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Kamal Abdel Malek, the Arab Spring, literature & the lure of fiction

Posted on 22 April 2013 by Alice

Kamal Abdel Malek, novelist and scholar, teaches literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD). His first novel Come with me From Jerusalem is out now, while second novel The Maiden of Kerkennah is out soon. Alice Johnson spoke to Malek about his novels, the Arab Spring and its effect on literature and the push and pull of academia vs novel writing.

“…the Arab Spring will not remain a spring forever. Change is already underway and the spring is expected to be followed by the fall season. Someone somewhere somehow is now writing a novel, a short story, a poem, a film script about the deleterious effects of a popular revolution that has gone awry.”





Q: Tell me about ‘Come with me from Jerusalem’ – where did you get the idea for the book and why did you write it?
A: It is a story of star-crossed lovers who are caught up in a cobweb of political and ethnic politics and conflicting loyalties. The book is partly based on personal experiences and the characters are based on individuals I have met. But, of course, not entirely, for in fiction there is room for rearrangement and restructuring of real-life events and individual experiences.

Come with Me from Jerusalem tells the story of Sami, the first Egyptian student in Israel, who falls in love with Jewish classmate Lital. Sami’s life is shattered when he finds himself arrested and tried for the murder of a Tel Aviv call girl. Only a miracle can save him from a certain life sentence as he and Lital come together, offering hope for reconciliation and a shared future.

So what does

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this really mean? As an Arab novel, Come with Me from Jerusalem is unique in many ways. It is perhaps the first novel by an Egyptian author which presents a Christian Copt and a Jewish woman as the main characters; minority figures are all of a sudden placed in the center of action, in the spotlight of drama. The setting is Jerusalem, not Cairo or Alexandria, not an Egyptian village or an oasis, and in the novel Jerusalem is viewed in a different light, not as a holy city but as a liveable city with streets and cafes and rundown houses with TV antennas burgeoning on their roofs like alfalfa sprouts.

Besides, Sami and Lital, lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, are ideally placed to constitute a microcosm representing divergent views of the Arab-Jewish conflict and the desire to achieve genuine reconciliation.

This novel is bound to be a huge explosion, figuratively speaking, of course. In our Arab world we are not used to reading novels in which a Jewish or Israeli character is a real flesh-and-blood human being with feelings, let alone an object of love and sympathy. There is something disarming about a reference to a handicapped Israeli child. Have we Arabs ever thought that an Israeli can be handicapped? We are more used to him as a predatory soldier, an aggressive land-grabbing settler, a religious fanatic of one stripe or another. But a handicapped child?

I stand by my work of fiction, though. I pitch it to the readers and let them decide. I say “Listen folks, this is not part of the usual stuff written about Arab-Israeli conflict. It is first and mainly a love story.” “Hatred stirreth up strife;” the Bible tells us, “but love covereth all sins,” (Proverbs 10:12).

Arabic literature has produced scanty volume of works of fiction that deal with the sensitive topic of inter-ethnic and interreligious liaisons. The most celebrated love story between a Palestinian man and a Jewish-Israeli woman is the story of Palestine’s national poet Mahmud Darwish and his Jewish beloved, named “Rita” in some of his poems. I find it strange that Arab audiences in musical festivals such as the one in Jarash, in Jordan, would listen with rapture to the tuneful song “Rita” as sung by the Lebanese Marcel Khalifeh, and not showing awareness that “Rita” of the song is really a Jewish-Israeli beloved and that their rapture is focused on the taboo love between a Muslim-Palestinian and a Jewish-Israeli.

Can love conquer all, really? Well, I urge readers out there in the real or virtual world of cyberspace to read Come with Me from Jerusalem and judge.


Q: How long did it take you to write and did you have to revise the manuscript much?
A: It took me about three years of on-and-off periods. Remember that I have a full-time teaching position at AUD and the only time left for me to write would be either very early in the morning or late at night or the weekends and this as you can see can cut down on your free time and social life. For the active period of writing I had a wonderful woman in my life and we took care of each other, although she was not particularly interested to read about Lital, the character of the beloved in my novel. She was, I guess, a bit jealous of her and the excessive attention I gave her in the process of writing. Real-life woman was jealous of a fiction-life one! But we do not always choose our beloveds, do we? We fall in love, remember, we do not ride to or walk deliberately into love.

Yes, I revised my work several times; I think that you have to. Even the great literary giants did see their work through several revisions. Have you ever seen the original version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the many changes and excisions in red by his friend Ezra Pound?


Q: Tell me about your academic writing – what do you focus on and why?
A: The main topics of my research focus on how the other has been portrayed in Arabic literature and film. I started with the images of the Americans in Arabic travel literature and I have published two anthologies on this, one in 2000 and in 2011 which is an updated one that covers the period of 9/11 and beyond (see America in an Arab Mirror (St. Martin’s Press, 2000 and America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1668 to 9/11 and Beyond (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011). The other topic is the encounters between Arabs and Jews in literature and film (see The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005). This book illustrates how literature and film depict encounters between Arabs and Jews, the intensity of their clash over land and identity and, more importantly, moments of breakthrough as one party or both recognize the humanity of the other. Here is how one critic read the book:

“The Arab-Israeli conflict poses both a political challenge to its partisans and a cultural conundrum for its critics. Making a timely contribution to current debate and polemical retrospection, Abdel-Malek reviews not only, as the subtitle states, “Arab-Jewish encounters in contemporary Palestinian literature and film” but also important works by Israeli writers and cinematographers. The author focuses on the years since the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel but he also analyzes works from the beginning of the 20th century. Highlighting both less-known examples not available in translation and works more readily available to a Euro-American audience, the book serves as a substantive reference work for those interested in an issue that continues to confound contemporary cultural critics and policy makers alike. The book’s chronologies, summaries, bibliographies, and appendixes are especially useful. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-/upper-division undergraduates; graduate students. B. Harlow University of Texas at Austin.


Q: What made you turn from academic writing to fiction writing?
A: I have dealt with this question elsewhere so let me reiterate here what I said before. I have two answers: one modest and the other arrogant. The modest answer is this: the life of the academic is austere in many ways; he spends years poring over research topics, writing papers and books in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. These writings are by and large of interest to him and at best a handful of other academics, so he decides to try his hand in something else, something less objective and more personal, something that is not engendered from the brain cells but from the folds of one’s own guts. This can be a liberating exercise.

The arrogant answer is this: well, Kamal, my man, if you are so good at chess, you can be equally good at swimming, besides, you’ve got a talent in the use of the English language; glib and quite the raconteur in parties, impressive and attention-grabbing as you exhibit with ease your storytelling wares. Yes, English is not your native tongue but English was not the native tongue of Gibran and Nabokov, and before them Joseph Conrad, and look how they fared!

So one day three years ago, I said to myself, “Kamal my man, just do it!”

Q: Which do you prefer and why?
A: To be involved with Academic Writing (AW) and Fiction Writing (FW), which are feminine entities in Arabic, is like to be romantically involved with two women, each with very attractive features and curves, and each extremely jealous of the other. To pay attention to both is an exhausting practice, so I escape from the one to the other and I employ deception whenever I am engaged with the one so that the other may not be alerted. I am caught in between the demanding presence of the one the alluring call of the other. I can’t help cheating on both of them now, and I have caught myself repeating the self-same terms of endearment to both of them. When it comes to these two I permit myself to be polygamous. Yes, polygamous, and I say this openly and shamelessly.

If academia is the wife, fiction writing is the mistress. The relationship with the wife is shaped by certain expectations, mutual obligations, measurements and routine practices with certain activities and schedules, with a sense that there is always time for this and time for that and time for the other. But with the mistress, there is always the sense of urgency, and uncertainty, of no known routines and expectations, of sudden changes in moods and of sudden surges of energies and the desire to go beyond which is proscribed. Fiction writing is like lovemaking in an elevator; there is always the fear that someone walks in any moment.


Q: Do you think you will ever write a book in Arabic? Why?
A: I am currently writing a novel in Arabic. It is called, The Maiden of Kerkennah. It is a story of love, innocence, and the seductive power of metaphors. But once again I find myself caught up in this duplicitous life between two languages, Arabic and English. Each language is vying with the other to lure me to her; each is sexier than the other. But your native language is a jealous entity and would forbid you to consort with a foreign one. The mind may have space for several add-on tongues but the heart can only accommodate one. No matter how many tongues you acquire throughout a life-time of learning, your love would always be for the first, for the mother-tongue. The great Arab poet Abu Tammam says:

نقل فؤادك ما أستطعت من الهوى
ما الحب الا للحبيب الأول
كم من منزل في الأرض يألفه الفتى
وحنينه أبدا لأول منزل

It roughly means: no matter how many times you fall in love, you will always yearn for your first love, and no matter how many homes you dwell in, your longing will always be for the place of your birth. I think that the same applies to languages; you will always yearn for your native tongue; for it would still have the power to bring tears to your eyes and smiles across your face.


Q: How do you think Arab literature has been affected by the Arab Spring – what effect do you think it will have?
A: Literature, evocative, high-powered, genuine literature, composed by serious-minded writers sensitive to nuance, can be a guiding force in a given society and culture. I think we often think of literature, particularly in the academy, as a reflection, a mirror that projects back how a society or a culture looks like. Literature may show the grand assumptions and tacit norms of the culture but it can also play a role in shaking the props and rearranging the mental furniture in the culture. Can we imagine the French Revolution without the great ideas of the French philosophes and writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu? Ideas like the rule of the people by the people, of equality, and brotherhood, of people being equal citizens in a republic not subjects of the supreme monarch.

Likewise the Arab Spring would not have been conceived of without the ideas and struggles of enlightened writers and citizenry who have protested against autocracy, inequality, and absence of democratic rights and freedoms. Fiction writers like Alaa Al-Aswani lays bare the ugly underbelly of the Egyptian society in his highly acclaimed novel, The Yaqoubian Building (2002)

Sonallah Ibrahim exposes the rot that has set in the Egyptian society in novels like, Dhat, and Jamal Al-Ghitani, Hikayat Al-Mu’assasa (Stories about the Establishment). I must also mention here the role of poetry in galvanizing people against the unjust regimes. Take for example the vernacular poetry of the great Egyptian poet and activist, Ahmad Fuad Nigm(b.1929). In as early as 1990 I published my book, A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm (Leiden, 1990) that provides an analysis of the social and political meanings in the protest vernacular poetry of Ahmad Fuad Nigm. In this book I show how Nigm portrays Egypt as a society composed of contending social forces and it is concerned with the cause of liberating Egypt from class inequality and political oppression. Being an example of genuine popular expression, Nigm’s protest poetry appears to pose a challenge to the political establishment, which considers Nigm as a provocateur, as well as to the majority of scholars to whom vernacular works have no place in their canonical definition of “high” literature.

For Nigm, the way to achieve such liberation is through a people’s revolution that will ultimately pave the way for a new society—is this not what exactly happens in Egypt January 2011? But the Arab Spring will not remain a spring forever. Change is already underway and the spring is expected to be followed by the fall season. Someone somewhere somehow is now writing a novel, a short story, a poem, a film script about the deleterious effects of a popular revolution that has gone awry. Let’s remember once again the French Revolution and how the Bastille prison had ended up with more prisoners after the revolution than the day it was pry-opened by the revolutionaries, and how the promising period of the revolutionary Maximillien Robespierre, who twisted Rousseau’s ideas, had ended with the “Reign of Terror.”


Q: What book are you writing now?
A: I am working on producing an anthology of modern Tunisian literature. Tunisia’s rich literature has not received the recognition it deserves, except for the poems of Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi. Our proposed anthology, Modern Tunisian Literature, will feature selected samples in English of poetry and fiction by Tunisian authors, plus an introduction to the country’s literary pioneers with profiles, and major references on their respective creative works.


Q: Tell me about your next novel – what is the topic and when will it be released?
A: The Maiden of Kerkennah is the name of the novel I am currently writing. I hope to finish it soon and have it released by December this year. It is a story of love, innocence, and the seductive power of metaphors.


Q: Do you think you would ever give up academia to become a full-time novelist?
A: That’s what I hope to do some day. I think being involved in the academia and creative writing simultaneously is doable, I’ve done that for some time now, but it is very difficult, even exhausting. I think both drag heavily on the same side of the brain. I need to have peace of mind to continue to excel in each field. Right now, I can’t conceive of abandoning the one and keeping the other because I need both. Quite the conundrum!


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