ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The New York Times | January 4, 2012
PHOTO BY MAHMOUD SAAD / COURTESY OF MIRAL AL-TAHAWY
CAIRO — The Egyptian novelist Miral al-Tahawy withdrew from the international literary and cultural scene in 2006 and returned at age 37 to the Nile Delta village of her birth. For more than two years, she slept in her childhood room and cared for her cancer-stricken mother. During this time, she reconnected with siblings, acquaintances, childhood friends, and her proud Arab Bedouin origins.
In 2008, after her mother’s death, she packed her belongings and those of her son, then 8, into just two suitcases and traveled to New York for a post-doctoral fellowship that she had put on hold, beginning a productive era of her life.
“I spent long periods in the beginning where I did not know how to smile,” she said during a recent interview in Cairo, reflecting on the loneliness of her new American surroundings. “That is part of the connection with exile.”
Divorced from her poet husband, she moved into a tiny apartment in an ethnically diverse community in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Everywhere she went, she saw people writing. So after the long absence from her craft, Ms. al-Tahawy began going out to the neighborhood cafes early each day, where she, too, would write.
The protagonist of her latest novel seems to have much in common with its author.
The central character in the book, “Brooklyn Heights,” is a single mother named Hend. She has one son and struggles with loneliness, exhaustion and depression. The award-winning book, recently released in English, weaves together a life in Brooklyn with a childhood in provincial Egypt.
The book was shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the Arabic Booker Prize. It also won the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
“The writing was split between two worlds,” Ms. al-Tahawy, 43, explained last month, “the world I was coming from and which had become very sharp in my memory, and the place where I am living, with its contradiction and contract, variations and harmony.”
The author “looks at Egypt from there, inserting herself in a narrative on the relationship between east and west, here and there, us and them,” said Samia Mehrez, a professor of modern Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo. “There are parts in the novel that read like a prose poem.”
As the author was growing up in Geziret Saoud, her village, people from other countries often passed through to buy horses, hire a travel guide or study Bedouin culture.
“The foreigner was the Orientalist,” Ms. al-Tahawy said. “He was there to watch us. The first time for me to live this role was in Brooklyn Heights. I was the foreigner and I watched them. I was the one doing the ethnography and I was the one drawing them.”
The immigrant experience is defined by a search for belonging, something Ms. al-Tahawy has noticed in her relationship with her son, Ahmed, now 11.
“First we write about our childhood and recollections. Then we ponder our childhood through the childhood of our children,” she said, seeing how her son Ahmed has struggled for acceptance among peers.
“I want to be American,” he would tell his mother in the first months, she said, then “I became American” and then the quizzical “Am I American now?”
“The first thing that he learned in America is that he has rights. No one can decide for him,” Ms. al-Tahawy said. “He can tell me 20 times in a day, ‘It’s not your business!’”
Writing a novel in New York has given her unexpected freedom, she said, unfettered by the societal fears that might ordinarily chain writers in Egypt — even in works of fiction.
“Fears like I am writing about Muslims, talking about Islamists, talking about Christians,” she continued.
“That is part of what the American culture gives, not only to the writer but to the human being. Here, there is a world of fears,” she said, referring to Egypt and its particular land mines, especially for the woman writer. “We write as our hands are self censoring, even if it is not official censorship. This is the first time I write when I feel that my hand is not afraid.”
Currently a teacher of Arabic language and literature at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Ms. al-Tahawy was able to write the book without compromise or calculation, she said, unconcerned that readers and critics would ascribe the qualities of her characters to her own life.
“Where is the writer going to get inspiration but from her hopes, vision and self?” she asked.
The youngest of seven children, Ms. al-Tahawy was born into the al-Hanadi tribe. Her village, Geziret Saoud, or Saoud’s Island, was named for her grandfather, a Bedouin trader who founded the settlement.
Her father, a doctor, an animated storyteller and a lover of eastern melodies, named his daughter Miral, after a Turkish singer whose voice he admired.
He also insisted that his two daughters receive an education, an uncommon practice in a Bedouin culture where women were kept secluded. Ms. al-Tahawy went on to complete a doctorate in Arabic language and literature at Cairo University, writing her thesis on the harem in the Arabic novel.
Bound by traditional tribal customs, a large extended family interfered in her decisions, she said. “Until I was 25 years old, I was treated as a child. When you live in a large familial society your decisions are not yours alone.”
As a single woman, she was told by family members that she could not travel to Cairo on her own, publish, give interviews, or have her photograph published in newspapers because it was considered improper and dishonorable.
So began her rebellion, one that would allow her to complete her degree in Cairo, teach at a university, publish her writing, and marry the man of her choice.
When Ms. al-Tahawy entered college in the late 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood movement dominated campus activities, including everything from sports and excursions to theater and publishing, she said. This Islamic alternative to what many saw as a nation’s corrupt and failing institutions persuaded many Egyptian students to cling to hopes of change through religion.
Without other channels for political action on the campus of Zagazig University, Ms. al-Tahawy joined the then-underground religious organization, engaging in initiatives like collecting money for the Afghan mujahedeen.
Ms. al-Tahawy was selected to write for the magazine of the Muslim Brotherhood, focusing on themes of morality and virtue within a literary narrative. It was through the Brotherhood’s publishing house that Ms. al-Tahawy, while a college student, published her first collection of essays, “Diaries of a Muslim Woman.”
It is a phase she described as her “political adolescence.” The first and essential lesson for recruits of the Muslim Brotherhood is to listen and obey, recalled Ms. al-Tahawy. “That is part of the message of Hassan al-Banna,” she said, referring to the founder of the Brotherhood.
“Soldier, obedience; obedience, soldier; command, inhibition,” the words rolling off her tongue in a staccato marching order. “It makes you feel as if you are in the army of salvation,” she said. “You are not engaged in political action, you are engaged in military action.”
Instead of finding greater freedom, she found herself in a setting that was more dictatorial. “The world of the Brotherhood is not democratic,” she said. “It is very oppressive to any member who thinks, or discusses, or objects.”
Ms. al-Tahawy’s disillusionment with the Brotherhood came to the fore when a prominent member of the organization decided he wanted to marry her. The proposal was made through the official channels. But she and her family refused.
“Part of my social rebellion is that my uncle demanded that I get married,” she said. “This kind of hierarchical power I found within the Brotherhood.” From publishing an article to marriage, nothing could be done without permission from the Brotherhood’s chain of command, she said.
Ms. al-Tahawy said she remained apprehensive about the renewal and the proclaimed democratic transformation of the Brotherhood. “I doubt that they can uphold democratic principles when they cannot accept them for themselves,” she said.
The Brotherhood, during elections on Wednesday, edged toward a dominant role in Egypt’s first free Parliament in decades.
In 1996, a year after publishing a collection of short stories, Ms. al-Tahawy wrote her first novel, “The Tent.” It won critical attention and was translated into more than a dozen languages.
Set in a Bedouin community, amid a host of female characters and an absent patriarch whose wife had borne him no sons, it tells of Fatima, an imaginative girl who seeks freedom by climbing trees and the heavy gate of her father’s house only to fall and break her leg.
“Miral’s work has a kind of poetic quality to it,” said Anthony Calderbank, country director in South Sudan for the British Council and the translator of three of Ms. al-Tahawy’s novels.
“Miral is doing all kinds of things with the language,” he said. “At the same time it is very lyrical, very beautiful, very dense, very emotive.” “The Tent” is also “quite poignant and quite sad,” he said. “It moves from reality to Bedouin fantasy world where there are elements of history, folklore and myth.”
Her subsequent novel, “Blue Aubergine,” chronicled the melancholy childhood, adolescence and adulthood of a woman named Nada, who in her search for identity dons the niqab, joins a secret religious society, and eventually loses hope in the possibilities of political Islam.
As a novelist and a professor of Arabic at the Fayoum branch of Cairo University in 2004, Ms. al-Tahawy became involved in protests for change, including ones advocating for the independence of public universities. Security forces made sure that any protest action quickly faded.
Corruption was endemic, ruling party loyalists dominated university appointments, political freedoms were stifled, the quality of education suffered, the Islamic trend commanded a strong presence, and the security apparatuses kept tabs on students and professors.
For Ms. al-Tahawy it amounted to “a climate of expulsion.” She searched for a way out. “Most of us decided to travel or immigrate, find another job far from political life or work individually.”
Last winter, when Egyptians began their Arab Spring uprising, Ms. al-Tahawy was in North Carolina teaching at Appalachian State University.
“When my friends wrote on Facebook, ‘Tomorrow is the revolution,’ I used to laugh.” she said. “I told them, ‘Take me with you!’”
Under decades of authoritarian rule by President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians lacked a sense of ownership, she said. “All of a sudden we are talking about Egypt as if it is ours and that it is our right to think of our future,” she said.
“What happened after Jan. 25 was not a huge change in the regime but a huge change in people’s speech.”
The struggle still has a long way to go, she concedes. Watching events unfold, she shares in the frustrations, and occasionally worries that Egypt is again destroying the best it has.
She remains true to her Bedouin origin, journeying from place to place and watching the world as the world watches her. “I have never seen true Bedouins like the Americans,” Ms. al-Tahawy said, citing the moving vans carrying people’s furniture and belongings in the way of nomads who carry their tents and possessions wherever fate leads.
She said she considered her time in New York, a city of artists and dreamers, as a high point in her writing career, a place where she found the inspiration to break her silence.
“My son tells me, ‘When you grow older, I will have lots of money and I will buy you a house in Brooklyn,’” she said with a laugh. “‘Because you were happy.’” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “We don’t have to buy a house, we could rent.”