Internationally acclaimed Egyptian writers, Ahdaf Soueif and Radwa Ashour, were in India recently. Ahdaf is the author of 'The Map of Love' - that was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999 - and she has just won the Mahmoud Darwish Award for her "narrative fiction". Radwa has penned 'The Granada Trilogy' and co-authored a two-volume work, 'Arab Women's Writing: A Critical Reference Guide (1873-1999)'. Both these eminent writers were hosted in India by the feminist publishing house, Women Unlimited/Kali For Women. In an interview with Pamela Philipose, they spoke about their work, their identity as writers, the impact of violence on women in West Asia, and the traditions that India and Egypt share.
Q: In both your works, the past and present coexist as it were. How does the past come into works of fiction?
Radwa: I think the past gets into fiction in several ways. Once you try to reconstruct a given experience of a given reality, this reality comes out in the way characters behave and respond to certain events. These events, in turn, have to do not just with their individual past but their collective past. Then there is the geography of a place. There are no places without history. Both of us are Egyptians, we are Cairenes, and Cairo is a place full of a multi-layered history. Every corner, every street here, has a story.
Q: But your conception of history as writers would be totally different from that of historians.
Ahdaf: Your aim as a writer of fiction is not in presenting historical information as such. It is about what history means for your characters, and their story. It is an accepted thing that writers do research. But at some point he or she would have to leave that research behind so that the story can come alive. When I was writing 'The Map of Love', I knew that I wanted to use a period soon after British colonialism came to Egypt. I was interested in the period between 1882 and 1919. Then I realised how little I actually knew about those days. Of course, I knew the broad outline but I didn't know, for example, that when you went home whether you switched on electricity, or lit a gas lamp. I did not know what people were wearing. So I read a great deal of people's diaries from that period - both Egyptian and English. I read newspapers, noted the products that were being advertised, and so on. Eventually you feel the period if you are immersed in it enough. And once you know it like that, you can write from within it.
Q: Ahdaf, one wonders if the central character in 'The Map of Love' - an Englishwomen from the late Victorian period who comes to Egypt - would have behaved differently if she had arrived in the 1920s instead, when western women were arguably more self-aware and less amenable to being moulded by external circumstances.
Ahdaf: Absolutely. She would definitely have behaved a little different. And if she had fallen in love with somebody, he would also have been a different person.
Q: Naguib Mahfouz's 'Cairo Trilogy' is, of course, a part of the world's literary heritage. How far has Mahfouz influenced your work?
Ahdaf: Mahfouz is there, of course, but speaking for myself I don't think he is a direct influence, largely because of the language. The fact is that I am more writing from within a European tradition.
Radhwa: I think Mahfouz is important to us, not because he impacted our work, but because he gave us a tradition. We needed somebody like Mahfouz to be there with all those characters and situations, at least in order to give us the confidence that, okay, we can write our own novels. So for us it is important to have a novelist of the stature of Mahfouz.
Ahdaf: He single-handedly created the tradition of the novel in Arabic. So that is done now and people can go ahead and do their own thing.
Q: How has gender impacted both your work?
Radhwa: Well, that's who we are: Women. So naturally we know more about women than we do about men and that helps us to create interesting women characters. I think, ultimately, feminism for us is much more than ideas, it is a lived experience.
Ahdaf: I am not aware of highlighting women's issues, although I suppose there are more women characters in my work, than there are men. Of course, we have inside information about what it means to be women! But ultimately you are making an imaginative attempt to get into your character, whoever he or she is.
I suppose neither Radwa nor I have had problems about being women. In fact, being women has actually been quite useful for our work. But it is also true that issues that impact women have to do with issues that impact wider society. When society has problems, then they tend to be played out on women. When there is a recession, it is women who suffer the most. So the answer is to look at society as whole.
Q: Yes, but can you - as privileged women - reflect the realities of ordinary Arab women?
Radhwa: It is always a challenge to write. So we wouldn't like to confine ourselves to writing about women or writing about women's issues. I always think one of the great things about literature is that it can transcend gender. Tolstoy wrote 'Anna Karenina' and Flaubert created 'Madame Bovary'. This is quite an achievement, which I would like to emulate!
Q: Radhwa, you had mentioned the 1996 war in which Egypt lost 20,000 young men. You saw it as a turning point for your generation. Take the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Do you think conflict impacts women differently?
Ahdaf: You don't even have to take the extreme examples of Sabra and Shatilla. The conditions under which ordinary Palestinian women live today are terrible. This is partly because of the general situation of a besieged population, but also because when the man in the family can no longer be a breadwinner it has terribly consequences for women. A woman has to somehow keep the family going, get the children educated, keep them safe, and she also has to shore up this man. I know one Palestinian woman who had to take her husband for dialysis three times a week, find the money for that, make it happen. The burden that is placed on women in our societies is incredible. When men get arrested - in Palestine they are constantly being arrested - who is it who cooks food for them and travels throughout the day to reach it to them?
Q: What do you see are the commonalities between India and Egypt?
Radhwa: Most of us were very aware of India while when we were growing up - including, of course, learning about iconic people like Gandhi and Nehru.
Ahdaf: Also, since both India and Egypt are very old countries, very diverse countries, they share a lot of problems - so many poor people are dependent on agriculture as a source of their livelihood, for instance. As Egyptians we are also interested in Indian literature and culture. There is a common centrality of the mother figure in both our cultures. And, of course, there is also the love for romantic traditions and the dominance of the live story in both India and Egypt!