Interview with Professor and Novelist Kamal Abdel-Malek

Raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and educated in Montreal, Kamal Abdel-Malek is professor of Arabic literature, and a novelist. He has taught at Princeton and Brown universities. While at Brown University he contributed to and taught in the Brown University Program in Israeli and Palestinian Studies in Jerusalem. He also received the prestigious Wriston Fellowship for excellence in teaching and research.

He is currently the Chief Editor of the Arabic and World Literature, a scholarly e-journal published the London-based Andromeda Academic Services. The magazine is hosting a virtual conference November 7-8, 2020, titled Celebrating Arab Women: Agents of Change and Progress, held in honor of Nawal El Saadawi.

The following is Professor Kamal Abdel-Malek’s interview:

The Journal of Arabic and World Literature: Comparative and Multidisciplinary Perspectives (AWL) – what is it about and what makes its mission and vision unique?

I have founded The Journal of Arabic and World Literature AWL in 2019 and I am currently its Chief Editor. AWL is a new open access journal that provides a forum in both Arabic and English for researchers investigating literature by Arab authors inside and outside the Arabic-speaking world. The first issue was published in the summer of 2020. AWL aims to explore the intersection of national literatures, global literary theories, and current trends in World literature.

AWL offers an opportunity for scholars to engage in serious research and share their findings and musings with a wider circle of readers interested in Arabic and World Literature. If I have to choose a keyword to describe the concept behind this journal, it is “nexus” as the journal offers a forum in both English and Arabic for researchers to investigate the nexus between Arabic national literatures, global literary theories, and current trends in World Literature. The stress here falls on the “nexus” between Arabic literature and its global sisters, the intersections across these literary traditions, and the inter-associations engendered in the process of researching, writing about, and appreciating these traditions.

Your scholarly and fictional work is preoccupied with the question of how people from different cultural backgrounds relate to one another without losing their authentic selves.  What are some of the answers you’ve come across? 

What is bound to happen to our cultural identity when we associate with people from a different background, whether ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural? Many people, Arabs are no exception, would tend to guard against be assimilated into the alien culture of others. And guarding against the alien culture sometimes resembles guarding against a disease, fearing contagion, and taking precautions against the spread of such cultural virus.

Let me give you an example of such attitudes towards alien cultures. In modern Egypt, we have been struggling to determine the extent to which we Egyptians should borrow from Western culture. In fact the question was asked in a debate in  April 1930, between two prominent authors ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad (1889-1964) and Salama Musa (c. 1887-1958), two of Egypt’s most influential writers, met at the newly-built Egyptian University to debate Kipling’s famous line about the East and the West being the twain that would never meet. Al-‘Aqqad agreed with Kipling arguing that the historical record tallied with the truthfulness of Kipling’s line. No, retorted Salama Musa, the East and the West could find a common ground for understanding because both belonged to one human family and one human fate. Musa explained that Western Imperialists wanted the East to remain eastern, i.e., backward, so that they could maintain their control over it and that conservatives and reactionaries in the East were inadvertently helping imperialists by insisting on keeping the East eastern and isolated from Western civilization. The only hope for the East to rid itself of its torpor and backwardness, argued the socialist Musa, was to adopt in toto Western values and practices. Al-‘Aqqad disagreed. For him the incompatibility of the East’s spiritual identity and the West’s materialist one precludes any encounter. The debate was won by al-‘Aqqad with 228 votes to 132.

I have dealt with this issue of how to relate to other cultures without losing your own both academically and fictionally. I have published on the historical and literary, and even cinematic, encounters between Arabs and Jews, and Arabs and Americans: The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), and America in an Arab Mirror (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011). But it was my fiction, Come with Me from Jerusalem (Amazon, 2013) that provoked some controversy. It is a star-crossed love story, set in Jerusalem, between an Egyptian young man and his Jewish beloved against the background of conflicting loyalties. The conflict is mainly between their respective elders and their wider communities, and the pressures put on them to remain loyal to their authentic faiths and cultures. These pressures become unbearable all the way till the end when the two leave Jerusalem, the location of these contestations. But here the conflict takes the shape of a dilemma between freedom to love a member of the “other side” and the necessity to have and maintain peace with one’s family and elders. Quite the conundrum! I am currently writing the sequel where the story of these star-crossed lovers moves to Seattle in the US.

I believe that one needs to search for a way to keep one’s authentic self but, at the same time, engage other people’s cultures and worldviews. It is an ongoing process, a continuous engagement, a procession towards a goal and it may require a certain degree of perseverance and willingness to take risks and offer a degree of compromise. And these are not easy choices.

Your most recent book in Arabic is titled The Pyramid and the Skyscraper: America in Egyptian Eyes (1912-2011). In what ways are you comparing pyramids to skyscrapers? What is their common point? Is it a matter of history or architecture or both?

The symbols may be architectural here, with the pyramid standing for Egypt with its ancient civilization, and the skyscraper standing for America with its modern and rather brazen showoff as a superpower. Remember that the pyramid was built as a massive grave for the powerful pharaoh, a strong and solid edifice based on the belief in the afterlife. The skyscraper, on the other hand, has modern ideas and architectural audacity, a pointer to the progress of a youthful nation embracing its role as a superpower on the world stage. And this audacity is manifested in the very name given to this modern-day edifice: skyscraper, a towering structure that “scrapes” the sky, unashamedly and unapologetically. Remember that Egyptians and Arabs in general, faced a great difficulty with the name “skyscraper” because the word for sky in Arabic is “ sama’ ” which is also the word for heaven, so when translating it literally it becomes “heaven-scraper” a blasphemous label.

The view of America which emerges from these accounts is at once fascinating and illuminating, but never monolithic. The writers hail from a variety of viewpoints, regions, and backgrounds, so their descriptions of America differently engage and revise Arab pre-conceptions of Americans and the West. The country figures as everything from the unchanging Other, the very antithesis of the Egyptian self, to the seductive female, to the Other who is both praiseworthy and reprehensible.

It may come as a surprise for many to read that in 1862 President Lincoln protested the presence of Egyptian troops in Mexico who were there at the time supporting the revolutionaries, or that Ismail Pasha, Egypt’s ruler in 1868 enlisted American Civil War veterans to modernize the Egyptian army, or that in 1880 the ancient Egyptian obelisk, otherwise known as Cleopatra’s Needle, erected in New York’s Central Park, was sent to the U.S. as a gift from Egypt. (For more on these events see, Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, (2008).

In 1910 the visit of President Theodore Roosevelt to Egypt elicited some negative reactions from Egyptian literati. The American president gave a speech at the newly-established Egyptian university Al-Jami‘a Al-Ahliyya (later named Cairo University), in which he attacked religious fanaticism but appeared to have expressed favorable views of the British occupation of Egypt. He is quoted as saying, “The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations.” (“The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations.” Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House; Reprint edition, 2011, 38.)

Such views drew fire from Muhammad Farid, the famous Egyptian nationalist leader, and Ahmad Shawqi, Egypt’s Poet Laureate. (See the report in Al-Risala, no. 893 (1910).But this incident would not sour Egyptian feelings toward the United States. As it would be noticed in the next forty years since Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Egypt, policies or views of official America considered inimical to Egyptian, or later Arab, causes would draw criticism and resentment while views of Americans as a people or America as a culture were often favorable.

Another book is called The Pain of Egyptians and its Remedy in Poetry: Ahmed Fouad Negm and his Poetic Heritage. How has poetry been healing for Egyptians? Have you ever written poetry? Has poetry, or writing in general, been healing for you?

I believe that poetry and writing in general has a healing power as it offers a kind of therapy for the aches and pains of one’s psyche. And here we find that what applies to individuals may apply to nations. In 1967 the Arabs were defeated by Israel so that after a mere six days, thousands of Arabs were killed and vast chunks of Arab lands occupied. Wounded nations, much like wounded individuals, need a period to grieve and find solace and it was at this moment that a native-born poet and his blind companion appeared on the scene to sing and strum the pain of the nation and to infuse in their revolutionary verse the hope that there is a time to lick the wounds, a time to stitch them, and a time to muster courage and stand up to resist. That was Ahmad Fu’ad  Nigm and his blind companion singer, Sheikh Imam.

Yes, I tried my hand in composing poetry, mostly about love. Please do not laugh when I tell you that I wrote a total of nine poems, all in one day! After that the guns of my poetical inspiration fell silent. But sooner the percussions of fiction-writing started to roll on, and I wrote some short stories and one major novel, entitled, Come with Me from Jerusalem. Now I can tell you that for me writing these pieces of fiction were therapeutically comforting, as they usually are written in the aftermath of some pain caused by parting ways with a loved one. Writing my pain in this case is like waking up in the middle of a nightmare and devising a way to escape the fatal blow before it crushes you.

You have Ahmed Fouad Negm in a several of your topics. Why did you choose him, particularly for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011?

Why Nigm?

He was one of Egypt’s most famous vernacular poets. Since 1967, his popular poetry has been frequently heard at protests and political rallies, and during January 2011 Egyptian revolutionaries sang many of his poems.

Nigm published over a dozen collections of poetry and his popular autobiography, under the title Al-Fagumi, was made a movie. In 2007, Nigm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as Ambassador of the poor, and he won the 2013 Prince Claus Award for “Unwavering Integrity”. His presence on the Egyptian scene, as a poet and a commentator with biting remarks, will be sorely missed.

I met Nigm for the first time in 1989, and have kept in contact with him until his death. I still remember and relish my visits with him in his apartment in a popular neighborhood in Al-Muqattam region, and how we used to sit on the floor of his roof, talking about our country while chicken were running and cackling around us.

Nigm’s work has been one of the main topics for my academic studies, about which I published my first book, A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Aḥmad Fuʾād Nigm (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990). I later published two books about him in Arabic. I am currently working on a book on him, under contract by the American University of Cairo Press.

How has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals?

There has been a stream of works of fiction and eye-witness accounts of the Arab Spring movements in the countries where these movements took place—in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and other. In 2013, the Egyptian Basma Abd Aziz wrote The Queue which depicts an unknown country where people are forced to ask the government, dubbed The Gate, permission to perform any activity even window-shopping. Mona Prince penned an eye-witness account of the 18-day demonstrations at Tahrir Square with the title, Revolution is My Name.   The Anglo-Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif published her own account of the Tahrir events, Cairo: My City, My Revolution.

I should also mention the steady flow of writings and recorded YouTube videos of the Egyptian fiction writer and activist, Alaa Aswani, who has recently published two novels, The Automobile Club and The Republic of As If.  That is also in addition to some collections of his journalistic pieces.

In Tunisia, the academic and novelist, Shukri Al-Mabkhout wrote his fiction, The Italian and Kamel Zoghbani his, Akhlat. So there has been a stream of works affected by the Arab Spring movements.

But here allow me to follow the example of the late JFK’s rhetoric and reverse your question: “How has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals?” by saying to you: Ask not how has the Arab Spring affected the intellectuals; ask rather how have the [Egyptian] intellectuals affected the Arab Spring?

Literature, evocative, high-powered, genuine literature, composed by serious-minded writers sensitive to nuance, can be a guiding force in a given society and culture. I think we often think of literature, particularly in the academy, as a reflection, a mirror that projects back how a society or a culture looks like. Literature may show the grand assumptions and tacit norms of the culture but it can also play a role in shaking the props and rearranging the mental furniture in the culture. Can we imagine the French Revolution without the great ideas of the French philosophes and writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu? Ideas like the rule of the people by the people, of equality, and brotherhood, of people being equal citizens in a republic not subjects of the supreme monarch.

Likewise the Arab Spring would not have been conceived of without the ideas and struggles of enlightened writers and citizenry who have protested against autocracy, inequality, and absence of democratic rights and freedoms. Fiction writers like Alaa Al-Aswani lays bare the ugly underbelly of the Egyptian society in his highly acclaimed novel, The Yaqoubian Building (2002), Sonallah Ibrahim exposes the rot that has set in the Egyptian society in novels like, Dhat, and Jamal Al-Ghitani, Hikayat Al-Mu’assasa (Stories about the Establishment). I must also mention here the role of poetry in galvanizing people against the unjust regimes. Take for example the vernacular poetry of the great Egyptian poet and activist, Ahmad Fuad Nigm(b.1929). In as early as 1990 I published my book, A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm (Leiden, 1990) that provides an analysis of the social and political meanings in the protest vernacular poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm. In this book I show how Nigm portrays Egypt as a society composed of contending social forces and it is concerned with the cause of liberating Egypt from class inequality and political oppression. Being an example of genuine popular expression, Nigm’s protest poetry appears to pose a challenge to the political establishment, which considers Nigm as a provocateur, as well as to the majority of scholars to whom vernacular works have no place in their canonical definition of “high” literature.

For Nigm, the way to achieve such liberation is through a people’s revolution that will ultimately pave the way for a new society—is this not what exactly happens in Egypt January 2011? But the Arab Spring did not remain a spring forever. Change has already taken place and the spring was followed by the fall season. Someone somewhere in the Arab world is now writing a novel, a short story, a poem, a film script about the deleterious effects of a popular revolution that has gone awry. Let’s remember once again the French Revolution and how the Bastille prison had ended up with more prisoners after the revolution than the day it was pry-opened by the revolutionaries, and how the promising period of the revolutionary Maximillien Robespierre, who twisted Rousseau’s ideas, had ended with the “Reign of Terror.”

The International Conference on “Celebrating Arab Women: Agents of Change of Progress” will be in November 7-8. What is the purpose behind forming this conference?

Women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region contend with social practices founded on patriarchal values, confining them to a secondary position in these male-dominated societies. History, past and contemporary, is, however, replete with examples of inspirational Arab women who transcend this socio-cultural reality, and successfully subvert that dominant narrative. These women have carved out public space for themselves and others throughout history, and have thus been effective agents of change. Examples are authors and historians, such as Huda Shaarawi, Nawal El Saadawi, and Fatima Mernissi, and writers like Sahar Khalifeh, Liana Badr, Huda Barakat, Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Leila Abouzeid, and Meral Tahawi, and the 2019 Man Booker Prize winner, Jokha Alharthi.    

Our aim is to observe this year’s International Women’s Day by organizing a conference that celebrates the contributions of Arab women, past and present, to honor them, and to call for substantial change towards women’s equality in our Arab region. Some of the topics that the conference will cover are:

  • Nawal Saadawi: A Vindication of the Rights of Arab Women
  • Fatema Mernissi’s Double Critique of Arab and Western Views on Women
  • Women and Media in the MENA region: New Subjectivities
  • Women Writers in the MENA region: Alternative Narratives
  • Women Filmmakers in the MENA Region: Cinematic Language as Action

The conference is held in Honor of Nawal El Saadawi. How did you meet her and what are your thoughts about her and her work?

The idea behind the conference came to me as a result of my frequent visits to Cairo and conversations with Nawal Saadawi over the past few years. I felt that we should honor her and celebrate with her the remarkable achievements she has made in promoting the rights of Egyptian and Arab women and in exposing the various degrees of injustices they suffer in our present-day Arab societies.

I first met Nawal Saadawi in a conference in the US, and I was much impressed by her presentation on women and their plight in the Arab world. Being familiar with some of her works at the time, I heard from her what I more or less expected: Arab women are oppressed by a patriarchal and regressive regimes and religious dogmatic restrictions. But what I didn’t expect was her harsh criticism of Western feminists and their mis/understanding of the plight of their womenfolk in the Arab world.

I have had extended dialogues with Nawal Saadawi about some of the burning issues in our current Arab society–issues related to freedom of expression, status of Arab women, war and peace, individual and society, childhood memories, views on the West, etc. The dialogues shed light on Saadawi’s work and views on creativity and rebellion, literature and social changes, moving us from the traditional stand on literature as a mirror of culture and society to literature as a guiding force in culture and society. Could we imagine laws protecting the bodies of little girls in Egypt without the direct influence of Nawal’ Saadwi’s fictional writings and activism in the last half century?

What is the role of women in the Arab World, especially as a writer? How influential are they? Is Nawal El Saadawi an exception? Or are there others like her?

Women writers in the Arab world have been playing a vital role in effecting societal and cultural change. Think of the Egyptian Hoda Sha‘rawi in the 1923 who, upon her return from International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, removed her veil (hijab) in public at the Cairo train station, and called for the emancipation for her womenfolk, paving the way for legislation in behalf of women’s rights. Think of Dorriyya Shafiq, feminist, poet, who, as a direct result of her efforts and hunger strike, Egyptian women were granted the constitutional right to vote in 1956. And now Nawal Saadawi who has been hoisting the banner of women’s lib in Egypt and beyond for the last fifty years. So as you can see Nawal Saadawi belongs to a whole genealogy of women writers and activists. Beyond the Arab world, I must mention the Moroccan feminist and academic, Fatima Mernissi, author of seminal works such as, Beyond the Veil, Scheherzade Goes West, among others.

Do you visit Egypt often? When was the last time you went there? What was your observation in the changes that have occurred, particularly after the Arab Spring? 

I visit Egypt twice a year, during the summer vacation and the winter break. The last time was in December 2019 and January 2020. I was unable to go in the summer this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most exciting time that I witnessed in Egypt was during the Arab Spring of late January and early February 2011. I spent several nights at the Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandria. It was a remarkable scene to witness Egyptian youth chanting revolutionary slogans and hoisting banners demanding change and calling on Mubarak to step down. They were organized in groups taking care of various tasks, distributing water bottles and checking the IDs of individuals wishing to join their inner circles in the tents pitched inside the enclosure where the revolutionaries will spend the nights. In the morning there were other groups of young men and women in jeans cleaning the squares and pavements.

But the most visible change was in citizens’ attitude to authority. Mubarak is no longer in power. There is now criticism of figures of authority more than at any time. There is criticism of the powerful president and his ministers, criticism of social customs and religious dogmas, and loud voices demanding a renewal of religious givens.

The Egyptian people are now at the point of no return to putting up with dictatorial rule. The impact is at present felt in the way international media covers the Arab world. There is no more Egypt or Syria as states but as people, as Egyptians and Syrians. Egypt is not Cairo and Syria is not Damascus, each is now the whole country with its countryside and outlaying regions and borders. It is the people not the states that are now the main focus of reports by pundits. Remember the powerful chants, “The People want the downfall of the regime!” It is the people; it is we the people, the new citizens of the free country, not the subjects of the autocratic rulers. The people have connected all the necessary wires for the new life of freedom and the intellectual current has throbbed back to life.    

It seems that a lot of Arab literature is based on ideology and politics. Is that a strength or weakness? Is that the reason behind the strong censorship in the Middle East?

A good writer does not set out to write in accordance to an ideological or didactic yardstick. Doing so may result in works lacking depth and literary value. Think of Russian literature in the 19th-century with great writers like Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and the lackluster Soviet literature after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

The Arabic literature of the 1950s and 1960s reflects the period of wars of independence and struggle to be free from colonial powers, and was affected by the introduction of such literary trends like   “committed literature.”

The age-old notion prevalent in Arab cultural history is that literature ought to have a didactic purpose and mission. Remember that the Arabic word of literature is adab, which also means good manners, social graces, and etiquette. So the purpose behind producing literature and consuming it is to educate and to edify the people. For each poem or a piece of narrative there should be a moral to present, a lesson to offer, a method to draw pointers to the straight path. But there are exceptions; one of the most outstanding is found in the tales of the Arabian Nights, which aims more to entertain than to edify the listeners/ readers.  For this reason the Egyptian authorities banned in 1980s a copy of the Arabian Nights brought by a traveler from Beirut, and they also banned the poetry of Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm claiming that what constitutes “good” art as “Undoubtedly art and creative works that are worthy of respect are the ones which are based on delicate sentiments and good words, not sheer insolence. It added, “Moreover, a good creative poet who deserves to be honored by the state and its head is the one who “does not allow himself to descend to the level of the riff-raff.” (Nigm, Ishi ya Masr, p. 138).

So as you could see ideology acts like a pre-emptive strike against good literature and art in general, for both cannot thrive in a stifling ideological atmosphere, nor can they arise out of perfect states of good or evil. Neither in Hell nor in Heaven can there ever be creative art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s