In conversation with Egyptian Ambassador to the United States and prolific author, M. M. Tawfik
As a young civil engineer appointed to work in a construction site near the cemeteries at Cairo’s ‘Ain el-Seerah slums, Ambassador M. M. Tawfik says the most interesting part of his day was the lunch hour. In a lecture at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on November 6, 2014, he recounts, “I would sit with the six or seven laborers from Upper Egypt, we would tell stories. One day, they discovered that I had traveled outside of Egypt. Most of these people had not even seen Cairo properly, and they would ask me about faraway lands. I would tell them about Paris, about Vienna, about the different parts of the world I had seen…I would look into their eyes, as they dreamt about these places. For a second, they forgot all about the scorpions that were crawling around them, the tombstones, their own miserable state of existence, the injustice that they felt, and [they would] just escape. I would see in their eyes that they were waltzing in Vienna, or serenading their sweethearts on a gondola in Venice. At that moment, I realized the importance of a story.”
Tawfik’s book, candygirl, is part of AUC’s Common Reading Program for the incoming freshman class during the 2014/2015 academic year. Spearheaded by Professor Doris Jones, Senior Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the Common Reading Program aims to introduce young students to the intellectually stimulating environment of studying at a liberal arts institution by encouraging them to read culturally relevant text, thereby fostering a sense of community. Discussions about the book are encouraged across disciplines and film screenings related to the book’s subject matter are organized.
As the current Egyptian ambassador to the United States, M. M. Tawfik is arguably one of the country’s most politically influential men. “Three out of Egypt’s four former ministers of foreign affairs have [previously held Tawfik’s current position], so I guess that [could be] prophetic,” says AUC Provost Mahmoud Elgamal with a smile as he introduces the author of candygirl before the lecture.
His Excellency Ambassador Tawfik is widely published in his native Arabic and in English as well. He has written three novels and three short story collections, including The Day the Moon Fell (1997) and Murder in the Tower of Happiness (2008). candygirl, which he personally translated, was released in Arabic in 2010 and in English in 2012. After completing his undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Cairo University, Tawfik pursued degrees in international law (University of Paris) and international relations (International Institute of Public Administration in Paris). He has been writing fiction since his years as an undergraduate student.
I was fortunate enough to meet the ambassador for tea during his time at AUC, where we discussed the writing process, his contribution to the action thriller genre with candygirl and some of the themes of his work.
Rowayat. You write in both English and Arabic, but which language do you prefer to express yourself in when writing fiction? In which language did you start writing first?
M. M. Tawfik. Well, first of all, the language one writes in depends on the subject. If I’m dealing with a subject that is very local, Arabic automatically lends itself. When I want to put a distance between [myself ] and the topic, using another language helps in doing so. So if you’re writing about the desert—someone exploring the desert—you don’t want to inadvertently introduce Egypt’s noise into that; writing in English makes it easier to [capture] that sort of isolation. It’s about using the right language for the subject matter at hand. Writers such as Joseph Conrad and Samuel Beckett used to write in a foreign language, a language other than their native tongue. It’s really a matter of finding the right conduit for the product you want to create.
Rowayat. I’m also wondering if there’s any particular reason you chose to be the translator of your own work?
M. M. Tawfik. Well, the main reason is that I feel happier when I do the translation myself. I try to write at many different levels, and I’m sometimes concerned that one of these levels will go missing in translation. Although that’s probably wrong; maybe if someone else were to translate [the work], they could give it a more interesting angle. But at least when I translate it, I have more latitude to make changes, so that the end result is as close as possible to the original Arabic. Someone else translating would be more tied to the text.
Rowayat. You mentioned during your AUC lecture last November that when you translate, you enjoy sitting in coffee shops or in public spaces, while your writing usually happens in seclusion. Is that how it usually is with you? Do you usually write alone but translate somewhere where you can socialize?
You start writing and eventually
the muses will come to you.
M. M. Tawfik. Basically, I go to a pub or a café or something, and I just sit there, with the Arabic book, and I read into a recording device in Arabic [as I translate]. So I end up with text and then the second stage is to start editing that text and making it more readable. But the first step, which is the most time consuming, is the one which I do in public, and then of course the actual writing. I have no memories of the places where I write, which is usually a small room somewhere. But with the translation, I remember that I was translating [a particular segment] in New Zealand on the harbor, or in Papua New Guinea, or all these other very interesting places where I would spend time doing the translation.
Rowayat. You also mentioned the mesmerizing effect stories of your travels had on the laborers you were working with as a young civil engineer. Did this incident play a role in your decision to pursue writing fiction alongside your other fulltime activities?
M. M. Tawfik. I started writing during my first year of university, a few years before that incident. Initially, I had wished to join the Higher Institute of Cinematic Arts to become a film director. When that didn’t work out, and I joined the Faculty of Engineering, I thought, “Well, at least there’s flexibility in writing fiction, you don’t need anyone else to help you; you can do it on your own; whereas with a movie, it’s a collective work and you need to compromise a lot.” So yes, I started writing fiction a long time ago.
Rowayat. Your Excellency, I’m really inspired that you find time to write, as I am sure that you are very busy. Do you have a particular writing schedule? Do you wake up at a particular time every day perhaps to write? Or do the muses come to you at different times?
M. M. Tawfik. In my current position, unfortunately, I don’t have much time to write. But when I do write, I have a board, an annual calendar, which I hang on my wall. Every day, I register how many lines I’ve written and if I haven’t written on a particular day, I put in a red zero. When I am writing, I try to write every day. This issue of “waiting for the muses,” that’s not how it should be; that’s not how it works. You start writing and eventually the muses will come to you; the more disciplined you are as a writer, the more you will not only produce better quality work, but your writing will also feel more spontaneous. People who write spontaneously, who don’t write in a very disciplined way, when you actually read their work in the end, it doesn’t seem as spontaneous as [the work of ] writers who are more disciplined and more professional.
Rowayat. Where do you get ideas for your characters? The characters in candygirl all have their eccentricities; it’s very different from anything I’ve read before. What draws you to write about different characters?
M. M. Tawfik. Almost all my characters are entirely fictional, so I don’t write about anyone I know. The main trap for a writer is to try to look for stereotypes. It’s very common to write about a female character and for someone to come along and say, “Oh, that woman symbolizes Egypt”— which is ridiculous. If one is very attentive to the people around them, you find that we’re all eccentric people despite our attempts to hide it.
If we imagine that someone is filming us, whether in the company of others or on our own, if someone had the ability to penetrate all that, they’d find us to be completely eccentric. The norm is for characters to be eccentric; this is what normal people are. [The writer] thinks about how these characters would interact together to move the narrative forward. candygirl is a very sketchy work, so the characters are described in very brief terms. When I was writing Condoleezza’s character, halfway through writing [the novel], I realized it wasn’t working and that I needed to make it work without going into too much detail. I remained stuck for a couple of weeks, and then it crossed my mind that if she were a stamp collector, that would make her more human. Just by saying that this woman, in the slum, with this profession and this past, likes to collect stamps, makes her real, rather than a stereotype. It depends on the space you have and how you need to describe the characters in a way that brings them alive.
Rowayat. Readers could also draw parallels between candygirl and the “pious” prostitute Condoleezza, or even between Martin and the Cerebellum who both live in isolation in different parts of the world. Was it your intention to highlight characters’ universality across borders, despite the [cultural or other] differences they may appear to have on the surface?
M. M. Tawfik. The connections that exist between people are enormous, and at the end of the day, people are really just trying to survive. Some people are luckier than others, but everyone is trying to do more or less the same thing. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what a novel means, that’s really up to the reader not up to me, but definitely this issue of these two very lonely men, in different parts of the world, doing things that they would rather not be doing, and also caught up in a web of international conspiracy (each in his own way) is something that exists, it’s there. And also, you could say that a lot regarding the way in which the Cerebellum imagines candygirl is linked to the other “real” woman in his life, Condoleezza. You could say that although he spends his time in this virtual existence, he’s lives through them via his encounters with Condoleezza.
Rowayat. Generally, I don’t think much has been written in Arabic in the action thriller or science fiction genres. Do you agree that these genres may be underrated in Arabic?
M. M. Tawfik. Well, Naguib Mahfouz wrote thrillers, although writing in the genre is very, very rare. Most modern Arabic literature is political or social. This is one of the reasons why I chose to write in this particular genre. The two elements I try to innovate in are the topics that I write about and the structure of the novel. candygirl is actually the third in a trilogy, the second novel being Murder in the Tower of Happiness. Since I wrote these novels, many more thrillers have come out, many of which are influenced by the Western thriller. That’s kind of like trying to translate the foreign genre to Arabic, which is a little bit different than what I am doing. What I’m trying to do is to be more original, not taking a mold that exists and adding to it, but rather creating a new one.
Rowayat. Are you currently working on other writing projects?
M. M. Tawfik. Unfortunately, I currently have neither the time nor the focus necessary to do so. But I look forward to translating the first part of the trilogy soon. The second and the third parts, Murder in the Tower of Happiness and candygirl, have already been translated into English. I know it’s going to be a very difficult task. In Arabic, it’s called Leila fi Hayat Abdel-Tawab Tutu. In this first part, we learn about how the Cerebellum got his name and his days at university, whereas parts two and three are about his fear of being assassinated and his time in hiding.
Rowayat. Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers?
M. M. Tawfik. Firstly, concentrate on writing a good work, whether it’s a novel or a collection of short stories or poetry. Don’t worry too much about publishing or what others will think. Really put all your efforts into writing something that you are happy with. Secondly, you have to decide; if you decide you’re going to be a fiction writer, you’re in it for the long haul. It’s a long-term thing, it doesn’t happen overnight. If you studied to be a doctor, it takes many, many years. There’s no reason why writing should be any different, it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to be fulfilling unless you enjoy it; you’re not going to make a lot of money. The third thing is to never compare yourself to others and never let your ego get in the way. Different people express themselves in different ways and you chose this particular way to express yourself, so try to do it as well as you can. The last thing is that learning is a lifelong process. The moment you stop learning, you’re dead.
Rowayat. Did you face writer’s block when writing this book? How do you overcome it?
M. M. Tawfik. Writing a book involves many different takes; it involves research and trying out different forms of language use, different characters…like any large task, you need to divide it into smaller steps. So basically, if you don’t feel like doing one of the steps you could do another. There’s no excuse for writer’s block, as far as I’m concerned. You want to write, you sit down to write. If you don’t get the ideas for one particular part—I mean, you have to get yourself into the habit. Whether you write for one hour a day or two hours a day, it doesn’t matter how long. But you have to write as regularly as you can. If you ignore writer’s block, it will go away.
This interview has been edited, paraphrased, and condensed.
Flipping through the pages of candygirl
A genius scientist named Mustafa Korany, or “the Cerebellum,” previously employed with an Iraqi nuclear program during the 1990s, is in hiding from intelligence agents out to assassinate him. Between the bitter reality of his seclusion and his relationship in the virtual world with an avatar named “candygirl,” the Cerebellum’s daily encounters with those around him are limited. He rents a room on the roof of a brothel where his only genuine friend is a young college student. Only Didi, the novel’s “damsel in distress” leads him to leave the comfortable space of his room. On the other side of the world, Martin, a former NSA agent, fails to find the Cerebellum in the material world and turns to the virtual world in search of the wanted scientist. In the guise of a fast-paced action thriller, candygirl raises critical questions about privacy, double lives, and the loneliness of the life of an intellectual.
M. M. Tawfik, candygirl (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012).
Common Reading Program: One Book, One Conversation, One Community
According to Professor Doris Jones, the idea of initiating a Common Reading Program at AUC came to her while she was attending a national research conference in Orlando, Florida, where several sessions about Common Reading Programs at American universities around the world were taking place. “There’s something absolutely magical about books and what they can do, that they could take you to another time or place. To engage with a book is a very intimate process, you’re suspending everything else that’s going on around you to engage with the written text. Maybe we can develop strategic and sustainable ways to engage our students in a love for reading,” Jones says about her experience encouraging students in the AUC community to read more extensively as part of the Common Reading Program.
Jones would like for similar programs to be implemented at other universities across the region. “We are the firs university in the region to implement a Common Reading Program, so it’s absolutely critical that it becomes a success,” she asserts. The first Common Reading Program was implemented at Yale University in 1945. Similar programs have grown in popularity in the United States during the past twenty years.
The program was launched during the Spring 2014 semester with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which had been adopted by several universities in the United States as a common “read.” The book relays the story of a Syrian American living in New Orleans just before hurricane Katrina when the fear of terrorism was at its peak.
For the current year’s Common Reading Program text, candygirl was chosen because “the text was appealing [due to] the science fiction/avatar component, and it wasn’t that lengthy. The storyline [for the selected work] must be culturally relevant, and [preferably] based here in Egypt,” says Jones.