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On Writing and Revolution: An Interview with Mohamed Salah Al-Azab

[Mohamed Salah Al-Azab, image from Chris Stone] [Mohamed Salah Al-Azab, image from Chris Stone]

Chris Stone met with the writer Mohamed Salah al-Azab in Cairo on May 30, 2011, and the Arabic text can be found here

When Chris mentioned that Jadaliyya was thinking of juxtaposing his interview next to one with Sonallah Ibrahim, Mohamed asked if his name had been brought with Sonallah, as they had apparently disagreed at a conference recently.

CS: What was the conference about?

MSA: It was about a book on the revolution.

CS: I've noticed that there are already a number of books.

MSA: But be careful. All of these books on the revolution are commercial books. Perhaps the only one worth reading is Ahmed Zaghloul Al-Sheety's A Hundred Steps from the Revolution: A Diary from Tahrir Square (Dar Merit). He lives on Qasr al-Nil Street. He would go down to Tahrir, come home and write. The book is not fiction but rather a collection of what he witnessed, as if he were a camera. The conference was on this book. Sonallah thought that the book should have been more autobiographical and more literary. I disagreed and thought that the book was fine as it was.

CS: How is your most recent novel -- Sidi Barrani -- selling?

MSA: The first edition sold out in 2 months and then the second edition came out right at the time of the revolution. Of course, no one is interested in buying books right now.

CS: How did you start writing?

MSA: I started writing at the end of middle school. In the beginning I was just jotting down thoughts and ideas.

CS: Do you remember why you started?

MSA: I started writing because I loved reading. I've always loved reading; I always loved trying to read any book that fell into my hands.

CS: This must have been something strange among your friends, particularly at this age.

MSA: No, for me reading was something I kept to myself. I didn't tell anyone.

CS: So writing was a result of reading?

MSA: The idea was that I wanted to provide the pleasure I derived from reading to others, by writing.

CS: So who was your first reader?

MSA: At the very beginning I was afraid to show my writing to anyone. I had a friend at school whose father was a writer. He is isn’t famous and he hasn’t published books. But the idea was that I knew that this guy wrote so I was always sending him my stories, and he would write one-word comments such as: "good," "bad," "excellent," "terrible." Like that.

CS: And how did the circle of readers expand?
MSA: I kept writing in this way until I got to college. In my freshman year there was a short-story contest run by the Supreme Council of Culture called "The Youssef Idris Contest." So I gathered up all the stories I had written, copied them, and put them in something like 20 envelopes and sent them off.

CS: In the same name?

MSA: Yes, in the same name, my name. I was surprised that I won two places in the contest. That was my first such experience. After that I started going to the Book Exhibition and to seminars at the Journalists' Union. I started reading my stories to people who actually practiced writing and I would get their feedback, both positive and negative, and eventually I started to get my stuff published.

CS: Is it odd that your first book was published in Kuwait or is this normal in Egypt?

MSA: My first book -- my short story collection [Its Color is a Sad Kind of Blue] -- was published in Egypt in 2003. I finished it in 2000 but it took me 3 hard years to find someone who would publish it. In those 3 years I wrote my first novel [A Long Vault, the Ceiling of Which Makes You Crouch Down] and entered it in the Suad al-Sabah contest in Kuwait. My novel won first prize. Part of the prize is publication.

CS: It's a well-known fact that in the Arab World it is difficult for a writer to live from his or her literary texts only. There are exceptions, of course, like Sonallah Ibrahim. What about you?

MSA: I personally work in journalism alongside my writing. This is not my preferred solution. I'd much prefer one way or another to be totally free to write. But seeing as that writing does not provide one an appropriate material life or in fact a material life at all, I had to work in something related, and journalism is the closest thing. Now I'm looking for something even closer still, or perhaps the issue is not proximity but something that would allow me to be free to write. My idea is to write screenplays for movies for example.

In the beginning I thought that when I write I had to write literature. But then I asked myself, why do I write literature? I do it so that the text reaches a number of readers and impacts them one way or another. Take Sidi Barrani for example. 3000 copies are printed and if there are 3 or 4 printings -- and that is considered good -- that makes what, about 10,000 readers. But if I make a film -- and it doesn't have to be a commercial film or a film less artistic than a novel, half a million, a million, or even millions of people see a film. Why limit myself to a narrow framework when a more expansive one is available? At the same time this doesn't mean that I'm not going to write literature. I love writing and I'll write it. By why not use a variety of means?
I'm also puzzled by the phenomenon of the way writers look down on screenwriters. I'm not sure why but they always put them in a lesser category than themselves. I don't respect a writer because of the genre in which he writes, I respect and appreciate him based on the artistic quality of the work. If anyone does the thing that they do well, I will hold them in high esteem.

CS: Ok, what about your political activities? We are friends on Facebook, and I noticed that you were very active during the early days of the revolution, that you were encouraging people to participate.

MSA: Exactly. 10 days or so before the revolution, a day or two after Ben Ali left Tunisia, I created a group on Facebook. At that time such a thing was risky because no one knew if the revolution would succeed or not.

CS: What was the name of the group?

MSA: "The Egyptian Revolution is on January 25th in every square in Egypt." I created the group at a time when I could have immediately been imprisoned because no one could have predicted the revolution's success at that time. Even my close friends made fun of the page: "So, you think you are going to make a revolution? Ok, what time is the revolution? Where will it be? Is there really such a thing as a revolution in which people announce ahead of time 'Let's make a revolution!'?" They were thinking that it couldn't happen that way. But it did. Until 2 o'clock on the 25th of January they were making fun of me because we had agreed to get things started at 2 in the afternoon. It was Tuesday. I was at the paper - Youm7 - in Mohandessin and had written that we'd all go down at 2. My mobile was out of juice so I was forced to wait until 2:20 so I could charge it a bit in case there were arrests and the like, in which case I'd need my phone. So at 2:15 everyone was gathered around me saying: "Where's the revolution?" Then from below -- from the street -- we heard a really loud commotion in front of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque -- which would later become a meeting place for Mubarak supporters. It was one of the places where people were supposed to gather. We heard the cries and realized that there were thousands of people marching in the street so we went down and joined them as they headed towards Tahrir Square.

CS: Since you brought up Facebook, there is a sense that the western media has paid too much attention to these kinds of sites. In your opinion, would the revolution have happened without Facebook and its groups?

MSA: In my opinion Facebook is not the engine but rather the means. There are lots of ways to organize: telephone, email, Facebook, Twitter, pamphlets, or spreading the news by word of mouth. So the fact that one means succeeded or was used more than others—fine. But our appreciation of it, of Facebook for example, is not as some living entity that tells people what to do, but rather as a place to communicate.

CS: Ok, if you can, please describe what happened after you heard the crowds in the street.

MSA: So we went down and walked on El Batal Abdel Aziz Street heading toward Dokki Square. It's hard to describe to you what we were feeling: your whole body terrified by a situation you had never imagined would happen, you are walking in an empty street. The police had cleared all the cars out—and from sidewalk to sidewalk, an unbelievable wave of humanity.

CS: Was there violence?

MSA: On January 25th until midnight there was no violence because the police had not really absorbed the magnitude of what was happening. Their plan was to get everyone into Tahrir Square, at which point they could close it off, and that is precisely what they did: no one could get out. They were thinking that they'd trap us in Tahrir Square and at the same time that is exactly what we wanted, to get to the square and occupy it. At midnight, some of my friends and I went into McDonalds next to Tahrir to use the bathroom, and sitting there was the Director of Security for Cairo and the Security leadership and we overheard them say, "Enough." They started attacking people 5 minutes after we went back to the square. They used tear gas, water hoses, and their Central Security batons. Thus they were able to scatter us to the neighboring streets, where they planted plain-clothes officers among us with the goal of leading us towards the Shubra Tunnel. When we got to the tunnel we discovered that it was a trap. They closed it off from beginning to end. Once they had us trapped inside they started beating us, which is how the day ended on January 25th.

CS: Did you go home?

MSA: They succeeded in beating people and dispersing them. But the 25th ended with an agreement that we would come out again on the 28th, what would come to be known as "The Friday of Anger."

CS: Okay, that we saw, but what happened in terms of organizing and coordination between the 25th and the 28th?

MSA: From the 25th to the 28th the people from the working-class neighborhoods started mobilizing.

CS: How did they know to go out?
MSA: They went out because the media, after it became afraid, started warning the people, or scaring them into not going out. So it was the official media that informed the people. They wanted to frighten them, but they ended up informing them. This is how the working-class neighborhoods started to mobilize in those few days, but the main agreement was to gather after Friday prayers on the 28th, which is what we did. The meeting places were the main mosques after Friday prayers. My friends and I met at one in Dokki. So we walked all the way along Tahrir Street until we got to Galaa Bridge. It was a massacre. A huge number of security forces were beating people randomly and violently. They were using tear gas and rubber bullets -- we hadn't gotten to live bullets yet, those were on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge -- but the scene was one of total hysteria from all of the violence and beating until some of the heroes of the revolution were able to overcome the police.

CS: Were you on the bridge too?

MSA: Yes. After this we started moving forward until we were on the Galaa bridge and then we marched on the street next to the Opera, which is before the Qasr al-Nil bridge. It was on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge that the real slaughter occurred. That's where live bullets were used and people were dying. I was standing at the very end of the bridge and just about every minute a body or someone injured would be brought out. It got to the point that there were 20 injured in each ambulance.

CS: How did you keep going when things were so hard?

MSA: At that moment, when I saw those bloody scenes, I was afraid. I was afraid and I stopped. The people who were moving forward were those ready to die, to martyr themselves. I hung back a bit until it seemed like the clashes were abating and the road began to open up at which point we regrouped. But that was the hardest moment.

CS: On Friday the 28th, did you go home or did you stay in the square?

MSA: No. On the 28th the police withdrew and the army was deployed, and most of the people felt that it was over, that we had accomplished much of what we had set out to do. Some stayed in the square and some went home. Most days I went home; I didn't stay in the square, but I would always wake up in the morning and go back. On the 28th, though, I didn't sleep at home because there were no buses or anything, the streets were empty, so I slept at a friend's house near Tahrir, and then went back the following morning.

CS: Was it easy to get into the square after that?

MSA: After that it was easy. There was no police. It was just the army protecting the protestors.

CS: The issue of the relationship between the army and the people. Slogans like "The people and the army are one hand" are all well and good, but certainly there were moments of tension before people knew what the army would do.

MSA: On the 28th when the army was first deployed there were actually chants against them. At first the people were happy but then started saying, "The army is with the police and not with the people." Everyone started chanting against the army. Eventually people began to understand, or the army started reassuring us that it was with the people, not against them.

CS: How did they reassure the people?

MSA: High ranking officers came out and addressed the crowd at Tahrir Square itself, and one by one people thought about it and realized that the army at that time was not against the people. There was no beating, no bullets, nothing. So it was clear that things were safe.

CS: After this did you feel like there was a specific role for writers, aside from Facebook? What did you feel like your role should be?

MSA: The role I saw for myself at the time was on Facebook and that I was writing on the Youm7 website. I was writing things like instructions before heading out to the demonstrations. I had established myself as one of the people who would write instructions on what to do before going, what to be careful of and watch out for, where to meet and what to do. But I think that at the time of the revolution writers and intellectuals were not necessarily the leading voice. They had no true presence, even in the sense of encouraging people to come out. They disappeared completely as if they were not there. You were either there in person or you weren’t. But you weren't just writing about it.

CS: And the role of institutions, such as the independent publishing house Dar Merit, it being so close to Tahrir Square?

MSA: Dar Merit played an incredible role. People would go up and sleep there at night, others would bring food for the people or blankets so they could stay there. It was like a staging ground for distributing things and a key spot for people to gather and rest a little bit, eat something, drink something. Its role was very important to the point that we started jokingly calling it "The revolutionary leadership's kitchen."

CS: Western media was depicting that many of those present in Tahrir Square were elites. One got the sense that everyone there spoke English fluently. Tell me, who was at Tahrir Square?

MSA: No, not at all. On the 25th itself it was the middle class that was in control of the situation, the class that isn't represented and is lost in the middle and the like: it was the children of the middle class who thought, planned, and invited, and it was they who came out. That was the 25th. After the 25th everyone came out, all the classes and groups: women, men, adults, children, the elderly, the wealthy, and the poor: all groups and all sects.

CS: If we look at Tahrir Square as a society in miniature, how was it run and organized?

MSA: Tahrir Square at the time of the sit-ins for example, from the 28th of January to the 11th of February, the day that Mubarak left was like a utopia, like an ideal society in every sense. All the groups that might normally have differences, philosophical or otherwise, you'd find one from this group sitting next to someone from that group, this one feeding that one, sleeping next to him. You couldn't distinguish one from the other. There was no harassment of girls, no foul language. All the time we complain that the streets in Egypt are not clean. The square was as clean as could be. Tahrir Square was totally organized without any planning. The people at the time were model Egyptians, model human beings. All of the problems that we imagine to be present suddenly disappeared.

CS: I'm sure it is difficult, after something beautiful and powerful like this. I'm sure there is a kind of nostalgia for what took place in Tahrir Square. Are you nostalgic for the days you spent at Tahrir?

MSA: Of course, of course. These will be the best days in the lives of all of those who participated. These feelings of nostalgia are always with us. Of course the revolution is not complete and people are afraid for it, afraid that someone might take away all of the accomplishments, that someone might take us back to a time that we didn't like. It is these feelings that make you afraid for the revolution, as if it were your child.

CS: So what efforts are you all making to fight the counter-revolution?

MSA: I believe that right now the work, the demonstrations, the discussions, and being in the streets is perhaps more important than at the time of the sit-ins and such at Tahrir. At the same time, I don't think we are doing enough. I feel like we are losing interest.

CS: People have to do more?

MSA: Yes, because the forces of the counter-revolution and the forces that controlled the corruption in the previous era are organized and can bring out crowds. They also still possess much of the money they stole and they are putting their money to use—spending it and focusing their efforts to make sure the revolution does not succeed.

CS: Let's talk about the issue of freedom of expression.

MSA: You can't talk about the army at all. It's worse than it was under Mubarak. You could criticize Mubarak, even in the newspapers but now, if you criticize the army you face two problems. The first problem comes from the army itself—with its military tribunals and such. The second problem comes from the people. The general opinion is that to simply raise the issue of the army for discussion means that you are pro-anarchy and that you support the country’s ruin.

CS: We often speak of the 1967 military defeat of Arab regimes (al-Naksa) and its influence on the cultural and literary fields. Do you think these events will have the same kind of impact?

MSA: Naturally. Life is now different, so you can't continue in the same old way. Life has changed and you have to change with it, or else you will become extinct, so naturally things will be different. But how? I think it will take a few years of intense interest in the results of the revolution as a kind of trend until the subject gets old and then people will start paying attention to real literature again.

CS: If that is the case how can you return to the book you were working on before the revolution?

MSA: For me, I won't include the revolution in it. I'm not going to do that kind of thing. I'll finish it, if I finish it, as it was, because it has nothing to do with the revolution, because it doesn’t deal with anything that has to do with this time, and it deals with a particular character which has no relationship to the revolution.

CS: So you mean to say that the revolution won't change everything in the cultural and literary fields?

MSA: Exactly. Also, what I want to say is that literature is wide, whereas the revolution is something narrow. I'm against trying to put something big into something small. Ok, this is a wide river, why try to force it into a canal? Let some of the water run in the canal, but the river will continue on its path.

1 comment for "On Writing and Revolution: An Interview with Mohamed Salah Al-Azab"

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hi do you know Saied Sayed Azab?

Tanya wrote on December 02, 2011 at 11:08 PM

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