Under my byline

Past speaking, in Arabic

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 3 April 2010

Two Egyptians explain why Palestine is so central to their writing

Ahdaf Soueif and Radwa Ashour met for the first time in India last week. The two Egyptian writers were invited here by Women Unlimited, the feminist publisher which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Soueif is a Cairene who divides her time between London and Cairo. She writes novels, short stories and essays, does journalism and delivers lectures, and founded Palfest, the annual Palestine Festival of Literature, which will be held for the third time next month in various towns of the West Bank.

Ashour also writes novels, short stories and essays, apart from her academic work. She teaches comparative literature at a university in Cairo. She did a PhD in African American literature in the 1970s — and then wrote a hit memoir in Arabic about the experience.

You are unlikely to find their books in Indian bookshops — not Soueif’s best-known, painstaking novels (such as The Map of Love, 1999), nor translations of Ashour’s dramatic stories which often draw upon history (such as her Granada trilogy). This is a shame, because not only are they masterful writers famous in their own territories, they are political and purposeful in a way few Indian or Western novelists are any more.

Take Palfest. Consider the number of papers and permissions needed to cross Israeli checkpoints between localities, let alone all the other uncertainties. Yet, as Soueif says, one form of resistance practised by Palestinians is to try and live a normal life, including a cultural life — in essence, to pretend, to refuse to accept that the occupation makes ordinary life impossible.

Sometimes the effort involved in travel is too great — which is why, Soueif tells me, many local readers rarely get to meet local authors. As an outsider, however, “you’ve just got that energy, and you pump that energy into the situation and therefore you enable things to happen, you facilitate things”.

Why Palestine? Ashour explains that it is a live issue for Egyptians, who have lost many young men in the Israel wars, and to whom the defeats are like a “wound”. In her Granada novels, centred on a fictional bookbinder and his family in 15th-century Spain before the expulsion of Muslims and Jews, she says, “I was trying to explore the experience of defeat… You ask yourself whether that’s extinction, what is that exactly?” The stimulus came, she explains, from the US bombing of Baghdad in 1991 — “Baghdad is not simply a capital, Baghdad is history, poetry, the greatest poets, grammarians, linguists…” In Arabic literature, pain is productive.

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