Friday, December 9, 2011

Interview with Writer Khaled Alkhamissi

Taxi is Khaled Alkhamissi’s 2006 debut novel. A collection of 58 vignettes recounting conversations with cab drivers around Cairo, Taxi catalogues opinions of fictional, but likely characters on politics, culture, religion, and of course, traffic. I wrote about one of them a month ago.

Many of the daily economic frustrations documented by Alkhamissi were later described as causes for the uprisings earlier this year. “This democratic cacophony transforms into a fresh and fast crash course not just in the backdrop to the Arab spring,” wrote Chris Ross in The Guardian, “but in all aspects of contemporary North African culture and people.”

I was asked to interview Mr. Alkhamissi by the Daily News Egypt. After numerous phone calls, advice from other journalists that he is notoriously hard to get a hold of, and many emails back and forth with the editor, I finally was asked to submit questions by email, as he would be traveling for readings abroad. Two weeks later, I received his answers. My questions had been translated into Arabic and then with the answers back into English. It was a confusing, difficult, but educational process. Sometimes his answers seemed snarky, like his reaction to the question was one of annoyance, but then going back and reading my double-translated questions, it was hard to imagine anyone having answered differently.

I asked Alkhamissi how it feels to represent Egypt abroad as a novelist, particularly in a period when Arab writers like Alaa Al Aswany and Hisham Matar are regularly sought-after commentators on current events for a Western audience and locally.

“Egyptian and Arab novelists have played a general cultural role throughout the twentieth century,” he explained. “Most of them worked in the Egyptian press and had opinion pieces that pervaded intellectual and cultural debates within Egyptian society,” including Tawfik Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idriss, and Fuad Haddad. “What happens today among Egyptian novelists,” he wrote “is the natural continuation to an organic connection between culture and politics in Egypt.”

As for the role of these thinkers play once they leave the borders of Egypt, he is more suspicious. “I can’t imagine that any novelist can represent his country. He primarily represents himself,” he argues, adding that the burden is on the international audience, not the Egyptian writer, to understand his work and its context. “I don’t change myself and I don’t change depending on the audience. The audience on the other hand has to make the effort to receive what is said properly.”

In this vein, Alkhamissi writes off the quotes that cover new English editions Taxi, which claim that the book “predicted” the revolution, as the promotional tools of publishers. After a detailed explanation of how the publishing industry gets favorable quotes, he recited the obvious: “The publishing process…is connected to the logistics of profit and loss.”

“The descent of millions of citizens into the streets and squares calling for the removal of a regime,” he continued, is the product of “extremely complex social phenomena,” with roots in “historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and financial elements.” In order to understand it, “we must return to the nineteenth century and the beginning of the formation of Egyptian citizenship,” as well as “the processes of gradual maturity from the second half of the nineteenth century until our current day.”

Nevertheless, he firmly identifies with the protest movement. “What is required today is to identify the protesters throughout Egypt’s different squares,” he says, “to appoint a civilian presidential council that administrates the transition period in a transparent way as an alternative to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces."

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