Interview with shortlisted author Ahmed al-Morsi


Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?

I was at home with my family waiting for the announcement as I knew the timing beforehand. Of course, I was overjoyed to be shortlisted. It is a great honour and appreciation for me and my literary work.

The novel takes place in the early 20th century in the aftermath of the 1919 revolution, a critical period in Egypt’s history. Why did you choose this period, even though the novel doesn’t directly depict the events of the revolution?

When it comes to history, novelists only care about its impact on those who lived during that time. How were people impacted and how did they interact with it? I am writing literature not history. The historical events are known and can be looked up in history books, but what did people feel during those critical, defining moments? These are the issues we care about in literature generally, and in novels particularly. In our contemporary reality, we are also a moment in history. We are impacted by it, interact with it and our psyche is shaped by its movement.

I chose this period because of the great similarity it bears to what we are living through now at the global, regional, and national levels.

The beginning of the 20th century is very similar to the beginning of the 21st century. A hundred years ago, our ancestors lived the consequences of the industrial revolution with all its positives and negatives, and we are now living the consequences of the communications revolution with its positives and negatives.

They too experienced a major economic crisis that ravaged their social stability. This crisis is clearly repeating itself today. One hundred years ago, the world war ended, and today’s raging wars divide the world and destroy it. In 1919 there was a big popular revolt in Egypt, and in 2011 there was a big popular revolt in Egypt. The Spanish influenza epidemic hit the world hard at the beginning of the last century, and the COVID-19 epidemic hit it hard in our days.

The difficult realities of the beginning of the 20th century are very similar to the difficult realities of today. These realities invite us to seek salvation and quick emancipation. In times of crisis, grand hopes and fragile, unrealistic wishes emerge, and so do great disappointments and frustrations, which is what I tried to talk about and warn against.

Thousands of people lost their jobs, loved ones and families in today’s economic crises, and during the COVID-19 pandemic and the hateful wars. That’s why I think that the likes of Selim Effendi Haqqi live with us today, but not enough light has been shed on them.

- The novel is full of very realistic details that paint a vivid picture of this time period, and the language also reflects the Egyptian colloquial dialect at the time. Tell us about the research you conducted to reach this level of detail and accuracy in the narrative.

I spent two years doing research before I began writing, and another year during the writing process, a total of three years. This was done through dozens of sources, documents and interviews with those who could shed light on my path through a piece of information or a hint. My office turned into an operations room with many photos, references, and maps.

For me, writing a historical novel is like an archaeological dig. The writer is like an archaeologist, the past for him is unknown and he carefully excavates it bit by bit, until the impressive picture is finally complete.

I am passionate about building worlds around me in great detail, creating them from scratch. I collect the details patiently and slowly until they come together in a final whole, then I sail in the world I create in parallel to the real world, as if I knew it or lived in it, filled with curiosity and anticipation.

You mentioned in a previous interview that the inspiration for your novel was an English poem. Could you tell us about it?

Indeed, my inspiration came from an English poem from 1628 that begins with “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” That line turned into an idiom in English, highlighting that if wishing made things true, even the poorest would get everything they wanted. This was so inspiring to me that I called one of the novel’s chapters “If wishes were horses.”

The novel’s characters are very different in their backgrounds, sense of awareness and in how they deal with their hopes and wishes. Was it difficult to become all these characters?

They have entirely differing backgrounds, and adopting the voice of each artistically was definitely not easy. But I went through the experience through each character’s perspective. The reader will realize that the characters are like most people, they deceptively seek happiness, where in fact they are afraid and only want safety, but in different forms.

You mentioned that Fawzan is the only character in the novel who was able to let go of his wishes. Did you plan this from the beginning? And how did you feel about the others not being able to let go?

I begin writing with everything set in my mind, including the fates of the main characters. Even the last scene is strongly present at the beginning. That’s why Fawzan’s death in that way was determined from the beginning. And the novel’s first sentence “Fawzan Al-Tahawi died without any wishes” summed up his life philosophy. This ascetic philosophy was laid out at the end of the novel.

I believe the rest of the characters let go of their empty hopes but in crueler ways. They pick up other more realistic, solid wishes and hopes. But this happens outside the novel. The novel only shows that critical moment in their lives.

I think everyone lives through similar moments of crisis, but we only see them more vividly if they are adopted by a fictional character or embodied in a painting, or if we hear them in a piece of music. This is the role of literature and art.

Were you surprised by any critical readings of Gambling on the Honour of Lady Mitzy? How do you want the novel to be read?

Many readings surprised me, and the interpretation of symbolism was impressive. I often wondered how readers could discover so many symbols hidden deep in the text.

I would like for it to be read as a personal experience. There is nothing more beautiful than a reader reading my writing as if they wrote it about themselves or as if I eavesdropped on their mind, and wrote about them, to the extent that if they read about a character’s emotions, they say, “Yes, I feel this too!”

Who influenced you as a novelist?

I cannot list all the names, but for example, I was greatly influenced by Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik El-Hakim, Al-Tayib Saleh, Khairy Shalaby. As for Western literature, I think I was most influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Latin American novelists in general. In terms of contemporary writers, Rabee Jaber and Orhan Pamuk have influenced me a lot.

What are you reading now?

I am reading On Photography by Susan Sontag. It is an impressive book about photography and how it changes our perspective on life.