Monday, August 31, 2015

review of Leila Aboulela's 4th novel 'The Kindness of Enemies': crises of identity and loyalty from Scotland to Caucasus

Book review: "The Kindness of Enemies" by Leila Aboulela
Crises of identity and loyalty from Scotland to the Caucasus 

In her engrossing fourth novel, "The Kindness of Enemies", the Sudanese-British writer Leila Aboulela tackles themes of identity, jihad and Sufism. She does so through two parallel narratives, one set in contemporary Scotland and Sudan, the other in nineteenth-century Imperial Russia and the Caucasus. 
By Susannah Tarbush

Leila Aboulela's novel "The Kindness of Enemies", which is published in the UK by Weidenfeld and  Nicolson, could hardly be more topical. Its characters include a Muslim university student, Oz, who is arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. His name is an abbreviation of Osama, perhaps not the most fortunate name to have in the post-9/11 era.

The arrest has serious implications for his university lecturer Natasha Wilson. In line with UK anti-terror laws, she was supposed to monitor Oz and his fellow students for signs of "vulnerability to radicalisation".

The nineteenth-century narrative revolves around the compelling historical figure of the Sufi Imam Shamil, who led tribes in the Caucasus against Russian expansionism. The novel shows him regularly consulting his revered Sufi teacher, the gentle scholar Sheikh Jamal al-Din.

 In 1839, the Russians exact a terrible price from Shamil during negotiations to end the bloody siege of his Akhulgo mountain rock fortress. They demand that he hand them his eight-year-old eldest son, Jamaleldin, as a temporary hostage.

Shamil reluctantly agrees to this demand. But after negotiations break down, the Russians fail to return Jamaleldin. They whisk him off to the imperial capital, St Petersburg, where he is brought up as a Russian officer and gentleman. Tsar Nicholas I tells him: "You will rule Dagestan and Chechnya on my behalf. No one will be able to win the tribes' loyalty and trust more than Shamil's son ...You will be my mouthpiece in the Caucasus."

review continues at

 Leila Aboulela

Friday, August 28, 2015

efforts in UK to counter ISIS in cyberspace

New British initiatives aim to counter ISIS on social media
by Susannah Tarbush

 Arabic version  was published in Al-Hayat daily newspaper 20 August 

 a still from Not Another Brother

One of the main tools used by ISIS in spreading and attracting followers has been its skilful use of YouTube, Twitter and other social media and internet sites to get its messages across and persuade Muslims from around the world to join it.

The ISIS videos that have gained most attention worldwide are those portraying its most gruesome killings and tortures. These are partly intended to strike fear into the enemies of ISIS. But at the same time ISIS uses social media to try attract young Muslims to join it as fighters, brides and members of its self-proclaimed “Islamic State”.

ISIS-related propaganda on social media has been blamed as a major factor in fact that an estimated 700 young British Muslims left Britain for ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. Around half of them have returned, and the government fears they pose a security risk. Around 50 young Britons have been killed fighting in Syria or Iraq. While it was largely young men who went out at first, young Muslim women soon started to follow, and more recently entire extended British Muslim families have gone to areas under the control of ISIS.

Only a tiny proportion of British Muslims - who number around 2.7 million, nearly 5 per cent of the total UK population – have gone out to join ISIS, but it is thought a number of others have at least some sympathy with it. The terror threat in Britain was raised to “severe” a year ago because of the threat from ISIS, and it has been at this level ever since. Now, in recent weeks, anti-ISIS videos have started appearing on YouTube and other social media, with the aim of countering the ISIS message to young Britons. One of these new initiatives is Open Your Eyes which has a website at 

The Open Your Eyes initiative began when three young Yazidi women, who had suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS, visited the UK with the help of the government to address the media, politicians, and children at two schools, to tell them about their ordeal. The young Yazidis joined forces with a Birmingham-based activist Upstanding Neighbourhoods, to launch the Open Your Eyes campaign with support from the charity AMAR Foundation.

On its Twitter account Open Your Eyes says: “ISIS is lying to you. Open your eyes to the real story. We are working with young people, activists, bloggers and filmmakers to raise our voices against ISIS.” One of its Tweets says “Open Your Eyes needs your contributions – send in your video messages to take a stand against ISIS.” In one of its videos a young girl in a black headscarf named Krya speaks to the camera about British girls going out to join ISIS. In another Sabah, a Sunni who escaped ISIS in Iraq tells his story. Another video shows 18-year old schoolboy Surfaraz speaking up “because I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed by lies.”

A separate initiative to produce video material against ISIS is “Not Another Brother”, a campaign which aims to show the true human cost of radicalisation. As part of this campaign a short anti-ISIS film with this title has been circulating recently on YouTube, Twitter and other social media. The words accompanying it on YouTube say: “ISIL are radicalising our brothers to fight in Syria. They are tearing families apart. Enough is enough. Sharing this film will show ISIL that their extremist views have no place in our community. No family should lose another loved one to such hatred.”

The film shows a young British Muslim man, supposedly a fighter for ISIS in Syria, reading a letter from his older brother whose voiceover is in a strong London accent. There are the sounds of bombardments and explosions, and the young fighter’s wounds are dripping blood. In the letter his older brother apologises to for statements he had made that seem to have radicalised his younger brother and led to his deciding to go Syria to “become a hero”. At the end of the film words flash on screen: “Don’t let your words turn our brothers into weapons.” The film is meant to show how ideas can influence someone to become violent.

The “Not Another Brother” video campaign was launched by the Quilliam Foundation, the controversial counter-radicalisation think tank set up in 2007 by two former British Islamist extremists, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain who had both previously belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir. “The video was developed in partnership with an agency named Verbalisation and its team of psychologists, military experts and linguists. It was financed by crowd-funding from 150 donors from 10 countries". Quilliam claims the it “can counter the influence of ISIL, and more broadly challenge the extremist narratives and ideologies that threaten us all.”

Reactions to the “Not Another Brother” film, on for example Twitter, reveal deep splits among Muslims. Some praised it, but others claim the Quilliam Foundation has no credibility at all within British Muslim communities. Critics see it as being too close to the government and as having too much influence on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

These new anti-ISIS video campaigns have emerged alongside Cameron’s increasingly tough stance on ISIS, at home and abroad. In a speech on extremism he gave at a school in Birmingham on 20 July Cameron’s outlined his new five-year “Counter-Extremism Strategy”. His speech attacked the “poisonous ideology” that is hostile to British values. Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz trumpeted the fact that he had had an important role in the drafting of the speech.

“We have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here,” Cameron said. He laid down his comprehensive strategy to try and tackle Islamist extremism and the “poisonous ideology” that lies behind it. He attacked non-violent extremism, saying: “You don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”

Cameron insisted that “the root cause of the threat we face is the Islamist ideology itself” and dismissed the impact on young Muslims of British and Western foreign policy, or the poverty, deprivation and discrimination suffered by some British Muslims, which he referred to as “perceived grievances” rather than genuine ones. 

Cameron has been taking an increasingly hard line towards British Muslims since he first became prime minister after the May 2010 general election. In 2011 he gave a key speech in Munich, condemning “non-violent” extremism as well as violent extremism.

David Cameron

In 2011 Cameron and his Home Secretary Theresa May relaunched the “Preventing Violent Extremism” agenda, known for short as Prevent, introduced by the Labour government after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The new policy stressed the dangers of non-violent extremism.

In June this year he gave a speech in the Slovakian capital Bratislava in which he urged British Muslims to do more to counter Islamist extremism. He upset many British Muslims when he accused some British Muslims of “quietly condoning” Islamic State ideology.

In order to try and deal with the terror threat in Britain, and the problem of young fighters going out to, and returning from, Syria and Iraq the Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2015 was introduced and has now became law. For example, from 1 July staff at schools, universities, the health service, councils, the police and prisons have had a legal duty to report people they think are vulnerable to radicalisation so that steps can be taken to try to prevent them becoming extremists.

Cameron said in his 20 July speech that the government will “use people who really understand the true nature of what life is like under ISIL to communicate to young and vulnerable people the brutal reality of the ideology.” In addition, the government will “empower the UK’s Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities, so they can have platforms from which to speak out against the carnage ISIL is conducting in their countries.”

Cameron also urged internet companies to go further “in helping us identify potential terrorists online.” The internet companies have shown through their clamping down on child abuse images that “they can step up when there is a moral imperative to act. And now it’s time for them to do the same to protect their users from the scourge of radicalisation”.

Lord Ahmad

Minister for Countering Extremism Lord Ahmad reinforces Cameron's message
The Conservative politician Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon was appointed as the Minister for Countering Extremism after the May 2015 general election. This is a position that was newly created at the Home Office after the election, reflecting the seriousness of the threat from extremism and terrorism facing Britain today.

Al-Hayat asked about Lord Ahmed about uncertainty and confusion over how “extremism” is to be defined. Lord Ahmed replied “I don’t think there is a confusion. I think it is at times a bit disingenuous for people to say they don’t understand.” He added that the government has been very clear over the definition of extremism as being “the vocal or active opposition to the values that we share, and those values include democracy, the rule of law, the mutual respect of people for all faiths, and cultures and practices. After the tragic death of Lee Rigby we added calls for attacks on our armed forces.” (British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered on 22 May 2013 in a London street on by two Nigerian male converts to Islam who ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off).

Al-Hayat asked Lord Ahmad whether David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy will lead to yet more new legislation, given that this year has already seen the coming into law of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Lord Ahmad said that in the autumn the government will introduce a bill on the new Counter Extremism Strategy which will include orders which will prevent particular individuals “from being provided with a platform where they can again launch a tirade of abuse and perverse narrative which seek to divide our country and our society.” The bill will also include orders banning particular organisations which do not at present meet the current criteria for being proscribed, but which “vent not just a negative ideology but a very perverse ideology which calls for attacks on other communities and minorities.”

Al-Hayat pointed out that Britain has already had around a decade of efforts to prevent violent-extremism, later widened to include non-violent extremism. Does David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy have a better chance of reducing the threat from extremism than these previous attempts?

Lord Ahmad stressed that whereas previously, governments had looked at extremism through the prism of violent extremism, now it is “looking at extremism in all its ugly guises” before it becomes violent, so as “to prevent the seeds being sown in the minds of the young.” Groups such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda and in Nigeria Boko Haram are using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and so on “as a means of attracting and influencing younger minds, they’re being effective in some part because many youngsters use those very mediums. So what we have to do is to ensure we tackle this evolving threat, this poisonous narrative.”

Lord Ahmed said that through its new Counter-Extremism Strategy the government will look at the behavioural aspects of people to ensure it can identify extremism “before it becomes violent, before we see the tragedy of terrorism gripping us.” To meet the challenge, there must be a counter-narrative against for example “those that hijack the religion that I myself follow, Islam, using the internet.” Therefore, “we need to work with our communities to ensure that we can get a very positive counter-narrative, accentuating the positive features of Islam - using the very same scriptures that the extremists use in an erroneous fashion - to say No, the faith is quite different, the faith tells you the true Islam - the faith followed by over a billion people across the world, both here in the UK and globally –is a religion of peace which promotes mutual respect for other faiths and humanity in general.”

Lord Ahmad stressed that “the government cannot work alone, in a vacuum. It’s for a community effort, for the whole country, the police, the communities, the youth leaders, our faith groups to come together face up to the extremists’ narrative. “And there will be a Them and Us: there’s the Us, a nation united by the fact that we have to face up to a tyranny and those who seek to divide us, and there is Them - a despicable poisonous narrative.” 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

'Vanished' - Ahmed Masoud's novel of a father's disappearance in Gaza


Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda by Ahmed Masoud
Rimal Publications, Cyprus, 2015
pbk, 204pp
ISBN: 978-9963-715-13-8

In this absorbing debut novel the Gaza-born Palestinian-British writer Ahmed Masoud tells of the obsessive quest of a young Gazan, Omar Ouda, for the father who disappeared in February 1982 when Omar was seven months old. Part thriller, part coming-of-age tale, Vanished takes the reader deep into Gazan society from the perspective of a boy growing up under the brutal Israeli occupation and in the tumultuous years following the Oslo Accords.

Vanished is published by independent publishing house Rimal Publications, established in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1993 by publisher Nora Shawwa. It is one of seven books shortlisted for the MEMO Palestine Book Awards 2015. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 19 November. An earlier version of Vanished, entitled Gaza Days, won the award for best unpublished novel at the Muslim Writers Awards in London in 2011.

Most of the novel is narrated by Omar in the first person, and is set in Gaza from 1981 – the year of Omar’s birth – to 2011. These three decades include the Israeli occupation, the first intifada, the Oslo Accords, the rise of Hamas, and the second intifada.

Masoud interweaves this political backdrop and Omar's own story with skill. He gives a vivid picture of life in Jabalia refugee camp: the cramped alleyways, the mixture of smells, the savour of Gaza's characteristic foods and the terror and paranoia created by Israeli curfews, attacks, detentions and killings, and the treachery of collaborators. There is a sense of people being trapped in their national, family and personal histories. While Vanished is the story of  Omar’s search for his absent father, beneath it runs the wider loss of Palestine and the trauma of a people uprooted from their homes in the Nakba. Omar’s family comes from the village of Deir Suneid, which became part of Israel, and like so many other Palestinian refugee families still has the key to its house in Palestine.

Omar's first-person narrative is juxtaposed with a third-person narrative rendered in italics and set at the time of the Israeli assault on Gaza in summer 2014. Omar is living in London with his British wife Zoe and his baby son, named Mustafa after Omar’s father. During the Gaza war he tries to keep  in contact with his family and friends in Gaza through emails, and breaks down when his uncle Attiya phones, the sound of explosions in the background, and asks to be forgiven for all the mistakes he has made.

Omar knows that the tiny family house in Gaza is unlikely to withstand the heavy Israeli bombardments. "But it wasn't just the house that troubled him, it was the story hidden in its thin walls, and story of a boy growing up in fear and later the reconciliation that finally happened there and allowed him to let go and move on, start a new life in London."

Omar feels compelled to return to Gaza, travelling via Egypt and the Rafah crossing. At Heathrow Airport he buys a large leather notebook and begins to write his life story in the form of a letter to his son, in case something happens to him in Gaza and his son never sees him again. It is Omar's story written for his son that takes up most of Vanished.

Omar's planned return to Gaza is hampered by bureaucracy. Despite the fact that he has both British and Palestinian passports, an official at Cairo International Airport insists that he must have an exit visa in his Palestinian passport from the country he travelled from. Omar is forced to travel on to Jordan solely for the purpose of getting an exit stamp from Queen Alia Airport. On his return to Cairo Airport he is escorted to the "disgusting deporation room" where Palestinians have to wait to be put on a bus to Rafah; some of those squeezed into the room have been waiting more than a week.

As a young child Omar felt the absence of his father keenly but his mother was tight-lipped about the full circumstances of his disappearance. All Omar knows is that his father was regularly woken in the night by Israeli troops who would order him to clean graffiti off walls outside, and that it was while engaged in one of these nocturnal graffiti removal exercises that Mustafa disappeared.

Omar lives in a small house with his mother. After the death of Omar's grandfather, Mustafa and his brother Attiya had divided the family house, with Mustafa getting the smaller share. Attiya had built the biggest house in Jabalia Camp with many lemon and apricot trees and a vine. He is a big contractor and supplies Gazan workers to Israeli contruction companies. The thousands of workers get up at 4am to prepare for the crossing into Israel.

At the age of eight Omar feels his father  to be “my invisible companion” and constantly scrutinises his  photograph, pleased to note the physical similarities between him and his father. In the photograph Mustafa is wearing dark jeans and a shirt that would have been in fashion at the time: “it made me smile to think of my dad as fashionable guy who liked to keep up with the latest trends.”

Omar resolves to do all he can to  try and find his father. He knows from the Egyptian crime novels about the boy detective Takhtakh that “a good detective cannot do his job properly without the help of a sidekick”. One one level Vanished  is in the tradition of children's detective stories popular in many cultures - though this story is much darker than most. Omar enlists as his right-hand man his best friend Ahmed. Ahmed is loyal, courageous and honest, and has a  sharp nose for clues. But the more clues Omar and Ahmed discover,  the more the mystery of Mustafa's disappearance deepens.

The two boys' search for Omar's father takes place amidst the climate of danger facing Gaza's children. At one point Omar  is hospitalised after being shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition in a confrontation with children who respond by throwing stones. Omar is a mixture of bravado and fragility; he is attached to the animal fables of Kalila wa Dimna, some of which are recounted at certain points in the narrative. 

The Israeli occupying forces in Jabalia Camp are based in the El-Markaz Military Station under the feared military commander Uri. One day Omar manages to slip into El-Markaz, intending to demand information on his father's fate. He is at first defiant under questioning from Uri, but finds himself ensnared in a web of treachery, betrayal and blackmail. Omar’s predicament is compounded by a depraved incident that makes for horrifying reading; the trauma comes to overshadow Omar's life but he must at all costs try to keep it secret. One theme in Vanished is the phenomenon and mechanism of collaboration.

Omar starts to lead a double life and joins the underground resistance. This is a world of masked gunmen, secret tunnels and safe houses. The most influential woman in his life at this time is the memorable Um Marwan – a capable and committed middle-aged neighbour who holds Omar's father in high regard. Her wisdom and steadfastness are vital to Omar at crucial points.

When the Oslo Accords are signed in 1993 there is at first euphoria. Although Omar has some scepticism over the accords he is swept up in the excitement and becomes involved in Fatah organisations. But over time disillusionment and factionalism increase, and support for Hamas grows. 

Vanished is well plotted, with convincingly-drawn characters and constant twists, and the suspense is maintained until its final pages. It could however have done with some editorial tightening in places, and the text occasionally feels somewhat rushed - but then it does cover a remarkable amount of ground.
review by Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, August 01, 2015

interview with Egyptian writer Bahaa Abdelmegid on his Dublin novel 'Temple Bar'

The English translation of Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Bahaa Abdelmegid's 2011 novel Khammarat al-ma'bad (Dar Merit) is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title Temple Bar - the name of an area in Dublin famed for its bars, cafes and cultural life. The novel, translated by Jonathan Wright, explores the cultural and spiritual dislocation of Egyptian student Moataz after he leaves Cairo for Dublin in 1998. A Fulbright scholar from a poor family, Moataz endures various unexpected travails after he enrols at Dublin’s Trinity College to research a PhD on Irish literature.

Bahaa Abdelmegid 

How far is Temple Bar autobiographical? It is written mainly in the first person, and certain facts coincide, including your going to Dublin’s Trinity College in 1998-99, though as a visiting academic rather than a student. You have also been a Fulbright scholar, though elsewhere. Moataz encounters many different types of people in Dublin. Was this also the case with you?

To some extent the novel is autobiographical. I was a visiting academic at Trinity College more than fifteen years ago, at a time when Ireland was fresh to the EU. Dublin was flourishing and progressing and welcomed foreigners, though with some fear and apprehension. Although my hero suffers a lack of generosity from the authorities, who neglect the expatriates and foreign students, on the level of ordinary people he finds them very sympathetic and kind. My personal experience was important, but as a novelist I try to reflect my own imagination and skill as a writer rather than depending on memories or easy reflections on my travel experiences. I tried to make Temple Bar a sort of A Passage to India or Death in Venice in which the author is a serious and independent character and not just a narrator from the first person perspective.

How much were James Joyce and other Irish writers in your mind when you were in Dublin and when you were writing Temple Bar?

I was fascinated by Dublin and Irish writers when I was an undergraduate, though they were taught within an English literature syllabus, but it was when I started writing about Ted Hughes in my MA thesis that Seamus Heaney started to become a reality, and he was an open door to Irish culture. I was of course fascinated by Yeats , Synge , Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Living in Trinity College gave me the chance to read many contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney and others. Joyce was a colossal figure for me as a novelist with his great novel Ulysses and his characters Bloom, Dedalus, Molly, and Dublin with its vividness and the story of its people at the beginning of the twentieth century. For me Joyce represents two things: modernism, and a genius mind. With his modernist approach he created a new novel form, and with his genius mind he did unprecedented work . Ulysses was strongly in my mind when I was writing Temple Bar and I identified with its hero all the time and I imagined myself as both Stephen and Joyce at the same time. I tried to walk in the same places and I planned my novel as a journey in the mind and the place of my character as James Joyce did.

It’s interesting for people to read a literary work depicting their country through the eyes of a writer and  fictional characters from another country and culture. Has there been much fiction by Arab writers set in Ireland as far as you know, and written in Arabic or English? 

It is true, and I think I tried to depict Ireland as I saw it from many different perspectives. But from a literary historian perspective, as you ask, Somaya Ramadan wrote Leaves of Narcissus - published in English by AUC Press as well - about her own journey to Dublin. We are friends by the way, and we are very fond of Irish culture.

Has your book been read by any of your contacts, friends, in Ireland, and have you had feedback or reviews there? Are you worried about how they might react to your depiction of Dublin and the treatment there of foreigners? Would you like a launch in Dublin, and how did you find the literary scene in that city – eg at the Irish Writers’ Centre – did you have much contact with Irish writers?

I do not know what reactions there will be to my novel in Ireland, and this is very difficult to predict. I do not have a lobby either in Cairo or somewhere else in the world may be an interview like that will help in promoting my novel and make fair publicity. I am very timid and I never ask for more, like Oliver in Oliver Twist by Dickens. I think my publisher AUC Press will help introduce me to Dublin readers and the Irish intelligentsia in the near future; it is doing its best to promote my books. My novel is highly experimental and sophisticated and needs a good critic to reveal its narratives. I think it could be studied on comparative or post-colonial literature courses. I think if the novel was introduced to Irish reviewers they would write about it but till now I do not see any reaction. Of course I would love to launch in Dublin it is an old and a great city for culture. I often visited the Irish Writers’ Centre, and I had many writer friends, but that was a long time ago. Irish writers are very distinguished and I think Irish readers would be open-minded enough to accept any observations made about their lives by a foreigner. I wrote my novel to immortalize them and to document my own experience from different perspective. Although there have not yet been any reviews of Temple Bar in Ireland, there are many in Arabic.

Did you find Ireland and Dublin different from the Ireland and Dublin of your imagination?

To some extent it was the Ireland of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World but when I was there I discovered the difference between the image of fiction and reality but still people are interested in myth and talk. 

Flowers play a significant part in your book, with Moataz becoming a flower seller at one point, after running out of money, and thereby getting an entry into the lives of the women flower-sellers. We learn from him that he had also sold flowers back in Cairo. Could you say something about your own relationship with the flower business and how you know it so well?

My family has one of Egypt’s major flower businesses, and we have very luxurious and prestigious shops in the Maadi area of south Cairo. I was introduced to the business when I was only 13 and I have very good experience in this field. I used to visit the Netherlands with my brother to attend the great Aalsmeer flower festival. My novel Leaves of Paradise is about this travel and I think it would be great if it were translated into Dutch. I am a lover of greenery and interested in the purity of nature and I would love to join the Green Party in UK if this were possible! Creating a clean environment is one of my interests and aspirations.

Could you say something about what you were writing in terms of fiction when you were actually living in Dublin, and where you were when you wrote Temple Bar? Did you need some distance of time and place from Dublin to write this novel?

I was researching on Seamus Heaney for my PhD and I consider it a good exercise on writing and I benefited from it when I came to write Temple Bar. I wrote The Black Piano in 1996 and I was looking for a big writing project, especially a novel. I started writing the novel Saint Theresa and some sketches based on certain characters I met in Dublin, especially women of flowers. It is true that I took some time to finish Temple Bar: in fact it took me 13 years to write and rewrite it and for it to be published. I felt it was necessary to be objective and direct and not to be over-sentimental. I did not want it to be a “travel literature novel” but a novel in the classical sense.

The novel was translated by the prizewinning translator Jonathan Wright and published in English by AUC Press. How did these two things come about? How did you work with Jonathan – did you meet him, did he have many questions in person or by Skype or email?

I consider myself lucky in English translation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank my publisher, AUC Press, for taking care of my writing. They translated two of my previous novels, Saint Theresa and Sleeping With Strangers, translated by Chip Rossetti and published as one volume in 2010. Jonathan Wright did a great job in translating Temple Bar. He is in my view an excellent translator, and he took great care over the novel’s stream of consciousness technique and its polyphonies. He was very accurate and asked me many questions via emails and Facebook. I did not meet Jonathan before or during the translation, but after the publication of Temple Bar AUC Press introduced us, and I am honoured by this cooperation.

Is Temple Bar your technically most complex work? You have various flashbacks, changes of tense and of person. Was this style difficult to accomplish? Do you do much rewriting after a first draft? Did you start Temple Bar with a definite outline of the novel that you stuck to, or did it evolve as you went along?

It is true and I consider it a turning point in my writing career. It was a reflection of my power as a writer; I wanted the novel to reflect my skills as a writer, but at the same time I remember how much I enjoyed writing Temple Bar even though I was writing about the sufferings and sorrows of its hero. At a certain point I did not want to publish it and I was even afraid of publishing it as it revealed so much of myself and the lives of others. I rewrote it many times and I have many drafts, to a degree I want to sell them in an auction or put it in an archive! but my friends in Egypt laughed at this and said “Who do you think you are, James Joyce?” I wanted to write the life of Moataz , this was my first plan, but then life changed and fate played its part in the life of Moataz so I had to add a different ending because many event evolved from this new end.

Do you have a daily writing routine, and are you always writing? Do you keep a notebook of observations etc and did you have such a notebook in Dublin? Do you listen to music, write at home, at work, or in cafes and so on?

Yes, I have a routine to my day. I work in the early morning , and I always go out to look for a place to write, maybe a coffee shop . Sometimes I write at home, as recently as two years ago I used to write only with pen but I then started to use a keyboard. I write every day, though not necessarily fiction: I also write emails, reviews, and my Facebook status. I write sometimes in the summer where I am free of teaching obligations. I like to keep a notebook and I still have my notebook from when I was in Dublin. I am fond of listening to music while writing especially Beethoven and Mohamed Abdelwahb , Om Kulthum and Angham.

In an interview with Egypt Today you said that during the years you were writing Temple Bar, you got married and changed your life completely. Could you say something about how in your view marriage and children may affect a writer’s life and material?

He becomes more mature and responsible and also it widens his domestic experience and puts him in touch with life in a broader sense. Sometimes domestic responsibility for a writer can stand as an obstacle in his development and his search for different and unusual experience but with some organization he can cope. I am lucky because I have a wife who understands the meaning of being a writer. She tries as much as she can not to interfere in my life as a writer and most of the time she gives me some space in which to create.

In your CV you say singing is one of your hobbies. The character Simone, with whom Moataz becomes involved, studies world music, and Moataz sings on occasion. Could you say something about this music angle of the novel? Did you yourself do any singing or take part in music making while in Dublin?

Yes I did, I sang sometimes in pubs in Dublin, though as a guest rather than professionally, and joined in singing with friends. Music is essential in the life of the Irish, and especially the singing of ballads. Music can be heard everywhere and this is similar to Egypt where music is common in coffee shops and in the streets. Singing is equal to existence to me and it releases me from my cares. When I sing I become happier and lighter. Many members of my dad’s family practised Sufi singing, and my father taught me many songs. In this sad city of Dublin singing is a vital route to survival.

Despite Moataz’s tribulations there’s quite a bit of humour in the novel, and at times his apparent innocence creates some amusing encounters. Was this something you intended, or did it come naturally with the writing?

It is natural I think, I am still innocent like Moataz. Humour comes naturally from ironical situations. Life itself is a big joke and art’s function is to reveal this joke. Though tragic end is essential , but can we stop it , no so it is better to try to laugh. But at certain moment in Moataz’s life he could not laugh, especially when he was depressed, and from here comes the irony.

At one point Moataz teaches Arabic to a young French Jew, Lusini, who later tells him he has Egyptian roots and that his grandfather had left Egypt after the 1948 war, going first to Israel and then England. “I don’t know why, but after that I stopped going to give him Arabic lessons, despite his polite manner...” and lack of racism, and Zionism. Could you say a bit about this brief but somehow revealing passage of the novel?

History and culture play a big role in the attitudes of people. Moataz has a heritage of suspicion and lack of tolerance and maybe he wanted to be free and to live his own life, but he could not. He was afraid of being a traitor in the eyes of Egyptian socialists who think peace with Israel is a crime, and a normalization of ties a sin. 
interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush