A short story writer, novelist and a political and cultural commentator — Cairo-born Ahdaf Soueif wielded her pen to voice the unrest surrounding the Egyptian revolution. Shortlisted for the 1999 The Man Booker Prize for The Map of Love, Ahdaf’s most recent work — Cairo: My City, Our Revolution — recounts her personal experience of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. A t2 chat with the author who’s all set to storm our city for the Kolkata Literary Meet.
Which Ahdaf comes first— a voice of the Egyptian masses, a political and cultural commentator or an author?
I wish it was really possible for me to be a voice of the masses; that’s really an honour I can’t claim. I think, in a way though, that all three are the same thing. What I try to do is to write as well as I can, and as honestly as I can.
You penned Cairo: My City, Our Revolution after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. But many say the revolution was many years in the making within you...
The revolution was many years in the making in Egypt. You could say since 2000. And for all of us, we kept pace with it.
There has been unrest in Egypt again recently. What is your reading of the ground situation?
It’s Friday morning and we are getting ready and choosing which march to join. The unrest, the fight, the revolution — all continues. No material things have improved for Egyptians at all. In fact, the effects of 40 years of corruption are showing more and more clearly with huge transport accidents and construction disasters — trains crashing and buildings collapsing. If democracy is simplified as ‘did the people in power get the most number of bits of paper in the ballot box?’, then yes, we are a democracy. If democracy is about people having the information and the facility to choose between alternatives then, no, we are not yet a democracy. But people are now determined to get what they revolted for: jobs, education, safe transport, real development... and so, the revolution continues.
Why did you start writing and why with Aisha?
Because I seem to have always had it in my head that I wanted to write stories and so, one day, I started.
Well, I didn’t start with Aisha. I started with one short story, then another and another. And eventually they were collected as Aisha. I think it’s quite natural, really, to start small. And I love the short story as a literary form.
Did getting shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for The Map of Love impact you as a writer?
Well, I suppose it meant I was taken more seriously, and so was able to develop the platform from which I have been doing my ‘cultural activism’ work. It also provided The Map... with a window of opportunity: people read it because they always read the Booker shortlist, and then its popularity grew by word of mouth.
What was the initial reaction to the Palestine Festival of Literature you started in 2008? What do you feel comes of such literary meets?
PalFest was really well-received in Palestine. For the authors who came on the journey, it has been — as they’ve described — ‘life-changing’. Several of them have gone back to Palestine to teach or to engage in joint art projects. Literary — or indeed any — meets are great for meeting people, listening to work, engaging with new ideas and new work, and feeling connected. PalFest, of course, has that bit more: it takes artists to a community that’s under occupation and creates connections between them. For the visitors, it acts as a corrective to the false image that’s propagated in much of the western media about the situation in Palestine. Do look up www.palfest.org.
Is this your first trip to Calcutta? What are your expectations from the Kolkata Literary Meet?
I am really excited to be coming to Calcutta and the Kolkata Literary Meet. I have heard a great deal about it and I expect it to be vibrant, surprising and serious and fun. I am very much looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. Calcutta is one of the great mythical cities for me, I have read so much about it. I’m really glad to be visiting it at last.