Arts & Culture

‘We are so much less than we should be’: Writer Mohamed Tawfik on Egypt, Literature and More

‘We are so much less than we should be’: Writer Mohamed Tawfik on Egypt, Literature and More

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Sometimes what lies beneath the surface can have a much greater impact than what is clearly in view. Remember the Titanic? The infamous ship almost certainly wouldn’t have sunk if the captain had seen the entire iceberg the boat fatally crashed into, instead of just the tip of it.

Ernest Hemingway famously developed this concept into a writing style, which is now commonly known as The Iceberg Theory.

The Egyptian writer Mohamed Tawfik succinctly sums Hemingway’s method up as “writing around the issue” and, like the great American writer, he is steadily building up his own catalog based on this style.

“In my stories, I don’t deal directly with the issues I consider to be important, but instead I write around them,” he tells Egyptian Streets.

“I once wrote a short story about a rape [incident], but from the point of view of a homeless person who is nearby scouring garbage bins for food.

“He describes the sounds he hears, but he never actually sees what happens. The rape is in the background and that is exactly why it becomes more prominent in the reader’s mind. The reader can’t help but wonder what is going on, focusing all their attention on the issue that is only described indirectly.”

Tawfik has written several collections of short stories and three novels in Arabic. In 1997, an English selection of his shorts was published under the title The Day the Moon Fell. His novels form a trilogy, the last two books of which  – Murder in the Tower of Happiness (2007, AUC Press) and Candygirl (2012, AUC Press) – are also available in English. He generally publishes his works of fiction under the name M. M. Tawfik.

It is exactly because of his style of writing that Tawfik is a little apprehensive about other people translating his work, so he translates his books into English himself. “Translation is a process of recreation. It is taking something apart and then putting it back together,” he explains. “I know that a lot will get lost in translation and I would like to control that a little bit. I am worried that a translator would miss a lot of hints, the very small things that are pointing to that main thing that is never actually written about.

“I don’t believe it is physically possible to translate a work of art from one language to another. You have to take into account the different cultures of the reader and the writer, but also the individuality of the writer. In order to do that, you will have to adjust things a little. But once you start that process you destroy the original art work.”

However, this doesn’t mean translating your own work makes the process any easier. “I think it is actually a little more complicated. On the one hand it is your own work so you have more freedom to chance things. On the other hand you don’t have a fresh set of eyes, so you might not see that some details of the story might not be very clear anymore. Or maybe they have become too clear, ruining the suspense.”

Tawfik lists Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez and Samuel Beckett as his favorite writers. “And Naguib Mahfouz, of course, but I don’t want to be predictable,” he quips. He brazenly admits he gets bored easily with other people’s writing. “I put a lot of attention into making my writing interesting not just for the reader, but I also want every new novel to be a completely new experience for me.

“I have never repeated a book in terms of structure,” Tawfik points out. “In my trilogy, the first one was a fantasy with a lot of humor and cynicism. Number two revolved around a murder and took the form of a thriller and the third one can be classified as a spy novel. The dramatic structure is completely different in all three books. The only thing that is constant are the characters.”

Tawfik describes his fellow Egyptian writers as mostly dealing with the human condition. “You see this across the board, from Naguib Mahfouz to Taha Hussein, even Tawfik el-Hakim. Egyptian writers reflect a feeling that every Egyptian has: That we are so much less than we should be. We should be so much more successful as a nation. Why is it this way? What has gone wrong? Literature is a great tool to explore that.”

As an example Tawfik gives Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, a personal favorite of his. “I think the transformation in Egyptian society that Ibrahim targets is very important in understanding today’s Egypt. In the seventies Egypt went from being a country that looked to the Mediterranean to one which focuses on the Arab world. This has shaped what we have become today.”

After years in the foreign service – he has served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States and Lebanon, among other positions – Tawfik is getting ready to retire and looking forward to devote more of his time to writing. He is currently translating the last one of his Arabic novels into English and he would like to start work on a new work of fiction.

The Arab Spring is something he says he would like to write about. He argues that no good novels have been written about the Egyptian revolution yet. “It is a subject I would very much like to explore in a future book. Not from the inside, but the effect it has on people that are a bit further away from it, yet still very much affected by it.”

Mohamed Tawfik will participate in a literature roundtable on the genre of thrillers on the18th of April at the Greek Campus in downtown and will give a lecture titled “Self-Translation: Faithful Rendition or Rewriting?” at AUC Tahrir on April 19

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Ester Meerman is an independent journalist who has been reporting from Egypt since January 2011.

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