Fictions of the mind
A rising star of contemporary writing speaks to Youssef Rakha about life and literature, and the perilous path to fame
The image Ahmed El-Aidi projects is a far cry from the one gleaned from his book, An Takoun Abbas Al-Abd (To be Abbas Al-Abd), the millennial generation's most celebrated literary achievement. A short novel whose use of the latest Egyptian slang, familiarity with electronic culture and concern with what Laing famously called "the divided self" sets it apart from both the vernacular poetics popularised by Al-Garad and the more popular depictions of day-to-day life rooted in Generation-of-the-Sixties writing (Hamdi Abu-Golail's novel Lusous Mutaqa'idoun -- Retired Thieves, for example), An Takoun Abbas Al-Abd, a Miret publication, has proved so successful an entire first edition sold out within months of its appearance. Actively promoted by literary figures as divergent as Nabil Abdel-Fattah, Ibrahim Dawoud and Gamil Atia Ibrahim, the book defies categorisation. Its narrator -- a schizoid amalgam of a middle- class, computer-oriented, literate young man and his working-class, criminally inclined guru -- comes across as an angst-ridden, streetwise urban explorer. The author, by contrast, is bespectacled, diffident and polite, perhaps a little nerdy in his excessive courtesy. The more you look at his face as he speaks, the more you notice the intense, wildly conflicting impulses at work in his mind. It is his sharp humour and profoundly cynical perspective, however, that conjure up the central issue expressed in the book -- astonished consciousness.
Born in Saudi Arabia in 1974, El-Aidi arrived in Cairo at the age of 15 -- a consequence of the 1990 Gulf War. Having failed to achieve high grades in the notorious thanawiya amma, he has enrolled at the Open University to study marketing -- a drawn-out programme that gives him plenty of time in which to "stare at the computer screen, talk to the computer and listen to it talking back". El-Aidi did undertake work as graphic designer, satellite television show script-writer and editor. The first draft of Abbas Al-Abd, in fact, was to be the second installment in a series of comic books he was authoring for Dar Al- Mubdi'oun, a private-sector publishing company that, in a series entitled Al-Maganin (Mad People), attempted to produce a text-based, Egyptian version of Mad magazine. Following the dissolution of Al-Maganin, a project to which El- Aidi had contributed, the publisher started several series of comic books by individual authors, one of which -- on the Arab Israeli conflict and equivocally entitled Beace ya man (as in the Americanism "Peace, man") -- was dedicated to El-Aidi. The technical excellence of the first book in that series, Kitab Al-Junoun: Qissa Sycobatiya Mumilla (The Book of Madness: A Boring Psychopathic Story), led to the publisher, in a gesture of trust, asking El-Aidi to write what he will, be it within the comic genre or outside it -- something to which the young author responded instantly, with relief.
On seeing the completed text, however, the publisher was so disappointed he asked for a copy "as proof that you are capable of such disgraceful writing"; it had taken him two difficult hours, he said, to read the first few chapters. El- Aidi nonetheless persisted, eventually leaving his job at the company. "On 24 March 2003," he recalls, "I completed the second draft. A friend of mine was publishing a short story collection with Miret Publications, so I went with him. There was a senior critic sitting around there who insisted on me telling him what I thought writing should be like -- my conception of literature, if you like. Reluctantly, I spoke. And his response was so dismissive I walked out thinking I would never publish anything, I could never even write, even though he wasn't violent or anything -- just speaking his mind. Later I was to go and see the head of Miret, Mohamed Hashim, and tell him I had no money with which to contribute to the publication of the novel," the normal procedure for publishing with independent houses like Miret, "but that I wanted him to read it just to see what he thought. To be honest," El-Aidi supplies in a typically black-humour aside, "I thought I might as well hear him bashing it, since it wouldn't be published anyway, so I could find out more about what was so wrong with what I had written. It transpired that Hashim never reads the stuff himself, since he doesn't trust his own judgment, he says, but has a team of people who read each work and tell him what they think. He eventually told me that a lot of people liked the book, but I never believed it would be published until I saw a copy of the book -- it seemed so unlikely then, such a far-fetched prospect."
After that encounter with the critic, there followed a long period of "typing and deleting" at home -- a process that was interrupted only by the intervention of two writer friends, who sometimes made sure at least one copy of what was being written was kept. This period coincided with El-Aidi's discovery that, according to his contract with the satellite channel at which he was working, he should have been paid in dollars whereas he had been paid in Egyptian pounds. A confrontation with the anchor in charge -- she would later be dismissed on charges of fraud -- left him jobless and disillusioned, depressed. "My distinctive psychiatric characteristic is a kind of autism, almost -- I end up being completely isolated in the mind, completely within my own universe. But paradoxically this tends to be the time during which I engage most actively with people, when I'm overpowered by this feeling of solitude and I'm not doing anything. Because I would define myself as somebody who tries," he specifies. "I try to achieve something, to relate to people. So that's why however autistic I'm feeling I keep trying -- it doesn't prevent me from being with people, unless, of course, I am depressed, or I'm deeply engaged in an individual activity. I try, and my hope is to be silent when I have nothing to say -- to never waste people's time." It was not until he established contact with novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, and retrieved the one remaining draft of Abbas Al-Abd from a floppy disk, that El-Aidi's hope that the novel would be published reawakened.
The feeling of isolation could be a consequence of spending the first half of his life in Saudi Arabia. His privately conducted literary education could only have intensified it. "The fault is probably with me," he says, confessing to unfamiliarity with modern Arabic literature from Taha Hussein to the Generation of the Sixties. "But I'm not the kind of person who reads a book simply because other people are reading it, or because I should read it. There are no shoulds or shouldn'ts about it. I start a book and if I'm enjoying it I go on -- if not, not. I'd say I simply didn't have a chance to get into people like Naguib Mahfouz..." Of Chuck Palahniuc, author of Fight Club, by contrast, he can go on speaking for hours. He does like some Egyptians now writing, however: Ibrahim, Abu-Golail and Mustafa Zikri -- as well as "members of my generation of whom nobody has yet heard", and whose glowing future he anticipates. "I consider myself the least talented of my generation of writers," he declares without false modesty. "To see what I mean you only have to look at the work of Mohamed Alaaeddin, who produces a purely Egyptian magic realism, or Mohamed Kamal; there are many others too. I should also say that I consider myself the most cowardly among them, because the reason I adopted a new form when I finally had a chance to write the way I wanted to was simply fear -- if I wrote in a more straightforward form, I felt, I would produce something very mediocre. So the current success is somewhat like decorating an army deserter for bravery. At this level," he insists, "I feel I don't really deserve it at all..."
It was largely through teaching himself English -- sheer persistence, judging by his account of the process -- that El-Aidi gained access to such influences as Palahniuc, whose subversive interest in the workings of the human mind and unfailing concern with the less savoury aspects of urban existence resonate with El-Aidi's psychotic imagination. Yet the latter insists on mentioning his local "mentors and teachers", starting with Ibrahim. "I phoned him because I wanted to interview him about his latest novel, Amrikanli, and I kept getting this answering machine message -- to which I wouldn't respond. Then, the one time when I'd made up my mind to actually leave a message, his voice greeted me. I was so nervous I didn't know what to say at first. Eventually he managed to direct the conversation away from his book and towards what I was doing. He asked me to send him the text by e-mail, so I did and forgot about it. A few weeks later I got an e-mail from him asking me to call him, and when I did he asked me to take it to Gamal El-Ghitani in Akhbar Al-Adab. He said there was no guarantee of publication, but that he would phone El-Ghitani." El-Aidi remembers the latter's severe expression, the conversation they had about Ibrahim -- "What do you mean don't know him?" -- "I've only spoken to him on the phone..." -- and the long wait in anticipation of whether the text would appear in the newspaper. "I didn't think it would happen. In the end a summary and extracts appeared in Akhbar Al-Adab a week before the book finally came out. All very disturbing..."
Such a response to success is not an affectation. El-Aidi speaks of the spotlight being "in your face rather than in front of you, blinding you rather than leading you forward". One consequence of this is that, having resigned from his last job as writer and editor for Alam Fernas -- a homegrown group of cartoon characters comparable to Disney world -- he does not know what he will be doing next. Of his extra- literary interests he mentions the computer, film and people-watching; of his private life, "the economic stumbling block" he will continue to face irrespective of literary success. For him happiness, he insists, is linked to a "collective feeling" of accomplishment. The work of relatively close friends like Alaaeddin and Kamal figure on his agenda as urgently as his own, and his tributes extend to every last writer he admires. "Like everyone else I am fed up with the tendency to label a 40-year-old writer who has already been working for 10 or 20 years 'the young author So and so', as if you have to die before you reach maturity. And I believe that a large part of this has to do with literature reaching out to people, everyday people -- not that small group of people who will read anything anywhere and however difficult, who tend to be writers themselves anyway -- who are the real potential readership that should find pleasure in what it reads, should have an incentive to read. I have so much faith in my generation of writers, I know something will come of all this -- and that would result in the kind of collective happiness I mean. The most important thing is honesty," he says. "I don't have power over how talented I am. But I can make sure that, within the lying that is fiction, and the wider lying that is social life, I am as honest and straightforward as I can be..."