Interview with shortlisted author Tareq Imam
Where were you when the shortlist was announced? What was your reaction?
I was in my home in Cairo. The first thing I did after hearing my name was to open the window of my room overlooking Mohamed Mahmoud street in the heart of Cairo – this is the street where a considerable amount Cairo Maquette took place – and to wave at the novel’s heroes whom no one can see.
Your writing is often categorized as a fusion of reality and the fantastical. What is the biggest challenge you face when writing this kind of fiction?
The “fusion” itself is a challenge. Combining narrative techniques is a risk to fixed literary taste which is inclined towards a specific categorization where the novel is read within the shadows of this category or according to an agreed upon label. I am intrinsically inclined to play with fixed forms of narrative. The world of my novel pushes me to mix colloquial language with a poetic language, and to mix classical Arabic with foreign terms that I consider to be an act of treason to Arabize them because they have become part of the dictionary of usage. Even within classical (fusha) Arabic, you find yourself needing to mix different languages from pre-Islamic poetry to journalese. I am also inclined to hybridize the theoretical with the storytelling aspect, and that does not go well with the mentality that views art as total inspiration, and that considers reflective or thoughtful endeavors, to be an exposition of techniques, as well as an act of treason against the artistic and an obstruction to storytelling. The fantastical propensity represents a challenge of sorts, as some view it as irreverence to reality, although I see it as having great potential to deepen the concepts of reality by turning it into an allegory, as opposed to the metonymic approach that is directly linked to the theory of imitation.
Altogether, the idea of writing a text that brings together more than one language and style, or that traverses more than one current, is a gamble. But I think that writing is a celebration of risks, and experimenting for me is not just playing with a group of available techniques, experimentation is a progressive vision for existence and art lies at its heart. The form is a symbol and part of one’s vision of the world. And dismantling the fixed form is itself dismantling the fixed political, ideological and religious identities which art was not created to maintain in my opinion. Experimentation for me is ideological. On top of all that, I love writing with such freedom. I feel that writing is a game and I enjoy surprising myself.
Were you surprised by any critical readings of Cairo Maquette. How do you want your novel to be read?
I was surprised by many readings, particularly by those whom we call “amateur readers.” I discovered that many of these readers have among them an essential and forgotten tool, unfortunately, in the practices of Arabic literary criticism: the innocence of reading without prejudice, and from within the work’s conditions and rules, not based on pre-established rules. Many readings surprised me, including what was written in terms of parallel texts that were not free of an imaginative narrative, and some that featured portraits drawn of the novel’s characters, some that were written in balloons inside the frames of a cartoon. To become critical references of a visual dimension. I loved the attempts of all who read the novel in giving it a critical reading that seemed to come from its world which mixes the different arts.
As for the second part of the question: I would like my novel to be read without any prejudice, whether aesthetical, vision-wise, or moral.
Tell us about the research you conducted for Cairo Maquette.
I studied, deeply, some art techniques that the main characters practice. I read much about building maquettes and the tools and mechanisms needed to establish the measurements and differences between handmade and mechanical contexts of construction. I also researched the technical graffiti world and the different ways of implementing it in reality. I read about Arabic calligraphy and its uncommon types and the academies that teach it, and the nature of the academic degree that a student can obtain. I also researched the types of modern cinematic photographic cameras and the slight differences between each based on the different locations and contexts. On the other hand, I read about important details regarding the informational context of the novel: I read about the laws of orphanages, to gain a precise understanding of the cycle that an orphan undergoes socially and educationally before leaving the institute. I returned to the songs of Egypt’s 1990s for a historical awareness of moments of blooming and decline. I also recalled details of the January 2011 uprising through a close reading of some documentation, as personal memory does not suffice with the chronological order of certain events and their relation to one another. In reality, the research behind Cairo Maquette was exhausting and inspiring.
The novel’s main characters work in different fields of art: a documentary filmmaker, a graffiti artist, a comics artist, and maquette designer. Was it difficult to become each of these artists? To which do you feel closest?
The hardest thing about these characters was not to become them. On the contrary, it was to keep them at bay enough, as they primarily belong to my generation and work in the arts like me, and my personal questions about art, the city, the revolution and existence in general were divided among them. I became them from the first moment and I had to use a bird’s eye view in order to achieve a real conflict, away from the traps of lyricism, subjectivity and sentimentality. In fact, none of them feel closer to me than the others. I wrote all of them with the same level of pain.
Which writers influenced you as a writer?
Many. But prominent among my favorite writers are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Eugene Ionesco, Ted Hughes, and Naguib Mahfouz.
What are you reading now?
I am currently reading poetry. I am rereading the full works of Alexandrian Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, about whom I am preparing to write a novel. And I am reading a beautiful collection of prose poetry called “Falling Downhill Without Brakes” by Fatma Krouma.