Why Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdelmeguid doesn't seek validation from his literary peers

Moved by the arts and tested by illness, award-winning author Ibrahim Abdelmeguid has left an indelible stamp on the literary world

From his early beginnings in politics to his brush with death, Ibrahim Abdelmeguid sheds light on his very eventful life.
Marian F. Moratinos
From his early beginnings in politics to his brush with death, Ibrahim Abdelmeguid sheds light on his very eventful life.

Why Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdelmeguid doesn't seek validation from his literary peers

Cairo: I usually get anxiety when I have to do something, but this time I’m feeling so nervous that I try looking for an escape so that I do not have to face my teacher and friend, Ibrahim Abdelmeguid, and interview him.

It should be easy because of our close relationship over the years, during which we went through a lot, but instead, I find it hard and frightening.

Particularly, one day comes to mind when he led the procession on the ‘Day of Great Anger’ while we were unarmed in the face of the armed soldiers.

We were dreaming and full of hope back then.

We often meet up. Every time he decides to leave his distant house and go to the city centre that we love, his wife, who is my best friend, calls me to join them.

“Your uncle asked me to call and invite you,” she says.

He is “my uncle” as I like to call him. He has been by my side since the moment I stood before him while my friend was pulling me up by the hand to help me overcome my shyness and present my novel to him.

On that day, he sat down with us as if he were one of us. He immersed us into a sea of stories and laughter, and we discovered that the great writer had another side to his personality.

It is this personal side that makes him a father, an uncle, or a friend. As time passed, he never stopped helping me and others. He introduced me to his wife, and she became very dear and close to my heart.

There in his house, while he was sitting on his favourite sofa, I sat in his office and put on my interviewer hat.

He put me at ease and made sure I had my coffee before we started. Then, he turned off his laptop, from which music was playing, as usual.

I asked him:

You wrote a few days ago: “I made my night for art, music, and fun, but my day is for misery.”

Why is your day miserable when it begins with the music that you listen to throughout the day as a backdrop to your whole life?

It does not take him long to answer.

From the moment in 1969 when Anis Mansour announced his “musical programme” on the radio, I decided to listen to him. That was the beginning.

I knew Hussein Fawzy's “Sindibad Misri” programme, which dedicated an hour to classical music.

From that time on, that music has stayed with me, especially when I write at night. It is my companion, and without it, I would not forget what I see of life’s struggles and problems during the day.

I remember that, a while ago, I wrote an article entitled “Come with Me to Music to Forget Politics”.

Although I participated in politics and joined one of the parties in my earlier days, it all ends at night, as if I were another person washed away by music, so I forget the events of the day and get creative.

Without music, I would not have written anything.

If music is his first love, then cinema is no less important. Abdelmeguid recounts the day he sold his school textbooks to watch a movie in the cinema.

He wrote a book entitled Me and the Cinema — a history of Egyptian cinema, as well as a history of the political and social situation in the country.

What if your life was a movie that you directed? What would you do in this movie, and what would you delete and what would you add? What is the main scene?

My feelings now differ from what they were in my youth.

The loss of many people dear to me, together with social development in Egypt and the economic crisis all left their imprint on me.


My feelings now differ from what they were in my youth. The loss of many people dear to me, together with social development in Egypt and the economic crisis all left their imprint on me.  

Ibrahim Abdelmeguid

All this is a driver to explore the legends, and make a movie starring a man walking in an endless desert and reaching nothing — meeting thieves and bandits whom he defeats, but in the end, it is all a mirage.  

Special expressive elements can be added, like a scene of a child crying in a library because he has read a novel and believes that it is true. 

Or a scene of students leaving schools and standing in queues in front of cinemas, as we used to do in the past, especially at Al-Hamra Cinema in Alexandria, where you would find students unintentionally divided into groups from the same school. 

Since demonstrations were not permitted during Nasser's era, you would find these students chanting various clever and expressive slogans (in the cinema) without anyone being able to catch them.  

For example, "Rain falls from the sky, fish live in water, a maid's tea is the best tea."

This could be the main scene in the movie. Then these kids grow up and walk in the streets repeating the same words and, again, no one can catch them. 

You wrote Escape from Memory but you always draw from your earliest memories that shaped you as a writer. You made characters of the past into characters for the present that live on the pages of your books.  

It was from this place that you produced your most important works. So, what are you not running from at the moment and do you wish it could continue? 

I do not run away from my relationship with my wife. I hope that it will continue and pray to God for her wellbeing, for a good home is a homeland.  

I also do not run away from my relationship with my children. In the end, I have no homeland other than my home.  

What I lived before brings back to me things that were of the past, but writing keeps them away and turns them into a beautiful illusion. 

I consider writing a self-purification of what I saw.  

Escape from Memory is not only about me. It includes events that were inspired by our imprisonment in 1985.  

There was a committee in the Tagammu Party (the National Progressive Unionist Party) called the "Committee for the Defence of National Culture,"— a leading committee whose members were not all members of the party.  

It included Salah Issa, Radwa Ashour, Fathia al-Assal, Latifa al-Zayyat, Abdo Jubeir and others. We were against the normalisation of relations with Israel and its attendance at the Cairo Book Fair.  

We were distributing leaflets, and every year a number of us were arrested. In 1985, Israel attended for the last time, but we were arrested that year — we were more than 20 writers.  

I spent 23 days in prison and was released from the Office of Public Prosecution, while my colleagues spent a month before appearing in court.  

I attended the session in the Court of Appeal, where the judge said in the statement of his ruling in Case No. 1 (Supreme State Security), which I have not forgotten:

"The Minister of Interior has no work except to occupy the court's time with trivial cases for writers who only have a paper and a pen… [so we decided to] release [them] from the courthouse." 

I wrote two short stories about this ordeal, but with the deterioration of the (economic) situation, I found myself going back to that period in time.  

The novel was built on an unpopular idea.  

Prisoners often suffer from a kind of "Stockholm Syndrome." The novel Escape from Memory was an antidote to this idea. Prisoners flee from their memories so that they cannot be slaves to the jailer.  

I met many prisoners who lived their lives normally after their release from jail — even those who were imprisoned during the most difficult years, i.e. 1959 to 1964, such as Abd al-Azim Anis and Mahmoud Amin al-Alim who came out and wrote their greatest works.  

You always provide support to young people, citing some names enthusiastically and mentioning them on various occasions.  

Have you ever thought that some might interpret this to mean that you are looking for disciples or defence and solidarity frontlines, since our cultural reality has become characterised by dividing people into different fronts and waging visible and hidden wars? 

In my early years as a writer, and with every story that I published, I used to come to Cairo from Alexandria to sit with some writers in Café Riche, and I would find that they had already read the story.  

There were few literary writers at that time, and my first novel was published in 1979, although I finished writing it in 1974.  

It was subjected to censorship and banned until Sadat abolished the censorship of books in 1978 or 1979, and, hence, it was finally published. 

Since then, I have reached the conclusion that the readers you do not know are your prime readers.  

In the five years that passed since then, I saw wars break out between writers and other cultural wars erupt, many of which were personal.  

I then had an epiphany. I realised that I would get my validation from my readers and not by my professional peers.  

In the five years that passed since then, I saw wars break out between writers and other cultural wars erupt, many of which were personal.  I then had an epiphany. I realised that I would get my validation from my readers and not by my professional peers.  


Ibrahim Abdelmeguid

I remember that after writing The Other Town, I would constantly be approached by people who read the book who shared just how much the novel resonated with them. 

This was truly amazing experience. I did not know these people, but I was so happy to meet them. 

I remember that I met a young man in one of the seminars in Smouha who greeted me and said: "My mother made me promise to greet you when I meet you."  

So, I asked him: "Does your mother read me?" He said: "No, but I was a careless young man who always failed my university classes. My life was a series of mistakes."  

"One day I read The Amber Birds, and (after that) my house turned into a library. I finished my university and worked in tourism. So, my mother is grateful to you, and I am too."  

To me, this is a reader of immeasurable worth. 

Therefore, when I admire some writers, I admire their writings without seeking their validation. I get my validation from those who are not from the literary movement. 

Now, I am afraid to praise anyone because with so many writers, I run the risk of angering anyone who I don't mention. 

You suggested that the Ministry of Culture allocate ten million Egyptian pounds for the translation of Egyptian novels.  

Do you think that translated Arab novels receive the same level of interest from Western readers as our interest in translated Western literature and our captivating desire to know the 'other'?  

In other words, do they see us as we see them

Unfortunately, no.  

After the translated edition is printed, it is not printed again. They do not print millions of copies.  

Take for example, the Arabic Booker Prize, where winning novels are translated free of cost. 

Unfortunately, these books are largely forgotten about after they are printed. 

There is little improvement in the translation of Arabic literature. However, some Gulf countries have begun to support translation initiatives, apart from just one-off awards and sponsorships. 

In a seminar held in France, I said that translation for me is a visit to the country that translated the book into its language, and then sitting in a café with a beautiful girl who read the book.  

The hall roared with applause and laughter.  

Speaking of translation support initiatives, Institut du monde arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris had launched a translation project for 100 Arabic books, among which were only one or two books from Egypt — one of which was actually an intellectual book written by Amina Ibrahim Rasheed and was not a novel.  

When Ibrahim was sick some time ago, my mother was also sick. So, I had long conversations with his wife about his condition and the condition of my mother.  

Our situation was not much different from the snow of which his wife was taking pictures from the window of the hospital room in that far away country.

When he got better, he melted the snow with his tales, as usual. We did not talk much about the pain, but we did talk about those pictures and stories that were absorbed into his soul before even reaching his eyes. 

Do you think a writer dies when he/she stops observing scenes of life around him/her?  

In general, this is true.  

However, something a little different happened to me. While my wife was looking for something positive, taking pictures of the snow outside, I wished for death. 

At one point I said to myself: enough. I did a lot, but I was asking God to lift my soul up while I was under anesthesia. 

I do not like the pain of the disease. 

While my wife was looking for something positive, taking pictures of the snow outside, I wished for death. At one point I said to myself: enough. I did a lot, but I was asking God to lift my soul up while I was under anesthesia. I do not like the pain of the disease. 

Ibrahim Abdelmeguid

This was not pessimism, but the result of three years of wrong treatments before I discovered that my problem was in my spine and not my knee.  

Despite this and my hidden wish, my stay at the orthopedic hospital was not without humour. Smoking was allowed, but not in our rooms.  

I used to go up to a smoking room, either with my wife and son, or with the nurse Jasmine, who would escort me after my wife went to sleep.  

In that hospital, patients were only wearing underwear under their robes. Everyone was a kind of naked, but it was not sexy. We were all patients with broken bones.  

There was a patient who hid her cigarette packet in her underwear, unlike our culture in Egypt and the culture of our grandmothers who used to use the upper part of their clothes to hide money and other things.  

They were times of both laughter and hope. 

I remember that when I was filling out the hospital admission form, I came across a question that asked if I wanted to go to a euthanasia clinic.  

I thought for a moment that I would go for a week and see how it was there and then come back and write a novel, but then I became afraid that I would not come back. 

Here I laughed so hard and said in response: Did I not tell you? 

I know that responsibilities and age are burdens that we carry on our shoulders and that they change us and limit our ambitions.  

How did you keep your carefree youthful spirit all this time?  

Creativity, in general, makes its owner young for a lifetime no matter how old he is.

His sense of the world is kept fresh like the first time. If the writer feels that he is old, he will not write.  

Writing is the first cause to live for, and this is involuntary. The other thing is that I feel I must help my creative process by having a good understanding of what is going on around me. 

You may find me going through social media where most of my followers are young. They make me feel young again. 

Who do you miss at this stage and who do you wish you could sit down with and share a cup of coffee at Groppi? 

A lot, among of whom is Sami Salah, the theatre director — our days together were all laughs. 

As for Saeed Al-Kafrawi and Shaker Abdel Hamid, I still reach out to them on the phone. There is also Dr. Ali Al-Ra'i, Abdel Qader Al-Qut, and many of those who stood by me in my early days, like Dr. Salah Fadl, may God give him a long life, but I know how busy he is.  

I miss Samir Sarhan, who I used to call 'Zorba the Greek'. He stood by my side more than anyone else, especially when it came to my work for the 'Mass Culture' project, where I was exposed to many wars. 

Also, I cannot forget the Alexandrian fine artist Mostafa Abdel Wahab. His absence from the city certainly left it lacking. 

Also, Ismat Doustachi Al-Ajami, May God give him long life.  

You shed tears of joy when you were named winner of the Nile Award.  

However, for a few years now you appear to be on the verge of tears that mostly you do not let fall but sometimes they run down your cheeks.  

Why tears? What does crying represent to you? Do you cry or laugh while writing? 

I cry and laugh a lot while writing, and this is because I identify with the characters I write about.  

But in fact, crying was never a habit of mine until recently, and I attribute this to my friend Muhammad Kashik, who, some time before his death, used to cry when we met and spoke, to the extent that I sometimes avoided meeting him.  

And it seems that getting old has an effect as well. When you sit with people, you may feel that you are out of time. But when you find someone who cares for you, you feel that you are not out of time, which can bring you to tears. 

I do not know what crying means to me. I do not mean to cry. I try to avoid this as much as possible. 

I cried on the day of the award because I needed the money after my treatment, but also because I was nominated for this award before and did not win.  

I was worried this year. 

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