Naguib Mahfouz Award-Winning Reem Bassiouney Speaks to Majalla

“I always care about the human side of my characters. It is the great essence of literature highlighting our connections as humans together”

AUC Professor of Applied Linguistics Reem Bassiouney. (Courtesy: Reem Bassiouney)
AUC Professor of Applied Linguistics Reem Bassiouney. (Courtesy: Reem Bassiouney)

Naguib Mahfouz Award-Winning Reem Bassiouney Speaks to Majalla

Egypt holds among its folds a unique elite of writers and novelists who have composed great works that are immortalized in history.  These works will inspire a generation that has recently begun an awaited journey towards reviving the luster of reading and its great impact on building minds and life.

Standing out among those writers is the novelist Reem Bassiouney whose works were able to stimulate society and take an interesting journey towards the secrets and mysteries of history, and to attract readers towards her wonderful novels.

Reem Bassiouney, Professor of Linguistics at the American University and novelist, was born in Alexandria in 1973. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in the Department of English at Alexandria University and was appointed to its faculty.  She later attended Oxford University in Britain and obtained a master’s in linguistics and a doctorate in “political discourse.”

She taught in some American universities on Arab thought, culture, and literature, and worked for a short time in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States and teaching at Georgetown University.  Dr. Bassiouney currently works as a professor at the American University in Cairo.

Despite all the hardships she has gone through, she is still dreaming and searching the history papers, researching, checking and drawing with her imagination dialogues between people who once lived in order to restore to their history some fairness, add color to their world and bring it into the present age.


Award-winning novelist and AUC Professor of Applied Linguistics Reem Bassiouney. (Courtesy: Reem Bassiouney)


Her heroes live their full experiences without fear, and the heroines of her tales are strong and active, looking for their freedom in order to prove themselves. Women in her novels believe that their freedom is the freedom of mind and heart, in which the body is freed from its overseers, and the homeland is liberated from all of its occupiers.

Fifteen years or more have passed since the first novel was published by the international novelist, who has translated many of her fictional works into English, Spanish and Greek, and has won many Arab and international awards, including Egypt's most prestigious literary award, the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature, for the “Mamluk Trilogy” as well as the King Fahd Prize for the translation of her novel “The Pistachio Seller” in 2009.

Her study of English literature was a journey to complete her hobby and pursue her novelist’s dream of studying English literature and delving into Arabic literature and history outside the walls of the university curriculum, until she fell captive to a love of history, especially the history of the Mamluks.

Bassiouney's writing style is simple, very clear, and her language is fresh and easy. She uses simple vocabulary and expressions in her writing in order to be able to convey her deep thoughts to the reader in a very smooth and fluid manner. Her novels are also characterized by excitement and suspense, and we often finish reading them in one sitting.

The novels of Reem Bassiouney do not lack anything but the realization that you are part of this narration. Do not worry, it will undoubtedly happen, or perhaps you will imagine yourself in one of your reading sessions mystically unleashing your imagination to conjure up characters who emerge from between lines that are engraved on walls from a time that is long gone, but whose remnants still survive in the sublime places of Blessed Egypt.



Reem Bassiouney was awarded the Supreme Council of Culture's 2019-2020 Naguib Mahfouz Award for Best Egyptian Novel for her best-selling book, “Sons of the People: The Mamluk Trilogy.” (Courtesy: Reem Bassiouney)


It is within this framework that Majalla had an interesting interview on literature and culture with writer and novelist Reem Bassiouney:


Q: You specialize in linguistics, what prompted you to write novels, especially in Arabic?

A: I always wanted to become an author and this was my dream since I was 12. I joined the English department because of my love of literature and then from there I got specialized in linguistics. So it was destiny that I never stopped writing since I was 12.


Q: You studied and lived in the UK but you write in Arabic, does that connect you to your identity?

A: It is really strange that I write my fiction in Arabic only and my academic books in English. I have nine novels and nine academic books. It seems that I cannot be honest about feelings and vulnerabilities except in my mother tongue.


Q: In light of the complexity of the problems of reality, the fierceness of its concerns and the ferocity of its challenges, the resort to literature for history seems to be a kind of escape and regression. What do you think?

A: Historical Fiction for me is liberating. It gives my imagination more freedom to rein. I like to do research, so to be able to use my skills as a researcher to also write fiction is a win-win situation.  I also feel it is my mission to show people the beauty I discovered in historical monuments and stories.


Q: Why did you choose to write about the Tulunid State?  What do you mean by linking the Egyptian identity with the Tulunid State?

A: The Tulunid state is the first independent state of Egypt under Islamic rule. It is the first time that Egypt has an army with Egyptians in it since ancient Egypt. So it is a very critical and formative period in Egyptian history, and feelings of pride and achievement soared during this time. Also, the mosque of Ibn Tulun is the oldest mosque in Egypt in terms of how it was preserved in its original condition.


Q: Why did you care about highlighting the human side of Ibn Tulun?

A: I always care about the human side of my characters. I feel this is the great essence of literature highlighting our connections as humans together. So this is essential in my writing. The problem is that in most historical works the historical figures are not human. They are good or evil, but this is not realistic.


Q: What really inspired you to write “The Mamluk Trilogy” (Awlad El Nas), and what was the process of writing it?

A: I was inspired to write “Awlad El Nas” after visiting the mosque of Sultan Hassan for the first time in 2013. I was so impressed by the architecture that I wanted to study Mamluk Egypt and this led me to a grand journey of discovery into Islamic civilization.


Q: What is the secret of your choice of the Mamluk era to be the scene of the events of your trilogy?

A: I started by writing about how the mosque was built and the story of the architect. Then I found myself writing the second part about what happened to the mosque 80 years later.  I continued my Trilogy with the war between Mamluks and Ottomans and the end of a crucial era for Egypt.


Q: Do you not think that the rhythm of the times can no longer bear the idea of the trilogy?  How did you gain the courage to author a prolonged trilogy in the face of a bored reader?  How did you overcome this challenge?

A: Writing a book of 800 pages is a challenge but I could not help writing it. It was like a call from inside me urging me to continue the story. I did not expect any great success. However, the novel was on the best-selling list for three consecutive years.


Q: Why do you link your novels with mosques? What is the reason for your keenness to be with the readers in the mosques of Ibn Tulun and Sultan Hassan?

A: Visiting the sites of my novels is like a continuation of the story. I felt the need to share with my readers my passion for the places and what they mean to me.


Sultan Hassan Mosque


Q: Why did you rely on Al-Ghazali's questions in the novel "Fountain of drowning: The Path of Land & the Sea"?

A: Al-Ghazali is one of my favorites.  As a Sufi scholar he understands the essence of life so deeply that it humbled us all. He is worth writing about.


Q: In your historical novels “The Mamluks Trilogy,” “Awlad al-Nas,” “Al-Qata’i: Ibn Tulun’s Trilogy” and “Fountain of drowning: The Path of Land & the Sea,” the women were women in history who stood behind the man and stood with him to fight the British and stood against society in order to go to school to learn. How strong is your belief in the role of women in Arab societies?

A: Women had a major role in our societies. They were not just fighting for freedom. They were fighting for freedom over the colonizers. They fought for humanity at large, not just for themselves.


Q: How do you see the effect of receiving an award bearing the name Mahfouz?

A: I am honored to have an award with Mahfouz’s name. He is a deep author who captures the essence of humanity.


Q: What is the subject that catches your eye the most but that you have been dreading so far?

A: Ancient Egypt. I wish I could write about it. But I am intimidated by how much knowledge I need before even starting.


Q: What is the work closest to your heart?

A: “Awlad El Nas” is very close to my heart because it introduces a wider readership to my work and now bears the honor of an award of Mahfouz.


Q: What do you want the reader to come out with from your books?

A: I want the readers to think deeply about human experience, to be less judgmental and more accepting, and more tolerant and understanding.

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