Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa’s novel Mowlana (or Our Master) has been one of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing’s biggest sellers, and is also on the longlist for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF):
Eissa published his first magazine, Al Haqiqa (The Truth), when he was yet a pre-teen. According to a 2005 profile in Cairo magazine, he had it printed in his hometown of Menufiya and distributed it to schools and newsstands himself. He started work at the state-owned Rose al-Youssef at 17, as a student at Cairo University. But he told the Cairo that he wouldn’t toe the government line, and in the early 1990s, switched from being one of the magazine’s political editors to the literary department.
It wasn’t long after when Eissa took the helm of the new newspaper Dostour, where he quickly became a well-known opposition figure.
The paper was shut down in 1998, and, for seven years, Eissa was blackballed. He tried — nine times, according to his profile in Cairo Magazine — to start another newspaper, but every attempt, including one to found a cultural magazine, was blocked or shut down. Through this time, Eissa wrote almost exclusively about arts and literature.
Although he was allowed to re-launch Dostour in 2004, it was dogged by censors until, in early 2010, Dostour newspaper was bought and sold seemingly just to boot him as editor-in-chief.
But Eissa never just twiddled his thumbs: It was during the first quiet period, from 1998-2004, according to the Cairo, that he gave himself to writing novels, although he had begun publishing novels before taking the helm of (the original) Dostour. His novels include The Blood of Hussein, The Last Manifestation of Mary, Blood on a Breast, Assassination of the Big Man, and National Ghosts. Mawlana (2012) was Eissa’s seventh novel.
Although some of them have sold well, these novels have not been as well-loved by critics as have Eissa’s journalistic endeavors. As Ahmed Aboul-Wafa, Marwa al-A’sar and Issandr el Amrani wrote in the Cairo profile, Eissa had remained “more appreciated for his opinionate journalism than his literature.”
Eissa has received important international awards for his journalism, including the Index on Censorship’s 2010 Freedom of Expression Award and the Society of Editors International Journalist of the Year award (2010). But now Eissa has also been recognized for one of his novels: His 2012 Mowlana made the 16-strong longlist for this year’s IPAF.
Eissa’s book was already a best-seller, undergoing several new editions and slated to become a TV series starring Khaled Abu al-Naga.
In the novel, Eissa takes on the “satellite TV sheikhs,”exploring the relationships between the different sheikhs and their links to politics, the security services, and the business world. Eissa said he began writing the novel in 2009, but events and arrests got in the way, and he wasn’t able to take it up again until March of 2012. According to the IPAF organizers:
The novel relates the career of Sheikh Hatim Al-Shanawi (‘our master’), the permanent guest of a television programme presented by Anwar Outhman. The charming Sheikh answers viewers’ questions and becomes one of the richest people in the country through exploiting visual media to the utmost degree for his own ends. By using his natural cunning he gives replies to please everyone, including the security services, though they bear no relation to his personal convictions. The hero has varied adventures such as his relationship with Nashwa, veiled from head to toe, who he later discovers is an actress working for the secret services. The hero plunges into the depths of Egyptian society and uncovers its secrets in a witty and satirical style. The characters appear to live in a corrupt environment dominated by fear, spying and bribery, where people lie to each other and are only concerned with outward appearances and the surface of reality.
Many reviews of this novel have been warm; the review of Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Al-Watan glows, as Ibrahim calls it “an epic work, to rank alongside A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace or Doctor Zhivago … as well as continuing the tradition established by the Prince of Arabic Literature Naguib Mahfouz.” Ibrahim also adds, “the epic Mowlana was written from 2009 to 2012 it tells the story of the tragedy of Mubarak’s Egypt with accuracy and passion. It fully deserves the State Prize for Literature, and could revive an award that was strangled for so long by being bestowed as a favour by employees of the Ministry of Culture of the old regime to the extent that nobody cared about its results except the dozens who awarded and received it each year.” (Except for the year, well, that Sonallah Ibrahim made everyone eat their hat.)
Eissa has weaved the fascinating personal tale of his sheikh into a context that seems inspired by real life. Some of the characters — such as the power-crazed, arrogant son of the president — and events, such as the gruesome bombing of a church, cannot be entirely fictitious. Read Abdallah’s whole review.
Meanwhile, as a journalist and commentator, Eissa’s work has continued to be controversial with the Morsi government and its supporters.
An excerpt can be found here.
A video by Eissa about the novel:
This is the final profile — tomorrow, the shortlist will be announced, isa.