Bahaa Abdelmegid, an English lecturer at Ain Shams University, has recently released his novel “Temple Bar” in the UK, translated by Jonathan Wright. The author, known for works like “Saint Theresa” and “Sleeping with Strangers,” discusses the book in an interview.
The protagonist, Moataz, encounters challenges such as marginalization, cultural misunderstandings, racism, and moral dilemmas during his year as a Ph.D. student at Trinity College in Dublin.
What do you think makes a good writer?
I think being honest, hardworking, and having a deep understanding of people and life is crucial. It’s essential to always learn, read, experiment, and, most importantly, endure challenges and then express those experiences through writing. Great writers often face hardships, but the fortunate ones turn these trials into art.
In the story, a character tells Moataz, an aspiring writer, that “Writers are always sensitive and suffer more than others.” Do you personally agree with this?
Yes, because writers carry the weight of their own message, aiming to enlighten society and see things others might not. I see Moataz, the protagonist in “Temple Bar,” as a romantic figure—melancholic, kind, superstitious, and revolutionary, yet somewhat static. Sensitivity is vital for quick responses to life’s actions, whether good or bad.
I was reading “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe then, and his romantic tone influenced me. “Temple Bar” by Bahaa Abdelmegid is a tragic portrayal of Moataz’s struggles, showcasing his determination to survive despite all the suffering and pain.
To what extent is Temple Bar autobiographical?
It’s a tough question because I blended my personal experiences with imagination. For instance, I went to Dublin to pursue my PhD at Trinity College, studying Seamus Heaney. While some characters are made up, others were inspired by my time there, and their lives unfolded as described in the book. The novel reflects the stages of my own life.
You could call it a bildungsroman, similar to James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” capturing my physical and spiritual growth and mental dilemmas. The Dublin Bahaa Abdelmegid depiction is genuine, and the Irish and Egyptian characters are based on real people but influenced by my imagination.
If Moataz was your friend how would you describe him?
Moataz is a person with principles but feels unsure. He enjoys showcasing his knowledge. His time in Dublin has deepened his love for his country, making him feel the need to protect his identity and where he comes from. Balancing his religious beliefs with his desires is a challenge for him. Additionally, he aims to assert his connection to the East, particularly Egypt, with its rich civilization.
Has the fact that this novel takes place in a foreign country, Ireland, affected your writing style?
To some degree, there were several attempts and temptations to write this novel in English while I was in Ireland. I wrote some chapters directly in English, but upon returning to Cairo, I rewrote them in Arabic.
How you perceive things, particularly in a foreign country, can influence your writing style, leading you to imitate the language style of that country.
Two recurring themes in the novel are racism towards Arabs and Moataz’s moral conflict in resisting Irish women.
Would you say that Temple Bar is actually about tolerance and temptation?
It’s true, but it’s also about choices—whether to mix with others or resist and isolate oneself. Moataz is uncertain about what he truly wants. He has desires and moral commitments to a woman he loves in Cairo.
Moataz’s greatness lies in his openness about his desires and urgent need to fulfill them. However, there’s something vague and superstitious holding him back from giving in to all his temptations.
Tolerance is essential in our world, including in Egypt and Ireland. The Irish faced historical challenges, particularly when the English nobility took over their land in the 19th century. Today, joining the European Union poses challenges for the Irish as it brings in many foreigners.
There’s a complex relationship between the Irish and the English, and a fear or rejection of foreigners, similar to Moataz’s experience. The only person truly sympathetic to him is Simone, who believes in peace but tragically dies in the 1998 Omagh bombing. She holds the belief 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 story unfolds in Ireland, and Moataz’s favorite writer is Joyce. Moataz sees himself as Leopold Bloom, a lost Jew searching for a sense of belonging. Like Bloom, Moataz is in love with Siham, who is married and doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, causing him pain. Moataz, like Bloom, explores Dublin in search of experiences and the meaning of life. I aim to explore the theme of seeking a home, a dilemma shared with the character Luke in my novella “Saint Theresa.”
Do you think that due to cultural differences, Western readers might perceive Moataz’s challenges differently than Egyptian readers? For instance, his being overly indulged by his mother or his expectation that people should help and share, as is common in Egypt.
Bahaa Abdelmegid believes they share common ethical codes. Western readers would empathize with Moataz because of his sensitivity and understanding of the reasons behind his reactions. Moataz seeks companionship and sympathy.
Moataz wasn’t spoiled by his mother. She treats him differently because she recognizes he is not ordinary and wants him to succeed. While she may not always be kind and even becomes aggressive during his depression, her intention is to shield him from accusations of madness by others.
How does the experience in Dublin change Moataz, if at all?
Moataz undergoes significant changes in Dublin—physically, mentally, and spiritually. However, this experience also brings forth his fears and madness.
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