Interview: Miral al-Tahawy

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It's hard to talk about a writer like Miral al-Tahawy without falling into stale clichés. To "read" an Arab writer through how she does or does not cover, to "discover" the Arab world in her body of work, or to describe her as "the first novelist to present Egyptian Bedouin life beyond stereotypes and to illustrate the crises of Bedouin women and their urge to break free"as the Washington Post once did, in a quote that follows Miral al-Tahawy's writing like a over-eager puppyall of these ways of approaching her writing are deadening stereotypes in their own right. And yet, as she observed at the end of my interview with her, clichés are clichés because they are true. So it's a good starting point, at least, to notice that when I began to interview a writer who "stepped out from her home unaccompanied by a male relative for the first time when she was 26, and still had to be covered from head to foot," she selected Skype's video-chat option, rather than voice-chat. And when I asked her how she liked living in Arizona, she talked about growing up in the desert, and how oppressive she found the winter in places where you had to cover up, the way the mass of covering necessary made you feel alien to yourself. Arizona, to put it simply, is a desert where you do not cover up.

"To put it simply" is a good place to start. And as a professor of Arabic language and culture at Arizona State University, Miral al-Tahawy is self-effacing and patient with her students, and with Americans who know, basically, nothing about the Arab world. For those who know nothing, somethinganythingis a good enough place to begin, even the only place. For this reason, Miral al-Tahawy the writer doesn't usually make an entrance into her classroom. She laughed when I asked her if she would ever teach her own novels, but not only because of how selfless she comes off as being: her novels are complexly textured, deep, and ambiguous, intensely personal and, for lack of a better word, literary. Her novels are not "Arabic Culture 101." And though she was quite happy that ASU had decided to treat her creative writing as part of her tenure filegrateful to be acknowledged not only as a teacher of Arabic literature and culture, but as a producer of itthe word "literature" came up, again and again in our conversation, as an index for everything that a geographical category like "Arab writer" can't describe.

Miral al-Tahawy comes from a Bedouin background. When people say "Egypt," what they often mean is Cairo, the cosmopolitan cultural hub of the Arab world, one of the world's oldest and greatest cities, but Miral al-Tahawy is not a Cairene. When she got her Masters degree and Doctoral degree from Cairo University, for at least part of the time, she commuted the three hours of travel that separated her university from her home. And although her most recent novel, Brooklyn Heights, is also set in the cosmopolitan and cultural hub of New York City, she now lives and writes from Phoenix, Arizona, her latest station in a six year American residence that took her from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, Boone, North Carolina, and now, finally, to a city of refugees in the middle of the great American desert. Brooklyn Heights reminds me, a little, of Teju Cole's Open City, if only because of the forced contrast between two 2011 novels about perambulatory Africans wandering through New York and remembering their pasts. But if Open City takes us into the heart of the empire city, Manhattan, Miral al-Tahawy begins Brooklyn Heights with an immigrant searching for a home in Brooklyn, on Google maps, and always looking back. Everywhere she goes, she find the detritus of her past coming to the surface; as her eight-year old son embraces the American dream of change and rebirth, the streets of Brooklyn haunt her as the melancholy residue of who she has been, and of who she will always also, be. It is tragic, heartbreakingly sad. And yet it's also a quietly powerful assertion of self: in the age of the internet, when you can find everythingas she put itthere is something intensely human in being left out on the curb. Take, she says; take it if you want. It's something.

This interview was conducted over Skype, on October 20th. It has been very lightly edited for readability.



ABSo, you live in Arizona now!

MaT: I've been in New York for two years, and one year in Virginia, and another year in North Carolina, and this is my fourth year in Arizona, as an assistant professor at Arizona State University.

How do you like Arizona?

Oh... It has a sun. [Laughs] Which is very important for me. And it has a tenured job, which is something which secures me.

I'm away a little bit from the literary world that I came for. I don't feel that I'm surrounded in a community that encourages me. But at the same time, Phoenix is a city of asylum, so you have a lot of Palestinian and Iraqi people, Somalians, all of them refugees. It's helped me to observe that community, in a desert state. In a way, it's very close to the environment and the weather of the Arab world, somehow.

You know, it's just a station in my life. But also something that enriches me deeply is the heritage of Native Americans, you have a lot of cultural traditions of a society that has been through a difficult time. So you can find yourself in a place that's inspiring, but it's painful. It's like an oasis, like an isolation.

For my writing... I've been very involved in the four years, the first four years now, to establish my career as an academic. I was so deep in the detail and processing of tenure-track and tenure review, and I've just almost finished, that I've just started to think again to get back to my old creative work. I just had my promotion case, so I feel released, because I'm not under the pressure of security anymore. And the university is allowing me now to consider my creative writing as part of my professional work. It was a long way for them to accept creative work as part of my academic binder. But it's happened.

You know, Brooklyn Heights is such a lovely portrait of a community in NYC that we often think of as a melting pot for immigrants, where different people from around the world come for asylum. Arizona might have a reputation as a place that's less welcoming to immigrants. Would you ever write about Arizona?

It's one of the cities that accommodates asylum, and is open for refugees.

Always, since I came, the idea of trying to create your home in a place that is not originally your home has been the main topic for me. And yeah, the situation here is... there is a history of Somali refugees, female especially, that are struggling to be part of this culture you are not originally from, and to understand the system. It's human beings suffering, and lately with refugees, which is very dramatic, very sad. It is a border, so you can see everyone coming with dreams, trying to shelter, and trying to forget the past.

But it's not because of Arizona, it's because of history, the last ten or fifteen years in the Middle East, and Africa in general, to be honest. In Egypt, in Somalia, Algeria, because of the political situation, wars, civil wars, so America in general become a major point for immigrants and refugees. So, it is the current issues that are happening that make refugees looking for a new home. Seeking for new future to be part of something you want that you are not able to be.

I've seen that in Arizona, particularly, because of the Sudanese people, from South Sudan, the boys and girls, the "lost boys," it is Phoenix who hosted this program for a long time. Everywhere you go you can find part of African crisis and you can see people from everywhere, and they are just trying to invent their role, somehow.

It's not even about New York, it's about everywhere. I read something about a ship going to Australia with kids, I think, Syrian refugees, and the Australian government did not allow them to enter. And I was so sad when I have read that, the mother and father, they just made their children wear the vests and just dropped them in the water, of America, here, in Virginia. Seeking for the children, a new future. So there is drama everywhere.


fig. 1: People in transition, places in transition.

5th Ave. and Flatbush Ave. Brooklyn, one of Brooklyn Heights’s changeable sites. (Google Maps, 2011)

You said that it's important that Arizona has a sun, and that it's a desert city. Why is that important to you?

I think the first time I was traveling was to Berlin, I had to spend three months there. I just remember, as usual, as I've been raised, I was waiting in my bed, waiting for the sun to come out, so I can start my day. It was winter, however, so the sun never came out! [Laughs] I remember thinking, "It's a really gloomy day. How can I move, how can I start?"

So it's my body, hard to start the cycle of living without the sun. It's something more connected to your body system, that you can see clear sky, you can see stars, you can see unlimited desert. It's something that for me, because I'm not from Cairo, I'm not from a city, I'm originally from a desert village. This is something that connects me to my childhood. I was struggling with that in New York, feeling like I had to wear a heavy coat which hides every single piece of me, so that I'm not the same person I used to be, just something like a ball of alien, without shape or dimension. I think it's very essential.

This is also something very human, when you live somewhere and try to create something else. Many Iraqi refugees here, they buy small houses, and build it in the construction of their homes, and try to put some boundaries, they try to create their own home on the way that they left. People bring their homes with them, they bring a lot of stuff, and make it... everything the same, like the home they left behind.

For me, it's not really important to do that. But the sun comforts me. It makes me feel like I'm in the right geographical spot.

I'm trying to think how to ask this question... Um, when you're talking how people bring their homes with them, it reminds me that, from what I've read about your background, growing up, even though you came from a desert you had to cover up... that when you were growing up, that was also a place where you had to cover up. In Berlin, in New York, you said that had to cover up and become this shapeless thing that was not yourself. Is there a connection between those two things?

Ah... [long pause] yeah! A little bit. You just feel the same person, if you're used to covering up. You're just cautious to be yourself. It takes time. For me, it takes a long time to feel free of any restrictions that came with this.

And people here, especially in the Muslim community, Middle East community, they bring their traditions. This city, Phoenix, it has a hundred mosques. So they bring not only the culture, the way they live, the way they dress up. They can turn [out] to be a ghetto, and very conservative, even more conservative than their homes, because they try to hold their identity the same. If you make your own circle, make your own culture, make your own religion, and make your ghettos, it will be safer for the next generation. Which makes them more isolated, and not open for any integration or even knowledge about the new society. That's everywhere. That's what creates a misunderstanding of culture and religion. And that's why many of the kids that I teach literature and Arabic culture, Islamic studies, they are more extreme than anywhere else, here in America. They were raised to be extreme, because you feel like you will be attacked, you are not respected enough, your religion is endangered. So they're more extreme than any place else. It's part of the situation, it's part of people's sense of security. You close your door, and you want to be secure, but later when you discover you have closed off every way to be open for other people. So it's not about how we dress up, it's how to be open to other people in general.

Would you tell me some more about teaching Arabic culture and literature at ASU?

I'm in the school of languages and literature so mostly I'm teaching Arabic literature, and media, and culture, and introduction to the Middle East. Most of the students are studying global or Middle East studies. They are American, or they are second-generation Arabic community who want their children to have some information about Arabic culture. The second generation who are raised in America, are maybe born in America, they have never been in their countries, like Iraq refugees. So it has been a long time. And most of them, they are curious about getting the language and getting something about their own culture. It's very general, a very basic stage.

Would you ever teach them one of your novels?

[Laughs] They never know that I am a writer!


To be a writer, it's connected, but in a certain way, it's very different. For me, I choose for them the most popular classics, just to introduce them to something we studied in elementary school. It's very general. For me, it's an experience to know how they think, how they feel about this culture, their homesickness. And sometimes they are in conflict with their own culture. Sometimes it's just misunderstanding. They have big misunderstandings of their own culture, also, like anybody about the Middle East. But they also ask about many things that have changed. Time has passed. Sometimes, it's not the country that their family talks about, it's something else.

For me, it's an experience to know more about this generation, which is important to me as a writer. But it's not important at all to let them [know that I am a writer]... Some of them, they have families, they say [imitates young person's voice] my mom told me you are a writer, you are very well known in Arabic. But I am trying to keep the figure of teacher separate.... Because I think, in my classroom, I learn and teach at the same time, and I'm trying to make it easier for them. Also, maybe, more modern Arabic is not easy to read...

So most of the time we read Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, about the Israeli-Arab conflict, something about the history of the Middle East, something more informative than my experience of writing.

But you said that your department has become more open and accepting of the fact that you are a writer, as part of your professional profile?

Yeah, they are open... at least lately, to consider my creative writing as a part of my value as a professor and as an academic. In our program, Arabic, because we don't have minors or majors, it's still a very small program, we try to accommodate our students' needs, and try slowly to think about, maybe establish a new course about Arabic cinema, bring it to the big screen. Honestly, I pay more of attentionbecause I feel their needs[to the fact that] they don't have enough information, that there is misunderstanding of the Middle East. From where you have to start, to reconstruct the image of the Middle East. So I've been trying to create courses of literature, and they give me the opportunity to do that, which is great.

You know, I started my career teaching alphabet, basic Arabic language. To make progress into teaching what I want to teach, this is for me an achievement.

It's interesting, because to most people who aren't in your class, I would think that they would know you as the author of this book.

No! [Laughs] They know me as... You know, the first time I was in North Carolina, at Appalachia State University, it was a really, really small program. I had to teach basic Arabic language, and the city I lived in, Boone, was a very small city, so I'd be known in the city, if I'm buying my coffee, I'd be known as "the Arabic teacher." Everyone knows me as "the Arabic teacher." That was, for me, a new identity [laughs] that I hadn't known about myself.

But I remember that, by the end of the year, I think, the school published something about my creative writing, something about that, and most of my students were so surprised, because I had been represented characterized for them as a teacher, just to teach. And I'm happy. You are acting that you are someone else, so you keep yourself free as a teacher and as a writer.

That's one of the classifications of me, the Arabic teacher. But, for sure, this year at last I will be teaching affiliated with one of the creative writing program at ASU, so I'll teach one course a year, as a writer, to teach them something about African Arabic literature. Which is great, for me, to be affiliated, finally, with something that I feel like I belong to. The rest of the courses will be as a language teacher. But at least I have a little space to represent myself as a writer.

fig. 2: 5th and Flatbush, view 2 (Google Maps, 2012)

What will you give them to read?

I usually choose a topic. One of my favorite topics is women writers, like Arabic women writers and taboo. So I'll make a list of new novels that have been censored, for any reason, or have been accused of something... So I make them follow freedom of expression in the Arab world. I've been teaching an author from Saudi Arabia that has been banned lately, and one is from Syria.

So, it's just a topic. I want to teach them the meaning of the book, because the writer is female. Or maybe she touches on taboos or different taboos in Arab society. So it's an introduction to the society and the religion, and even the readers, how they think, and the religious authority, how they judge, and the community.

I have a very limited collection, because of translation, because most of the novels have to be translated into English somehow. So I don't have many varieties. I just try to choose from what is available in Arabic and English.

This is one of my classes, about Arab women's writing and taboo, and I like it because it expresses the way I want to study literature. It's not about creativity but about this process between publishing, and reading, and how the reader evaluates the book. And also using different names, nicknames, publishing under different names... how is the literature trying to avoid this clash with the society in different ways.

Uh... that's it! [Laughs]

Do you read a lot of English writing? American writers?

I follow up. Since I came. That's one of my reasons to come, to follow up the new writing in America. Most of the time I'm reading in English, fiction in general.

I think the last novel I read was Rabih Alameddine An Unnecessary Woman, because of the debate about it. Also, the novel, um... sorry, The Sea of... [long pause] Glasses? It's a really wonderful novel, about the Soviet Union, it's like a fable... It's really nice. I'm sorry, I have to check it. [Laughs] Glass sea? Glasses? [The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil.]

I'm just following up, trying to see the list of, not New York Times bestsellers, but... because I can't navigate myself, I'm trying to follow up the recommendations of others, to create my own map about the new writing in America. Which is very diverse, it's a lot. So I'm trying to do that, first because it enriches me as a human being, but you know we have read the English literature, even the American literature, the classic translation that we received when I was in my country. So, my first mission, here, is to navigate the new stuff that has not been translated, or try to. But because of the variety, because of the huge market, it's really hard for someone like me to keep up. So I just try to follow the New York Times bestselling list.

It's hard for anyone to keep up!

Maybe the last thing I have read, because also I'm curious about how people are writing about the Middle East, is Khaled Hosseini, his last novel.

Where does your writing fit into all of this?

Since I first came and started teaching, I discovered that what I would usually choose the first time was not suitable for my students. Because the American students want to know more about the Middle East, and if you gave them a very artistic piece of literature, they find it very difficult to understand. I was feeling very disappointed, because most of the comments were "Oh, it's so difficult! I can't get it!" You feel you have to walk a long way to the station where literature can be a piece of literature, where it's not something else.

When I speak of Khaled Hosseini, I feel the same: you just navigate the history of Afghanistan during the last thirty years, which offers for some people a very romantic story about love, and information about a conflict with the Soviet Union and with the Taliban. It has been on the list of New York Times for years, because maybe it is something, or gives something. So we have to make a difference between two kinds of literatures. Especially when you translate from the Middle East. The novel has a function to play in educational matter and to inform people, so you can follow up... Your readers are not all the same, there are many different layers of readers. So you choose your readers first.

I think that happened with Yacoubin Building for Alaa Al Aswany, and for Elias Khoury. Someone who can explain what is happening in Egypt for those ten of fifteen years, or what is happening in Arab-Israeli conflict in Beirut, Lebanon.

So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It's there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about.

But when you speak about literature... I feel it to be something magical, it's something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it's very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live. That kind of literature does exist in America and Egypt and everywhere, but it's not bestselling, it's just something unique, and that you know it's unique.

An academic might... The novel that I may make a paper on is not the same novel I can teach in my class. When I have to write about something, I want to write something that this is what I think is literature.

We have, as people and authors from Africa or Middle East or Afghanistan, or wherever, a burden with a foreign audience, because their expectation is different. If you translate my novel, which is about an old refugee, she is seeking for herself... it's not informative enough. It's not giving what... I mean, this is America, it's a huge market, so people take what they need, of what you like.

For me, also, as a foreigner, who is trying to navigate the market of literature here in America, the NY Times, the list of bestselling, which is every week, of libraries and market and stuff like that, this gives me an idea about what people consume. But it is not, in general, what I would like to consume, as a reader. Always, with the Middle East, literature is still a tool of explanation; we need a book to explain to your student, or your reader, what is happening, now. Nice and clear and simple. That's actually not what literature can offer most of the time. Some literature can, but not every writer can do the same function.

So I think, let's teach to survive. But when I'm a writer, I write to my own expectations. Or at least, I pretend that. I don't expect huge success, because I know that the market is very different than what the author or the writer thinks. When you are working as an academic, as a teacher or professor, or whatever, you know what kind of audience you have, what kind of reader, because you have students. Usually, if you have one or two or three or maybe five that have a tasteor are educated to have a tastethe majority will not be the same, the majority just want the easy stuff to pass their exams, easily, that they can understand without doing their homework. They just want something available, something not hard to understand. Part of the motivation: what is the easiest part of this stuff, that gives you what you want directly, without the complication of literature. I think you understand. [Laughs]

I'm a teacher, too! But then, who are your readers? You said that first, you pick your readers, so… Who do you write for? Who do you imagine reading your work?

I don't know, I don't have really... [Long pause] Sometimes when I've been reading for... When we were in Egypt, and had been reading Naguib Mahfouz, the impression we had was that [imitates young person's voice] What this old man was writing about is very... classic, it's very eh.... When I was young, we were thinking that. After a time, we came to recognize that he had huge experiences, and a huge influence. From time to time, when you grow up, your expectations and your tastes change.

I stoppedand this is a clichébut I stopped thinking about readers. Because if I want to create a bestselling book, there are many ways. If you want to create something that you think is very special... this is another way. First, I say don't think about your readers, even if they are part of your work. I'm trying to teach myself this, not to expect... Because readers are not the same, and there is a history of reading. Think about what you want to say, clearly.

I don't know if this fact saved me or not, but I've been trying to create it, trying not to think what kind of reader, what kind of expectation. In general, I have a small circle who are friends, and they are writers also, and we know which pieces are perfect. Usually, when I read something good, first thing I do is post it on my Facebook. It is just to say that a good book is a good book. People know that, and don't care about the market. Because if the market creates it, it's not you, it's your publisher, it's reviews, it's whatever.

So I'm trying to do that. It's very hard, but I think it saved me. Especially in the age of the Internet, when you can find everything. It's very surprising, when you can find that very, very superficial, or very, very weak literature makes a huge success. There is always something that surprises you about the market. So, for me, I feel that what is good I feel it is good and there are others who agree that it is good, and that's enough for me. I don't know what other people do, but this is my way to protect my own, as a writer. This is my recommendation for anyone who wants to be a writer.

Do you think being a teacher, an Arabic teacher, protects from that? That you don't have to sell a certain number of books to get by? 

I think it's a challenge, everywhere. Any writer in this market, publishing, translation. It is a challenge. You have to keep your soul safe, your spirit, your inners. So you have something to invest in, and don't just turn yourself into others' reflection of you. That's something that's old, but it's a huge challenge. 


fig. 3: 5th and Flatbush, view 3 (2014). Photo by Jacob Remes.

You know, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Brooklyn Heights, which is a very melancholy novel, with a lot of quiet pain. It has an ending, but it doesn't really resolve: there isn't a happy ending, there isn't a sad ending. There's no catharsis, perhaps. And I wonder, if you were writing for a mass-market audience, maybe you would need a story that has more of a resolution?

The ending... I have many friends who said that the ending is the best part of your novel. For me, trying to belong, it's something that has no end. I tried to make it like a memory, you can see in other people what you will be. That's what the story is, that the hero, the main character that finds in the old lady's stuff, her own stuff.

It's for me, the same destiny. Because you do not belong to somewhere, you don't really have someone to keep you... It is the same. That is what I felt many times, when I was going through Saturday days, and everything is thrown out on the streets for anyone to take.

I've been looking for a home here in Arizona, and I went with my agent to many houses, and most of the houses aresince Arizona is a retirement place for old people, they had passed away and the family wanted to get rid of the housesbut I never bought any of these houses because I thought it was very hard to inherit the death of someone else. But families, because the kids don't really care about that, they will give you everything. You can take everything. And it's full of very personal stuff! Like one day, I looked at a home, and it was a writer, full of manuscripts, and the family didn't want anything. Even the desks, the way he put his desk... I felt like, yeah.

But the end of the novel, that's something great, actually. Take it, if you want it, it's something. Not only available, but people don't want it. So it's part of your history of who you are, your memories, but it's on the street.

I can't find it. Honestly, even in Arizona, they ask me, why can't you find in America the dream. You've been a writer and a professor, America has given you a lot. People judge me this way. Your dream is a reality, because you came and now after a few years, you have a position, you have a home. But something that is very tiny, but is very important... Your dream doesn't give you who you are. You just feel like you are not secure forever, you are not going to end up in your own land, you are somewhere else. And for me, everything of meevery piece of mewill be on the street, and nobody will care about what I had.

For the dilemma of the immigrant, there is no end. Maybe with a second generation, maybe with a son. But this feeling of homesickness, of insecurity, this is something that nothing can resolve.

I don't know, the editor didn't say anything about the ending [laughs]. But that's the only thing, I've been thinking about during the writing. To catch this moment of... [knocks hand] nothing, on the street. Take me if you like, or if you want. When I was walking on the streets in Brooklyn, I found this sign "Take me if you want," which is very nice and generous, and I feel like this issue is not for people who want to purchase. It's all about me, as a human being. I don't have a price. I don't have a history. I don't have... and you can take. When you say "take it," it's something without value. It's not about things, it's about human life. He's a person. He's a human being. The smallest stuff, thrown on the street.

It's a little bit symbolic, but I couldn't find anything else. [Laughs]

There's a line, early on, where she says that she used to think of forgetting as escaping, but that now being forgotten was what she was afraid of. One of the things I found so affecting, and moving, about this novel is the way... fantasies and dreams of escape sometimes become very oppressive for her. 

Her son, for example; he's just an eight-year-old kid, but he's so pushy, so aggressive, so American. And she's so sensitive to it. There's a way in which the Hope and Change is being forced on her. The American dream almost becomes oppressive to her.

For the older generation, for people my age... I didn't come very early, I didn't think about moving away from home. If you write in Arabic, your readers are Arab.

At the time, in 2008 when I came, I was at the beginning of the moment of collapse. I felt that very strongly in Egypt, everything was clear for me, as a writer, that there is something will happen this society will explode, later, tomorrow or today, because anger was everywhere. And I wasn't able to live with this anger, in the streets, everywhere, this anger.

I left. And when I left, I left all my history as a writer. At my age, thirty-five at the time, I was not able to think in a different language than Arabic, I had spent years studying classical Arabic, I'm not able to write in a different language. I was really down about inspiration. What will make me write in America. I didn't study American literature or culture. I was just trying to navigate... so everything was to me, at that time, mysterious and unclear.

I think that many people, because of political situations, they came at the same age, and they think, this will be a station. We will stay until things come down, and then we will go back home. Most of their intention was to go back, to die, to spend their last days. Most people think about where they're going to die, who will cry. Because our relationships, friendship, authorship, relationship, publisher, even enemies, they are there.

For the second generation, I really witness it a lot with my son and with other kids, my students, they are very eager to be part of American society, because they feel that that they are there. So the most important thing to them is to speak English perfectly, to adopt the accent. So everywhere I went, my son [caught] up the accent very quickly, Arizona accent, Brooklyn accent, North Carolina accent. And trying to imitate people as they speak, so he is more American. He can catch up very quickly.

For me, it was like, why does he have to push and spend hours training, to speak like Carolina, slow-motion accent... Why does he do that? It's seeking acceptance. He wants to be a part of that society. Mostly, the second generation integrates.

People who immigrate when they are already in middle age, it's really hard to change them. I have seen it a lot, even if he has even a good life here, he is thinking about going back. Even if I'm happy. Happiness is something not connected to quality of life. It's really connected to something else. Something related to your own traditional society, the things that make me laugh, that make me happy, it's not here. The songs and the smells it's not here. I used to go to the Arabic cafe, I really like the smell of the smoke of the hookah. Something reminds me of Cairo streets.

If we speak about different generations, the motivation is different. The young generation is more ambitious, and they believe in transforming their lives and they can create a new identity. And they are able. So it is a conflict, but this conflict, it's over generations. I've seen other friends, that come from Indian communities, and most of the adults want to go back to India. Most of the younger generation, they've abandoned the idea. It's a conflict over every generation in every culture, who is eager to be more connected to the new culture.

For my son, it has everything. He doesn't have memory, he doesn't have history. Everything is here, for him: kids, friends, school, teachers. His history starts here, not somewhere else.

Do you know what you're going to write next?

Yes... I'm trying to. After three years now I am trying to start a new novel, but switching between creative writing and academia, it's really hard, it takes time to read, to be more involved in reading. I'm going to write about the university in Cairo, in the period when I was teaching in Cairo. I don't know why it's coming to my mind lately. My struggling with being a professor at Cairo University. The rising of extremists at the time, and the way my students used to treat me badly, because I was not Muslim enough, in their mind. The accusation was always "You're a writer." They have a stereotype about writers, that they're not religious enough. It was a hard time in this period, to influence them, to open their minds, to do your job as a professor in a society that's not tolerant enough. You try to enlighten them, and they refuse.

I had a very difficult time, to be in a very small city outside of Cairo, and have to travel every day, three hours, and try to teach something about literature, who are also not respected enough, even classics or modern, because it's just love stories, and this is nothing for them. And the changes in that society, that's coming lately to my mind, and maybe because I'm teaching here and comparing. I'm in the middle of two worlds, and always comparing what's going on in my home, and what or who I am here

It's just the beginning. I hope my teaching load doesn't affect that too badly, so I can find space for my own writing.

I hope so, too! But I guess I'll have a long time to wait, since it will have to be translated before I can read it.

One last question, a question I'm asking all of the writers. I would like to hear you talk about what affinity you have or don't have for the term "African writer," how you relate to that world, or way of being read, what that identity means to you.

Even with the concept of the Middle East, I'm still thinking that African writer is... It has influenced me. Part of my history was based on Chinua Achebe's writing, and other writers like... I can't really make a list. But lately, because of the academic way of looking at the Middle East as a unit, as a culture, it's a little bit separated us from that concept of African writers. For me, as a Bedouin, as a family, moving from place to place in Egypt, and even in Sudan, and even more in Ethiopia. It was a journey of moving from Saudi Arabia. That makes it, for me, it's a culture that's wider.

The connection is not really strong. I can't say that we have a strong connection, because of everything. A long time ago, there was stuff that connected us together as African writers. But lately, there is nothing. For me, reading something from Africa, it is very touching, I feel like it is related to me and it is part of my understanding of literature.

But in general, because of political situation, the focus is on the term of Middle East. But it's just academic term for me. To be honest with you, literature has no limits. I don't believe in borders in literature. Literature is literature. If you read something from Siberia, if it is real literature, it will touch you. You feel like the author and you are so connected. You never feel like the nationality when you read it, the real literature. Same thing

Especially when you read Egypt, when you read history, it is part of it, very African, it is very connected to the Nile, to the south, to what is beyond the Nile. But for me, I still think there is no nationality, wherever you find a good piece of literature, you feel that it belongs to you, it is valuable to you because it is the same quality of thing that you admire and you value. It's more clichés! [Laughs]

Well, sometimes you need a cliché.

If you think about it, also, as a cliché, it is true. It's very true. When I have read a novel and it is good, I never think of the author's nationality. Never. It may reflect some of his background. But as a human being, I feel like this is good literature, or it is another kind of literature.


African Writers in a New World: Introduction by Aaron Bady

Interview: Maaza Mengiste

Interview: Laila Lalami

Interview: Tope Folarin

Interview: Sofia Samatar

Interview: Teju Cole

The interviews in this series will lead up to the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which will take place December 2-3, 2014, will feature conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. "African Writers in a New World" will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at