Ibrahim Eissa’s Mowlana (excerpt here) was one of the six novels that made the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist. Eissa is primarily known as a journalist, editor, and commentator, but this is his seventh novel. He spoke with Asmaa Abdallah (who had previously reviewed Mowlana) about how and why he writes, and for whom:
Ibrahim Eissa: First of all I’d like to emphasize that I do not write as a political act. Novels do not create revolutions; they create a revolution in the hearts and minds of people. After that it’s up to them.
Now why do I write? I write because I have always wanted to tell a story. Because I see what others do not see and I want them to see it. I write so I don’t have to see a therapist. It brings out things in me that would otherwise come out in dreams or the like. And I frankly write in order to entertain myself. If I don’t enjoy it, then there is no point in writing.
AA: How do you write? Do you have any rituals?
IE: I write with a black and white film playing in the background, or in complete silence. Anything else in between is impossible. The problem is that when I write I eat a lot. I always come out feeling like I’ve burned up so much of myself that I have to eat! So writing a novel is always associated with a lot of weight gain.
As for the writing itself, I usually plan the story until a particular point in the plot and write it up. Then I stop writing at the gripping junctures so I can feel the same suspense as the reader. That way I keep thinking about it and come back to it with the same passion.
Egypt’s revolution erupted in the midst of my writing the novel, and I’m really happy that this hasn’t affected the novel. It is seamless in terms of the rhythm and methodology. This is one of the things that I’m proud of; you can’t tell this novel was interrupted by a revolution!
AA: How do you combine journalistic writing and literary writing? In terms of the frame of mind and etc?
IE: The last three months when I was finishing Mowlana, I didn’t work as a journalist. Journalistic writing is an idea and a moment. It’s more of a commentary. If I’m not preoccupied with a novel, then my journalistic writing can become reflective but once a novel comes into the picture — then it sucks up all the reflective energy.
AA: What inspired the idea of the novel?
IE: I worked in producing and presenting religious shows some years ago. I started as a producer, writing the questions, meeting the sheikhs, etc. Then I did my own shows: 60 episodes over two years in Ramadan, with 50 different sheikhs. This gave me a lot of knowledge and awareness of the industry of religion in Egypt — I do believe it is an industry. At the time it was the beginning of media preachers, the domination of satellite channels, and the expansion of political Islam. This scene created an urge in me to write about it. I thought of writing a novel about satellite channels, which is a new topic in Egyptian and Arab fiction. Journalists wrote about it but not novelists. Then I added religion to television. The first idea that occurred to me was to start with a murdered sheikh and then flash back until all secrets of his life are revealed. But then I decided against that because I like him so much that I didn’t want to kill him!
I also wanted to write about Hajj. As far as I know, there has never been an Arabic novel written about the Hajj so I wanted to write about that. But I chose the first idea and changed it to where the sheikh lives. I started writing in April 2009 and finished it in March 2012.
AA: You seemed to have followed a chronological plot, with some exceptions where you move forward and then go back. Why did you do that?
IE: I dealt with the text as a reader and writer at the same time, trying to find what would entertain me the most. So when I would stop at a gripping part, I would never start from the same part. I would either go back or move forward. I wrote this in order to have fun. Part of the reason I like any novel is that I interact with it and feel it’s a live being, and it’s just as important to feel the same way about your own work. When I was writing, I would feel as if there is someone else who’s creating this dialogue and I’m watching and laughing. Part of my enjoyment of the novel was to enjoy it myself.
AA: What about the language?
IE: I use a controlled language . The language of the narrator was figurative and eloquent, while that of the dialogue was satirical and rhythmical. The other thing I did was to simplify the complicated ideas that have to do with religion. Hatem Shinawy is a preacher on television, so that’s what his job is all about.
What helped me was what I learnt from my father. He is an Azhar graduate, an Arabic language teacher, and currently is an imam of a mosque. My mother has a very simple education and I would listen to him explain very complicated and deep ideas to her in a very simplified way.
AA: Some of the events and characters seem to come out of real life. To what extent are they real?
IE: Every character in Mowlana is in part flesh and blood, but not of a single person.
For example, Sheikh Shinawy is a combination of a number of sheikhs that I worked with on religious shows on satellite channels. But part of him is based on my character, for example the critical mind and passion for language and knowledge, as well as the love of fame and sneering at it at the same time.
The novel floats on a sea of reality. This is why I think it is plausible. So it is based on the ability to reformulate events and characters and to build the story dramatically.
I found it strange that some readers thought that the character of the president’s son is based on the real-life one; this is clearly not the case.
AA: None of the female characters in Mawlana seem to be balanced or sane. What is that all about?
IE: These are the women of this world. Fame, wealth and hypocrisy create these kinds of women. Materialism. Being lost. The wife of the sheikh can only be like this. And even their child, the product of their relationship, is very strange. We don’t even know if he’s dead or alive, or what exactly is wrong with him.
AA: The novel depicts the sheikh as struggling to reconcile what he preaches on television with what he truly believes in. Does this mean it’s not possible to combine religion with television?
IE: It is impossible to combine knowledge or education with television to begin with. It is difficult and exceptional. I always say that what I do on my show by trying to educate people through television is like teaching pigs to fly. Television is mainly a tool for entertainment and it is a very superficial one at that. The only way this could be done, is if the religious shows are on an educational, not-for-profit channel. But once the criteria and values of commercial financiers, directors, and producers come into the equation, it becomes simply an industry.
AA: How do you think the novel relates to post-revolution literature? And what are the characteristics of this emerging literature?
IE: I’ve been shocked recently by a few articles that were full of symbolism and were well-received. They’re about a lion that met an elephant, where each of them represents someone in the regime. I was surprised and wondered whether we were moving forward or backward. Symbolism is born under oppression and persecution, but it’s still very popular. So now at the time of extreme bluntness , when everyone can speak loudly what they see and want, why do we go back to symbolism? Does symbolism become more artistic? Perhaps since there is so much openness in political life so there is no need to use liberty in literature.
But I believe there will be a post-revolution struggle to defend the hearts and minds of Egyptians, against a horrible religious oppression.
Before it used to be a fight against political oppression. Now it will be political and religious oppression. The literary text will have to face this. That’s why I was really happy to see that the works on the [Arabic] Booker shortlist this year were concerned with this issue. Mowlana has the issue of converting to Christianity, and of a church bombing. Ave Maria has a church bombing as well but in Iraq. The Beaver is about a man who spends half his life in US and has an American lover. The Bamboo Stalk has a man who impregnates his servant. The concerns of our reality appear in the novel as opposed to novels about flows of consciousness.
AA: And structurally?
IE: There will be no need for the fragmentation that writers were obsessed with over the past ten years. I think now the form that seems traditional will be dominant, but the brilliance of the work, the idea and themes will make it very modern. Look at the 16 novels on the longlist — with the exception of Mohamed Abdel Nabi’s novel which is a story within a story – there is more room for the novel’s ideas to take center stage.
I think Mowlana is more of a novel that takes you on an educational trip, it is born of research. You come out with more than a literary and human experience but there is a lot of knowledge involved in it. You could probably start looking into these issues after finishing the novel. The novel should be conducive to more knowledge.
AA: Among which set of novels would you place Mowlana?
IE: With the family of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. I always say I want to write a novel about an interfaith dialogue conference held in a forest in Germany and then everyone there would be held hostage by terrorists!
AA: Who do you write for?
IE: Amira, my wife. She’s a brilliant reader. She loves novels and her opinion means a great deal to me. She’s into melancholic novels, novels that are about the human soul. So when she likes Mawlana, then I know I’ve done a good job.
Sometimes I would wake her up in the middle of the night to tell her to listen to a great sentence I’d come up with.
Then there are some readers/critics that I’m completely not concerned with, those that prefer novels that are dark, complex, and fragmented. And I find this completely absurd.
AA: The way Mawlana closes implies there is a second part. Will there be one?
IE: Perhaps there will be a second part, but it’s definitely not what I’m working on now. My next novel will be about the history of religion; I’ve already started collecting material.
Asmaa Abdallah is a graduate student in English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo and has been writing for English-language publications in Cairo since 2006.