Saturday, September 1, 2007

Saintly models

In progress: Saintly modelsProfile by Youssef Rakha - Ahram Weekly

Ibrahim Farghali is a writer and journalist. Since graduating from the Faculty of Commerce, Mansoura University, he has worked at Rose Al-Youssef (1991-94), the Omani cultural magazine Nizwa (1994-97) and several departments of Al-Ahram (since 1998). He has published his work in Al-Fann Al-Sabie, Akhbar Al-Adab, Adab wa Naqd and many other magazines and periodicals. Since last returning from Oman, where he spent a significant part of his childhood, Farghali has produced three volumes of fiction: Bittijah Al-Maaqi (Towards the Eyes, 1997), Kahf Al-Farashat (Butterfly Cave, 1998) and lately Ashbah Al- Hawaas (Ghosts of the Senses, 2001); the latter, whose main theme is sexual relations, appeared just after the banning of three, allegedly pornographic General Organisation for Cultural Palaces publications -- an occasion referred to as the "three novels crisis". Other than the two projects I'm working on, intermittently, there is really very little to speak of. I married last summer and my daughter Laila is already a major figure: she commands a great deal of my attention. Then there is the daily, journalistic work: nothing terribly interesting there. Every week I read books in preparation for the Tuesday Books page of the daily Al-Ahram. I can't say I enjoy reading in this rushed way, by force as it were, though Ezzat El-Qamhawi's recent Al-Aik fil-Mabahij (Trees of Joy) did prompt a deeply felt response, its slight verbosity notwithstanding. At Rose Al-Youssef I did straightforward political reporting, nothing else, but even the culturally-oriented press proves frustratingly conventional as a job; and it tends to take up far too much time. One of the two projects is a novel, yes. Ibtisamat Al-Qiddisin (Saints' Smiles) is my provisional title, but I'm still thinking. It's about Muslim-Copt relations; sometimes -- you mention Ashbah Al- Hawaas -- it pays to be topical, though for me it is never a popularity-generating mechanism. The stories in Ashbah Al- Hawaas had been written long before the crisis, of course, but it was a nice timing challenge; and it was reassuring to find a publisher (Mohamed Hashim's Miret) willing to take the risk. The real challenge, however, was how to be bold, even explicit, without being in any way vulgar or losing sight of the reader. Themes included mutual misunderstanding between men and women; and four of the stories in the collection recount the same events from two corresponding viewpoints. There was also this idea of intimacy between two people from two entirely different socio-cultural backgrounds, how they might interact at this level, what they might say. You will notice, though, that if anything the actual sex either does not happen at all or remains incomplete. I've been working on Ibtisamat Al-Qiddisin, on and off, for a very long time. Laden details keep emerging, taking control and prompting various kinds of research are propelling me in new directions. Some events take place in Mansoura, for example. Some scenes happen in churches there. A lot of priests and things. Now in the area there are two principal towns, Mansoura and Talkha; and the usual leisure practise for many of the inhabitants of Mansoura is to cross the river to Talkha and look back on their city from there. "Mansoura from Talkha" is thus the usual perspective. And during my research -- one logistical problem, you see, was that every so often I had to get there and stay for a few days; thankfully that part of my research has been concluded -- it was interesting to reverse that perspective, looking, instead, at Talkha from Mansoura. You'd be surprised how many memories this process of rediscovery generated, and how much inspiration for the novel. All I have to do now is to sit down and finish writing the book. It sounds blissfully simple... Whereas a short story overtakes you all at once -- laying its own foundations and forming, as it were, immediately -- a novel builds up over time. In a story there tends to be absolutely no plan, but when you write a novel you have a general theme and you seek it out as you write, discovering more and more details as you go along. You look around you and the idea changes, the bits and pieces come together in ever newer ways and it might end up being something totally unlike what you started out with. Whether it's a short story or a novel, though, I always work with the reader in mind: I feel I have an obligation to the reader, whose interest I must never let go of. Maybe the topical bent is merely a reflection of this concern: wanting to capture the reader's interest and maintain it till the very last sentence. Which should never be confused with being vulgar or blasphemous or scandalous in order to generate attention. It is in the second project that this open-ended approach to writing a novel finds expression. Again, from the practical viewpoint, one should never begin a new project until the old one is complete. But you can't help these fluctuations of attention -- forcing you into one or another direction despite your better judgment. Already I've published a chapter of the new book -- in the last issue of the alternative literary magazine Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, under the title Tuqous Awwaliya (Preliminary Rites). I was thinking the title for the whole thing would be Aqni'at Al-Ra'ia (The People's Masks) but I'm not at all sure. That chapter depicts a sort of fancy-dress party in which the masks develop into disturbing dimensions of the characters' identities. The book is focussed on this idea of illusion vs. reality, lying vs. the truth and multiple identities. As far as I can see it's going to be a multi-genre endeavour, with long passages devoted to the concept of the artist's model -- another long-standing interest of mine -- and others that will draw on my own experience. But the "I" of the narrator plays no part in the transition from one mode to another. The stress will remain on fiction, on this being an essentially fictional text: all the various, diversely dramatised strands of the aforementioned cluster of themes should emerge seamlessly out of the process of invention itself -- of producing fiction. I'm equally embroiled in both projects at the same time. I wish I could finish one of them, that would be such a relief. Eventually, I'm sure, one of them will take over entirely and so force me to complete it.

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