x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Egypt's doctor of escapism

The prolific Egyptian author moves effortlessly between medicine and fiction.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik:
Ahmed Khaled Towfik: "The youth sees me as an educator, not just a writer. I am very proud of this role. I feel like a father to them." Sarah Dea / The National

With his navy suit, tinted glasses and pinstriped shirt covering a middle-aged paunch, it is easy to imagine Dr Ahmed Khaled Towfik writing prescriptions or prowling before a pack of students in a lecture theatre.

It takes a greater leap of imagination to envisage this mild-mannered professor of tropical diseases as the voice of Arab youth, giving them an exhilarating sense of escapism with his horror and thriller novellas.

But Towfik is something of a hero in his native Egypt and one of the most prolific Arab writers of his time, churning out more than 500 titles and writing up to 22 books a year while holding down a full-time job at the university in Tanta, the city where he was born.

He was the first Arab writer to pen horror and science fiction thrillers. Many of his stories are set in Egypt with a cast of characters who have developed a cult following, such as the semi-autobiographical doctor Refaat Ismael in his Ma Waraa al Tabiaa series.

His books have inspired a younger generation of writers who grew up on a diet of his tales and are now following in his footsteps by writing their own, such as Ahmed Mourad, the author of Vertigo.

Now though, Towfik is in danger of being left behind. Aged 49 and more than a year on from the revolution in Egypt - an uprising dubbed "Revolution 2.0" by its protagonists, a reference to the central role the internet and social media played in the movement - he admits he has little patience for Facebook and Twitter and has no intention of using them to reach out to a new breed of followers.

"Even my own two children prefer Facebook to reading my books," he says ruefully. "I am too old for it though. I have four Facebook sites dedicated to me, but I don't know how to use it myself."

In Dubai for the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, he admits he has yet to write a new work focusing on Egypt's seismic changes: "We are not a country yet and change is still happening. We need time for digestion. If I write about it now, it would be like regurgitating.

"I feel it is wrong to write literature about the revolution now. Nothing is sharp any more, so I am sticking to writing political articles and horror books for youth until things settle down."

Yet visions of a horrific future have been plaguing Towfik for some time and in Utopia, his first and only adult fiction, written in 2007, he imagines an Egyptian society living in cosseted wealth in gated enclaves in 2023, without rules or morals and eventually driven by boredom to hunt their impoverished compatriots who live beyond the gates for sport.

Tellingly, he writes in the foreword: "The Utopia mentioned here is an imaginary place ... even though the author knows for certain that this place will exist soon."

The revolt of the poorer classes may not have happened as he predicted but, he says, his grim vision serves as a warning: "I imagined a lot of classes would revolt and there would be chaos everywhere.

"It is our good luck that did not happen, but I sometimes feel very pessimistic about the future. I feel civil war is inevitable in Egypt and that Christians will separate to make their own communities. So in my writing, I have gone back to horror. It is escapism from the real horror."

The son of a cotton trader and a university secretary, Towfik first started writing adventure stories and thrillers at the age of 10.

His father owned a vast library and, unusually for an Egyptian teenager, Towfik began devouring British, American and Russian classics from the likes of Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Chekhov and Tolstoy, a dictionary at hand when he stumbled over the language.

His love of the classics has imbued his spoken English with formal Victorian quirks rather than the colloquial language of the street.

"My father was a very literate man and most of the family income was spent on books," says Towfik.

"My English was not good enough to read horror literature so I started writing it myself. You write to keep your mental stability."

Writing full time was never a career option. Like his peers, the dentist Alaa al Aswany who wrote The Yacoubian Building, and Yusuf Idris, the late doctor-cum-playwright, he could only contemplate writing as a hobby as the potential earnings would not be enough to live on.

Instead, he studied medicine at Tanta University before embarking on a doctorate in tropical diseases, then becoming a lecturer at the same institution and graduating to the role of professor in 2008.

He was 32 before he published any of the work he had been stashing away.

"I had been writing secretly for myself the whole time and reached saturation point," he says. "I realised I had to face society. I was getting old and thought, it is now or never.

"Every writer has close friends who tell him he is a genius but I did not trust them. A cow must be milked or it will run dry."

He sent five manuscripts to a publisher, including the first instalments in his Ma Waraa al Tabiaa series called The Vampire and The Legend of the Werewolf.

The novellas, each about 16,000 words long, found an audience in teenagers hungry for fresh material and a thrilling plotline, and Towfik began writing for up to three hours a day.

In his Fantasia series, he interwove the storyline with references to the literary works he so admired, introducing an Arab audience to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Dostoevsky - although he did so subtly because, he says, no one likes a preacher. "The youth see me as an educator, not just a writer," he says. "I am very proud of this role. I feel like a father to them. They made my name and they are hungry to read. Every day a man gets darker inside but youth are essentially white. They have not been stained by society.

"I do not broadcast messages because that is like writing an article. You have to read between the lines of my work but many of my readers said my ideas made them go to Tahrir Square during the revolution.

"I feel a responsibility for them but ultimately, I just try to be an entertainer."

His medical background gave him a unique peg, with much of his knowledge finding its way onto the page.

"I add in some psychology and some general knowledge," says Towfik. "Medicine gives me a great source of material.

"You study human beings at their weakest point. As a doctor you meet everyone from a minister to a rich man, crying because they are afraid of dying."

Indeed, as Towfik points out, Maugham - who spent five years studying medicine - once said the experience was an inspiration because "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like."

While Maugham never had to work as a doctor, Towfik has been denied that luxury. Even as one of the highest-paid authors in the Arab world, he still needs to work full-time to earn a living, but says he is as passionate about medicine as he is about writing.

"I prefer," he says, "to be a doctor who happens to write."