Ibtihal Salem: Writing Survival

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By Caroline Seymour-Jorn

The following is a portion of an interview with Egyptian fiction writer Ibtihal Salem. Salem has published three collections of short stories: Al-Nawrus [The Gull] (1989); Dunya Saghira [A Small World] (1992); Nakhb Iktimal al-qamr [A Toast to the Full Moon] (1997) and two novels, Nawafiz Zarqaa’ [Blue Windows] (2000) and Sunduq Saghir fi-lqalb [A Small Box in the Heart] (2004). Marilyn Booth has translated many of her stories into English in the collections My Grandmother’s Cactus (1991) and Children of the Waters (2002). The author conducted this interview with Salem in Cairo in March 2007.

Seymour-Jorn: What are you writing now, and what are some of the central themes or concerns currently driving your work?

Salem: I am writing a novel entitled Al-Sama’ la tumtir ahibba’ [The Sky does not Rain Lovers], and the title is key to the novel’s subject. The novel deals with the idea that despite all the difficulties that the Egyptian people have faced in the contemporary period, they nevertheless have the ability to create love and joy, and to change their lives. They do not have to submit to these oppressive circumstances. This is what interests me in the new novel. There are so many economic pressures in life now and the strain of daily living is so great. I explore this fact through my primary characters Farag and Farah. Both characters face many pressures in their lives and the novel is an invitation to confront these pressures rather than submitting to them, and to change our life here in Egypt. Of course the novel also illustrates profound human experiences. For example, Farag and Farah meet after not having seen each other for many years. When they meet, they are middle-aged and each is in a different personal situation. They are both very frustrated and are both trying to extract themselves from this frustration and hopelessness -- this is the idea of the novel.

Seymour-Jorn: Why did you choose this subject?

Salem: I also suffer from frustration, from having to deal with the economic and other pressures of daily living in Egypt, but I am holding my own. I also personally experience the frustration and difficulties of being a “different” sort of woman, and one living on her own in Egypt. Through writing, I try to feel that I can change something, even if only on paper. Maybe someone will read my work and understand that he should not just let himself get frustrated, but try to enact some change. I do not write for myself, or just for pleasure, I write for people. This is important, I write so that people will benefit, or so that they will at least think about things. As a writer, I have a vision and a consciousness. I want to be effective and have an influence on society through my writing; I have taken this as my role.

Seymour-Jorn: You mention the difficulties of living as a woman in Egypt. Of course, your life as a writer is different from that of most Egyptian women in many ways, but life has surely changed for all women during the last several decades. What do you consider to be the most important changes in Egyptian society, as they affect women generally?

Salem: Education has improved, and many more women have become educated. The media has also improved and most people have a receiver or dish. This means that people here can access different channels and know more about what is going on in the world. This helps to open people’s minds. However, while the media and education have improved women’s lives, there have also been reactionary changes here. There are a growing number of religious zealots and fanatics: Christian, Islamic and others. This has also affected the way Egyptians think. Fanaticism makes the mind stop. So, you can say that there have been both positive and negative developments for women in this country.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about women as one unit, the nature of their lives depends on their socio-economic status, generation, education and where they come from. I think that some young women in Egypt these days are stronger in a way, they are less influenced by traditions. But I also think that some of these young women don’t take enough time to think about things, they make decisions too quickly and decisively. There are also young women who are just trying to live their lives. They have a sort of individualism, but not in a bad way, they just feel that they have a right to live and they are trying to make lives for themselves despite the difficulties.

There are educated women who are trying to make changes and improve society by starting dialogues, writing and so on, but they are few in number. There are also women who are afraid, and so they follow the fanatic ways. They get involved with religion in an extreme way. And then there are the women of the upper classes who are somewhat detached from the reality faced by others.

Seymour-Jorn: What do you see as the most important changes faced by middle-class women in Egypt?

Salem: To be honest, I can’t say that there is a middle class in Egypt now. After the Infitah, we had economic chaos. New enterprises and companies entered into Egypt and we had a sort of production crisis. The people who had the new projects became wealthy, and the old middle class fell on bad times. It was the members of the old middle class that had a high degree of education and culture, and they were always the ones who protected society. But nowadays the middle class in Egypt is in bad shape. Basically, now you have a very popular class and a wealthy class, and a very long distance between the two. The intellectuals, teachers, and professors, formerly part of the middle class, don’t play a role any more, they no longer have an effect on society. As a result of this, there are but a small number of middle-class educated people who try to produce cinema, theater and literature, and who try to do something different. Even though they are few in number, I regard these artists and writers as heroes.

There is chaos in the economic system; actually you could say that there is no longer an economic system. Anyone can do anything - even if it is illegitimate - and become a millionaire. Even an uneducated and ignorant person can undertake some corrupt project and get away with it. It seems that the legitimacy of a project no longer matters-- all that matters is profit. Meanwhile, the middle class is on the verge of poverty. I am from the middle class and it really pains me to witness this change.

Seymour-Jorn: It seems that many of the women writers of your generation are from the middle class and that this, in part, drives their concern with economic and social issues.

Salem: Yes, a lot of them have middle-class backgrounds, and a lot of their work addresses these issues.

Seymour-Jorn: In your opinion, who in Egypt reads your novels and short stories?

Salem: A lot of people buy my books for several reasons. First, they are published by the government publishing organizations so the price is low. This particularly helps young people to buy them and I am very happy about this fact. Ordinary Egyptian youths read my books. My short stories also appear in newspapers and literary magazines, which are also inexpensive and easily found in bookshops and kiosks, so this helps to give my work exposure. I have also done several interviews on TV and radio, and this plays a role, people hear what you have to say. This gives you a measure of popularity, but it is not a lot. The writer in Egypt does not get his rights. He is independent and by that I mean that the publishing establishments do not do a lot to promote writers and their work.

So writers in Egypt must depend on three things in order to be read. First, the price of their books must be low. Second, they need to gain public exposure through the media. Third, the writer must interact with the public. In my opinion, culture means people. As a writer you have to interact with the people. If you don’t, your writing will be lacking. I try to interact with the people; it is part of my personality to be with the people. I get to know the owners of coffee shops, the shoe repair man, the juice sellers and the man running the corner shop in my neighborhood. All these people in my life know I am a writer and sometimes I give them my books and they read them. Also, when I travel in different areas of the country, I go to the culture centers there and I try to give readings.

My career has also benefited from the fact that I write children’s books. I go to people’s homes and bring my books to their children. The prices of children’s books are also inexpensive, so people can easily buy them. I try to the best of my personal ability, but if I had more opportunity I would do more. However, the publishers in Cairo do not give us a bigger opportunity.

Nevertheless, I still try, and I still believe that culture is the people. I feel that I play a role and I thank God that up until this point, that role has not put me in danger- although it may still. If it did present me with danger in the past, it was when I was practicing politics and was in demonstrations at the University and other things. During the seventies I was always freely expressing my opinion. I was fired from my work for that and that was a price that I paid. But that does not matter. Now, I write, and I know that there are risks that one faces as an author. I am a non-veiled woman, an open-minded woman, and right now I am safe. However, the Middle East is going in the direction of fanatical Islam so we do not really know what the coming years may bring. I do not know what I may face in the future; it is a big question mark. Look at what happened to Nawal al-Saadawi, and the Saudi woman who wrote Banat al-Riyadh [Girls of Riyadh](Rajaa Alsanea). God protect us. But we won’t stop. We will work. I do not write literature in a direct style and that is a good thing. Thank God, I have a role.


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