The covered terrace of a Turkish restaurant in north London. I look round at the smattering of cheerful, respectable fellow lunchers and wonder how many of them know what it’s like to be locked in an Egyptian prison cell, or how to soak a cloth in vinegar to protect your nose and throat from tear gas, or wash your eyes out with Pepsi afterwards. And how many would guess that the striking, petite woman across the table from me, for all the world a cheerful, respectable luncher just like themselves, does know those things.
Ahdaf Soueif is now based mostly in Cairo, where she was born 70 years ago, the child of university professors. But half her heart and some of her time remains in Britain: she did her doctorate here, English is the language of her extensive writing career. Here she spent her married life with the writer, poet and editor Ian Hamilton (who died in 2001), and their two sons Omar Robert and Ismail Richard inhabit with her the cultural “mezzaterra” — the overlapping area between cultures, languages, religions — about which she has written so eloquently.
We chat easily, picking up the threads of an old acquaintance — I remember Robbie and Richard, who are now in their 30s, as quite little boys — and dispensing first of all with the inevitable topics of Covid-19 and lockdown.
“This government,” she says of the pandemic months, “imposes more and more petty rules.” For a moment I’m not sure which government she’s talking about. “But Egyptians have an ongoing way to subvert authority.” Then, in a brief story that reminds me how often she speaks in lively metaphors, “So once I was with my mother, we’re driving down a flyover and there’s a horse-drawn cart coming up the wrong way — she was furious but I thought it was OK, he would have had to go a long way round otherwise and he had confidence that the cars wouldn’t run him down. And they didn’t.
“I thought that was utilitarian anarchy. I’m not so sure now.”
She laughs again. The subject of subverting authority is a potent one. It has turned her — in the years since Egypt’s 2011 revolution that forced out longtime president Hosni Mubarak — from award-winning novelist, essayist and cultural campaigner into a more dramatic activist.
She became an impassioned campaigner and commentator during the Arab Spring, then witnessed the brief, divisive era of Mohamed Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — but unlike some liberal activists was not so disillusioned that she raced to embrace Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the popularly backed 2013 coup that toppled Morsi.
Sisi’s militarised regime has since then carried out a fierce crackdown on dissent in civil society and jailed thousands, and on March 18 Soueif was arrested in Cairo for demanding the release of non-convicted political prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic. A carefully limited protest — “less than five people, it’s not illegal” — on the pavement opposite the Cabinet Office was greeted with overzealous action by the police, but not before it had gathered plenty of media attention. And earned Soueif first-hand experience of the inside of the city’s cells. She was released the following day.
When I ask whether life in Cairo has become difficult for her, she replies, modestly, “All my friends and family, everybody, are on the wrong side of this government. I have a lot of friends who are in prison, who are under a travel ban, whose bank accounts have been frozen. And of course my niece and nephew are in prison.”
She is referring to Alaa Abd El-Fatah and Sanaa Seif, the children of her sister, the mathematician and human rights activist Laila Soueif. Both Alaa and Sanaa are currently in jail, she says, “simply because the regime doesn’t like their attitude”.
“So it would be hard for me to feel singled out!”
Until now, we’ve been sharing a bottle of fizzy water and toying with a small dish of hummus, but we break off to deal with the menu.
“I don’t normally eat lunch,” she says, but chooses some whitebait “because I don’t normally come across them” and a fattoush salad — “it’s Lebanese, but we’ll see how it is in a Turkish restaurant”. I opt for some scallops, followed by sebze guvech, a vegetable dish.
And then it’s straight back to Cairo, but to happier family thoughts. Omar Robert and his Egyptian-American wife are living there and Soueif has a grandson who is almost three, “the love of my life”. For him, she says, it is — as her own was — “a wonderful childhood”.
The darker side of the country’s realities is never far from her thoughts, though. In her soft, precise voice she explains the detentions.
“The mechanism that keeps them in prison is bordering on the illegal. They detain people and lock them up ‘pending investigation’. The law is that you can only do that if the accused is going to go round doing something damaging, it’s not supposed to be a matter of course. But they do it. They are supposed to bring the detained in front of a prosecutor every 15 days, and a judge every 45 days — and if two years pass without the case coming to court, then it’s illegal to keep them any longer. So they [the authorities] just keep them in prison for two years — and often, after the two years, they’ll sign a release order and just rearrest the person again before they even leave the building.
“So you can’t see an end to it, really. There’s no arena where you can actually act: they’ve taken everything: the media, the courts — besides the economy, of course. So people tend to focus on details — like whether you’re allowed a letter or not.
11 Circus Road, St John’s Wood
London NW8 6NX
Bottle sparkling water £2.95
Lemon garlic scallops £8.90
Fattoush salad £5.20
Sebze guvech £13.90
Turkish coffee x2 £5.70
Total (inc service) £48.20
“I don’t know how the lawyers are coping. We have an excellent corps of human rights lawyers who have been on the go, really, since 2011, and before. They’re the ones who are having to act as if the law still means something — when in fact it’s all a complete sham.”
We’ve finished the delicious scallops and whitebait, sharing back and forth off the plates. Soueif is picking daintily at her “good, very good” fattoush salad; I’ve lost interest in my rather dull vegetables, much more absorbed in the stories of these brave activists. Soueif’s nephew, “who was 29 when he came home to join the revolution”, has spent six of the past nine years in prison. The waste of life, for such young people, seems heartbreaking.
“Yes,” she agrees. “Alaa and Sanaa are exceptionally lovely, smart, creative, kind people. And there are so many like them in prison — personally I could count about 40 people, that’s just the ones I know. We’ve stopped being surprised — but there’s a way in which one is in a state of ongoing surprise, that things could be like this.
“Yet there are pockets, you know. There is a handful of news outlets and human rights organisations who have excellent credibility, very brave, who continue to work, with Covid, with everything: people getting on with what they feel is their work, and managing despite everything to live. To get married, to have kids . . .” Again a light laugh.
Fascinated as I am by the politics of activism, I’m eager to get back to Soueif’s writing. Although the past years have been filled with articles, essays, journalism, her last big novel was the bestselling The Map of Love, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. It followed her stunning 1992 debut, In the Eye of the Sun, and two books of wonderful short stories, all full of rich and deep immersion in the culture and texture of her homeland, of travels, of thinking, literature, love. Why so long, I ask, without more fiction?
“I sort of hijacked myself into cultural activism. There is PalFest, to begin with.” This is the Palestine Festival of Literature, which she co-founded in 2008. “Then I wrote the Egypt book, the revolution book” — Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (2012), a powerful account of on-the-streets action as well as wider thinking — “and somehow I always just did that next thing: that next essay, that next talk, that next protest or whatever. The ‘new novel’ always got pushed back.
“Things in my personal life also made it very hard to go to the fiction place — Ian dying, my mother dying . . .
“And I had a weekly column in an important Egyptian national daily until 2016. When they first asked me I said, ‘I can’t, I don’t write in Arabic’ — of course I do, I write letters and things — but I don’t write it as well as English. Now people say they like my style. It’s not a style, it’s the only way I can write” — another laugh — “but it is distinctive.
“It gave me a place to campaign for the things I cared about . . . When they killed the column it put an end to that. And I also stopped seeing what good it would do to write about what was happening in Egypt for the western press. Why? Because the Egyptian government used to care what the outside world thought, but these people don’t care any more. They’ve got everything the way they want it.”
Our plates have been empty for a while, and when the waitress comes back to ask about dessert, we both shake our heads. I’m more keen to know whether she sees, as things stand, any prospect of change?
“Here I want to give you two answers,” she says carefully. “One on the record, which is that it’s very hard to see [change], and it depends on what happens in the rest of the world as well.”
Her second answer — much fuller and much more fascinating — was off the record and stays there. But factors that are public knowledge, I point out, include the brisk arms trade with the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia as well as the US’s very substantial aid grant to Egypt — second only to the amount given to Israel — all of which must be bolstering the current regime.
Soueif agrees. “The US is breaking its own codes by giving so much aid to a country under military rule, one that uses arms against its own citizens, but they do it anyway. But at least the scene in America with regards to Israel is becoming more interesting now. The action against the Israeli occupation — and even against Zionism — among young American Jews, they’re passionate and innovative. And common cause being made between young Jewish groups and young Palestinian diaspora.”
There is more, much more: Soueif’s grasp of the politics of the area — religious, emotional, cultural as well as strategic and pragmatic — is refreshing and impressive. The restaurant is full to bursting now, with loud laughter and people happy to be out. None of them, thank goodness, are now listening to us. As the waitress hovers again we dither over mint tea but decide on Turkish coffee. And I’m determined to get back to Soueif’s writing. Finally she does admit, almost shyly, that a new big novel is on the way.
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“Until recently,” she explains, “every day there was something different, a possibility of action. Now there is no possibility of action . . . So what started happening in my head was fiction. A long work, that takes liberties.
“Also — I did sign the contract 18 years ago!”
This is not, I recall from my own days in publishing, even close to a record. And there has been so much more action in this busy life. As the waitress brings us both tiny cups of Turkish coffee, I ask about another stormy moment when, last year, she resigned as a trustee of the British Museum, where she was appointed in 2012.
The several issues that troubled her, as she explained in an eloquent London Review of Books article, were the sponsorship from BP, problems with the terms of employment for ancillary workers and what she saw as a failure to engage with issues of empire and how it relates to museums today.
It was a powerful statement to make, I say. Trustees of such august bodies rarely resign so publicly.
“I thought about it for about a year,” she admits. “In a way of course it was admitting defeat. I couldn’t change anything. But I then decided that was the one thing I could do: a public resignation could be a push for change. It got attention.
“For the workers there, it meant something, that a trustee had resigned as it were on their behalf. The trade union put out a statement supporting my action and linking to issues of outsourcing and sponsorship. And for myself I’d come to feel I was in the wrong place: I was in the boardroom, when really I wanted to be out there in the protests.
“It was curious — the board is very dedicated, they take their responsibility super-seriously. They’re all clever, successful people and give the museum their time and energy. But mostly what’s discussed is finance, concerns about the fabric of the building, security. Not why the collection matters or how it could be best served and best used in a changing world. There was/is a big idea of redeploying the collection to tell a more joined-up story of the world. But it was very, very rare for issues of historical or ethical substance to be brought before the board so there was no avenue to address things I thought were of concern.”
We agree that the knotty question of restituting artefacts has made, as far as we can see, very little progress. “I actually think,” she says, “that the Egyptian collection is put to good use, and it acts as an ambassador for Egypt, but I would return indigenous human remains, and I would think profoundly about the Parthenon pieces.”
“And, well, at least I ruffled the surface a bit.”
Ruffling the surface seems to be what this lively and deep-thinking writer is best at. Even so, as we get ready to walk out into the grey London winter afternoon, I can’t help asking whether, despite all her energy and commitment, the situation in her homeland ever makes her feel despairing.
“Which homeland?” she smiles, “There, with the military? Or here, with Brexit and Johnson?” Then, thoughtfully: “You can’t be despairing. We, all of us, are not full of hope, but we’re not despairing. I don’t know what despairing would feel like — because then, why would you get up in the morning?”
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
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