Ahdaf Soueif on documenting Egypt's uprisings: 'Writing the revolution was part of living the revolution'
The Egyptian novelist speaks to us ahead of her appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi
Ahdaf Soueif says she only writes about topics she cares very strongly about. And looking at the list of the Egyptian novelist’s works, it quickly becomes apparent what those topics are. The Egyptian Revolution, the Palestinian cause and the representation of the Arab world in the West are all themes that appear often in her work over a long and distinguished career; one that has earned her a Booker Prize nomination and praise from the likes of Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American literary critic.
Born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England, Soueif is the author of several novels, short stories and non-fiction works. But she is perhaps most famous for her second novel, In The Map Of Love, published in 1999, which explores the consequences of British imperialism and the fierce political altercations of the Egyptian nationalists through the lens of a love story. The novel made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and has been translated into 21 languages.
But Soueif is as renowned as a cultural commentator as she is for her fiction.
Her latest book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, presents her insights on Egypt’s social and political fabric during the Egyptian Revolution. Partly memories of Cairo and partly a personal account of the revolution, the book gives context to the events that reshaped Egypt’s political landscape.
“I first started writing about [the] popular and political movement in Egypt in 2005, the year that protesters first took on the Mubarak regime” Soueif says. “From 2005 I wrote quite a bit about the growing movement for change in Egypt. This was all in English for the Guardian and often syndicated for the non-UK western press. But I also translated myself into Arabic for the Arabic media.”
The foreign press was quick to ask Soueif to report on what was happening in Cairo during the revolution. As the uprising intensified, she was also offered a weekly comment column in the Arabic-language Egyptian daily al-Shorouk.
“For me, writing the revolution was part of living the revolution,” she says. “It was perhaps the means by which I processed what we, as a country, were going through.”
But Soueif's writing is not confined to issues within Egypt. She is also an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause and says that "Palestine has a special place in her heart".
She has frequently written about the plight of the Palestinian people for international mastheads such as The Guardian, and has translated works by Palestinian authors, such as Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah, into English.
Soueif says that her interest in Palestine started when she was young, when she became aware of the injustices taking place. As she grew older, that interest intensified.
Soueif was living in London in 2000 when the Guardian invited her to go to Palestine to cover the Intifada.
“That visit convinced me that if you got artists from the West to go and engage and interact with Palestinian society they would see the truth of the situation for themselves – and they would be impelled to spread that truth.”
Soueif’s trip to Palestine inspired her to later found the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) in 2008. The annual literature festival takes place across a number of cities in Palestine such as Jerusalem, Haifa and Ramallah. Patrons of the festival have included Things Fall Apart author Chinua Achebe, art critic John Berger, Mahmoud Darwish and Seamus Heaney. This year’s iteration will take place in March.
“PalFest was an attempt to co-operate with Palestinian society in creating a world class literary festival under occupation, and at the same time to empower foreign artists to amplify the Palestinian narrative.”
But it's not just in the literary world where Soueif takes a stand.
Soueif was appointed as a trustee of the British Museum in 2012. She says it was a "tremendous honour" to be elected, but became increasingly frustrated in recent years as the museum failed to act on key societal issues.
As a result, Soueif resigned from her position in July last year. “The issues of climate change, of workers’ rights and of decolonisation are the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet, and the museum – as a public cultural and educational institution of great weight – ought to be their ally,” she says.
Soueif says she tried to raise these matters with the board a number of times. She brought up the issue of climate change in relation to the museum’s continued acceptance of a sponsorship by the BP oil company. She cited the importance of workers’ rights in relation to the collapse of a service providing company, Carillion, to which the Museum had outsourced its staff of many years.
“I didn’t get much traction and I eventually felt that I could better contribute to getting a focus on these issues by resigning. And it seems I did.”
And now, at age 69, Soueif should be proud of a career of bringing to light pressing issues in the Middle East.
In fact, perhaps renowned literary critic and intellectual Edward Said said it best when he said of Soueif: "She has put Arab society and culture before the English reader with great ingenuity and inventiveness.”
But she seems to show no signs of slowing down. When she appears at the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi tomorrow, she'll be sharing her own story, while also hoping to inspire the next generation.
So what advice does she have for budding writers?
"Read and read and read," she says.
“Read so that literature becomes part of the way you think and feel. Write from the heart, as simply and truly as you can. Carry a small notebook and jot down thoughts, observations, scenes as they come to you; you think you’ll remember but you won’t.”
Ahdaf Soueif will be appearing at the Hay Festival at 4pm on Wednesday, February 26, to discuss her writings and an anthology of works by Palfest writers called This is not a Border.
Updated: February 25, 2020 08:11 PM