Last week at the headquarters of her new Cairo publishers, Dar Al-Ain, Mansoura Ez-Eldin read from and signed copies of her second novel, Wara' Al-Firdaws (Beyond Paradise), a sort of psychological thriller and Bildungsroman rolled into one. Comparing the new book to Maryam's Maze, her 2004 novel, translated by Paul Starkey, Youssef Rakha spoke to Ez Eldin about her work, her life and the overlap between the two.
Though she published only three books in nearly a decade, Mansoura Ez-Eldin (b. 22 March 1976) has maintained a high profile on the literary scene since she graduated from Cairo University in 1998. She is the books editor at the most popular cultural weekly in the country, Akhbar Al-Adab, where she got a job in the same year. By 2001, though already married to a fellow young writer whom she also met there, her first book, a collection of short stories titled Daw' Muhtazz (Trembling Light), was published to acclaim from a battalion of former teachers, mentors and admirers, including well-known figures like critic Mohammad Badawi, novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (the editor of Akhbar Al-Adab ), even the late philosopher Mahmoud Amin El-Alim. In the next two years Ez Eldin would go through both pregnancy-birth and the death and dying of her mother, experiences she would lugubriously internalize and eventually, from 2002 to 2009, transform. Working every day, however little the time left her after both job and small family are paid their dues, she draws up character sketches, composes dream studies, and occasionally develops a text into a short story -- which she might subsequently use as a chapter in a novel.
Correspondences are frequent and at least once, in the course of writing Maryam's Maze, Ez-Eldin had all but given up on resolving one particular complication when she realized that one of her early short stories provided her with exactly the narrative development she needed; she simply had to insert that short story unaltered for the novel, apparently unrelated, to flow exactly as she had envisaged it. Correspondences could also occur between literature and life, in equally unexpected ways. Ez-Eldin recounts that, during her mother's last days at the hospital, the woman "to whom I owe absolutely everything" often asked about her writing. "The idea of me writing pleased her," and so, despite the mayhem that consciously prevented her from doing it, at the hospital she would take out her old notes and exercises and pretend to be working on those texts that had made her mother proud of her when they appeared in well-known newspapers and magazines. "After a while I realized that these short stories were actually developing into Maryam." The slim volume, which makes up in intensity for what it lacks in extent, concerns a young woman, her close friend or double, and the large house of a provincial patriarch which, following the young woman's move to Cairo, appears to her as a Labyrinth, its large and deeply intermingled cast of occupants -- ghosts, dream figures, real people? -- constituting a sort of Minotaur of the mind. And so there seems to be yet a third level of correspondence: paradoxically, while she consciously rejected myth, justifying Maryam's visions with recourse to psychology, Ez-Eldin was in fact producing a grassroots version of one of the world's best celebrated myths, and feminizing its hero.
Whatever else you say about it -- and Wara' Al-Firdaws could conceivably make you say something different – Ez Eldin's writing emerges out of a place both mysterious and dark. For seven years now, while advancing her journalistic career and creating a home life sufficiently different from her family background for her to be at peace with, Ez Eldin has also been working through "existential questions, anxiety, discomfort, fear" -- personality traits, she says, that have been with her at least since the unexpected, seemingly absurd death of her father when she was aged nine (which also explains her reading Camus and other adult books at an extremely early age). "They are basically to do with the idea of death," these questions, "the idea of dissolution, breakdown. Not breakdown in the psychological sense, but the idea of this human constitution being on the verge of ceasing, at any moment. Termination," she muses. "The whole thing coming to an abrupt end. A somewhat strange imagination," she interrupts herself to chuckle. And it is at this point, no matter how much I object that her imagination is actually in no way strange, that Ez-Eldin and her work finally come together for me. I have known her for many years and she has never struck me as capable of anything more disturbing than a whimper. Of all the fiction writers and poets who emerged in the 1990s, she comes across as perhaps the most psychologically balanced -- quiet, hardworking, focused. There is a kind of no- nonsense conservatism about her, a kind of respectability. This might explain the fact that, from an early age until eight years ago, she wore hijab -- a fact she seldom mentions, and then only to say that it was an outward shift to do with her pilgrim's progress from the countryside to the city, not with the substance of her relationship to God.
This, on the one hand; and on the other hand, her work: Never mind that the very premise of the Maze is a dream in which the protagonist seems to be knifed to death by her Doppelganger: a weird rite in which the latter dies equally graphically. In Wara' Al-Firdaws a similar duo, Salma and Gamila, play out a puzzling relationship implying anything from schizophrenia in one or both of them to lesbianism; frighteningly rather than bafflingly, the precise nature of their connection is never stated. Aside from the two of them, however, there is at least one gory death, a series of encounters with the ghost of the dead man (notably sexual encounters with his as yet young attractive wife), and beatings. Despite her attempt to depict a whole world, her conscious marginalization of Salma and Gamila, the sense of mystery, of the paranormal, of unaccountable powers interfering with irrational drives, is still there. Ez-Eldin tells me that Badawi, whose lectures she attended at the time, coined a term for her earliest short stories: "writing the secret" ( kitabat al-sirr ). Each text seems to be a secret, a clockwork mini information system that, however multifarious, remains self-contained. Ez-Eldin mentions, in this context, her debt to the horror film and her interest in the therapeutic effect of writing (Salma, who edits short stories for publication in a newspaper, starts writing a novel on the advice of her psychiatrist); she identifies imagination with fear. This is not every day, realistic fear, which -- in line with the impression Ez-Eldin gives of herself -- seems to be well under control. The fear that is at odds with Ez-Eldin's poise, which nonetheless comes through with amazing intensity in her books, is something far more primal. In her mind, she explains, fear of the dark (the childhood experience par excellence) takes on the deepest metaphysical dimensions. "You'd be surprised," she says, "how basic my fears are."
Set against the backdrop of the shifting fortunes of the brick making industry in the Delta in the mid-1980s -- perhaps the first mention in contemporary Arabic literature of the otherwise oft-cited phenomenon of tagrif, which eroded agricultural land before the shift to concrete -- Wara' Al-Firdaws draws a much sharper distinction between the two settings informing Ez-Eldin's experience. First, there is the tiny village where, in the absence of basic public amenities, Ez-Eldin enjoyed a nonetheless unusually prosperous upbringing as the spoilt but remarkably successful school child at the heart of an extended family so large and close knit, so conservative and so rich that her husband, on first being introduced to it, could not help comparing it to the mob in The Godfather. Secondly, there is Cairo, the infinitely larger place to which Ez-Eldin's passage -- a hitherto unthinkable breach of tradition facilitated by her mother -- gradually allows for a clear perspective on "just how strange and unusual this experience of the countryside really was". The book began as an account of her mother's life, a fictionalized biography not unlike Hanan Al-Shaykh's Hikayati Sharh Yatoul (My Life, A Long Story) -- whose publication in 2005 discouraged Ez-Eldin from doing the same thing again -- so she quickly gave up on this side of what she was already envisaging as a larger, intergenerational variation on Maryam, one that replaced the paranormal with "the mythology of the setting" and in which the central (dual) character had less of a role to play. "As always," Ez-Eldin says with conviction, "the work imposed its own logic."
Partly because it contains more comedy and juxtaposes a greater number of stylistic registers, partly because it has a more definite social-historical reference point, Wara' Al-Firdaws has already been hailed as more accessible than Maryam. Aside from widening the scope of her work without making concessions to the market, however, Ez-Eldin had no intention of compromising her notion of what writing actually involves: a process of imagining, primarily out of that primal fear of sudden dissolution, people and places that resemble the world rather than referring to it per se. Here as in Maryam, consequently, almost every character in the book is imagined. "If people back in the village read Wara' Al-Firdaws," she insists, "no one would recognize anyone." The process seems integral to Ez-Eldin's way of dealing with a suffocating environment, which has been very different from straightforward rebellion or insurgency, and reflects her view of herself not as woman writer but as a writer who happens to be a woman. She behaves like a virus, she says, working from the inside; she instills herself in the host -- "the mafia" of her extended family -- precisely in order to transcend it. And though outwardly her own life has been more or less conservative, she is careful to point out that she instituted a nuclear family ( usrah ), not an extended family or tribe ( 'a'ilah ). Like few writers of her generation, rebellion and transcendence have been matters of the mind; and she still dislikes any predetermined idea, however positive, being imposed on what she does: the Woman, the Body, the Provinces are all candidates; she rejects them all. At the most obvious level it is madness that she is really interested in, (in)sanity, "but it is not as if I studied psychology or apply it in any systematic way". Even the Novel does not bind Ez-Eldin.
It is something of a cliché by now to speak, borrowing critic Gaber Asfour's expression, of the Age of the Novel, which has driven many an excellent short story writer and poet to switch genres. Having published Wara' Al-Firdaws, by contrast, Ez-Eldin is -- by contrast -- in the process of putting together a new collection of short stories. It is a form she loves, she says, a form both difficult and rewarding, and never separate from or in contradiction to the literary project her two novels have pursued. She has no doubt that her readership will engage with her stories just as enthusiastically, and though she would be hard pressed to identify this the constituency of that readership, unlike many contemporary young writers, she distances herself totally from the discourses and debates of sales, popularity and what makes for a successful book. "People accuse serious writers of obscurity," she says, "of looking down on readers. But who is to say that readers are less intelligent or less complicated than the writers? Who is to say that it is making assumptions about how much readers can understand that means looking down on them?”