Basma Abdel Aziz is an award-winning writer, sculptor, and psychiatrist, specializing in treating victims of torture. A weekly columnist for Egypt’s Al-Shorouk newspaper, she was named a Foreign Policy Global Thinker, and a Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute top influencer in the Arab world. A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, she is the winner of the Sawiris Cultural Award, the General Organization for Cultural Palaces Award, and the Ahmed Bahaa-Eddin Award. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Queue, won the English PEN Translation Award and has been translated into Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, and German. She lives in Cairo.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This interview took place between Egypt and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Thank you so much for doing this interview. I was very surprised and wowed reading your biography: a writer, a sculptor, a psychiatrist and activist. I will not only ask how you manage all these very different, important and time-consuming (I would assume) positions and occupations, but also how did you become interested in them and how do they influence each other? How do these inform your writing in particular?
Basma: I started drawing in childhood, and thanks to my grandmother I became interested in colours and shapes. And it’s also thanks to her that I developed my love for music and my tendency to play and compose. As for sculpture, it came later when I realised that it represents a process of creation and embodiment that is incomparable with painting. I became immersed with wood and I went ahead and bought the tools and became friends with the distinguished Egyptian sculptor Sabry Nashed in his work, then later on I held an exhibition of my own sculptures.
In parallel with that, I resumed my passion for writing that I did not give up while studying medicine. When I finished a short story collection, I submitted it to a merited publishing house and I was surprised when the house’s editor decided to publish it. After that, it won the important literary award, the Sawiris Cultural Award, then this collection was followed by another one, by books in political psychology and political sociology, and by novels.
When I finished studying medicine, I decided to specialize in mental and neurological diseases due to its closeness to the world of art in general, and I immediately applied to work at the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, where I spent ten years, and at the same time I was practicing psychiatry in a public (governmental) hospital after the security authorities refused to appoint me at the university in which I studied, although I was qualified for the job.
“The essence of my work . . . is to dismantle, expose and suppress authoritarian oppressions, whatever their source, and to free people from their control.”
In any case, my work at the El Nadeem Center was one of the most important stations that influenced and shaped my knowledge and gave me the label “activist.” It also supported my experience in the field of psychiatry. The effect that the act of torture leaves on the victims is unimaginable, unless the doctor deals with people who went through the horrors of the experience and were subjected to its shocks, which are not scientifically comparable to any other trauma suffered by a person in their life.
There is no doubt that everything I practiced in the past years had an imprint on my writing, and after obtaining a master’s degree in psychiatry I decided to study sociology and obtained a diploma in it. I saw it as an important aspect in understanding the relationships that form within societies, and this is another experience that adds to me as a writer; just as art gave me painting, sculpture, and music, and psychiatry gave me a deeper understanding of individual behavior.
Saliha: When and where did you start writing Here Is a Body?
Basma: I started writing it around 2017, in Cairo, and the idea was present in my mind to a large degree. The event that I made the focus of the novel was devastating, and I could not ignore it or get over it without being influenced by it and expressing my influence to my satisfaction.
Saliha: The novel opens with an extended brutal action scene where we see the protagonist, Rabie al-Mahdi, and others being abducted. Can you tell me more about how you wrote this scene? What is your process of writing in general?
Basma: This scene in particular, although it is completely imaginary, in that I have not encountered anything like it, I wrote it as if I had lived or witnessed it before. I was incited to write it by pieces of news that I began collecting diligently and carefully, as I found in them something that indicated this terrifying kidnapping. The presence of the likes of Rabie al-Mahdi in the streets was familiar, and they suddenly disappeared after multiple statements from officials, stating the necessity of getting rid of them, placing them in what looked like camps, raising them and benefiting from them. From here I wrote and penetrated the scene, putting myself in the place of Rabie.
I don’t have a specific writing ritual lately. In earlier years, I used to ask for a place that was quiet and spacious, but over time my requirements waned and I could write anywhere and at any hour of the day. Early morning or late night, a coffee shop, a park, a club, or even a cramped room and sometimes even in the car when circulation stops and the car comes to a complete stop.
Saliha: Was constructing a child’s or in this case an early teenager’s voice difficult? Which voices were more difficult to construct, the young ones or the adults? Which ones did you enjoy constructing more?
As a reader, I enjoyed reading about Aida the most. I don’t know if it’s because I am an adult, if I may say so (laughs), or because she is a also a woman. What I am sure of is that I related to her in the beginning when she still had questions, doubts, skepticism and ambivalence towards what she was about to undertake. I felt like I would be exactly like her in that situation. So yes her parts were the ones I most enjoyed to read.
Basma: I did not find any difficulty which hindered the writing or made it unpalatable. In adolescence, a person begins to ask a lot of questions and search for answers, and many of them are related to their existence. It is a period of intellectual fertility and open horizons, which made it a rich period for me during the creation of the voice, as the construction of the novel itself raises a large number of major questions that a child, adolescent and adult may share, and for my part, I enjoyed reincarnating of the voice of Rabie. He was the closest to myself throughout the writing period, perhaps because I naturally strive more to formulating questions than searching for specific and restricted answers.
Many of the readers who contacted me really liked Aida. She is the voice of reason and poise. She does not mind providing support, but she also does not change her mind and does not simply mold and put herself in the framework to which all the others agree. In short, she is the closest to what humans should be, in terms of interaction and empathy, then review and thinking.
Saliha: There are oppositions at play in the novel, such as heads vs. bodies, protesters vs. government, and Youssef vs. Emad but also parallels I felt in the way the bodies and the protesters in the space were persuaded and maintained in position like creating for them a sense of community, afforded their basic needs, providing some form entertainment and giving them lectures and speeches. Something that made the two groups look much alike. Can you tell me more about these oppositions and parallels? Was it your way to say that though the treatments both groups have had, at the beginning especially, might look different on the surface, nothing actually separates them?
Basma: This is absolutely true. Parallels exist in the novel and are intended. Repression, even if its means and methods are different, is the same. Its effect on humans is the same, and the consequences it produces are similar. An oppressive power may use various methods to control and direct people; it may exploit religion or use ruthless force and brutality, and in all cases it resorts to falsifying awareness and creating a new awareness that supports its existence, survival, and goals. People may be deceived for a while but eventually realise the facts, and whether or not they can change their reality they are aware of the nature of this authority and the extent of its manipulation of them. I have no doubt that the regain of rights and their return to their owners will come, even if the time it takes is long.
Saliha: I love reading reviews of books, literary criticism essays, or essays on different writers in general. In doing so, I have read in many of those pieces what the writer or their writing is looking for, and the major themes they address. Would you say that you are looking for something from writing? What would you say is the major theme of your works?
Basma: The essence of my work, which falls under the title of literature and under the classification of research writings, is to dismantle, expose and suppress authoritarian oppressions, whatever their source, and to free people from their control. This desire represented a strong and urgent motive in all my writings; starting with Temptations of Absolute Power and through The Memory of Oppression and ending with The Power of The Text, which is a study in discourse analysis, it also formed the core of the two novels that I have published so far: The Queue and Here Is a Body.
Saliha: I found the combinations of different perspectives curious but highly appreciable in the novel. Why did you choose to write in two different perspective and why did you use the first-person narrative and the third-person narrative for the two main characters? And in what way did these choices help in delivering the political themes and messages of the novel?
Basma: I thought about it for a long time before choosing the voices, and came to a complete conviction of giving Rabie al-Mahdi the opportunity to express himself and his views about his peers and to the mighty men who lead them. Rabie is the axis in this line. As for the third-person narrative or omniscient narrator, it was the best to describe all the different characters whose paths may cross or may remain isolated, but still share an existence within the same space. I was comfortable with this choice as soon as I started writing, and I did not think of going back on it or trying other options. I was able through it—I hope—to uncover with it hidden corners and angles, whether in the camp or on the outskirts.
Saliha: Who is your first writing critic (beside yourself)? How do your family and your close circle feel about your writings?
Basma: The great late Egyptian critic and novelist Alaa El-Deeb, who left our world years ago, was one of the most important people who I jumped to, to know their opinion on my literary writings. As for my research writings, I entrust them upon completion to Dr. Imad Abu Ghazi, who has inspiring contributions to historical writings, and who always provides me with objective criticism based on a careful, thorough and detailed reading, which I am eager to benefit from.
Saliha: Where do you usually find your stories? I mean, where do you draw inspiration for them? Do other writers inspire you? And if so, how and why?
Basma: I find my writings in everything I encounter in terms of people, situations and relationships. Some may seem fleeting, but they bear an imprint that crystallizes and is polished and refined during writing. When I read literature, my reading is for pure pleasure; I empty my mind of everything and immerse myself in the story and if it does not happen I leave it immediately.
Saliha: I have read only the English translation version of the novel (I hope to mend that and read the Arabic version soon too). I have read that your first novel The Queue has also been translated into other languages, among them English. What do you think about translation in general? How do you feel particularly about the translations of your novels? How was the process like for you in terms of collaboration with the translators? And do you think that both translations of your works captivated nuances that you might have wanted to communicate?
Basma: Translation is a difficult job, requiring full dedication and familiarity with worlds parallel to the text and intertwined with it; the environment, culture, folklore and other aspects that the translator must be aware of in his willingness to work on a literary work belonging to another culture. As for my personal experience, so far it has been fruitful and useful, I cooperated extensively with editors and translators, and I think that the end result was satisfactory to the reader. And this is reflected in the letters that I receive and the critical articles published by specialized foreign periodicals, which I feel with reading most of them the effort expended in the translation, and the good rendition of text that I wrote in its original language.
Saliha: Thank you so much. I loved and enjoyed all your answers.
Basma: Me too! I have enjoyed answering your excellent questions.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian Associate editor at the South African-based publishers Botsotso and a fiction editor of the literary journal Hotazel Review. She has worked as a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue and her reviews of books have appeared in the other side of hope, The New Arab, and Transnational Literature. Haddad’s creative work has been published or forthcoming in Agbowó, Isele Magazine and New Lines Magazine. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the African Writers Awards and won first place in the inaugural ANTOA Writing Contest.