From the Archives: Muhammad Abdelnabi on Writing Queer Characters

I know a few of these terms. In Egypt, there is no censorship of books before they are published, but you can have problems afterwards. It’s about Hani Mahfouz as a gay man in Egypt and his relationship with his mother and the character Abdel Aziz. From the Archives: Muhammad Abdelnabi on Writing Queer Characters

In 2019, Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Muhammad Abdelnabi was in Paris for the launch of his   La Chambre de L’Araigné (translated to English by Jonathan Wright as In the Spider’s Room):

In Paris, Abdelnabi appeared on a panel about “Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Arab Culture” and later sat down for a talk with Olivia Snaije about the Queen Boat arrests, linguistic registers, and loneliness. Why? 

MA: To adopt the voice of any character is a challenge, but it’s easier if the character is closer to you. You dedicated the book to your brother Ibrahim. MA: Yes. It was very important for me to use the rough words heard on the street. In my short stories, it was my voice, the character was like me. MA: Because he is very important to me; he is supportive and very understanding. I was surprised, too, because the book was banned in the Emirates. Sometimes I slipped and friends put their finger on a few sentences that didn’t work. He is currently living in a village outside of Cairo. I was left alone by security on this subject, they just asked me to delete one phrase about national security [when it was reprinted]. It was at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, but not in the bookstores. I expected the longlist, but I was happy with the shortlist. Hani, rather than being an activist, is turned inwards, very focused on himself. MA: There are two aspects to his character. Every writer has themes that are repeated in their writing: questions about loneliness, sexual tendencies, the nature of them and how they evolve. Why is he so self-absorbed and how did his character evolve? Muhammad Abdelnabi

Muhammad Abdelnabi : I was in university in my third or fourth year, and I heard about the case like everyone else. Then, I kept hearing about it and reading about it and afterwards, years later, I imagined the real stories. Before I wrote this book, I was working on another novel about a poor man called Salama who works as a cleaner in a bank. I didn’t want to make a dictionary for gay language.  I tried to forget about myself and speak like him. Harsh words, for example, that Hani’s mother uses to describe the [character called] ‘the Prince’ and the effect the word has on Hani. Can you say why? I realized it later. He is a bit religious, we have different beliefs, but we respect each other. Were you surprised when your book made the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction because of the subject? But Mahfouz means reserved and protected. Is Hani’s last name a wink to Naguib Mahfouz? I liked the meaning of the name, which I changed many times in the first draft. He is finishing the translation of Michael Oondatje’s novel, Warlight, and putting together a collection of non-fiction essays. I had written that Hani didn’t like Mishima’s novel, Confessions of a Mask. They told me “that’s you, not Hani Mahfouz.”

At the Arab Institute Gabriel Semerene spoke about language, and the way words in Arabic have been used to describe gays, can you talk about the vocabulary in your novel? 

MA: There are many levels of language, and there is a language used in the gay community. Do you remember the Queen Boat incident? But for Hani Mahfouz our environment and social class is very different. And Hani is behind an invisible wall. All of a sudden, he becomes pregnant. Did you file this event away at the back of your mind? MA: I didn’t think about that. So, I was researching the meaning of being a man or a woman and I remembered Hani Mahfouz. There is a level of loneliness, like when he is a teenager, he feels this loneliness deeply, and there’s the other aspect when he gets out and discovers the others, he has taken on a role, playing and singing. He has no wife, and no sexual relationships. It was a shock but because I was studying, I didn’t think about it much. Muhammed Abdelnabi is also a professional translator from English to Arabic. He can’t find his real self, and this causes his psychological problems. But [the book] is not about the Queen Boat. Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. I was thinking about the people and not the event. We understand and respect our differences. You mentioned that it was a challenge to adopt Hani’s voice. I might come back to Salama, though. You were a young man in 2001.