Egyptian Revolution Novel ‘Cigarette No. 7’ Finally in Translation; What Its Author Does, and Doesn’t, Still Relate To

The questions haunted me, and I needed to finally sit down and explore them. Is that how you intended it? NY: I remember getting in touch with you when I first read it and telling you how much I personally related to the narrator’s state of mind. In real life, that couch was the only piece of furniture I took with me when I moved, though I don’t really sit on it much anymore. Donia Kamal

Nariman Youssef

NY: The same couch in Nadia’s studio? NY:   I could actually empathize with Nadia’s need to purge her life of the attachment to Ali in order to move on. Much of the novel deals with the heartbreak that he caused, so I was really surprised when readers told me they sympathized with him. It was translated to English by Nariman Youssef and was originally set for an October 2017 release, but finally appeared in English in April 2018:
Image snagged off @DoniaKamal
The English translation is dedicated “to the one who keeps the promise of a more innocent world alive.”
An excerpt online, translated by Nariman Youssef, begins:
I sat next to my grandmother on an old wooden couch in the spacious apartment and watched as she sifted uncooked rice to remove the small stones and mites that might have crept into the cloth sack she had bought at the cooperative. In a sense, it was an act of archiving the experiences of the previous year and the idealistic thinking that accompanied them. On the topic of translation, I wanted to ask you how you feel about the novel gaining a new readership in English, more than five years after you were done with the archiving that it entailed. It’s like a rebirth that I did not really ask for. But could people’s sympathetic reaction to Ali himself be related to the fact that we only see him through Nadia’s eyes, and Nadia up until the end only sees him through the eyes of love? But if there was one concrete motivation for me to write, it was that through everything that had happened since January 2011, with every small or big development, I’d find myself wondering what my father would have done if he were alive. How revolutionary would he have been? NY: And what is it like to revisit an archive years later? There was no elevator, and Grandma often carried me up the wide staircase. Last August, in anticipation of the novel’s release, ArabLit ran a discussion between author and translator. What stayed with me most after the first read was the immediacy of the later scenes in Nadia’s flat: the hours spent sitting on the couch, staring at the ceiling, pacing the seven steps from one wall to the other – it felt claustrophobic, like a temporal and spatial cage that the narrator –and reader—could end up stuck in forever. It is where she takes what happens in her world, and makes sense of it in order to move forward. DK: One thing I want to add to that is that Cigarette Number Seven, in dealing with the unfinished dream of one woman, is mainly about the idea that everything – experiences, emotions, attempts to change the world— moves in cycles that never reach a clear end or resolution. That was the mood. DK: I wrote the whole thing in the summer of 2012, in 3 months, with very little editing or reworking. For much of the time, I was sitting on the couch surrounded by boxes. DK: The very same. You know, so many people in my circles got married or decided to have children during that year. NY:   The tone of the book does not come across as celebrating those ideals but as mourning them. I was personally going through a very low time – both in reaction to political/public events and on a personal level – and it was strangely refreshing to read something that was set in 2011 and that reflected that mood. Even when it won the Sawiris Emerging Authors award in 2015, it validated what I could still perceive as its significance for readers at the time. That part of me that is manifested in Nadia’s character – and also in some of her friends – could only see the good in everyone, or perhaps believed that if we keep trying, the good will have to come out. The two, who Youssef called “friends who have never actually med,” discussed   Cigarette Number Seven’s   themes, genesis, and translation. If it had been a year earlier, I’m sure the tone would have been different, but by that point, I think I was writing to explore certain thoughts and feelings then tidy them away. There is a lot of romanticism in that novel that, five years later, I don’t relate to at all. The grandmother’s flat, the family house in the country side, Nadia’s studio flat. DK: I generally give a lot of attention to places when I write. NY: Is that perhaps why the cleaning scene was important? In the novel, the couch is the place where Nadia observes the world and reflects on it, and it’s also the place where she develops as a character. And when I worked on it in the past months, it was almost like relating to something from my own past. Nariman Youssef: I first read your novel in 2013. Anyone who got to know me in the last few years would find it difficult to believe that I could at some point personally relate to the ideas and feeling expressed in Cigarette Number Seven. NY: The theme of unfinished stories is recurring in the novel. NY: I’m very interested in spatial representation in your book. You can read more about the novel, including where to buy it, at Hoopoe Fiction. I place Nadia on the couch to trace her development and to keep track of how she unfolds and grows as a person. NY: The relationship between Nadia and her father is clearly central to the story, closely followed by her relationships to Zein and Ali. Contrast that with, for instance, the spaciousness of Nadia’s grandmother flat, where she was also confined, but where the way her childhood memory recalls the different rooms makes a move from the bedroom to the kitchen sound like an adventure. Nothing was stable, and love was the opposite of stability. I was not yet ve years old, and had been living with my grandparents for as long as I could remember. It is astonishing how our memories can play tricks on us and alter our perceptions of our own experiences, and amidst the noise of everything happening around us in the world, I want to preserve my original perception of the moments that matter. I read it as a novel about defeat – political and romantic. DK: There was also an insistence on hope. DK: Well, Ali in particular was not supposed to be idealized at all. The voice of Umm Kulthum was inter- spersed with radio static. I didn’t talk much, but I absorbed every detail around me: every grain of rice on the red tray on Grandma’s lap, every word in the song coming out of the radio— “the evening sauntered toward us, then harked to the love in our eyes”—and every line on Grandpa’s serene face as he listened. I was really struck by the near-idealization of the three main male characters. I was also moving house at the time, so the activities of cleaning and tidying were part of my daily reality. There’s a house-cleaning scene that no one seemed to like. It was about finally daring to remember details from 2011, and how rereading your book helped me realize how far our present lives have moved on from that moment. My grandparents lived on the fth oor of a huge, ancient building on the main road of a small city. Donia Kamal: It’s not consciously about defeat. Cigarette Number Seven   is Donia Kamal’s second novel, for which she won the Sawiris Emerging Authors prize, three years after it was originally published in 2012. Translation is a slow form of labour – you stay close to the text for long hours at a time – and that means that I can’t ignore the thoughts it calls up from the recesses of my own memory. Some readers have noted how all Nadia’s contemplations and inner monologues are expressed while she is on the couch, i.e. The book addressed a certain need for me when I wrote it. I also wonder what it was like for you to read it again now, 3 or more years after your first reading. At the same time, maybe we just need to accept that most of our stories are unfinished, yet find ways to embrace the transient beauty in them. On a bed in the same room, my grandfather lay on his side next to the radio. DK: You might have a point there. DK: I have always been fascinated by the idea of archiving moments, the moments that you know you don’t want to forget; those important glimpses that your memory might trick you into perceiving as something else after a while. The moment she leaves the couch marks her move towards a new stage in her life. And then perhaps, if translation is a form of rewriting, each translation would make the story whole in a new way. One of my favorite lines comes when Nadia is rummaging through her father’s drawers and says: All the stories were beautiful, even if most were unfinished. That’s why I try to write those down; sometimes I’m lucky and the moment I write turns into a big project – a novel for instance; and other times the moment is too huge or too elusive to contain in a book. I’m thinking that perhaps all stories are unfinished and the only way to make any story whole is to write it. NY: You have just echoed what Nadia says when she tries to rationalize her relationship with Ali: There was so much passion in the air—demonstrations and intensity everywhere you look—and we must have simply been susceptible to falling in love. Several people – including the late Radwa Ashour, whose opinion I cherish – told me was it too harsh because it can be read to represent Ali as the evil that needs to be purged out of Nadia’s life, and he doesn’t come across as deserving that. DK: Yes. They were moved by romantic ideals, whether in love or revolution. But for some reason that scene was the most important for me to keep, and also the most difficult to write. But for me personally, the moment of that need and that significance has passed, so I guess it will now take on a life of its own. DK: I have really mixed feelings about that. I had already started paying rent on a new flat, but simply could not move before I finished writing. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading…‹ Appearing at the 49th Poetry International Festival Rotterdam: Gihan OmarCategories: Egypt, translation It’s about choices, unforgettable moments, unfinished dreams and projects, including that of the revolution. in her cocoon/sanctuary. I can see a parallel there between how you talk about tidying away certain experiences, and Nadia’s diligent cleaning of her flat as part of dealing with her heartbreak. NY: Could you tell me more about the idea of archiving romantic ideals? What advice would he have given me? When I learned you were translating it, I was sure that you wouldn’t experience it in the same way. DK: I must admit it feels somewhat alien to me. It was a very romantic moment. I was surprised that it came across that way. There can be a lot of pain in that. I’ll tag you in a Facebook post I wrote earlier this year, when I was working on the first draft of the translation. Each home is a kind of sanctuary, filled with personal details, and I’m fascinated by how each place we call home will one day be filled with other people’s details – layers and layers of memories and private experiences. But in all cases, I try to keep a written archive of as many moments as I can. For the rest of my life I would never learn to appreciate Umm Kulthum without the static.