Literature versus reality

Author Mansoura Ez-Eldin: Chasing fata morganas

She fought for renewal and lost her illusions. In a very personal text, Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez-Eldin explains how literature accompanied her through a time of radical change

Barely four weeks after the massacre of 14 August 2013, I was driving through Cairo with my little daughter beside me. The mood in the city was heated. Mohammed Morsi had been chased out of office three months before and then more than 800 people had died when the security forces raided a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp.

Suddenly, the traffic came to a standstill. In Cairo′s ever-crowded streets, the crush was so dense it seemed as though the cars were piling on top of one another. From nearby Bayn-al-Sarayat, we heard the sound of guns firing. Perhaps Kalashnikovs.

By that time I had learned to distinguish the various types of firearms. Normally, though, the sound of shots only reached me from a distance; I was usually at home, trying to distract my two children from what was going on outside. That day, though, I was close to the action; I found out from passers-by that Islamists and security forces had clashed. My only thought was to get my daughter out of the danger zone.

After minutes that felt like an eternity, silence fell – but for a single hysterical voice calling down death and destruction upon us all for having silently colluded with the regime and allowed the massacre of the Muslim Brothers. What did it matter that there were surely people among us who had condemned the massacre and others who had themselves been victims of the Islamists or the regime? As soon as shots are fired, every dialogue falls silent. Finally the traffic thinned out and I hurried home to write down what I′d experienced.

Books don′t save lives

Before 2011, I was by no means a regular diarist. But when the insurgencies began I grew almost addicted to putting incidents and images into words. The short fragments began to add up. It was an activity with no purpose or use – or was I seeking refuge in writing because it was the best way I had of understanding what was happening?

Cairo′s Rabaa al Adawiyya Square following the military′s storming of the camp on 15 August 2013 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
No mercy for political opponents: since the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the authoritarian Egyptian regime has taken an extremely tough line with the Muslim Brothers, branding even moderate supporters as terrorists. Raids conducted by the police frequently escalate into deadly gun battles. According to Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian authorities have either arrested or accused at least 60,000 individuals since Morsi was toppled. Thousands of civilians have appeared before military tribunals, with hundreds being sentenced to death

I remember coming home from the demonstration on 28 January 2011, the famous ″Friday of Anger″ and going straight to my desk to write down what I′d experienced. Tears ran down my face, so powerless and helpless had I felt up against the brutal armed violence of the security forces.

I did the same after every demonstration, at least in 2011, when the Arab Spring was blossoming and it seemed as though our frozen world was starting to thaw. Just taking part in the demonstrations and writing about it gave me the feeling I could make myself useful.

At the beginning of 2012, it became clear that the established regimes were prepared to do anything to prevent fundamental change in the Arab world. The blood spilled by the men in power tainted the entire horizon. Particularly Syria, Libya and Yemen paid a horrific price: thousands of innocent people died, cities were reduced to rubble, the number of war refugees multiplied from day to day.

At the time, my mobility was restricted for health reasons. I was depressed, felt weak and defenceless – and the most dangerous thing: I was close to losing my faith in the importance of literature, because books can′t save human lives.

Strangely, though, that didn′t make me give up reading and writing. Instead, I plunged into it like a woman possessed. I revisited the notes for my novel Jabal al-Zumurrud, which I had almost forgotten by 2011 and also returned to the tales of 1001 Nights.

The obvious reason was the novel I was working on, which is interwoven with the collection of tales; yet without knowing, I was searching deep within for something to restore my faith in literature and lend my existence new meaning.

Egyptian author Mansoura Ez-Eldin (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Chronicler of a revolution: Mansura Ez-Eldin experienced the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution on 25 January 2011 at first hand, demonstrating almost every day on Tahrir Square in Cairo. In her novels, short stories and essays, this creative and politically courageous newcomer to the Egyptian literature scene remembers the Arabellion on the Nile

Most of the stories from 1001 Nights are a hymn in praise of narrative imagination, capable through their sheer refinement of saving lives, changing fates and breaking evil spells. In Jabal al-Zumurrud, too, regaining a lost story brings the world back into balance and the magic of letters awakens the dead from their ashes.

Disfigured stories

Yet I didn′t want my novel to be a naive hymn to writing, created only to lull my own fears. I wanted to explore the relationship between written and oral stories, starting with the ideas of Derrida and Plato, reflected in the pharaonic myth of the invention of script by the deity Thot. I thought about the mechanics of disfiguring meaning, about the relationship between the original and its adulterated copies – as though I were reading the distorted story of the Egyptian revolution while tracking down the distorted story of Princess Zumurruda in my novel.

Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life, Pessoa wrote. But the best thing about literature – about good literature – is that it helps us to understand the world while we think we′re ignoring it. At least on a metaphorical level, it helps us to escape in times of violence. Over the past six years, I have realised that I seek refuge in books when reality lets me down and leaves me in the lurch. Is it explanations I look for in them? Comfort and consolation? I don′t think so.

Cover of Ez-Eldin′s latest novel ″Jabal al-Zumurrud″, in French translation as ″Le Mont Emeraude″ (published by ACTES SUD/Sindbad)
The imagery of Ez-Eldin's latest novel ″Le Mont Emeraude″ is rich in metaphor and fantastical mysticism. In it the author transports us back into the fairytale world of 1001 Nights and 13th century Persian mysticism, only to cleverly link the various historical narratives with recent modern-day events that occurred in locations such as Mexico and Egypt during the Arabellion

If I read and wrote to excess during this time, then not because I believed in the power of words and the importance of literature. Quite the opposite. What drove me were profound doubts in both.

Literature doesn′t work like a drug

Charles Bukowski wrote: Find what you love and let it kill you. It seems to me that I was trying – absolutely unconsciously – to drown in what I loved, to numb my disappointment at failures in real life through reading and writing. But literature doesn′t work like a drug. We realise abruptly that it has sharpened our senses, multiplied our sensibility; that it unfolds reality and reveals its structures so that we can discover what is hidden and silenced within it.

As well as the tales of 1001 Nights, what helped me in that time was above all revisiting the work of Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald. Sebald′s books especially touched something deep in my soul, for his rescued individuals are never really saved; memory ruins them. The Holocaust is entrenched forever in Sebald′s work and the war lives on for decades after its end in memory – as though the writer′s eyes saw the hidden ruins behind the facades of every city.

That literary world fitted well with the reality in which I was living. Over the past years, I had the feeling of drowning in hundreds and thousands of dark images and scenes, suffocated by decay and the dust of destruction, plagued by cities that had become graves for their inhabitants.

Sometimes I ask myself: can words ever rebuild ruins? Everything I′ve written since 2011 reflects that question.

The lament over the ravaged home was an essential motif in pre-Islamic poetry. Yet I don′t want to write elegies, nor weep over metropolises sunk into dust and ashes; instead I demand, with childlike defiance, that the power of imagination re-erect what has been destroyed.

A vain demand, of course. For me, though, writing is an attempt to make sculptures out of ice on the equator; or to chase a fata morgana, to play with it, even to create it oneself – to dissolve reality into an illusion and pretend that mirage is the appearance of a reality, just waiting for us to quench our thirst with its fleeting waters. That′s how I put it in my most recent novel.

The calm after the terror

And still I am trying to save myself by quenching my thirst from the fleeting waters of the fata morgana called writing. But is it really a rescue? In terms of my body, I narrowly escaped death on that Friday of Anger in 2011, then again in the fighting on Muhammad Mahmud Street that November. Or on the day when a bomb went off shortly after I′d passed its location – the thought of it still sends shivers down my back.

Have I saved my psyche? I′m not so sure. Perhaps, like Sebald′s characters, I will have to live with my destructive memories, no matter how much I try to fool the ghosts through my writing. Or even through the mere intention of writing. I console myself by saying:

One day I′ll write about the calm that descends after the bomb has gone off. About how the people vanish from the streets and the city holds its breath while the cars almost fly to get away from the site of the attack.

After the attack, this place will be safe for a few days at least, I tell myself against better judgement – the atrocities in our city have never been calculable. Aimless, I roam the empty streets and try to see the positive . . . the calm that descends after the bomb has gone off.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

© Neuer Zuricher Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Mansoura Ez-Eldin, born in the Nile delta in 1976, is a writer and journalist. Her novel ″Beyond Paradise″ has been translated into German and ″Maryam′s Maze was published in English in 2007. Her most recent book, ″Jabal al-Zumurrud″, has appeared in French under the title ″Le Mont Emeraude″.

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