Cheryl Morgan interviews Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Towfik. Originally published in Locus.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik Interview
By Cheryl Morgan
Ahmed Khaled Towfik is one of the most prolific authors in Egypt, having written over 500 books. A trained doctor himself, he specializes in medical thrillers and horror, but he has also written science fiction and it is his latest foray into that field, Utopia, that has been published in English translation by BloomsburyQatar.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
If you want to divide science fiction into genres then I’d call it a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The vision of a near futureEgyptthat it paints is something that has been very real recently. The rich are becoming richer, the poor are becoming poorer, and the rich are sequestrating themselves in colonies on the north coast. One of them is even called Utopia.. When I found that out I had to put a disclaimer in the front of the book to make it clear I wasn’t writing about them.
The major innovation I have made, for theEgyptof 2023, is to make a rite of passage for young men from the enclaves to go out and hunt one of the poor, and take his hand for a trophy. So the hero and his girlfriend go out amongst the poor in search of someone to kill.
I based this in part on a true story. A young man from a relatively poor family had got into university to study engineering. His parents had saved a lot of money to give him this start in life. He was invited by fellow students to visit one of these enclaves. They were out swimming, and some rich people were playing on jet skis. The student was hit by one of these jet skis and killed. There was no investigation or trial. The rich are above that.
This sort of setting is the basis of a lot of cyberpunk.
That’s not really what I’m doing here. I have written a cyberpunk trilogy. It is called WWW, and it is about the adventures of a computer virus as it moves from one computer system to another. There’s nothing like that in Utopia.
How did the book come to be translated?
First of all it was very successful in Egypt.. Everyone who reads fiction was talking about it. So Bloomsburyapproached me and asked for a translation. I don’t think it is a masterpiece as such, but it is essential for understanding how people are thinking in Egyptat the moment. There is another book called Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? by Galal A. Amin, he’s an economist at the American University in Cairo. You won’t understand what happened in Egypt, and how the revolution came about, unless you read this book. And I see my Utopia as telling the same story, but in novel form.
There are some horrible things in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? and indeed in the revolution as a whole. There was the brutal murder, by the police, of a young man called Khaled Saeed. I think he was one of my readers for sure. You can Google the story. He was beaten to death in a cyber café in front of many people. I think this was one of the events that helped spark the revolution.
How well known is science fiction in Egypt?
I have translated a lot of science fiction. Young people in Egypttoday can read Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov. I am very proud to have done this. But science fiction is a relatively new innovation in Egypt. People there have only been writing novels for just over 100 years, starting with Francis Fathallah in Syriaor Haikal in Egypt. Before that we had very little fantastical literature, except for the Arabian Nights. Sophisticated new inventions such as science fiction are very rare. Most people still are not aware of it, or don’t understand it. It will take 50 to 100 years before it is respected.
There are works in English from Tawfiq al-Hakim and Mustafa Mahmud, but they date from the late 1940s. What has happened since?
Only one writer has concentrated exclusively on science fiction in Egypt. That was Nihad Sherif, who died recently.. He wrote several important works, including The Olive Pearls, The Conqueror of Time, which was made into a movie, and Number Four Orders You. There are a number of other authors as well, such as Nabil Farouq and Raouf Wasfi. But there is one thing we all have in common, myself included: we have all depended on what we read in Western literature. I have yet to see any genuinely original Egyptian SF. Possibly the closest we have come is a story called “The Spider” by Mustafa Mahmud, which I think is available in translation.
Of course some people have identified the Epic of Gilgamesh as the first science fiction work in history, and then you have the Arabian Nights. But their connection to SF is tenuous. Even the early writers such as al-Hakim did not see themselves as producing SF. The idea of specifically sitting down to write science fiction in the manner of Asimov and Clarke developed, forEgypt, with Nihad Sherif.
What about fantasy – is there anything like George Martin or Tolkien in Egypt
No. We are very impressed with those writers, Tolkien has a lot of fans in Egypt, but we don’t write anything like them. For us everything refers back to the Arabian Nights, as indeed it does for many Western writers. H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King have mentioned them as inspiration. But the reputation of the Arabian Nights is so enormous that no one wants to try to write like that.
Do people write novels set in the time of the Pharaohs?
I have tried that a few times, but there is one author who works exclusively in that period. His name Muhamed Soleman and he is very good.
What about the rest of the Arab world. Do other countries where Arabic is spoken produce science fiction?
There was a very good science fiction writer fromSaudi Arabiacalled Ihsan Al Faqeeh, but he met with no success there so he emigrated toCanada, where he is doing very well.Syriahas a thriving science fiction community. They have held conferences and they give an award for science fiction in Arabic, the Assad Prize, named after President Assad. The first winner was Nihad Sherif.
Is a work written in one Arab country understandable in all other Arab countries, all across North Africa and Arabia?
The language varies somewhat from country to country, especially the slang. And the accents are very different. If they show an Algerian movie on Egyptian TV they provide subtitles. But there is a traditional form of the language called Fosha that should be understandable everywhere. Also most people understand Egyptian slang as we produce the most movies in the Arab world.
You have written a huge number of books.
Yes, but I write mainly very short forms, usually novellas from maybe 17,000 words. Even Utopia is only between 35,000 and 40,000 words. I think short books are less effort. Also I have a very hungry audience. They are always wanting more books from me.
And your audience is mainly young people, college students?
That’s right. They are the only people who read fiction. There are statistics that say that the average Arabic reader reads only 20 pages a year, whereas the average Japanese reads 40 books a year. We have newspapers, of course, but they are full of nonsense. People should read more books.
Is there anything we can do to help get more Arabic science fiction translated?
I think there is a growing interest in Arabic literature, ever since Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize. That was very important. And also The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, which is a very famous novel, translated into many languages. These things have drawn the attention of the world to Egyptian contemporary literature. Hopefully if Utopia sells well then Bloomsbury will translate my next book.