Amina’s Stories: Memories, growing up, and the stories in between

Last week saw the book signing of the third edition of prominent novelist Hossam Fakhr’s book, Hekayat Amina, (Amina’s Stories). The event was paralleled by the book signing of prominent vernacular poet Bahaa Jaheen’s latest book, el-Falah el-Fasih (The Eloquent Peasant). The double signing took place at the quarters of Merit publishing house at the International Book Fair premises

Hossam Fakhr, who is currently the Chief of Interpretation Service at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York, has been writing since 1985. He has written six books, including novels and short stories, from which Hekayat Amina was awarded the Sawiris Prize for short stories in 2008.

In 18 eloquent short stories, Hekayat Amina brings to life treasured childhood memories, and the story of the exceptional woman who told them. Nostalgia is a cross-cutting theme subtly embedded in this simple, yet superb narrative technique in which the author effortlessly moves between scenes from his childhood, his imagination, and his own perception of the grandmother who had a major impact on his upbringing and worldview.

Amina’s stories echo a refined philosophy of life, from the way she respectfully welcomed the homeless, delusional woman to her house (one who believed herself to be the president), down to the way she soothed her young grandchild who feared she might die, as she told him that death has its own music preceding it, so he didn’t need not panic so long he did not hear the music

Brought up in the conservative Egyptian society of the early Twentieth Century, Amina stands out as a rare example of an Egyptian woman who managed to defy social constraints, waltz between her national roots and her British education, and capture the magic of the moment. First published in 2007, Hekayat Amina is a time machine that takes you back to wander in your grandma’s kitchen, where stories unfold and treats are inevitable. However, it makes one wonder about the grandma’s life story, the source of all the enchantment.

In an exclusive interview with Hossam Fakhr, Al-Masry Al-Youm discussed this exceptional literary work.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Hekayat Amina reflects a very different social background in which Amina lived. It also mirrors her own unique personality and philosophy of life. Did you intend to reveal Amina’s life story through the stories she told?

Hossam Fakhr: Yes, I meant to reveal the story of Amina through the stories she told me or I hoped she would tell me. I was very fortunate to have her as a grandmother because she never told me to do or not to do something. Everything was told through a story in the most subtle way. Therefore it had to be told that way.

Al-Masry: In this book, your writing technique varies from your other books. It leans towards a simple narrative method. Was that also intentional?

Fakhr: I made no conscious decision on how to write it. I wrestled with such a small book for 15 years. I wrote it a number of times or started to write it a number of times and somehow the styles were not the right ones. I wasn’t sure. I know how I did not want to write it. One of the attempts was actually to write it in English. I started it again and again until it [the style] felt right and so I continued.

Al-Masry: In almost all your literary works, your characters are on an endless quest to find a place they call home, to preserve their identity. That struggle between East and West is somehow settled in this book, where Amina tells you King Arthur’s stories and verses from the Quran with the same passion. How come?

Fakhr: She was perfectly at home and at ease and peace with the two cultures that co-existed seamlessly in her attitude, thought and sensibility. That is why she could sail effortlessly from Quran to Dickens without feeling any contradiction. I have failed completely to do that. Having lived in the West for more than a quarter of a century, I am ill at ease with both. Maybe because we live in a very complex world, where, ironically, we have globalization on the one hand and insularity on the other hand, where people are more attached to what differentiates them, not what unites them. There is an overwhelming force of globalization threatening to erase all the differences, to make people copies of a dominant culture. So people are taking refuge in their cultural specificity.

Al-Masry: Can one view this book as semi-autobiographical, a memoir of your childhood?

Fakhr: I was once asked if it was an attempt to record a life in a different era, a different Egypt. Well, this never crossed my mind. I was somebody walking in the sultry heat of August and found a shady tree. Sat in its shade, had a drink of water, wiped off the sweat and then continued on to wherever I was going. I was tired of the hectic pace of modern life. I sat in the shade of my grandmother, caught my breath and continued on. In that sense, the book is a semi-autobiography, but the line dividing fact from fiction is completely blurry in my mind. I am no longer sure what actually took place and what is what I wished had taken place.

Al-Masry: Having lived more than 20 years in New York, never losing contact with Egypt, from your perspective, how far has our Egyptian society deviated from the one you grew up in?

Fakhr: The difference between the society I grew up in and our contemporary one is measured in light years. I had always thought–rightly or wrongly–that Egypt was the most tolerant of places and very accepting of differences. But when I look now, I see that it has either changed 180 degrees or that I was living in an illusion. I have heard somewhere that the strength of any society is measured by its ability to tolerate differences. If that is true, and I believe it is, then Egypt of 1919 was a society that reached the height of its strength when we saw that a Christian priest gave Friday sermons at Al-Azhar mosque. You would realize that it was not a society that tolerated differences, it employed them in its quest for freedom and modernity. Can you imagine something like that happening now?

Al-Masry: Currently there is a boom in the literary world, among the young generations who use various means and methods to tell their stories, breaking the mould of the popular form of writing. Can such forms still be defined as literature?

Fakhr: In my mind, to define something is to confine it. To say what it is and what it is not is stifling. People can always find ways to express themselves. I don’t quite know their genres. All I know is, it is making our cultural life richer for we are having different voices in different forms that are enriching us and expanding the margin of freedom of expression. Some bloggers say out loud what was unthinkable five years ago. And that is a great addition. I am not particularly wedded to any form. I love Mao’s saying, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” I say the more the merrier.

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