Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

When we were angels

Between nostalgia and estrangement, novelist May Telmissany comes and goes on what she tells Dina Ezzat is the inevitable path of the cultural nomad

Al-Ahram Weekly

In 2009 the Egyptian-Canadian novelist, professor and critic May Telmissany published her literary memoirs Lilgannah Sour (or “The Walls of Paradise”) in the Cairo-based house Dar Sharqiat. This September in Canada, Telmissnay will see the French translation, Les murailles de paradis, published by the Montreal house Memoire d’encrier .

Like her three volumes of fiction — Dunyazad, Heliopolis and A cappella, which appeared as a single volume, also with Sharqiat, in April this year —  Lilgannah Sour deals with cultural nomads who move between their origin and subsequent choices — to judge by the text, the culture into which they move is more of a refuge than a self-imposed exile — sorting through the consequent hybrid identity. Lilgannah Sour is perhaps Telmissany’s most vocal expression of her sentiments of estrangement in the midst of Canadian snow, her feelings of yearning for the afternoon sun of the once peaceful Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis, but also her loneliness in what Heliopolis has become.

It is this coming and going between times, norms and contexts as well as countries as that Lilgannah Sour endeavours to contemplate in a continuous stream of consciousness. “I think it is actually more about nostalgia — even though people now tend to look down on nostalgia somehow but I think it is often this yearning to regain parts of the past that we identify ourselves with,” she says. This nostalgia is often expressed, as is the case in her novel Heliopolis, in a material context: fast disappearing art-deco balconies, dilapidated dining rooms and scratched photo frames. But it is not just through Heliopolis that this sense of loss is articulated. It is also present in the traditional alleys of old Cairo, whose representation in Egyptian cinema was the focus of Telmissany’s PhD from the University of Montreal; they too had been lost to the atrocities of alleged development.

But, she says, behind the “aching there is a sense of missing” what all this meant or seemed to mean: the un-presumptuousness that was hijacked by the open door policy of Anwar Al-Sadat. For Telmissany the fate of Heliopolis, which seems to be losing its final battle against urban ugliness, reflects far more than the loss of architecture and a serene way of life; it reflects the wider, deeper loss of the pursuit of peace promised by “all the beauty of the 18 days” of the 25 January Revolution. That proved so short-lived and had so completely disappeared that many rejoiced at the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in which left her with an acute sense of “etre blasee”. Telmissany is convinced that escaping such havoc is not impossible if there is enough willingness to regain the true Egyptian identity — which is not about going back in the past but rather about shedding the artificially acquired anger she thinks is an inevitable byproduct of the cultural confusion initiated in the 1970s by the erosion of the Arab-secular self in favour of another with the power of the petrodollar.

The retrieval of this identity is perhaps what has prompted Telmissany, this time in the world of academia, to work towards establishing an institute for Arab and Middle East studies at the University of Ottwa where she has been professor of Arabic studies since 2006. This should be the first dedicated institute of its kind in Canada. And beyond the obvious academic benefit, for Telmissany there is also the intellectual purpose of insisting that there is an Arab culture independent of Islamic culture. “It is about our secular Arab identity that seems to have been forgotten with the incredible attention the world has been paying Islam and Islamism in its attempt to try and understand the radicalisation of political Islam,” she argues. Telmissany insists that the world needs to be reminded of the Arab identity that is not confined to faith that has many enriching ethnic layers.

“We want to regain our secular identity away from the ramifying of Al-Qaeda and ISIS and also away from the assumed frame of ‘either mediaeval studies or political Islam’ that is so reductionist of a rich culture,” Telmissany argues. She adds, “Worse than being reductionist it also has very sad repercussions on our self perception and for that matter our self-presentation.” According to Telmissany it is not in the interest of the Arab world to allow the marginalisation of its culture in favour of the context of Islamism — not just because this is unfair to what Arab culture stands for, today and not just in the past, but also because it is wrong to maximise the power of political Islam that seems to be providing certain parties in the West with a very convenient enemy in the post-Cold War era. Canada is the right place to launch this intellectual attempt “because it is a country with hardly any serious cultural racism — all cultures are equal in this part of North America where inclusiveness does count, even if it comes with a bit of ghettoisation whereby communities of diverse origins seem at times to be living side by side rather than together.”

In any case, she insists, Canada is a country where multiculturalism is celebrated and its academic zone offers the perfect venue to reassert Arab secular culture. “Because even if Arabs are about only two percent of the overall population and even if Muslims are about only two per cent of the Canadian population, the prime minister of Canada would still go to join a Ramadan Iftar with Canadian citizens of Muslim and Arab origin,” she said. Of course, she reminds herself, PM Justin Trudeua is a Liberal prime minister whose father, also a politician, was a founder of the country’s established concept of multiculturalism. “I think in general this is a moment to grab to build cultural bridges and I think the institute I am hoping to start could be very useful in this respect because it is so unfortunate to see the very limited volume of translation of Canadian literature into Arabic, for example. It was only recently that any attention was paid ato Alice Munro, the short-story writer, and only because she won the Nobel Prize for literature but otherwise there is very little known about the literary production of Canadian writers, which is very diverse and includes some beautiful contributions by the Quebecois writers.”

The objective for which Telmissany is aiming is to get the world of North America and consequently of the West to look at Arabs with a different lens the departs from the image of niqab, bearded men with guns or mosques, mausoleums and oil refineries and to learn more about contemporary Arab culture not just with its literary and cinematic production but also with its complexity, bringing together input from so many ethnic groups and reflecting so many dreams and aspirations — “without extracting the future from the past, not at all,” she adds. “This precisely the point actually, for example when we look at the Arab Spring. I think that the world should not just see it as a call for liberation from dictatorial regimes, the world should also be made aware of the link between it and the colonial past and its influences on the political and social make up of these countries.”

This is no easy task, Telmissany admits, because there are far too many established stereotypes to challenge in one go and because “actually there is not that much presence of Arab culture and politics in say the media in Canada — so days will pass without having any story reported in the papers or TV news from the Arab world except a very short story maybe once every ten days or so about one conflict or another as if this is all the Arab world stands for. This is the case despite the fact that there are 14 Arab embassies in the capital”. However, the bridge that needs to be built is not just a mission for the diplomatic corps but rather one for writers, musicians and artists.  Apart from the upcoming translation of her book, Telmissany’s Dunyazad — the story of a woman who lost her first baby and had to live with irreversible agony — was also translated into French. Published in the buildup to the January Revolution, it sounds like a prophetic metaphor for that aspiration — a modern and civil Egypt free from all forms of radicalism and fascism which “we have to go on dreaming of and hoping for”, she says.

Telmissany was born in 1965 in Cairo, where she lived until the late 1980s, earning her masters in French literature, after which she moved to Canada for her PhD.

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