Sahar El Mougy is an Egyptian writer who has made a name for herself among a whole generation of writers who started writing and publishing in the 1990s. In 1984, she graduated from Cairo University where she still works as an assistant professor of American and British poetry. El Mougy has a number of publications including two collections of short stories, Sayedat El Manam (The Dream Lady) (1998) and Aleiha Saghira (Little Deities) (2003). Her debut novel, Daria (1999), won popular and critical acclaim as well as the Sharjah Women’s Club Award in the same year. Her second novel, Noun (named after the Arabic letter N), was a bestseller and received the Cavafy Prize for Literature in 2007. Her latest novel, Misk El-Tal (The Musk of the Hill), was published in 2017 and won the prestigious Sawiris award for best literary work in 2018. She shared the prize with another female writer, Nadia Kamel.
El Mougy is a very busy person who is involved in many activities. She has worked for years as a columnist for a renowned Egyptian newspaper; she is also a radio presenter, a creative writing workshop facilitator, a psychodrama workshop trainer and a theatre actress and director. The following interview was conducted by Heba Sharobeem on 10 February 2019.
What made you start writing? How and when did the muse of writing call upon you?
The Muse of writing called upon me on a very specific night, the night of my 30th birthday. Writing was my attempt to understand what was happening within me, and within was a big, big mess. I wanted to see through the inner darkness, to understand who I was and what I felt: “Am I afraid of time, have I grown ‘old’?” So it was a very specific and clear moment of revisioning the meaning of time and social perceptions about the age of thirty, about growing older. When I eventually started writing, I was surprised to discover that I was actually subverting many ideas about time by resisting social constructs about growing older; and at the same time appreciating the achievements of my twenties on the one hand, while also coming to terms with the depression I had suffered during the same time, on the other one.
Were you by any means affected by your study of English literature?
Definitely, English literature has had an impact on me. In my latest novel, Misk el-Tal, (The Musk of the Hill), the influence is very clear. There you see the side of me that has been raised in the English Literature department, knowing about this other literature, differentiating between the literature and the colonizer, the British literature and the rejection of the period of colonization, realizing that there is a difference between politics and people, between politicians and the great minds of the British culture. My study has freed my imagination; it has taken me outside my culture to see a different culture, and at the same time it has allowed me to look at my culture from another perspective. You can see the impact of English literature on my early works where there are depictions of aspects of nature that do not exist in Egypt such as lakes, woods, and green expanses of land. The way that I write in Arabic has also been affected, in the sense that I am very sensitive to sentence length. In Arabic, the sentence is much longer; my sentences tend to be short and intense, with far fewer adjectives than you would find in conventional Arabic texts. Hence, I don’t use adjectives in a redundant way, but rather very consciously.
All your novels have female protagonists who have to battle with one sort of oppression or another. Do you see your fiction as a way of giving voice to women? How would you label or refuse to label yourself as a writer?
I do not at all deny that I am a feminist, but although I label myself as someone who has a feminist awareness of life, society and social conflicts, I would want to qualify my definition of feminism. For me, feminism does not mean that I write as a means of giving voice to women or delivering a message. I write from a very deep core within me and for very personal reasons: to know myself better, to understand my place, to understand the world, and to find meaning. Writing is an opening for me onto my inner world and the world outside. Yet, although I do not write with the intention of giving voice to anyone, eventually, writing gives voice to other women because a single journey can resonate with others, whether men or women.
I think that if the writer is honest enough with herself, she certainly gives voice to other people and to other women. We have too many writings which shy away from inner probing and which don’t attempt to see, understand, and resolve conflicts. I think many writings, especially in generations previous to mine,1 have been more interested in the macro, in the social, or the National––you name it. Starting in the 1990s, there was this trend in writing which takes the reader inwards, into the psyche of the protagonist in an attempt to defy loss or resist alienation. I think my writings do this, which is very important because they help people understand something about themselves.
In Noun, the Egyptian goddess Hathor2 plays a major role. How have you been influenced by the Egyptian Pharaonic heritage?
I am definitely influenced by the ancient Egyptian Pharaonic heritage, intentionally influenced. It is a subject that fascinates me. I have done extensive research in ancient Egyptian mythology in general. In doing that, I find myself again revisioning mythology and realizing that in Pharaonic mythology female goddesses are actually centre stage alongside male gods, whereas in our modern culture this is not the case.
Hence I came to Egyptian mythology with so many questions: why is it that the female goddesses in ancient Egypt are so multifaceted, so complex, so very rich and equal and sometimes even more prominent than male gods, whereas in our present day culture the interpretations of Egyptian mythology (let alone the situation of women in today’s culture) tend to be biased in their choice of what to represent and what to repress?
So for instance, we have come to know the goddess Isis as the self-sacrificing mother. But when I actually read the myth, it is about a very powerful woman! And that question preoccupied my mind early on when I started writing: why is it that those female goddesses are abbreviated, minimized, simplified in a social cliché about the mother and the one capable of sacrifice rather than being seen as a very complex and resourceful entity? And hence, I was filled with doubts. And the more I looked, the more I found treasures, the more I found that those female gods and goddesses represent Jungian archetypes in a way.
And this is the game of Noun, that Hathor is a goddess, she is an independent entity. She is also the narrator of the book, but at the same time she is an archetype, she exists in the psyche of the four main characters, regardless of who listens, responds, and speaks to her, or who fights with her, or who does not know that she is there in the first place. So my journey into Egyptian mythology was an attempt to find answers and meaning in a very rich world, a world that is still capable of explaining inner and psychological processes in a Jungian sense.
In your latest novel, you brought to life two memorable literary characters, Amina from Naguib Mahfouz’s famous Trilogy and Catherine Earnshaw, the protagonist of Emile Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. And you made their paths cross with your Egyptian contemporary heroine Mariam, a clinically depressed psychiatrist. How did this crazy/genius idea come to you? Was this postmodern experimentation with time and place meant to show the universal suffering of women? And is it a message of hope to have them transformed into a more powerful image in your novel?
How I stumbled upon this idea, I do not know. I started writing the novel with no particular agenda, that is, I was just following these two women and Mariam of course, the depressed therapist. I did not know how they would become or what was going to happen. It just happened that I saw Amina and Catherine together in Thrushcross Grange: Catherine was dying and Amina was being her motherly self. Later on, the idea just flashed in my mind: what about those two? Why are they together and how would they be if they were together? That was the seed which grew into this idea of bringing them together––but why are they together? They must be in some place where female protagonists of different works of art, cultures, and times meet. And because they are “alive” in one sense, what would happen if those characters were actually there and moving around amongst us? And hence I had the idea of the two of them coming to the Cairo of 2010, the last half of the year, a very intense time in Cairo.3
Hence, when I started writing the book, I had absolutely no conscious message in mind. I just had the idea of bringing these two characters together and seeing how they would face questions about life, death, time, and choices. How would they see and perceive themselves in their first lives, in the Siren’s house, and then in Cairo? So I did not intend a message of hope, I did not intend to question time or life choices, but when the story came to an end in the writing process, I could see it talks about all this, and about the multiple lives we have, about chances, about choices, about making and remaking ourselves all the time. The novel is about pain, it’s about overcoming pain, it’s about the power of love, and it’s about finding power in giving birth to ourselves once again.
I need to think more about why those two characters appeared in my mind and what they mean to me. I definitely know what Amina means to me, and I was just drawn to her and to experimenting with her. Mahfouz’s Amina means to me what society has made of her, the niche they hoped for, the image of a woman who is submissive, accepts everything, and doesn’t have a voice. The man can have his double life: his nightlife of pleasure and his day life, and the family life; and he is OK and great whereas the women are much more tied down by society and societal expectations. For me, Amina is not just Mahfouz’s Amina, it is how she has become an icon in Egyptian culture, and I wanted to go straight into that icon, break it, subvert it, look into the flesh of that woman, expose her dreams and pain. What if Amina is given another chance of life, what would happen then; and when she was given this other life twice in The Musk of the Hill, once in the Siren’s house—where rediscovered and remade herself (after a period of depression in writing) through reading, education, and taking care of other women—and then the life of Cairo, another chance where she could make use of all the knowledge, all the maturity, all the growth she had made in the Siren’s house. I do love the two Aminas. I love Mahfouz’s Amina, but I do not want to be that woman and I don’t want other women to be that woman. And I love my Amina because she is very strong, resourceful, and a maker of life.
Your other activities include running a creative writing workshop (“Seshat”, after the Ancient Egyptian goddess of writing), psychodrama workshops, and directing and acting in some theatrical performances, including a monodrama. Have these activities contributed to your fiction? In other words, have they given you material as a writer, opened up other worlds and selves?
The creative writing workshop, which I started in 2012, ushered in a new phase in my personal life and in my writing career. Being a university lecturer, I was working in my comfort zone of teaching and writing, which is my passion. But I had always been haunted by this dream of facilitating a writing workshop. When the writing workshop began, I was experimenting in different areas and it opened up new horizons for me: getting to know other people, discussing writing and so on. Psychodrama was a very transformative process for me and it still is.
The point here is all these activities broke me out of my comfort zone, took me to the edge, and made me choose the adventurous over the familiar. Some of the trainees at the workshop say to me: “You are over fifty and you’re still trying new things and this inspires us.”
It is a double process, in the sense that you give and take from each other. And in the end, it’s all an adventure. And because I experienced and tasted adventure in my life, I was capable of writing The Musk of the Hill, which I consider the biggest adventure I’ve been on so far.
And finally, how do you feel after your latest award which you received for The Hill’s Musk? Will it encourage you to delve into a new fictional adventure, taking into consideration that the timespan between each of your three novels has been rather long?
I am thrilled and very happy. Definitely it is a push. The realization that I now stand in the same place where Ibrahim Aslan and Baha Taher once stood [two renowned Egyptian writers] to receive the same prize years ago is like a pat on the shoulder, like “Ok girl! Keep up the crazy stuff, keep going through adventures in your own imagination, keep making meaning out of pain. Go for it!” I would keep going anyways, but a renowned prize like this, and coming from a committee of such highly respected people, is an encouragement and is definitely an incentive for a new fictional adventure. The Sawiras Prize means a lot because it comes from civil society and it’s acquired great value over the last fourteen years. It means a lot because some of Egypt’s great critical minds are telling me “You have done it. We like the work you have done and we like how crazy you have been.” It is thrilling to say the least.
1 Here El Moughy is referring to earlier female Egyptian writers. The modern Egyptian novel, especially as written by women, started with Latifa Al-Zayyat’s debut The Opening Door in 1960. Her generation and the one following, including renowned writers such as the Egyptian Radwa Ashour, were mainly concerned with major national and political issues such as decolonization, with its ensuing conflict, the 1956 Tripartite Aggression on Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, and the Israeli Egyptian conflicts of 1967 and 1973. The aforementioned writers admitted only at the end of their careers that they were feminists. El Mougy’s generation does not deal much with these events, but tends to delve into their inner selves and the world of women.
2 Hahthor is the cow-headed sky goddess in Egyptian Pharaonic mythology. She is the goddess of women, fertility, children and childbirth, also known as “the Mistress of Heaven” or “the Mother of Mothers” among other titles.
3 This was the time preceding the 25th January Revolution of 2011.