Roots and Routes: A Conversation with Yasser Abdellatif
By Farid FaridJanuary 26, 2019
IN “VITAMIN D,” a short essay that meditates on the physiological maladies of exile, Yasser Abdellatif, “a writer from Cairo,” opens with the question:
What change hits when one goes through a huge shift in their life at 40 moving from living in Cairo, the supposed default capital of the imagined Middle East, with all of the filth and loudness, and its infinite hidden and public charms to a lost city in the north west of the world, in the deep prairies of mid-west Canada?
He answers in the next line that his doctor tells him he suffers a Vitamin D deficiency, “an affliction associated with those immigrating from the East.” Within that observational kernel, Abdellatif stretches and unfurls a whole series of Adorno-like aphorisms that crush romanticized notions of migration. The corporeal quality of his writing is also on display in his recently translated debut novel, The Law of Inheritance, published in August 2018 from Seagull Books.
Originally published in Arabic in 2002, it sketches the portrait of a young Nubian university student genealogically leading up to the politically suffocating period of the late ’80s and early ’90s in Egypt under now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak. Told in four temporal parts, almost four loosely held autonomous short stories across a century, Abdellatif’s poetic prose condensed in 94 pages is meandering and playful, with the familiar infecting the recounting of memories. Historical events and characters brush up against each other, such as slipping in a line about the assassination of Lee Stack, a British colonial official who was the governor-general of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; or the Italian Egyptian fascists, ardent followers of Mussolini, who roamed the streets of Cairo. Through poignant vignettes, the text’s imaginative geography is scaffolded by a stunning urban historiography of Cairo, which the author treads so well, advancing the narrative nicely.
Compelling imagery of scoring drugs in the “city’s underworlds” or students on campus facing riot police or how Nubians were displaced off their lands that are grounded in familial drama round out a well-told story. Robin Moger’s translation is florid and fluid, moving between scenes with agility maintaining the nuances and specificities of Abdellatif’s deft prose.
We first made contact on Facebook, that great diasporic connector, and then we moved to have a conversation by email about his book.
FARID FARID: How autobiographical, if at all, was the novella? And what memories of what specific period inspired you to write it?
YASSER ABDELLATIF: You can consider it biographical 100 percent, but it’s also fictional 100 percent. Most of the characters, places, and sometimes even names are real, but all those elements were subject to fiction techniques, the structure of the internal time, the montage, the imagery, et cetera … I caught the final structure one night when I was sitting with some friends in Abdeen Square, watching a game of street soccer, and talking about some family stories. Then I realized that there is a kind of similarity between me and the character of my grandfather, and I came with the idea of the law of inheritance, that even if the course of life might be different radically, something fatal will come down from one generation to the other like DNA.
The novella is written in a sparing tone with a very detailed thick description of sites, especially downtown and Maadi. You describe Cairo as holding “painful memories” or as “an inspiring city, especially in winter.” How instrumental was Cairo as a cityscape in the development of this work, and how do you feel about it given that you are now in Canada?
You can see it clearly in the first chapter entitled “The Fascists,” it’s like a stroll in downtown Cairo by the narrator, close to the Abdeen neighborhood, where his grandfather first settled when he arrived in Cairo as a young Nubian immigrant from deep southern Egypt. You can consider this neighborhood as the keystone of modern Cairo, or what we call the Khedival Cairo, referring to the ruler Khedive Ismail (1863–1879), its founder.
Somehow the course of this family grows parallel with the evolution of the city in the 20th century. Strolling in this area haunted by personal and collective history helps release the memory flow while revisiting the landmarks of the past. Cairo always has this charm and impact on its citizen (I won’t say dwellers) writers.
Even though it is a suffocating space nowadays, regarding the overpopulation and high level of pollution, it remains like a passion for them. I recall a book that I consider a defamatory novel about the Egyptian capital, where you can still find this passion in the description of spaces as a love-hate relationship. I mean here The Book of the Sultan’s Seal by Youssef Rakha — fortunately it’s translated to English too.
For me, I left Cairo for Canada at the age of 40, nine years ago. The biggest part of my memory and experiences were accumulated there, so it’s still early for me to produce fiction that takes place in Canada. My stories still have Cairo as referential space, though, I have written a lot of poems about the Canadian place — a whole collection not published yet, entitled Poems from Siberia of the West. I also have a nonfictional approach to writing about Edmonton, the city where I live, in the Canadian Midwest. It’s about my own experience as an immigrant, my attempt to adapt and adjust with the new atmosphere, and my experience working as interpreter for Arab and African immigrant workers who do not speak English, that allowed me to see a good part of Canadian society and its administrative, legal, and medical apparatus.
There are also vivid scenes of Nubia, which is hardly represented in Egyptian fiction. How important was it to explain to the reader its cultural significance?
Well, it’s somehow a story of integration. The narrator, like me, is the third generation in an immigrant family. With the third generation, roots always fade away in favor of the new place and its culture. The struggle of the grandfather was a battle of adaptation and integration to the new society he moved to. Recalling Nubia here was fundamental to the narrative, though I still think it’s a very Cairene story, but with a different component than Naguib Mahfouz’s traditional middle class, for example. I don’t agree with you that Nubia is hardly represented in Egyptian fiction.
There are quite prominent Nubian writers in the scene: the pioneer Muhammad Khalil Qassim, the late Idris Ali, Yehia Mokhtar, and the Alexandrian-Nubian novelist Haggag Oddul. Those writers define their work as Nubian literature. They all belong to first- or second-generation Nubians in the city. Most of them lived the tragedy of the displacement after the sinking of Nubian villages, and towns in the 1930s and 1960s.
So Nubian voices are not rare in the literary scene, especially if you compare them to writers from other Egyptian ethnic minorities, like Bedouins, who are barely present (Hamdy Abu Golayyel and Miral al-Tahawy for example), or Amazighs, who are not represented at all. But for me, I would define myself as a writer from Cairo, and specifically from Maadi, which will always remain home to me.
The historical interplay and your tracing of the genealogy of characters between the chapters as a running thread throughout the novel was an effective literary technique. What research methods did you employ to color the characters and give them full-rounded backstories?
This wasn’t that kind of fiction that relies on research. As I told you before, most of it was based on true stories and people with the needed artistic modifications, and the maneuvers of imagination to fill the gaps in the narrative with details. I think the major effort was in the construction: the four moments chosen from this wide history that stretched on a whole century, and characters spotlighted in those moments.
I wanted to read more of your words. Was it a conscious choice to keep the novella short rather than structuring it into a larger work? If so, why?
First, I need to clarify something here: in Arabic fiction, like in literature of many other languages, we don’t have this quantitative differentiation between novel, novelette, and novella that appears to me very Anglophone. We have short stories that range from one page to 30; above 80 pages we consider it a novel.
I know only one author who used to write something in between, the late Sulaiman Fayyad, who had stories in that odd format of 40 or 50 pages, and he called them “long shorts” in English. Classics like L’Étranger by Albert Camus were never considered a novella by French or international readers or critics. It’s a slim work, and Gallimard Press used to add its famous backlist to every edition to make it look bigger. The same thing with all of Patrick Modiano’s novels and authors like Juan José Millás in Spain.
In Egypt too, most of the classics after 1967 were short novels less than 150 pages, even Mahfouz himself, starting from the mid-1960s — his works became shorter and shorter. I also wrote this “novel” with this sense of condensation under the influence of my practice to prose poetry. This poetic condensation and intensity you may feel tangibly in the opening scenes.
It has been nearly two decades since the book first came out in Arabic. What are your feelings about seeing your novel in translation this year, especially in these current dark times? Do they resemble the suffocating period under Mubarak? Are there parallels or differences that you can point out, because the early ’90s seem eerily uncanny to the times we are living in now.
Well, the difference that I can touch between the two times is that there is more politicization now among the [Egyptian] youth — as in actual literary production.
The second chapter of the novel depicts the huge protest against the 1991 Gulf War [Desert Storm] at Cairo University. But it was seen from the eyes of a bunch of students who had nothing to do with the event. They just found themselves amid the demonstration. I was concerned with what I call the “pale shadows of war.” My protagonists were marginal individuals within the student movement. What we can see clearly in the following chapter that took place in an earlier moment in real time, three years before the protests in 1988, is that this position of the marginalized individual is still the same there in Egypt, also in the so-called democratic world.
If literature, as I understand it, has anything to do with politics, it would be to reveal those pale shadows of the historical turns and the impact of the system on the individual, providing you keep it away from the front of your active conscience while writing. This awareness should be built in, hidden beneath the ludic and pleasant techniques of composition and analysis.
Farid Farid is a Cairo-based journalist and independent scholar. He has been published in several news and academic journals, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Social Semiotics, and Vanity Fair.
LARB Staff Recommendations
The ongoing struggle against a US-backed dictatorship....
Jonathan Guyer and Surti Singh consider the legacy of Egypt’s surrealist Art and Liberty Group....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.