Bahaa Abdelmegid’s new novel Temple Bar, translated by award-winning Jonathan Wright, has just been released this month in the UK. A lecturer in English at Ain Shams University, he is the author of two collections of short stories and four novels, including Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers.
In this interview, Abdelmegid shares with us his thoughts about Temple Bar in which his main protagonist Moataz faces marginalization, cultural misunderstandings, racism, and personal moral tribulations during his year as a PhD student at Trinity College in the Irish capital.
What do you think makes a good writer?
I think being honest and hard working and having very deep knowledge of people and life. And to always learn and read and experiment and above all to suffer and then write. If you look at great writers you will see that their life is not easy, that they have many ups and downs but the good thing is they are lucky to transform these experiences into art.
One of your characters says to the protagonist Moataz, an aspiring writer: “Writers are always sensitive and suffer more than others.” Do you personally believe that?
Yes, because they are burdened by the weight of their own message and they want to enlighten their own society and they can see things that others cannot. I was quoting William Wordsworth in his definition of the meaning of the poet from the preface to his collection of poems Lyrical Ballads. I see Moataz, the hero of Temple Bar, as a romantic figure, very melancholic, kind, superstitious, and revolutionary but at the same time very static. I believe that sensitivity is an important aspect of any human being because it makes him or her respond quickly to any action in life, good or bad.
I remember I was reading The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe at that time and I was highly affected by his romantic tone and attitude to life. Temple Bar is a tragedy that portrays the failure of Moataz and his will to survive regardless of all suffering and pain.
To what extent is Temple Bar autobiographical?
It is a difficult question because I tried to mix between what is personal and what is imagined. For example I went to Dublin to study for my PhD at Trinity College and I studied Seamus Heaney. Some characters are fictitious but some of them were inspired by my experience there and their lives actually ended the way I describe in the book. It portrays stages of my life. You can call it a bildungsroman, like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where it reflects my physical and spiritual growth and mental dilemmas. The Dublin I describe in the novel is real and true and the Irish people and Egyptian characters are true but coloured by my own imagination.
If Moataz was your friend how would you describe him? Would you say he is conservative and chauvinistic?
Moataz is a human being who has principles but is confused. He is strong and full of pride?of himself and where he comes from. He also likes to show off his knowledge. His experience in Dublin has taught him how to love his country even more. He feels that he needs to defend himself and his origins. He respects his religious background on one hand but at the same time struggles with his desires that he hesitates to fulfil. He also wants to prove that he is from the East, especially Egypt, with its great civilization.
Has the fact that this novel takes place in a foreign country, Ireland, affected your style of writing?
To some extent, there were many attempts and temptations to write this novel in English when I was in Ireland. In fact I wrote some chapters directly in English but when I came back to Cairo I started to write it again in Arabic. I think that the way one looks at things especially in a foreign country does have an effect on your style as you tend to imitate the style of the language of that country.
The issue of racism towards Arabs and Moataz’s moral struggle with resisting Irish women are two recurring themes. Would you say that Temple Bar is actually about tolerance and temptation?
It is true but it is also about choices, either to choose to mix or resist and isolate himself. Moataz does not have a clear idea about what he wants. He has desires but also religious and moral commitments to a woman he loves in Cairo. The greatness of Moataz is that he admits and confesses his desires and his urgent need to satisfy them. Meanwhile there is something vague and superstitious forbidding him from doing everything that tempts him.
We do need tolerance in this world, including in Egypt and Ireland. The Irish suffered a lot in their history, especially when the English nobility annexed their land in the 19th century. Today the Irish face the challenges of having joined the European Union because it brings in many foreigners into Ireland. The Irish have a complex toward the English and it translates into fear and rejection of foreigners. This is Moataz’s experience. The only person who is really sympathetic to him is Simone, who believes in peace but gets killed in the Omagh 1998 bombing. She believes that music can heal racism and sectarian violence in the world.
Why is Moataz so fascinated with the character of Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses?
The novel takes place in Ireland and Joyce is Moataz’s favourite writer. I think Moataz identifies himself with the myth of the lost Jew embodied in Leopold Bloom who searches for a home and acceptance. But also Bloom is in love with Molly who is not faithful to him, just like Moataz who is in love with Siham who married, ignoring his love, leaving him to suffer. Moataz also roams Dublin like Bloom, searching for experience and the meaning of life. I try to discuss the Jewish dilemma of seeking a home in the same way I did with the character of Luke in my novella Saint Theresa.
Do you anticipate that because of the cultural differences, some Western readers may relate differently than an Egyptian reader to Moataz’s tribulations? For example, to the way Moataz was overly spoiled by his mother or how he expects people to help and share the way they do in Egypt?
I think we have common ethical codes. The Western readers will sympathize with Moataz because he is sensitive and they realize the rationale behind his reactions. What Moataz is looking for is companionship and sympathy.
Moataz was not spoiled by his mother. She treated him differently because she realizes he is not an ordinary child and man, and she wants him to be successful. She is not always kind to him and even gets aggressive with him during his depressions. But at the same time, she wants to protect him from other people who will accuse him of madness.
How does the experience in Dublin change Moataz, if at all?
It changed him on many levels: physical, psychological , and spiritual. At the same time it brought out all his fears and madness. ■