Interview with longlisted author Ahmad Abdulatif
When did you begin writing The Ages of Daniel in the City of Threads and where did the inspiration for it come from?
For about seven years, the idea of the archive and the hidden underground city have been on my mind. A city that runs the world behind the scenes. It seems to me that the world is not this surface we see, but rather a deep accumulation of layers; as we delve into it, we discover the nature of things. Cairo, is an example of a multi-layered city, with accumulated history and events. There is the Cairo known by tourists, the Cairo known by its residents, and a different one known by those in power, and of course there is the Cairo of the marginalized and the slums.
One day in 2019, as I walked through Dokki, in the middle of the city, I imagined that these passersby, the vendors, cars and metro stations, the rushed and leisurely ones, did not move at their own will, but that their actions were prompted by a hidden hand. From here I imagined that we are all puppets manipulated by this hand and its unseen strings, moving us towards our fates and leading us to our final destinations. We do not own them as we think we do, but they are owned by others who have a quality we do not: they are hiding behind the scenes. They can see us but we cannot see them.
This idea was born at a time when I was recollecting my childhood with all its unfortunate and cruel events. I was working hard to remember events that for many years I made an effort to forget, most important of which was the rape of a student at a religious school, something that society kept silent about despite its gravity. This is how the narrative came together, with a mix of biography, fiction, and memory. Daniel was the main character that linked the child and the city, the voice of the child and his view of the city from the perspective of a raped child.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you completed it?
Writing took about three years—from mid 2019 until May 2022. Prior to writing it as a novel, it was in the form of daily diary entries made up of small texts that attempted to capture the childhood memories in their initial raw form, as events, then reflecting upon them and connecting them to one another. These diaries were the initial seed of the work until the idea of a puppet city occurred to me, transforming reality to art, the tangible to an allegory. During that time I lived in Cairo, but I moved between Cairo and Madrid. I finished the novel in Cairo where I started it.
Do you have writing rituals?
I like the idea of rituals in general because they imbue everything with a kind of specificity and create an evocation of sorts. On a normal day, I like to wake up early, at 5 or 6 am. I like to start writing when I am in that stage between asleep and awake. At that moment the brain is returning from a dreamy voyage and hasn’t touched the ground yet. At the time I am in a state of clarity and serenity which is the key to writing. After about half an hour, I surrender to being completely awake and continue writing with coffee. I dedicate the entire morning to continuing the idea that I set out to write and normally more ideas are born from it. The morning is my time of beloved isolation and writing is the daughter of daylight. I continue writing until 11 am when I move on to other work like translation or journalistic writing. At night I prefer to read or watch films. Throughout the day, in the background while I write and after, classical music continuously fills the air. I choose something that suits my narrative. The soundtrack for The Ages of Daniel is Romance Larghetto. I have written every novel in this way.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I started writing another novel which I believe pushes my writing into a new area. The narrative is one of humor and sarcasm, despite the painful events it tackles. In general, it is a reflective reading of Cairo; continuing another project of writing about the city, its transformation and the fate of the individual but from another angle.