Arabic writers

Interview with Ehab Abdelmawla

Ehab Abdelmawla has written a few books now, the first of which is اليعسوب, The Dragonfly. Here is the summary from the dust jacket:

Date: 2071

Location: The United Southern Arab States (Egypt, Sudan, and Nubia), Eastern Desert Sector

The World: Women, men, and… Dragonflies

It is a scary new world with different class separations, under the control of a harsh and unforgiving Queen. She has a hatred of men and everything to do with Y chromosome. She is even working to eliminate them completely through an insane program of genetic manipulation. She has placed women at the forefront, making high-level positions, university education, and prestigious jobs available only to them, giving them preferred treatment in all things. She has selected the strongest, most handsome, smartest, and most talented of men to be Dragonflies. They are men who owe her absolute allegiance; she has built them self-contained colonies with everything they could want. This leaves nothing for ordinary men but service, hard labor, ignorance and poverty.

Seif is a dragonfly who spent 14 years living in the Mother Colony, which directly reports to the Queen’s Palace. He finds himself on a highway on the border of Aswan. He does not recall how he came to be at this place, nor where he is, but he knows one fact: He does not want to go back to the colony, where all of his wants are fulfilled. He does not want to be a dragonfly, with all of the advantages available to a man in that nightmare world and its frightening events. Instead, he would like to become an ordinary man with nothing save poverty, ignorance and hard work.

The punishment for insurgency was clear, no other choice was given: life in detention at the Waterfalls Prison, or a visit to the Submission Proclamation Room after five years.

In the Colonial prison, Seif meets a group of men who have set their sights on achieving two goals: first, escape from that hellish prison. Second: eliminate the queen and bring things back to normal: Men and women, and nothing else.

I’m currently reading The Dragonfly. I’ll post a full review when I finish, and with the author’s permission I may provide the introduction and the first chapter or two in English… I will probably translate at least one of his works. I have long thought that the English-speaking world could benefit from seeing (and reading) more SFF written by authors who come from completely different cultures.

What follows is my translation of an interview Al-Seyassah conducted with Ehab.



Ehab Abdelmawla: The “Pay to Publish” principle has brought us to this state of chaos

Cairo – Amal Ziyadah

A novelist whose travels among several European countries have left a deep impression on him dreams of many things for his country, and he is working hard to achieve them. With his desire for enlightenment, to show the opposing viewpoint, and to discuss issues in the open, he refuses all forms of censorship. He has released the novel “The Dragonfly”, in which he discusses things that have been kept silent, as well as a number of national and international issues.

Al-Seyassah met with author Ehab Abdelmawla to talk about the novel and its particulars. Abdelmawla spoke about the “fatal trinity”; dangerous to any who try to address them, and he criticized publishers that are solely concerned with making a profit at the expense of the quality, and his personal artistic and cultural message.

AS:                Why did you decide to concentrate on the lives of the Nubians in Egypt in The Dragonfly, despite their role in people’s imagination?

EA:                The primary, overarching plotline in the novel is concerned with equality and the dispensation of justice and rights. This is because how people understand duty is the real path to national progress. Any kind of segregation, whether based on gender – male vs. female – or denying people’s rights because they are minorities, is completely unacceptable. In the long run, human beings must be protected regardless of gender, color, religion, or race. The worst thing one of these people will experience is the feeling of oppression, making them lose confidence in the justice system. When that collapses, all other systems collapse. If a person is stripped of their rights, if he or she is repressed and loses the ability to produce, they lose their humanity and become animals for others to prey upon.

AS:                You have dedicated a lot of space in your novel to the matter of persecution of women, why?

EA:                There isn’t enough space for me to respond to the issue of persecution of women and restrictions on their rights in society after the appearance of the so-called “State of the Caliphate”. I did dedicate some space to the matter in the introduction to this novel. I will only refer to the last part of the introduction; it might answer the question. I wrote, “I do not wish to dispute the rights Islam has provided to women. I will be satisfied with a single point. In the Holy Qur’an there is a full Surah (chapter) called An-Nisaa’ (Women). Is it mere chance that the greatest expressions of justice in the world and throughout history are found in that very chapter? “Believers, stand firm for justice. Bear witness for God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relatives, whether rich or poor. God is more worthy than both. Do not follow desire that you may be just. If you dissemble or refuse to speak, God is ever aware of what you do.””

A real issue

AS:                As an engineer, how were you able to expose real issues in your sci-fi creation?

EA:                It was inevitable for real issues to come up when dealing with issues in science fiction; novels reflect reality. I cannot stop short of talking about segregation or fall into that trap by limiting myself to one color within a single novel. Our lives contain all of reality: romance, imagination, terror, action, comedy, tragedy… my novel no less so. It cannot be restricted to one category. Some readers have made comments like this, and it pleases me.

AS:                If we went with you back to the beginning, when you started writing, what would that look like?

EA:                It sprang from my love of the Arabic language. The Holy Qur’an was the first book I read, and I was deeply affected by it. I learned Arabic from the Qur’an. My passion for the art of fiction in literature came from the writings of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and others.

AS:                Is there a cap or any limits to freedom in creativity?

EA:                Some try to create limits by trying to stay away from the trinity of religion, sex, and politics, especially in Egypt and the Arab world. In Western countries, there are no hard lines that should not be crossed; therefore, whether or not this trinity is addressed is based on a given society and the controls that rule it.

AS:                Is what’s right for the West right for us?

EA:                It would not be appropriate for an author to write a children’s book for the Islamic world about Mark playing with a pig in its pen, for example, if the target audience was in an Islamic country with Eastern traditions. The author would replace the pig with a different animal, like a rabbit. That is one aspect. On the other hand, we have to delineate two types of authors. The first type operates from an unlimited vision, the second has a specific plan and he works within the scope of that plan.

AS:                What is the difference between the two?

EA:                The first type of author’s work does not have a specific agenda driving it; the work can talk about anything: sex, homosexuality, drugs, or alcohol in order to attract attention. He goes against the flow, or courts a specific subset of readers in order to increase sales in a world with decreasing education and young people who do not have good Arabic and do not understand the teachings of their religion – other than the grace of the Lord. These people are contributing to the collapse of a fundamentally worn out system, one they live in, for the prospect of profits.

AS:                Have you read something like that?

EA:                Yes, from a young author. In the first few pages of his novel, he described, in mind-numbing detail, an erotic scene between an eager fun-seeker and a beautiful girl. Because of this, I did not finish reading the novel. I don’t care to read this kind of writing. Unfortunately, most – but not all – novels that have gained prominence and gotten famous in the last decade are drenched in this kind of thing, so everyone believes that it is the path to fame and success in the Arab world. This kind of thing is wrongly called art and creativity. Even so, I have seen a certain subset standing up to change this prevailing formula. They have to pay the price, though, in order to elevate people’s taste and to fix what has been corrupted by others.

AS:                What about the other sort of authors?

EA:                Those authors have a vision and a goal in mind. They approach the “fatal trinity” in order to achieve a specific goal. An author might want to tear down something held sacred or sacrosanct, for example, and this goal is clear throughout his work. Only the audience has the right to judge him, to accept or reject his work. At the same time, any author who shows people the error of their ways by examining the issue must also provide the opposing view in order to give people the same freedom God gave them at creation, to choose between good and evil.

Desire for the Forbidden

AS:                Do you support censorship?

EA:                I emphatically oppose censorship in all its forms. I am against the prohibition of things that lure many under the name of “desire for the forbidden”. I stand on the side of enlightenment, of clear thinking, of showing the opposing viewpoint, and argumentation.

AS:                You have visited many European nations; what have you seen there that you would like to bring to Egypt?

EA:                Places are like people. They each have their own personalities and distinguishing features. Just as you might meet a person who affects your life, a place can affect you the same way. There are things I have seen in Egypt that I would love to see in other countries, and vice-versa. Perfection has not come to the world yet, and it isn’t going to. If we look at Egypt, it is a developing country. There is a lot left to do before it can go from developing to “advanced”, but the one thing that I would like to see in the near future would be more education and a reduction in the number of people who are illiterate. Education the key to everything. We need citizens who read and know the value of books. It is sad and shameful devices like the Amazon Kindle, though it supports 33 other languages, including low density languages like Afrikaans, does not support Arabic. The prevailing impression is that Arabs do not read.

AS:                What are the biggest problems authors face?

EA:                In short: publishing and distribution companies. I am lucky to be working with a publishing house that wants to change how most of the publishing world operates: the “pay to publish” principle. This has brought us to a state of “literary chaos”. There are so many titles that are not fit to print out there that the sanctity of books is adversely impacted. People lose confidence in the content of books, and they waste their money.

AS:                How has your publisher changed this concept?

EA:                The founders know that the problem is three-dimensional: the relationship between author and the publisher, the relationship between the publisher and the distributor and bookstores, and finally the attempt to get the author’s name known through major distributors. Based on this outlook, the publisher decided to dive in to this swamp in order to change it. I have confidence in them, and I have confidence in their ability to change this situation.

Structural Division

AS:                What does your writing ritual look like?

EA:                I could not call it a ritual, it is more like a work system. I may have been fortunate in that I was attracted to literature at a young age, but at the same time I like science, geography, and history. I studied engineering. All of this has left its traces on how I work when writing a novel. I start with a working outline from top to bottom that creates structural divisions between every chapter of the novel.

AS:                What is the funniest comment you have received?

EA:                It was a hashtag from a fan on the page: #WeAreAllAbdelmawla.

AS:                What is your most recent writing project?

EA:                I am working on a novel that is nearly complete called “Obscurantism”. In this book, I address the issue of how things that obscure reality in the modern age are attractive, and that they will drag us all into the abyss if we do not change. I chose this title as shorthand to cover the concept of the confusion, disordered thinking, and the randomness of the decisions we all suffer from.

AS:                Will you put out sequel to “The Dragonfly”?

EA:                Yes, I’m writing a sequel to the book, as well as a second and third book for the “Mars Trilogy”; 1, No Return; 2, Possibilities; 3, Ages.

AS:                What message would you like to give the readers?

EA:                I do not need to put it explicitly. Anyone who reads my work will understand that my message lies within the same scope as the various issues in the books and how they are addressed between the covers of a single literary project; a hidden thread binds them all – the one direction I hope we will all go together. But let’s leave that to the reader.