In conversation with Ahdaf Soueif
Writer, cultural producer and political activist Ahdaf Soueif is one of the two laureates of the 2019 ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture, together with City of Women. While representing distinct cultural approaches, both laureates offer a hopeful vision of democracy by redefining our understanding of culture and its capacity to improve a common European social reality.
Ahdaf Soueif has courageously merged literature and activism, building a body of fiction and committed journalism that responds to the legacies of European intervention in conflicts outside of the continent’s immediate territorial boundaries. Soueif’’s consistent opposition to both authoritarianism and colonialism has marked her as a cultural figure of international importance inspiring new generations of critical voices throughout Europe and its neighbouring regions. Throughout her career, Soueif has been a tireless mediator between the supposed opposition of East and West, working to find common ground for a more democratic future. Prior to welcoming our laureates in Amsterdam on 2 October, we met Ahdaf Soueif at her home in Cairo in May 2019 to discuss her work.
We publish excerpts here but the complete interview is available for download.
Writing and literature have been a part of your life since your earliest memory: exploring, imagining and learning in your mother’s library, then expressing yourself through writing. You care about stories.
Stories have always mattered hugely to me. I think I retain information much better when it comes in the form of a story. I learned to read very early because my mother was doing a PhD, we were in England, so it was just my mother, my father, and me and for her to be able to use as much of her time as possible, it was really useful for her if I could learn to read. I mean, I remember actually the day that I understood what letters on the page meant and from then on, reading was an essential part of life. I’ve talked about my mother’s library and how important it was to me, but there was also the influence of my nanny when we came back to Egypt and I had a younger sister and brother and we all had a nanny, and on Wednesday nights, my parents went out and my sister and brother would be asleep and she would tell me stories.
And her stories were very vivid, very alive, very different from what I was reading. And also I think I learned, I mean, this is all with hindsight, but the fact that she would tell a story… she had one eye that was ruined and I would ask her what happened to that eye and she always told me a different story. And I kind of learned that it didn’t matter, that these were the stories she told and each one was interesting and each one was potentially true.
So yes. And I think with fiction, for me, the crucial and the most exciting thing it did was that it was able to transport you from the confines of your own character and your own life and surroundings into something much bigger and much more varied. And that was miraculous and that was the essence of my love for it.
In your work the personal is political, and your writing is political whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. One of the spaces you create is for the collective to exist and express itself: it is in this movement from the personal to the collective that the political makes sense, because it becomes action through the energy and imagination of the many. Your work is exemplary in that sense. Could you share examples – from PalFest to your participation in the Egyptian revolution – that would illustrate this urge and passion?
Well, I think that if we look at sort of how, what we could call my career or life as a writer developed, you have the short stories and then you have the first novel that everybody does, which is, In the Eye of the Sun and which is very much a novel of sentimental education. It’s the classic first book. And politics of course starts to show there because it was part of my growing up and part of what shaped my world. And then of course I start to review books and therefore I start to engage with what’s being written, what’s being written about in English, about my part of the world. I mean, again, I happened to be living in England. I mean, this is really the thing, that because of that early education with my mother, I was bilingual and I went into English literature and I ended up living in England and marrying an English writer and poet. And so this position of, in a way belonging to both, but also seeing how each culture regarded the other one and how it related to it and how it dealt with it and how it represented it to itself became a really critical part of my life, and that began to show when I started to review to books.
And so I think it’s at that point that the political, in that sense, becomes personal for me. And I guess we can see that in the choice of subject for the next novel, The Map of Love, which actually deals with the possibility or otherwise of cross cultural relationships and cross cultural understanding and what it is that language means and what it is that language does and how power plays out in relationships. Map of Love was nominated for the Booker and I suddenly had a much bigger platform. So when the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out in 2000, the Guardian asked me to go and write from there, do a reportage, and I went. And I think that that really worked a change in me. I mean, being brought up on the Palestinian question as an Egyptian in the ’60s and ’70s and so on, but to actually go there and see the situation on the ground for myself and meet people and see how different it was from how even I who thought I knew it imagined it, was life changing.
I think that in relation to literature, two things happened to me. One was that when I wrote my reportage piece for the Guardian and I was writing at full stretch and I felt what writing was for, more than when I had been writing my own fiction as it were, that this was something, this was something out there in the world that mattered, that affected the lives of millions of people, and that my writing could be an instrument for, I don’t know, change, I mean, mitigating whatever. And yes. So that was one thing, suddenly sort of discovering a reason for writing at full stretch. And the other was that people there clearly cared so deeply about literature and about being of, if you like, the cultural life of the world so that despite the fact or maybe because of the fact that their lives were so ridiculously difficult, they were very desirous of a space in which they didn’t talk about their lives, but talked about something completely other and completely different. And I felt the responsibility of writing.
I spent that week wishing that there was more of me there, that there were other people there who could see what I was seeing, who could live through the experience in their own ways and make it their own and perhaps do something with it, and I also felt that the Palestinians who went through checkpoints in order to come and hear me read deserved to see much more than me. And that was the idea out of which a few years later Pal Fest was born, the idea of taking writers, artists, not on a fact finding tour, but on a literary festival so that it was like you do readings, you do workshops, you do seminars, just come and do them in Palestine. That’s all. And to trust to the experience, to make its way through to them, and at the same time, to help the Palestinians get a few more international voices and presences in their midst. And so that’s how it happened out of, I suppose, belief in literature and the belief in the empathetic power of literature because it was totally demonstrated to me by the Palestinians themselves.
With more than a decade working on PalFest, you could share numerous examples about the impact the festival had on people’s lives both in Palestine but also outside of Palestine through the stories that have been told and shared. Is there one in particular you would like to highlight?
A fellow writer, a British youngish Jewish writer was next to me in Jerusalem by the Western Wall and he suddenly stopped and he said, “This is like science fiction. It’s as if everything I ever thought I knew has been turned upside down and it’s like science fiction.”
And that was very moving and it was also exactly what it was about. That there were preconceptions that were stopping people from actually realising what was happening, but being there on the ground just told you and he expressed it and he actually went back and he wrote about it, he wrote about it a lot and he restarted a novel that he had been working on to accommodate this new experience, this new reality that he now had.
In a 2017 interview at Hay Festival you mention how in the West, discourses need to use the idioms of the west in order to be understood, which is something that we saw happening for instance during the Apartheid because white South African writers knew the vocabulary and idioms to create discourses and a narrative that helped build solidarity outside of South Africa. This took longer for Palestine, you said in that interview, mentioning one major intellectual voice who had the tools and the language of the West to do so: and that is the late Edward Said.
Well, I certainly hope that we do manage to create the discourse and the imagination that allows for a more inclusive way of looking at history and the possibilities for the future for Europe and for the rest of the world, because I don’t see how the future can work out for the coming generations without that. And it is interesting to look at the difference between how quickly the Anti-Apartheid Movement for South Africa was able to gain ground in the West and how much more difficult it has been for Palestine.
The issue of language also is interesting because the opponents of Apartheid, the white opponents of Apartheid, if you like, who are already part of the discourse of the West, they knew how that discourse worked. They knew what language to use, which registers to use, which idioms to employ, and that was very largely not the case for Palestinians until Edward Said came about, and I think he was the first person really to be so firmly of the West and of Palestine that he was able to pitch his arguments perfectly and was able to attract and mobilise so many people.Translation is always thought of as a bridge between political and cultural contexts, a space where many voices and listeners/readers can come together and share stories on an equal level. Translation becomes political in many cases. Could you tell us more about your relationship with translation – not only as a translator of literary works but also as a multilingual writer and thinker constantly juggling narratives between different contexts?
Translation is of course really important and it’s a really good thing that recently we see a lot more Arabic literature going into European languages and there are lots of factors going into that, some of the awards that happened in the Arab world, which carry with them, the idea of translating the books and so on. This is great. Again, for me, when I first came into contact with Arabic work in translation, it was very much an eye opener and it was actually quite distressing because, a, there was always the choice of what it was that would be translated and of course it was always the more exotic, the more strange, the more that made the reader feel that they were like in the Arabian nights or something. But also it was the language. I mean, there were words that I think didn’t get used in English except in translations from the Arabic and there was also sort of sentence structures that were very complex, that were very long, and that actually made you think that Arabic was a very kind of like a flowery, elongated kind of language and yes. And that was pretty unfair.
But I’m not really sure how much an understanding of Arab literature or an empathy with it would be helpful today. I think that the issues now are so large. There are issues of big politics, geopolitics and of economics. And I also think that anybody who really wants to understand what’s happening can, because, again, of the information that’s available on social media… So I now think that people who don’t understand or who don’t understand to the degree that they actually put themselves behind the geopolitical pressures that are happening, the wars, the threats, and so on that are happening now, do so because that’s what they want, because this is their world view and not because the information is not available to them or not accessible to them.
We do see many issues arise across geographies, in Europe and beyond, imperilling democracies and creating polarization within discourses and societies. We try to respond to these issues through culture.
Yes. I think that we can agree that the world is in trouble now and that to simplify things, there are two strong currents. One is towards more division and towards more misunderstanding and more conflict, and the other is of course towards more togetherness and finding solutions that work for everybody. I think that we who belong to the second, to the people who are looking for a common ground and for a way to move forward more equitably for everyone, I think that we perhaps make a mistake when we think that the other group need convincing. I don’t believe it’s a matter of convincing. I believe that the state of conflict and the state of war and the state of misunderstanding is the state that they desire for the world and that is where their interest lies and that is what they work for. And so I think that instead of spending time and effort in working out how to persuade and how to convince, I think that our work and efforts should perhaps now be towards imagining what this future might look like. And it isn’t easy because it’s easier to paint and to imagine dystopias than it is to imagine utopias, utopias, the people have imagined to have tended to be somewhat boring and somewhat regimented and still trapped within the parameters that people know, whereas of course in dystopias you can just let your imagination run wild.
But I think that the failures that we are living with now necessitate a new act of imagining and I think that the future somehow rather like, I mean, with fiction, you’re trying to or not you’re trying, but what good fiction does is it arrives at universal feelings, values, truths that every reader can understand, can feel part of, but it does that by being very specific and very individual. And possibly the kind of future that we need to try to imagine now carry something of this and that it needs to be at one in the same time imagined at a very local level, but also at a global level. And I think that that really is the challenge now that people have to rise to and I think there is definitely, definitely… well, there’s definitely a need, but there’s a push and the desire and we see.
And I think that for Europe in particular, this vision has to embrace what you could call a wider Europe or the wider region and it’s a region where… I mean, Europe is very small and it is part of a much larger region with which it has always had trade and cultural exchange and movement and travel and I think that that needs to be embraced and there is a desire to embrace that and that’s why we see the interests that work against it becoming more and more vicious and more and more loud.
I make new great claims for literature, but I think that if our job is imagination and if in literature you’re always creating another world for your reader to inhabit and you’re creating it in sympathy with your characters, then maybe it is more of a responsibility on people whose imaginations work that way to try and imagine a different and better world.