A guileless fabricator of the 1990s tells Youssef Rakha
about Cairo, Naga' Hamadi and the infinitesimal distance separating one from the other
For many weeks now Hassan Abdel- Mawgoud has been studying crows. He reads zoological manuals as well as compendia of myths and legends.
His approach to the subject is wholesale: the aim is to know everything he possibly can -- and he goes about the task with effortless dedication.
A prize-winning journalist, at 28 he is expecting his first child, working in three newspapers at once to make ends meet, and to substantiate the autobiographical material with which he completed the first few pages of his second novel, provisionally entitled Ghirban (Crows), he keeps a file several inches thick, systematically archiving everything he can find; once again, in the process, he involuntarily proves himself to be a voracious reader. Yet he is almost calm in the midst of pandemonium, bothered only by the taxi driver's insistence on talking to him all through the half-hour- long drive on the way to meeting me.
"People who appreciate the value of silence have become very rare these days," he says, referring to his wife, a disillusioned television anchor, originally from Mansoura, "so I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have met a companion who understands and in no way objects to my need to be silent. For that alone I will remain indebted to her till the end of my life."
The one advantage he can think of that Cairo has over the town where he grew up, Naga' Hamadi, is that it makes such silence possible. "Over there the rituals you perform ensure that someone is talking to you all the time. In Cairo silence is available when you want it. You can decide not to go anywhere, switch off your phone and just be silent. In this sense," he goes on, "you could say that Cairo provided some space for contemplation."
And maybe it was through this space that he managed to return to his birthplace at last, with the already widely acclaimed Ain Al-Qutt (Cat's Eye) completed and published by Miret a few months ago. It took nearly 12 years of living in Cairo and a collection of short stories with an urban setting -- Saq Wahida (Solitary Leg, Miret 2002) -- for the mythology of his childhood in the village of Al-Qinaweya to manifest itself in his writing.
Nor is he particularly glad that it did.
"Let's first agree that no writer fails to plan ahead at some level -- you just do; you have to be aware of your project as it evolves and have some idea of what you're doing. One thing I'm doing in the next book is to avoid any explicit reference to the south."
Abdel-Mawgoud would rather talk about crows -- or cats -- than discuss the significance of his Upper Egyptian roots or the their potential for being mythologised.
It was for Ain Al-Qutt, he recalls, that he acquired the research habit, finding out everything he could about cats while he wrote. "But in the end you tended to favour your own flawed experience over scientific fact." He elaborates on the genital physiognomy of the male cat, aspects of which make the female reluctant to have intercourse more than once per menstrual cycle. "But the [female] cats in the novel are sexually very eager," he explains, "because that's how I remembered them."
That Ain Al-Qutt lies at the centre of one of the most interesting literary issues currently being debated -- whether there is such a thing as a homegrown magic realism -- is of little interest to Abdel- Mawgoud. He is just too wary of pigeon holes. All that concerns him about Al- Qinaweya is its being, among other things, "an intensely narrative environment" full of absorbing eventualities: the frequent power cuts giving rise to the kind of darkness in which you were frightened of afarit (ghosts or genies), his grandfather's violent squabbles with the donkey, his grandmother interpreting the dreams of village women, the jobs he began to take after moving with his immediate family to Naga' Hamadi at the age of 10 (assistant butcher, newspaper boy and "bone merchant"), supplementing his allowance so he could afford coming to Cairo to see films and buy books.
Many of these memories figure in Ain Al-Qutt, the story of a younger twin who, as local beliefs would have it, departs from his body at night, either to float around disembodied or to inhabit the body of a cat -- a quality that allows the narrator-protagonist access to the village's deepest and darkest secrets, placing him at the centre of the most serious disputes.
It was not until he moved to Naga' Hamadi that people began to notice the knack Abdel-Mawgoud had for writing. Even his father, a brutally righteous patriarch if ever there was one, wholeheartedly encouraged him to pursue this inclination. At this point he had memorised more than half of the Qur'an; now he began to read the popular paperback series -- romantic, detective, sci-fi and eventually "world literature" -- and, almost as soon, to emulate them.
"At prep school I would buy a large amount of white paper and go to the local print press, where I would ask the man to cut it up and bind it exactly like one of the books I was reading. I would illustrate the front and back covers, and begin to fill the pages."
He produced some 70 novels this way, categorised them into series and distributed each new issue among his friends, advertising the next issue on the back, and often adding the statement, "I hope that my novels and those of fellow young writers will some day see the light of day." At secondary school his approach matured, he began to send his stories to magazines and newspapers and made the acquaintance of men of letters like Fathi Abdel-Samie. Some 20 of his stories were to appear on the pages of Akhbar Al-Adab. In 1996 he won one of the short story competition prizes and made the acquaintance of the editor, novelist Gamal El-Ghitani.
"He would phone me up to ask whether I was writing and why I hadn't sent anything in. He was shocked when he first saw me in 1996. 'You're only a child,' he said. And yet two years later I would join the staff of Akhbar Al-Adab, while still a child in that sense."
Abdel-Mawgoud arrived in Cairo directly after graduating from the Arabic Department of the Faculty of Education at Janoub Al-Wadi, formerly Qena University, and within weeks had got a job in the celebrated literary journal -- his principal post today.
The university years provided him with his first mature encounters with women and the chance to indulge his passion for the full spectrum of Arabic poetry from pre-Islamic to post- taf'ila, at the university library. The work of John Steinbeck, which he read in translation at that time, made a deep impression on him.
Yet much like the city to which he emigrated, the vast majority of Arabic prose left him more or less cold. Except for affinities of form -- "language, style, structure" -- which he felt with Generation of the 1960s novelists, he could identify with neither the Generation of the 1960s nor their predecessors. "They were never a direct influence," he says.
Nor did Cairo turn out to be anything to write home about.
"There is this thing about moving into the city, the culture shock. Some people with a provincial background talk about conquering the city, turning their text into an arena for self-aggrandisation. Others bemoan the terrible rift that leaving the countryside left in them. I can understand neither. In Naga' Hamadi and even in Qena I knew I could fit in in a bigger city, I already realised the place was limiting for me.
"And in fact this is precisely the way I feel about Cairo today -- it's a vast province in itself in which there is this hallucination of mobile technology and constant business, whereas in fact things are much simpler and more backwards deep down. Everyone is living out this huge lie, I feel as if I was born in Cairo. I understand it, I contain it.
"Actually, it's not as if there is anything especially alluring about Cairo," he adds. "There are some benefits to being here, but in the end it's simply a matter of convenience, nothing deeper than that at all. Whatever the images that are perpetuated, in reality Upper Egyptian society is far more varied and spread out and interesting than people care to realise. It requires not one or two but numerous writers to even begin to broach its intricacies. And the truth is that wherever you come from and wherever you end up living, so long as you have the conviction that you own a world, nowhere on earth can have too much of an impact on you."
Even though his wife does not share his Naga' Hamadi background, Abdel- Mawgoud switches to the dialect of his upbringing as soon as he walks in the door, he says, simply because he is more comfortable speaking it. The reason he speaks Cairene Arabic in public is to avoid "trading on that identity", the way many older writers have been doing for years. His identity, he seems to say, is his own business; nothing to do with the fact that he writes.
And rather than an Upper Egyptian writer or a flash-in-the-pan magic realist, Abdel-Mawgoud declares with admirable courage, "I want to be a great writer."