By Rana Khaled
“I write for people, not to please them, but to benefit them, and not to hear them saying: well done, but to see the effect of what I’ve written on them”. These words by the iconic writer and philosopher Mustafa Lotfy El-Manfaloty were the motivation behind Mohammed Naguib Abdallah’s non-stop journey to explore the purpose of his existence in life. During his journey, he mainly depended on writing.
In 2005, Abdallah – a doctor by profession – published his first short-story collection “Ma Qabl Wafat Malek” (Before a King’s Death), which was partially translated to French and Italian, and was taught as an elective course in the university of Torino. After less than two years, he released his second collection “When Cats Die”, followed by another collection “Playing the Human Strings”, in which he took readers on a journey to experience the different feelings and emotions moving from happiness in some stories to hatred, tragedy and pain in others.
In 2011, he released his first novel titled “Asphyxia: To Melt of Love “, which was ranked as a best-seller in Alef bookstores, Virgin megastores, and many other bookstores in Egypt.
In 2012, his second novel “Al Mobta’edon Lekay Yaqtarebo” (Those Who Have Gone Far to Come Close) was finally released after being banned for a while due to its criticism of the current political situations and systems. In 2014, he published his fourth collection of short stories “Crystal”, followed by his latest novel “Cherophobia”, which attracted large numbers of young readers.
In his interview with Daily News Egypt, the 41 year-old writer revealed some secrets about the preparations for his controversial novels and stories and provided some exclusive information about the cultural salon he holds at his clinic on a monthly basis.
When did writing start to dominate your life? Does this have anything to do with your childhood?
It is all about being a distinguished child with a distinguished childhood. I started writing at the age of four, just after I came back from Japan, where my dad, who is a professor of engineering, finished his PhD in Tokyo. I started by writing adventures starring myself and my family as co-stars and I wrote almost 60 novels until the age of 11, after which I started to write short stories.
I believe that I was a writer before I was anything else. I believe it was destiny that dominated everything in my life. As well as having something to say, writing is a continuous pursuit for immortality. I wanted to leave something beneficial after I’m gone. I also realised that I perceive things in a different way from anybody else, and I had to document such a different perspective.
When did you decide to give writing a priority in your life, despite being an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine?
Both of them, the writer and the doctor, are trying to diagnose diseases in persons, societies or even life itself. They both cure and try to heal. I decided to become both, and I will. Equilibrium and balance are the keys. After getting my medical degree in 2005, I published my first short-stories collection “Ma Dabl Wafat Malek”. I continued both professions since then, getting promoted in my academic career and writing novels and short story collections until now, and plan to continue doing so. I even supervise the writings of some young writers at the same pace that I supervise the theses of young doctors.
Anybody can study medicine and be beneficial to a given number of patients who you happen to meet along your path, but only a few who can influence people at a larger scale through what they write and leave behind as a heritage. Words, books and ideas never die. They get transferred and get more and more elaborated upon one generation after the other. The pioneers are now dead, but what they left behind is still, and always will be, alive.
In your first short story collection you mixed fantasy with reality in a rich experience. How did the idea of the collection come up and what were your objectives behind publishing it?
This collection contained 17 short stories and it was published after I won several prizes in the field of short stories. It contained several philosophical, symbolic and social stories. It was named after one of its stories that looked symbolically towards the idea of the governor. He is not a man by himself, but rather a whole system and bunch of beneficiaries who set the rules of the game. Many stories were translated into English and French, and many critiques were presented in literature conventions in Egypt and Arab countries by imminent critics studying the stories of this collection. So, I tried to gather its stories with a certain theme that suits the general idea.
Why did you choose “When Cats Die” and “Playing the Human Strings” as titles for your second and third collection? What do these name stand for?
The second collection “When Cats Die” contained ten stories concentrating on ourselves. It talks about our feelings of under-achievement, in between dreams and lives, the idea of change either in lives or ourselves, and how we can create balance. It is a philosophical collection, and as the name implies. It is about the similarity between the mini-deaths we face in our-lives that leave internal scars, and cats who are believed to have several lives. When cats die is when something dies inside us and we don’t know it, and we keep on losing our souls, part after a part. And so on!
As for the third collection “Playing the Human Strings”, which contained 13 stories. It was the first collection I wrote, but the third one to be published. It originally contained 23 stories, but I decided to eliminate some of them because of the similarity in ideas. It is a very emotional collection, as the title implies. Despite the fact that none of the stories carried such a name, the title carried the idea or the theme of the stories, which is playing on human strings full of emotions and exploration of our fears, tragedy, happiness and hopes, which was my main objective behind these stories.
In the fourth collection “Crystal”, you introduced some innovative ideas in your stories, such as the Marionette puppet’s love story and the conversation between the two grains of sand. Why did you resort to such unusual ideas, and how did the audience receive them?
This collection contains 16 stories. There was a space for fantasy, philosophy and symbolic writings. For example, the Marionette puppet’s love story is about freedom and free will, the conversation between the two grains of sand is about destiny and how to decide your fate. Also, there was a philosophical story about a cantaloupe peel, and whether our futures are encrypted there, fantasy stories resembling South American literature in “Sun-man” and “Mesilhy’s Tree”, and so on. In fact, these unusual ideas were very intriguing to my audience and I received many positive feedback about how such stories stormed their minds and made them think more and more about their lives.
You first romantic novel “Asphyxia: To melt because of love” attracted waves of criticism, as many readers accused it of prolongation, exaggeration and lack of description for the main characters. How did you receive the criticism and what were your points of weakness from your own point of view?
Asphyxia was my first blockbuster. I didn’t hear such accusations, but I believe that any new release might get some negative feedback. Of course, criticism is welcomed at any level, and I listen carefully to my audience before listening to critics. The novel is not just a romantic novel; it tries to search for the philosophy of being deeply in love, melting because of love, losing your soul and your love to yourself for the sake of the beloved. Anyway, I invite persons who didn’t like it – probably because it didn’t meet their images of melting in love – to re-read it or read some of my other works; perhaps they’d like it more. You can make all people like some of what you do for some time, but you can never make all people like all you do all the time!
It is not a regular love story at all and nothing is regular about this novel in my opinion. It was even banned for a while since it criticises the political situations in Egypt, the United States or Arab countries. It is a full package, delivered in 320 pages, about alienation and feeling like a stranger, either in our-selves or in our countries. This thought forced so many brilliant brains to leave the country and travel abroad in a trial to find their lost souls. The love story is never the focus, it is rather a symbol.
The novel will be re-released this year in the book fair after some fine tunings, and I hope that it finds success among my audience, who have been searching for it over the last three years. It was an enriched experience that took me whole three years to write and I finished it when I was in Germany. It took a while to find its way to being published. The critics received it very positively, but the market and bookstores didn’t. Things have changed now and the skies of freedom are higher. A free voice can be heard now. And I am depending a lot on my intelligent readers to decide.
In your last novel “Cherophobia” you described the case of most Egyptians who don’t like to feel happy because they are convinced that something tragic will happen all the time. How did you come up with the idea and how did you treat it?
I was looking at people’s faces only to find such agony and dissatisfaction on their looks, this loss of lustre in their eyes, and started to ask myself: where does happiness come from? Where are the happy people? So I started to think about the philosophy of happiness and sadness and what decides each. I came to the conclusion that they come from deep within. We are the only persons who can decide for ourselves. Happiness is an internal decision. Loss is the key to sadness, and none of us haven’t experienced it. You might lose a loved one, a job, a hope, something dear, etc. So it is for us to decide to be happy or not, to find our happiness and grasp it at any cost. Cherophobia is not a novel of sadness, it is the journey to find happiness. Characters perceived their losses in different ways, some of them were positive, like Sara and Inass, some were negative, like Morad and Nagwa. It is for the reader to decide his side.
In most of your literary works, you tend to portray the conflict between happiness and misery, and show pain and tragedy in its worst ways. Also, you tend to wrap your messages in a love story between the main characters in your novels. Why do you use this repeated theme in all of your novels and short stories? And don’t you think it may be quite boring for your readers?
In novels, the love stories were a wrapping, like you said, to some more deep and thoughtful ideas. Like the philosophy of melting in love in “Asphyxia”, or the philosophy of alienation and societal changes in “Al Mobta’edon”, and lastly the philosophy of happiness in “Cherophobia”. Nothing is intentional, the story wrapping creates itself. What matters is the core idea that the story revolves around. Short stories are like snap shots; it can only tolerate the idea that it talks about, while novels are a panorama, showing the lives of the characters involved in them, and since love is part of every human life, it could be part of any given novel.
Why do you hold a monthly literary salon every month in your clinic? And who are your regular guests?
It was a big dream since my childhood to even participate in a cultural salon. My dad and his friends had a salon where they read poetry, played oud and sang. I read about the cultural salons hosted by the cultural and literary icons like Abbas Al-Aqqad and Dr. Taymour and others. So after thorough thinking and a long time dreaming, and with the help of my wife and close friends, I founded my own salon four years ago in my clinic in Giza Square. It is a regular gathering at 5 p.m every second Thursday of the month. You can mark your calendar from now.
Some imminent writers, poets and other talented friends and I get together to read short stories, poetry, watch short animation movies and short films. There is some space for short lectures about photography, literary language, etc. There are no guests in my salon, everybody is an owner, but the regular names would be the imminent novelists and writers: Ahmed Abdel-Majeed, Ahmed Al-Qarmalawy, Amir Atef, Mohamed Fouad Eissa, Mohamed Essafty, Morad Maher, Maie Ashraf, Ann Adham, Walid Galal, Hazem El-Bayoumi, and Rana Omar. Also the imminent photographer Alaa Farid, some journalists like Nermeen Gamal and Menna El-Abied, some imminent poets like Hazem Wefy and Ahmed El-Naggar, and so on.
What are your future novels or plans?
After “Cherophobia”, I started to prepare myself to write a novel about the four strings of the violin and how life and love are so similar to them. I wrote almost one third, then I stopped to write another novel about things that kill us in love. I am also preparing for two short story collections to be released this year, and I hope one or both of my novels will be finished before the 2016 book fair.