between Greek cities and this kind of civil war, while in Egypt for centuries there’s a kind of peace? That’s the question he’s asking himself, and he thought if he could apply this kind of despotism which he saw in Pharaoh he would be able to achieve his aims. So that’s what I hope, that’s what I meant by victim—Alexander’s a victim of his own ideas. A victim can be a victimizer, that is, he tortured the whole world to achieve an imaginary idea, but at the end he defeated himself at the same time that he defeated others.
MJ: You also told me when we were speaking just after you won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi, and you said that part of the trigger for this novel was the invasion of Iraq, the 2003 invasion. You said that was partly in your mind, you were thinking of occupation and historical occupation. Can you explain the connection in your mind?
BT: I don’t think that it is only the occupation in Iraq, it is also any kind of occupation of, let us say, of any country in the third world. That’s why I’ve written this novel, it was about the occupation of Egypt in the 19th century and the occupation of Siwa at the same time. And I think that this idea of invasion, it fits very well in my idea about how aggression defeats the aggressor. I wanted to say that at the same time you are victimizing other people, you are yourself a victim. And I think the Americans discovered that after Iraq, no? Or they will discover that. They are discovering that in Afghanistan, anyway.
MJ: There’s also a question arising from that about form in literature […] does writing in times of war, of instability, necessitate a different kind of literature?
BT: I believe we are saying that no one can write life. But coming back to what you said about the form of the novel, and what the generation of the 60s tried to […] I think it’s a very dangerous development, because you wouldn’t know a writer who didn’t know when to stop. In this sense of this kind of experimental writing, I personally find that in our modern literature there are some writers who are writing experimental things just for the sake of experience, not because they think they have something new to add or they think they should modernize Arabic literature, but just because they want to be unusual, they don’t want to be conventional writers. And in some cases, as I say, when the writer is not very experienced, is not very talented, this could be a very dangerous development in the history of novels—in the history of Arabic novels.
MJ: I wanted to ask you about Sunset Oasis because, as you said, it alternates in different voices, and mainly, I mean, Alexander the Great appears as a narrator in the center of it. But mainly Mahmoud and his Irish wife Catherine, who you’ve said many times, obviously you don’t write representative characters, people often take your work to be about East/West and kind of clichés of clashes and gulfs, but could you say what your own view about that is?
BT: It is a love story… I mean this novel could be a love story. I mean, if you take it from the point of view of the relation of Mahmoud and Catherine, it could be a development of a love story, ending in a certain way. But I really tried to be— and I never meant it to be a novel about the clash between East and West because so many critics, whenever you write a story about an oriental character, and a Western character, immediately they categorize this as conflict between East and West. To begin with, I am interest in the conflict of the individual himself, as I was trying to explain about Alexander the Great.
That doesn’t mean that I am quite satisfied with the West with the East. One of my critics once said that in a story that ended by the Western character committing suicide, it seems that the oriental character is just waiting. And I didn’t want this to be something symbolic of the relation between East and West, not at all. And I don’t believe in this approach. I can say so many things against the West and against our cousins [in Palestine] but this does not mean for me that I am, generally speaking, against the West in general, not at all.
MJ: I did want to ask something about women specifically in the novel […] I just wanted to ask about Sunset Oasis because you mentioned that you think Mahmoud destroys the temple because he’s a part of this failed revolt in the 19th century. And you said that he sort of embodies two centuries of Arab intellectuals, and that Malika, who is a Berber woman in the story, is actually a perfect rebel. Can you explain that?
BT: I shall try at least. Anyway, I hope the audience will forget what you said about the destruction of the temple, I don’t want them to know that in advance—maybe [laughter]. Anyway, Mahmoud is an intellectual, yes, but he’s not a stereotype of intellectual. That’s what I was trying to say. He is this intellectual who happens to be a police officer who had been brought up by a father who was an admirer of music, and at the same time he was brought up in a liberal way. He was not living the kind of life where children are being governed by despotic fathers, he was free to do whatever he want. And also, he was very successful with women in his youth. And the idea of marriage never came to him until he met Catherine.
So he is not, as I would say, he does not present the Egyptian intellectual at that time because he was privileged—in so many ways he was more privileged in his age than the average intellectual middle class man. And despite the fact that he is not a stereotype, he face the same problems that other intellectuals faced at the same time, that is the defeat of the revolution… and because you know how this revolution came up, and why it was defeated? It was because the Egyptians at that time they wanted democracy, and they made a parliament. And the British and the French said that this is so premature for such a nation to have a parliament and democracy. Later, when Nasser came, he was also defeated because he was not democratic. Once, we were attacked because we were not democratic, another time attacked because we were dictators. And that’s how the West is dealing with… [laughter]
Anyway, so Mahmoud was not, as I said, a stereotype, or he was not representative of the Egyptian middle class at that time. But he faced the same problems and he had his own reactions—and his reactions were not the conventional reactions of others because first of all he had this unique experience of going to govern this oasis very far west of Egypt, and because he had this foreign wife, this Irish wife, and because he was also not very much convinced of what he was doing, and he was trying to explain to himself and justify to himself why he should be that victimizer of people, while he was himself treated as a victim because he was sent as a kind of punishment to this oasis. It was not a very welcome post for anyone in the police at that time. So that’s how the problem of this individual happened.
Malika, yes she is a perfect rebel because she was living in a society, a very close society, and very traditional society, and her life since very young childhood was a kind of challenge—she was against all those traditions around her, she was also trying to be rebellious for her own sake—she was just like a boy, she was a girl, she used to go to the temples… it was not even permitted for men to go inside, but she went inside the temples and she imitated the little statues and the little paintings she saw on the walls of those temples. And a kind of person like that, like this Malika, this rebellious Malika—very young girl, but very intelligent girl, living in such a traditional and such a close society, she has no chance. That’s why I said she is a perfect—because inside herself she wanted treatment from her uncle, who was treating people with herbs, she told him, can’t you find a medicine for me? He says what kind of medicine? She says, you see, there is a devil inside me, that’s what my mother says, that there’s a devil in me, can’t you make anything to treat me from this devil? She knew herself that she is not normal…
MJ: A misfit […] Before we open it up to the floor, I just wanted to ask if you wanted to add something about the Egyptian situation. I know you’ve petitioned against political prisoners to have them released, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Would you like to say anything about the situation now?
BT: I don’t think now that there are any problems concerning intellectuals. They are being tolerated because they are considered unimportant. I’m joking—that’s a fact, you can write whatever you want, you can say whatever you want against the government, against authorities, and nobody is going to touch you. But at the end it doesn’t help. Yes I sign petitions concerning all political prisoners, including Muslim Brotherhood, and I take part in any kind of event to promote democracy.
Question 1: I’m coming back to the question of women… now, I love the story, it’s wonderful; nevertheless, I will ask you if you think you’ve fallen into a typical trap that many Arab novelists fall in […] that is, when you are trying to portray a relationship between an Oriental man and a European women, then what we get is a perception of a conservative Arab man of such a relationship with the man dominating the relationship completely, and the woman being a shadow, which is not necessarily this way in reality, so…
BT: Yes… and, all my life, I even said that right now. That I never write about stereotypes, about a man representing the East, a woman representing the West. I write about individuals, and individual experience, so I cannot say that in my writings that the man is representing the East and the woman is representing the West… that’s a very simple kind of writing, yes?
Q1: But man-woman relations—
BT: But all stories are about man-woman relations, 99 percent of stories are about… and that’s only natural. So what’s so strange if you are writing about this story that combines characters from East and West that there would be female characters from the West and male characters from the East, especially if you can make it the other way around, if you can make it, in a certain case, as I read lately in another novel, if you can make the relation between a Western, European man and an Oriental girl, it always happens like that, I mean… and even here in the West I can see it even in the streets, people of mixed origins together. I don’t think that this is a very important aspect in the novel. I don’t think so.
And I just want to say a little comment about readers assuming that whatever you write is autobiographical, especially if you use the first person when writing, they consider this a type of confession or I don’t know what. Anyway, it’s a kind of autobiography. I suffered a lot from that. And I’m glad that in this last novel there is not one character; all characters are speaking in the first person so I cannot identify with any of them. But it’s really—I even had an experience of a professor at Geneva who was teaching my story Last Night I Dreamt of You and that girl in the story she commits suicide in the end. And he asked me to attend the classroom and speak about this. And at the end he took me aside and he told me, tell me, please, why did she commit suicide? I told him, but this is a story, this is a novel. He said, no, don’t kid me, I know this is a real girl, and tell me, what am I supposed to say? He is a professor of Literature.
MJ: Would you like to say anything about your experience [with translations], as you’re a linguist… any feelings of loss or…?
BT: I don’t think that I’ve lost anything by being translated, no, I mean, it has been a very honest translation, and the translator consulted me whenever he had any doubt about anything, and you cannot do anything more than that if you’re consulting the author when you’re translating, and the result I like very much, when it was finished, I liked it very much. And I don’t know that this traitor-translator… maybe some translators are traitors but not all translators are traitors.
Question 2: My question is about experimenting for the sake of experimenting. Now I’ve been lucky to pick up a few books lately from Egypt, from a small publishing house in Egypt, of very young writers who are experimenting even writing in Egyptian dialect. And then I later watched some interviews with them and there seems to be a real resistance towards young Arabic writers kind of going away from this rendition of Arabic writing, especially to do with the strict Draconian rules of Arabic language, and I just wondered what do you think of the new writers, at least generally? Do you see a different future for young Arabic writers?
BT: I was asked of this question today, concerning young writers, and I said there’s a new generation, a very promising new generation of writers in Egypt, in their early 20s or something. They are not even in their 30s now. And they are writing now, and they are representing a new wave of Egyptian writing which is very welcome, according to me, it is very welcome. And I can say that I have very good relations with all of them […] and I think that they face a problem, in a way—they are very talented, they are trying new things, the things they are trying would be new blood in Arabic literature especially in Egypt. But they are facing a problem that you have spoken about now, this writing in slang sometimes, and not mastering their own language. I mean, writing in this language they are defeating themselves. Why? I know of writers who wrote in slang and they were very popular […] But now at that time Egyptian slang was understood everywhere because of Egyptian films… Egyptian slang was common in all the Arab world, and could be understood. Now, things have changed in the Arab world. I don’t think Egyptian slang could be understood now… in Morocco, Tunisia… as it was before. So they are restricting the readership, this generation of young writers. They wouldn’t have the possibility to address themselves to Arab readers—only to Arab readers in Egypt. Or if they are writing in slang in Syria, they are addressing themselves to Syrian readers, not to all.
I personally don’t use slang in my writings, but I can read slang, even if it is in Moroccan, which is a very different slang from Arabic Egyptian slang. I can appreciate it and I can understand it. But I ask myself a question. Are you defeating yourself in writing this way, you’re restricting your own readership, I think you are doing that. But they are very good writers, if you want to know my opinion.
Question 3: I wanted only to ask about reading, which has not been mentioned very much in this lengthy conversation... Sunset Oasis deals with a defeated society, and defeated individuals. And at the same time, it manages to elaborate a structure of feeling, a structure of self-destructiveness... the very rewriting of this story is a self-destructiveness that has been institutionalized in Arab society now. And this is one of the greatness of the novel, that it reveals how the inner mechanism of destructiveness has actually been embedded not only in the institution, it’s also inside the individual. Mahmoud goes there defeated, he goes there actually—and what I see about the novel is that it is not about the occupation of Egypt, it’s about the present occupation of Egypt by the Americans. Egypt is occupied country as well as Iraq in two different ways. The whole novel becomes a metaphor of the present defeated Egypt and the present self-destructiveness. Nothing of beauty can survive there; that’s why Malika died. That’s why in his case he never managed … and I was wondering why you never touched on this self-destructiveness.
BT: I’m not sure I believe with this interpretation… I think every novel is a unique experience, and the tendency of academics to generalize and to try to find roots, common roots, in everything, I don’t agree with that. And I don’t understand why should a novel like this should be about self-destruction of something like that? No, I don’t agree with that. It’s an attempt, for my interpretation, it’s an attempt to find a way to salvation, and that’s the same thing—that’s your role, interpretation.
MJ: I believe that’s all we have time for, but it just remains for me to thank Bahaa Taher.
BT: Thank you.
Thursday, August 27, 2009