Literature and Revolution: Muhammad Aladdin at ‘Una Torre di Libri’

Italian translator and blogger Elisa Ferrero writes that, at a recent appearance at an Italian literary festival, Egyptian novelist Muhammad Aladdin said that revolution “is similar to time,” as it can’t be directly observed, while its effects on people can be:  

By Elisa Ferrero

On his first visit to Italy, Egyptian novelist Muhammad Aladdin was the first Arab author to speak at the Italian literary festivalUna Torre di Libri, a month-long annual event taking place in Torre Pellice, a small village in the Italian Alps near the city of Turin, famous for being the center of the Waldensian Protestant Church’s history. This festival, in its seventh edition, has hosted a number of prominent national and international writers (Umberto Eco, Dario Fo, Jeffery Deaver), and this year opened a space for Arabic literature as well.

The encounter with young writer Muhammad Aladdin took place on July 24 at the presence of an interested public, curious to learn about both his work and Egypt’s current situation. The reading of two of the author’s short stories (translated into Italian by Barbara Benini and read by the actor Carlo Curto), “The Voice” and “The Season of Migration to Arkadia,” allowed a bridging of the gap between literature and Egyptian news, shifting the discussion from the narrative dimension to a social analysis of the Egyptian society in revolutionary times.

On the literary side,  Aladdin started his talk by commenting on his ability to constantly change style and language in any new writing. A novelist, short story writer, and script writer, he has also delved into satirical writing and comics. Regarding this constant changing of style, he affirmed that what pulls him naturally towards one style or another is the subject of his writing, so that a novel like The Idol could not be written but with a refined classical Arabic, whereas a novel like A Well Trained Stray could not be written but with a colloquial, Arabic slang.

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According to him, in turbulent times you can follow one of two paths: fleeing from writing, or using writing to understand what is happening and to dig deeper into it.

Aladdin’s prolific and varied writing was not stopped by the Egyptian unrest of the last three and a half years. According to him, in turbulent times you can follow one of two paths: fleeing from writing, or using writing to understand what is happening and to dig deeper into it. laddin followed the second path, but he chose to write about the Egyptian revolution in his own way, by narrating the (sometimes) surreal and bizarre stories of common individuals swept along by the events, as in “The Season of Migration to Arkadia.” This because revolution – to quote the author – is similar to time, being something that cannot be directly observed, but whose effects on people can. Thus, through the stories of his characters, Muhammad Aladdin manages to “scan,” without judgment, the Egyptian society in turbulent times, with all its concerns, idiosyncrasies, contradictions, relational structures, fears, and dreams.

When asked why he chose to write about revolution through the eyes of its detractors or indifferent people, as in “The Season of Migration to Arkadia,” despite his own strongly-felt participation in the uprisings, Aladdin stated that, in his opinion, this is the most honest and authentic way to write about it, the only one which avoids falling into a dogmatic rhetoric of the revolution.

However, he will deal with this new character by treating him above all as a person with all a person’s complexities, as these kinds of classifications (Islamists/secularists, etc.) pertain, Aladdin says, to sociology rather than to writers, who should always focus on the person before anything else.

As for the absence of Islamists among the abundance of characters of his stories and novels – Islamists who, on the contrary, are always so relevant to the political discourse and the mass media’s representation of Egypt – Aladdin revealed that, actually, in his next novel he intends to include among the protagonists an Islamist who keeps changing “color” with every new president. However, he will deal with this new character by treating him above all as a person with all a person’s complexities, as these kinds of classifications (Islamists/secularists, etc.) pertain, Aladdin says, to sociology rather than to writers, who should always focus on the person before anything else.

The final part of the encounter was devoted to the Egyptian revolution and current situation in the country. In this regard, Aladdin recalled the January revolution as a dramatic passing from a condition of sadness and anger to an explosion of joy and laughing, an inspiring moment, an exceptional time of Egyptian history when people truly believed in themselves. Then, people had to go through the untested and inexperienced, facing what lies between assumptions and reality.

On the overturning of the Islamist government in July 2013, the writer explained that Egyptians have certainly rejected Islamists in general, some of them for their extremism and some others for acting as a closed group. He further explained that revolutionaries, in particular, wanted from the beginning to “change the car,” i.e. the structure of the state itself. However, after the rise of tensions and the breaking out of fights, Egypt ended up debating who should drive the same old wrecked car. When the revolutionaries understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was just aiming at driving this old car without mending it, they revolted against it.

According to this Egyptian writer, the atmosphere under the Islamist government was better than under the current one, however. This is not because Islamists were more democratic, but simply because they did not grasp and control the whole power. Now, nobody would really defy the army, even if they repeated the Islamists’ mistakes, because the army is really in control of the state.

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