The playwright and novelist on state censorship in Egypt, women in revolutions, and writing as an act of hope.
Karim Alrawi wasn’t going to be a writer. Having completed two degrees in structural engineering, and while working for an engineering company in the final stages of writing his PhD thesis, he experienced an epiphany. “I was sitting having breakfast in a small street-side café in London, waiting for the office building I worked in to open, when I had the thought that this day was going to be a typical day of the rest of my life,” he says. “I realized then this was not what I wanted for myself.” A few days later Alrawi resigned his position, packed his thesis notes in a box under his bed, and started writing a stage play.
A year later, while supporting himself tending bar in London’s Soho neighborhood, Alrawi’s first radio play aired on the BBC. He was hired as the literary manager of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and later accepted an appointment as writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre in central London. His first full-length stage play, Migrations, won the prestigious John Whiting Award, and other awards followed. He moved to Egypt to teach in the theater department of the American University in Cairo, before traveling to the US as an international Fulbright scholar. His plays were produced in theaters in the US, UK, and Canada.
After 9/11, Alrawi stopped writing. “I suddenly felt I didn’t understand what was happening in the world,” he told me. “So how could I write without recovering a better understanding? Starting over seemed the only way forward.” Alrawi spent the next seven years in South Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa, supervising aid and development projects funded by USAID and the Canadian aid agency CIDA.
Ten years later, Alrawi returned to the page. His first novel, Book of Sands, published this fall by HarperCollins in Canada, won the inaugural HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. The novel takes place during the recent Arab uprising and tells of a husband who, under threat of arrest, flees with his young daughter, leaving his wife trapped in her apartment, to be watched over by her disturbed brother as their city is invaded by protests and ravaged by flocks of birds.
I spoke to Karim Alrawi on Google Hangouts over two days in late September.
—Rachel Rose for Guernica
Guernica: Book of Sands is subtitled A Novel of the Arab Uprising. As I was considering the title, I thought it had to be a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Sand. In that book, the narrator is shown a Bible, and told, “Look at the illustration closely. You’ll never see it again.” Neither the book nor the sand have any beginning or end. Can you tell me about your title?
Karim Alrawi: The novel has a number of references to different writers, including Borges, but also writers from other cultures. If I’m to start with the subtitle, the subject of the novel is really the lead-up to the crisis that we are now experiencing with the refugees flocking to Europe, trying to escape the crisis that seems to have no end, and seems to just get worse and worse.
Guernica: Did you see this crisis coming?
Karim Alrawi: Well, there is a moment in the book where the principal characters arrive at a beach as they are searching for a character who has been lost to them for a number of years. The beach is full of refugees who are looking for an escape from the conflict in the novel. Though that was written before we had the waves of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, it was really just a logical deduction based on how things were unfolding at the time of writing.
In Borges’s The Book of Sand, the idea was a book that had an unlimited number of pages, so you never saw the same page twice. In my case, what I was thinking more of—and it’s much more a part of Middle Eastern culture—is the idea that our destinies are preordained, and that they are written down in some celestial manuscript. So I was playing with both those ideas, with a book of endless pages, but also the idea of our destinies being already set for us. This was relevant because a core conflict in the novel that the principal character has to negotiate is finding a balance between the desire for freedom and the responsibilities arising from loving and being loved.
The influence is deepest in the cases when the work is internalized, and therefore often when it is least recognized.
Guernica: Which other writers have influenced you?
Karim Alrawi: The subject of influence is obviously a big one, and I think it would be fair and honest to say that I’m one of those writers who are influenced by almost everything they read. Really the influence is deepest in the cases when the work is internalized, and therefore often when it is least recognized. I think for that very reason I would rather not acknowledge anybody, and simply pay homage to the many.
It’s easier for me to identify certain tropes or aspects of writing that I would say are important to me rather than to name specific writers. I think one of those is to write in a way that my experiences as a writer and the experiences of the character find some measure of overlap, so that the reader can experience the story with a degree of emotional realism.
More than being influenced by any single writer I would say that I have been influenced by my experiences as a playwright, and specifically by Stanislavsky’s approach of asking the question, “What if?” Once one does that, the novel becomes a thought experiment. I find that opens up a lot more possibilities for me as a writer. Another theater influence would be Bertolt Brecht with his advice to demonstrate rather than to describe. To demonstrate involves a particular kind of emotional and intellectual engagement by both writer and readers with the material of the story.
Guernica: Let’s shift to the what if of censorship. As in: What will happen if I write this? And what if I remain silent?
Karim Alrawi: This means talking about my time in Egypt when I was teaching in the theater department at the American University in Cairo. At one point, I had about half a dozen plays produced in Egypt. Of these, four were in Arabic, and one was a translation and adaptation of a Chekhov play. I adapted The Three Sisters to the Egyptian countryside. The other was an English-language play, Crossing the Water, which first caused me problems with the Egyptian state censor. The only one to receive a license was the Chekhov adaptation. The others were refused licenses, but I produced them without a license—that is, illegally.
Guernica: What was the risk to you?
Karim Alrawi: Well, I was threatened several times with arrest. The way I circumvented that was to invite the foreign press to attend the performances, and at the time the Egyptian government was more concerned with its international reputation than it appears to be these days. So they didn’t arrest me. They did, though, send me a letter informing me that all my works were banned in perpetuity. I was quite active in the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights at the time, which was my way of protecting my back, but also my way of defending and protecting other writers. Partly as a consequence of that, I was able to get the then-president of Egyptian PEN—who was a state security official—fired, and took over as interim president myself for almost a year, until we arranged for the appointment of somebody else to be the new president.
I was still unable to produce my plays, but I tried to get them published, and got so far as to get a publisher interested. The plays were typeset but then I was informed the publisher had changed its mind and was reluctant to proceed. This is how self-censorship works in Egypt. You are officially told you are allowed to print anything without getting the censors’ approval, but if you do and anything is deemed to be offensive to the religious authorities of the country or to state security, then all copies will be withdrawn from bookshelves and pulped, and the publisher runs the risk of being fined a substantial sum.
For any publisher, this is quite a financial burden. So self-censorship is expected of the authors if they ever hope to be published again, and it is expected that the publisher self-censor. The printer may also be fined.
As a writer you are viewed as for the regime or against the regime. There is no middle ground that you can safely inhabit.
Guernica: In Book of Sands, your protagonist Tarek makes his living as a puppeteer, yet he is also a puppet being manipulated by those who run his country. He is a good man in a changing world, and he has known torture. You also have escaped state brutality. Let’s talk a little about the hard-won knowledge that went into writing those scenes.
Karim Alrawi: Yes. I was arrested, and was interrogated by Egyptian State Security, partly for my writing, partly for the work I was doing as a media spokesperson, and for a while being the deputy secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. But the fact of the matter is, in many countries, including many parts of the Middle East, as a writer you are viewed as for the regime or against the regime. There is no middle ground that you can safely inhabit. To be for the regime doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a cheerleader, but does mean that you practice self-censorship in some large measure or other. If you don’t do that, you are automatically assumed to be anti—the regime. Even the concept of being critical of some aspect of the regime is viewed as being anti—the regime, so any critical comment, however mild, is automatically assumed to be an attack.
My stage plays were banned in Egypt, those written in English and those written in Arabic. At the time, when I received notice of the ban, it was in a letter that informed me they were being banned because they constituted a threat to the country, to the history and culture of Egypt, and that they represented a danger to the security of the state.
Such claims were totally absurd, but it shows how intolerant the state is of any kind of criticism, or anything it perceives to be criticism. The first play that was refused a license to be produced was refused because it had a gay character. His sexuality was acknowledged but not made an issue of. I’d seen stage plays in Egypt where gay characters are portrayed comically or as somewhat offensive stereotypes.
Guernica: Why did you write that character?
Karim Alrawi: It was right for the story. It was about the last few years of the British in Egypt—set in colonial times—and in the play there was a relationship between an older English man and a young Egyptian. The Englishman, a diplomat, is married. He and his wife were leaving to return to England. And so there was a short scene in which he takes his leave of this young man with whom he had a relationship.
I thought the scene worked in that it provided me what I needed: an opportunity for both characters to come to terms with the kind of conflict that E.M. Forster writes about in his novel A Passage to India, in which he acknowledges the difficulty of having healthy human relationships in situations where there is a great disparity of power. That’s why the gay relationship in the play took us to the core of what the play was about. It was an important scene for me, and it was unacceptable to the state censor.
Guernica: In Book of Sands you begin at one point in space and time and move to another, but plot is not the driving force of this novel. I’m not sure if I’ve read another book that depended on both magic realism and quantum mechanics in the same chapter. Tell me about choosing how to tell this story.
Karim Alrawi: My original idea for writing the novel was to write of a place that was stuck in time, because that’s how I felt about much of the Middle East right up until 2011. I got a fair way into writing that novel. Then came the start of the Arab Spring, or the Arab uprisings, in December 2010 in Tunisia, and then Egypt next in January 2011. I had spent a number of years working in the Middle East, but at that time I was in Canada writing the novel, and I decided to go to Cairo myself. So the uprising started Jan 25th in Cairo, and January 26th I booked my flight.
Guernica: How did you make that decision?
Karim Alrawi: Spontaneously. I felt that if I was writing about the region and the region was going through a major upheaval, I needed to know what was happening. There was also a sense of unfinished business. Having experienced being arrested and interrogated by Egyptian State Security several years earlier, I wanted to be there if and when the regime fell.
Although I was repeatedly threatened and could hear other people being tortured, they didn’t do much to me.
Guernica: Would you talk about the interrogation?
Karim Alrawi: I think what sparked it was when I was working with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, we decided to put together a theater company that we would tour, to villages and towns outside Cairo—plays about human rights. And it was shortly after we started preparing to do that that I was arrested on my way home at around 9 o’clock at night and taken to an interrogation center in Cairo where I was held for several days. I had made the decision that I wouldn’t talk; I wouldn’t give any information until I really had to.
They weren’t entirely sure how to deal with me, which was a good thing, so although I was repeatedly threatened and could hear other people being tortured, they didn’t do much to me. At the end, they released me. I had done a residency at Iowa State University, in Ames, some months earlier and had a university ID card on me. They went through my wallet and found that card, and they thought I was an American citizen. That freaked them out, and so I was released. I don’t know, if they hadn’t found that, what would have happened. I had already been there several days and I think they were getting ready to start working on me.
Guernica: Moving forward to the Arab uprising, you arrived in Cairo…
Karim Alrawi: By the time I arrived, it was very early in the morning on January 28, 2011. I stopped off at a friend’s house, left my bags, and headed to Tahrir square and promptly got arrested.
Guernica: That was fast.
Karim Alrawi: I got arrested before I even arrived there. I was able to talk my way out of it. They held me for several hours but released me.
Guernica: Did they know who you were?
Karim Alrawi: It was so chaotic, I’m pretty sure they didn’t look me up on their computer. I said I was on my way to visit my elderly mother. They listened to me ramble on and on and sound really pathetic and then released me, and I carried on to the square. If I was fifteen years younger, twenty years younger, they would have held on to me. Most of the people they were arresting were the young people who were the activists in the uprising.
Guernica: Can you describe your experience there?
Karim Alrawi: One of the first things I did was to reconnect with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. They were gathering data on who was killed or wounded or arrested, what the numbers were, where they were from, where these incidents happened. So, I assisted them. I spent a lot of my time doing that kind of thing, and just being available, but also assisting the foreign press. There were many journalists there who spoke no Arabic and had no background in the region. I started helping arrange interviews, translating for them, giving them background information, and you’ll find me quoted in a number of publications.
The whole thing from start to finish lasted eighteen days and Mubarak fell. I stayed on to prepare files for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights on corruption in the previous regime, which we then filed with the state public prosecutor. I also briefly assisted with collecting blood donations for the people of Benghazi in Libya. An uprising had just started there against Gaddafi. There was a large truck with refrigeration; people would climb into the truck and give blood, so we drove around doing that. Then that summer I came back to Canada, to rework the novel from scratch. Very little of the original seemed relevant anymore.
Guernica: How were you feeling at that time?
Karim Alrawi: By the time I came back I was feeling very concerned. What worried me was the sense that these very smart young people, who seemed politically astute when it came to being able to maneuver themselves as the situation kept changing in the square, appeared to have no plan for what to do once Mubarak fell. In discussion after discussion, I was unable to convince them of the need to put some effort into spreading the values of the uprising to the countryside and to villages and towns across the country. What I felt they needed was to go out and build a mass movement to protect what they had achieved.
Guernica: Looking back now at the uprising, what actually came to pass?
Karim Alrawi: Well, the way I viewed what was happening is that it was similar to what happened in Europe in the Year of Revolution in 1848: there were uprisings right across Europe against the absolute monarchies that had ruled these countries, in some cases for centuries. Every one of those revolutions was defeated, and yet, within ten to twenty years, almost every one of those countries had a democratic system. For me, that’s the analogy of the contemporary situation in the Middle East.
Guernica: So you have hope, then.
Karim Alrawi: I think what complicates the situation in the Middle East is a lot of unfinished business to do with the role of religion and patriarchal values in society and the very poor standard of education of the vast majority of the people in the region.
Guernica: So you have hope?
Karim Alrawi: Yes, I have hope. Otherwise, I think it would be difficult to write this kind of novel. I think writing is in itself an act of…what? I guess it’s an act of hope. It’s making the what if more real in a way.
Guernica: Let’s talk about the women. I love your character Neda, Tarek’s bold and charming nine-year-old daughter, who is written with such sympathy. You also have his pregnant wife, Mona, whose baby refuses to be born. Can this be read as a feminine protest against occupation? Mona barely leaves the house. She’s in perpetual limbo.
Karim Alrawi: “Neda” in Arabic means a call or a cry; it can have secular or religious connotations. It was very clear to me, when I was in the square, the critical role that many young women played in the uprising, from the first call for the uprising, which was by a woman, to some of the first people in the square, who were young women, to many of the organizers, who were young women and who were also some of the most articulate defenders of the uprising. So I wanted to be able to portray a spectrum of women whom I thought were representative of the kind of women I met when I was in the square.
What I also tried to do in the novel is indicate that there is a history of such women in the Middle East, that it wasn’t an aberration, which is why I decided to widen the focus of the story to include women who were not in the square and who live much more traditional lives. I also wanted to indicate that their courage and strength was despite the sometimes quite horrific conditions that can be imposed upon women in the region.
Guernica: You were a fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2013, working in large part on this novel. How did your time in the program affect the writing of your novel, or change you as a writer?
Karim Alrawi: Being in Iowa City is, I think, a unique experience. It’s unlike almost anywhere else I’ve ever been. You meet writers from right across the world, writers you would not likely meet in other circumstances in such numbers. Many of them are accomplished writers; some are still at early stages of their careers as writers. During the residency we discussed ideas and influences on our work, and some of the challenges that we each faced working within different cultures and societies, and using different languages, and how this impacted work we could write. The environment itself in Iowa City is very stimulating, with readings by visiting writers as well as by writers in the different writing programs at the university. This creates an environment where it almost seems normal to be a writer.
Guernica: Normal to be a writer?
Karim Alrawi: Less of an aberration.
Guernica: Going back to the magic that runs through novel: I love the fairy tales embedded here—there’s a spooky little story about three sisters, the birds that descend on the city.
Karim Alrawi: I think we’re all, to some degree, fashioned by the stories we were told—the stories we choose to believe and the stories we reject—and maybe to such a degree that so much of our personalities and our belief systems, our preferences, are actually conditional on those stories. And so I felt at the time of the uprising, what was happening was that stories were being re-crafted, some of them traditional stories that were taking on new significance, some of them old stories that had been suppressed but were now being resurrected to support one side or another in the uprising.
An example of that: in almost every mosque where women are allowed to pray, they are segregated. It’s almost impossible to see a situation where men and women pray together. I think it was the second Friday of the uprising when, for communal prayers, I saw a large part of the square being prepared for the Friday prayer, and then men and women praying side by side. That was quite a surprise.
Now there are many stories used to justify why men and women shouldn’t pray together. But on that Friday, I heard stories that I had heard before, but maybe not for twenty years, how in the early days of Islam, the Prophet had chosen certain women from particular communities to lead the prayers. He had not restricted the choice of prayer leader to men. Also, for orthodox Muslims, one of the greatest authorities on Islam is the Prophet’s wife Aisha. Women played a prominent role in early Islam, but those stories had been suppressed for a long time and were only being brought out at the time of the uprising to justify what had become accepted then, which is that women can pray alongside men.
Guernica: At this point in your career, what do you feel your role as a writer is?
Karim Alrawi: My role as a writer is to keep exploring the what if by whatever means seem appropriate for the different stories that I have to tell.
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