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People, music and change: The Bin Al-Sarayat conundrum - Daily News Egypt

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People, music and change: The Bin Al-Sarayat conundrum

Those young people enforced their culture on a mainstream taste that I deem decadent, says Wagdy Al-Komy

In his novel, El-Komy states the changes that happened to “Ben El-Sarayat” since the Khedive Ismail era.  (Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)
In his novel, El-Komy states the changes that happened to “Ben El-Sarayat” since the Khedive Ismail era.
(Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)

At 35, Wagdy Al-Komy stands at the stage where a young novelist can look back with pride to his achievements in seven years of being published. Four novels and one collection of short stories with top publishing houses in the region surely make the young journalist proud of his literary career.

In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Al-Komy talked about literature, places, music, change and his most recent novel “Iqaa’” (“Rhythm”).

Aside from being a novelist, you’re a journalist – how much does imagination appear in your fiction?

As long as I’m writing, fictional imagination is my on the top of my agenda. It has the priority in everything. You can’t measure how much imagination occupies in the novel. Non-fictional content is just the base for my novels. The basis of “Iqaa’” (“Rhythm”) is totally fictional, a Christian woman finds a document that proves she owns land in Bin Al-Sarayat, and she pursues her right. The non-fictional content in my novels is like a thin thread, I put it to surround the story, not to limit it or to be the base to the story.

You dedicated your book to a German archaeology professor, Ralph Bodenstein – what role did he play in creating the novel?

I went to Ralph and told him I wanted to tell a story about Bin Al-Sarayat. There was a horrible battle that happened there and a lot of people were killed, and I felt a story deserves to be told about this neighbourhood. The neighbourhood wasn’t literarily frequented and any novelist looks for a place that has charm to unearth its stories. I asked Ralph about the neighbourhood during the era of Khedive Ismail, and how large his family’s assets were there. We sat together for four hours, and it was the first time I meet him, working on old maps for the area, I found out that we are living on history, we eat, drink and, pardon me, piss on  history. The neighbourhood was nothing like it is now; it was all gardens and palaces for Ismail’s sons Hassan and Hussein, and his daughter Fatma, who donated part of her land to establish Cairo University.

You love places especially; how do they interest you as an author?

We have truly beautiful stories behind walls, and I feel it is my mission to find it, unearth it and write it. I’m always taken by the idea that this place or wall witnessed generations lived and died and taken by the idea that people die and places stay. History surrounds us, we live next to it but we don’t think of it. I believe that answers for all questions can be found in history. When I’m walking in an old neighbourhood, I think about what story there is to be told that historians forgot to tell. In other words, I believe that the real history is in the stories of people not the rulers. In my novel “Iqaa’” (“Rhythm”), the protagonist tells a story about her great-grandfather, whose wife Khedive Ismail loved, and decided to have an illegitimate child from her.

What changed about the people of Bin Al-Sarayat at the time your novel begins and their counterparts nowadays?

I started looking for the first people who farmed and worked hard and actually built the glory of the estates owners, and I believe that they are the real deal because all we see now there is the fruit of their work. The people who work their souls out and farm the land and build the estates, they are the ones who create the glory of those history eternalise. The people of Bin Al-Sarayat now are the same story, they are in some way grinded between their will to live and survive, and between a country that marginalises them and tries to build a fake glory on their behalf. The two peoples are very similar; the people who worked in the past for the Khedive are the same people who live a simple life.

El-Komy expressed joy while holding the first printed copy of his novel before the start of Cairo’s international book fair. (Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)
El-Komy expressed joy while holding the first printed copy of his novel before the start of Cairo’s international book fair.
(Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)

Your novel was accused, even before its release, of promoting abasement and the culture of Mahraganat music (street music). What do you think of that?

It wasn’t accused of this, you can say fairly that I participated in this belief. I like to delude my readers, so I like to trick them to believe that I wrote about some certain thing, but they discover later that it’s actually something totally different.  I can’t say about something I wrote: come and see, I wrote about this and that. What will the reader do then? A reader is supposed to explore and participate in the work somehow with reading and interpretation. The whole Mahragant thing, or promoting that I wrote a novel about Mahraganat music, is something intended. I meant to say that I wrote about a certain class. Because this class is a creative class that tries to leave an impression on culture that is way different from this class’s own culture. This is the very idea of revolution, to change from bottom to top. As I see it, change from the top is a reformist approach, and from the bottom is enforcing and radical approach.

I believe those young people (who usually play this music) exert change and enforce their culture on a mainstream taste that I deem decadent. There is a generation that challenges and tries to enforce its taste, and there is a generation that doesn’t want another generation to compete with it and wants its own taste only to remain. That’s why I promoted that I’m writing about Mahraganat. In the novel, Mahraganat is not just a musical idea that I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about people who were forcibly marginalised whilst they were struggling to exert change.

The widespread success of this music and culture, at least on the grounds of popularity, is evident, so to what extent is this a victory for these people?

Of course it is a big success that you enforce your culture. After working hard, developing themselves and listening to different music, Mahraganat singers and musicians achieved great success. In the past, they were prevented access to certain theatres and stages inside Egypt, but at the same time they were welcomed abroad. Now all of this has changed. Their success came through change from the bottom and working hard on developing their projects.

While signing his book in Cairo’s international book fair  (Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)
While signing his book in Cairo’s international book fair
(Photo Handout from Wagdy El-komy)

As we are talking about developing projects, how does Al-Komy stand on this front? How do you see your progress after four novels and a collection of short stories?

I would say I study a lot, meaning I read and follow what is being written. I’m keen on following the translation movement and reading translated works. As for technique I can say I’m developing, not developed yet. I can’t say I’m the toughest in the alley, I can give myself now eight out of ten. For example, in the past, I was afraid of inserting more than one narrator in the novel, in “Iqaa’”, I present eight characters and use the multiple narrators technique. I’m keen on studying writing techniques, and also I can fairly claim that I’m good at researching for my works. For writing “Iqaa’”, I attended a lot of weddings and concerts where Maharaganat music is played, and I read a lot of books on the Copts, their lives and traditions in the 19th century. But still I’m standing in the area of patient writing and waiting for the right idea to come through. I don’t look for being the best-seller and I’m not concerned that my novel is not on the best-seller shelves. I don’t have this kind of obsessions, the only obsession for me is good writing.

At 35, you published novels at prominent publishing houses in the Arab region, and this is a kind of success. What do you seek next?

I have a firm stance on this, what concerns me is whether my writing will stand in the face of time. How will people read “Iqaa’” after 50 years? This is what I always think of, and so when I see some authors achieve great success on sales grounds, I don’t feel jealous. I feel really jealous of beautiful writing, and when I see a book that is readable after 50 years of its publishing. Publishers are there, but the problem is with the availability of good writing. Let’s put it this way: any publisher can make a best-seller, only some publishers can understand that there is good that can’t be best seller, and any publisher can make good writing.

What is your next project?

I feel I need to read a lot and I feel I need some rest. Let’s say my next project is reading. I’m not in a hurry to write novels. I wrote two short stories in the last couple of months, but there are no novels on the horizon.

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