Kamal Abdel Malek and I are sharing the stage at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in a session entitled 'Tales of Two Cities' on Friday the 8th March from 3pm. The session's name reflects the fact Kamal's novel is set in Jerusalem and my latest is, at least in part, set in Beirut. Tickets for that session are moving fast I'm told and can be got here. We're both pretty lippy, so it's going to be fast, furious and fun for sure.
I first met Kamal a couple of years ago at the LitFest. He's an intelligent, engaging and thoroughly likeable character who loves nothing more than good-natured disputation and banter. He's also a talented writer - published conventionally as an academic author, he took the decision to go straight to self-publication with his first novel, Come With Me From Jerusalem - a love story recounting the adventures of Egyptian Copt Sami, who becomes the first Egyptian student to study in Jerusalem after the 1979 peace treaty and falls in love with American Jewess Lital. When Sami is accused of murdering a call-girl, his and Lital's love is tested beyond reason.
I'm still reading it - it's an amazing book I am thoroughly enjoying. Kamal's work mixes elegant prose and strong characters with real 'voice' and a narrative that hooks you by the nose and drags you forwards. It's wilfully different, witty and well observed and, thank God, avoids those 'obvious' pitfalls of books that attempt to give a new treatment to the Arab/Israeli narrative.
So I thought I might have a chat with Kamal prior our session and perhaps take the opportunity to highlight that today's McNabboGram emailer carries a FREE copy of the ebook of Come With Me From Jerusalem - even before its official launch! There are more specials in store, so if you didn't sign up before, you might want to get clicking on this here link to sign up to the McNabboGram!
Onto a chat with Kamal:
What made you decide to put your heart and soul into a work of fiction after a lifetime of academia?
I have two answers: one modest and the other arrogant. The modest answer is this: the life of the academic is austere in many ways; he spends years poring over research topics, writing papers and books in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. These writings are by and large of interest to him and at best a handful of other academics, so he decides to try his hand at something else, something less objective and more personal, something that is not engendered from the brain cells but from the folds of one’s own guts. This can be a liberating exercise.
The arrogant answer is this: well, Kamal, my man, if you are so good at chess, you can be equally good at swimming, besides, you’ve got a talent in the use of the English language; glib and quite the raconteur at parties, impressive and attention-grabbing as you exhibit with ease your storytelling wares. Yes, English is not your native tongue but English was not the native tongue of Gibran and Nabokov, and before them Joseph Conrad, and look how they fared! So one day three years ago, I said to myself, “Kamal my man, just do it!”
What is Come With Me From Jerusalem about? Not the plot, but the substance, the essence of the book. What are you trying to achieve through this story?
Come with Me from Jerusalem tells the story of Sami, the first Egyptian student in Israel, who falls in love with Jewish classmate Lital. Sami’s life is shattered when he finds himself arrested and tried for the murder of a Tel Aviv call girl. Only a miracle can save him from a certain life sentence as he and Lital come together, offering hope for reconciliation and a shared future.
So what does this really mean? As an Arab novel, Come with Me from Jerusalem is unique in many ways. It is perhaps the first novel by an Egyptian author which presents a Christian Copt and a Jewish woman as the main characters; minority figures are all of a sudden placed in the center of action, in the spotlight of drama. The setting is Jerusalem, not Cairo or Alexandria, not an Egyptian village or an oasis, and in the novel Jerusalem is viewed in a different light, not as a holy city but as a livable city with streets and cafes and rundown houses with TV antennas burgeoning on their roofs like alfalfa sprouts.
Besides, Sami and Lital, lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, are ideally placed to constitute a microcosm representing divergent views of the Arab-Jewish conflict and the desire to achieve genuine reconciliation.
Come With Me From Jerusalem is about an Egyptian in love with an Israeli. Now you've lit the blue touch paper, how far back do you intend to stand?
Technically, Lital, Sami’s beloved, is not Israeli but a Jewish-American woman planning to immigrate to Israel. Well, now that I’ve lit the blue touch paper, I intend to stand as far back as I can. This is bound to be a huge explosion, figuratively speaking, of course. In our Arab world we are not used to reading novels in which a Jewish or Israeli character is a real flesh-and-blood human being with feelings, let alone an object of love and sympathy. There is something disarming about a reference to a handicapped Israeli child. Have we Arabs ever thought that an Israeli can be handicapped? We are more used to him as a predatory soldier, an aggressive land-grabbing settler, a religious fanatic of one stripe or another. But a handicapped child? So I better get myself a good medical insurance policy because the explosion is bound to be a huge hellhole.
There's a danger of 'conflict fatigue' with Arab/Israeli conflict books. Having read Come With Me From Jerusalem, I know this is a vividly original, smart and fascinating story. How are you going to get over that 'oh, another Middle East Arab/Israeli book' attitude?
I stand by my work of fiction. I pitch it to the readers and let them decide. I say “Listen folks, this is not part of the usual stuff written about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is first and mainly a love story.”
“Hatred stirreth up strife;” the Bible tells us, “but love covereth all sins,” (Proverbs 10:12)
Arabic literature has produced a scant volume of works of fiction dealing with the sensitive topic of interethnic and interreligious liaisons. The most celebrated love story between a Palestinian man and a Jewish-Israeli woman is the story of Palestine’s national poet Mahmud Darwish and his Jewish beloved, named “Rita” in some of his poems. I find it strange that Arab audiences in musical festivals such as the one in Jarash, in Jordan, would listen with rapture to the tuneful song “Rita” as sung by the Lebanese Marcel Khalifeh, and not show awareness that the “Rita” of the song is really a Jewish-Israeli beloved and that their rapture is focused on the taboo love between a Muslim-Palestinian and a Jewish-Israeli. Can love conquer all, really? Well, I urge readers out there in the real or virtual world of cyberspace to read Come With Me From Jerusalem and judge.
You're the professor of Arabic Literature at AUD, so your deep literary expertise is rooted in Arabic. How did you manage to write a novel in English - and why English not Arabic?
Arabic is my mother tongue but English is my step-mother tongue. In the world of languages, and as it happened in my case, step-mothers can be and at times are kinder and more affectionate. We don’t choose our mother tongues, do we? They’re imposed on us; they are like our names and our facial features. Like a mother, our mother tongue often yells at us; she’d wag her figure in our face and harshly reprimand us when we make mistakes, when we use the wrong end-vowel, when we replace the nominative noun with the accusative, when our verbs are in the jussive instead of the subjunctive.
But step-mother tongues? They may be at times introduced to us as part of our school curriculum but to continue to live with them and to adopt them as our own mother tongues is a voluntary act. We do this of our own accord, as an act of volition, an act of love. I am speaking for myself here but I bet you 1001 Emirati Dirhams that writers whose step-mother tongue was English must have felt the same way, writers like the Polish Joseph Conrad, the Lebanese Gibran, and the Russian Nabokov, or the Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif.
You're a published author of non-fiction works in your academic capacity - did your work on Arab/Israeli literary portrayal inform the way you managed the characters and their interplay in Come With Me From Jerusalem?
Undoubtedly. How people from different cultural backgrounds relate to one another without losing their authentic selves is what has preoccupied my scholarly and fictional work alike. America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1688 to 9/11 and Beyond (2011), examines Arab images of America: the unchanging Other, the very antithesis of the Arab Self; the seductive female; the Other that has praiseworthy and reprehensible elements, some to reject, others to appropriate.
But my passionate interest is in the historical and cultural encounters between Arabs and Jews as depicted in literature and the cinematic art. You could say that The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film (2005) was a prelude to my fictional work, Come with Me from Jerusalem, in which I tell a story of star-crossed lovers caught up in the vortex of Arab-Israeli conflict.
As I mentioned, you're already conventionally published. Did you look for agents and publishers or go straight to self publishing? And why?
Finding publishers for one’s academic work is far easier than for one’s creative writing. I think that some literary agents out there are darn harsh in their prejudgment of authors’ samples, sending off rejection letters as cowboys shoot from the hip in a Western movie. It is time to challenge these guys whose agencies have become virtual abortion clinic for literary talents.
Have you ever seen their storage areas of rejected MSs? A graveyard of human creativity as a result of wanton death sentences, uttered in the absence of jury and the city folks. I say it is time to revolt against this oppressive oligarchy. Time for the Authors’ Spring! Let my outcry here be the first drum-roll in our holy crusade against the talent-abortionists.
What are your hopes for the book? And are you truly ready for the controversy?
Will there be controversy surrounding my novel? No doubt and I say Ahlan wa Sahlan! I am ready with my bullet-proof jacket and my helmet, and my F-16 fighter plane is being now equipped with laser-guided verbal missiles. So this is a fair warning to the Tatars at my city gates. So much for war and battlefields.
On a happier and more optimistic note this is what I want to add: I used to say to my erstwhile beloved, “My sweet kattousa, ‘lana l-ghadu wa l-mustaqbalu l-wa’du’ - Tomorrow is ours; we are bound for glory!” Ever since I watched this wonderful movie, “Bound for Glory” about the life of singer Woody Guthrie, I’ve always felt it in my guts that someday, somewhere somehow there’s going to be a dramatic turn-up, a big breakthrough in my fortunes. This book is bound for glory because it is an eloquent dream of a brave new world where love rules as a supreme but benevolent sovereign.
GET YOUR COPY NOW!
Come With Me From Jerusalem is available from amazon.com as both a Kindle book and printed book and also from Smashwords for iPads, Android tabs and other ebook readers. It'll soon be available on other platforms such as Kobo and iBooks and a UAE print edition will be available in stores soon. If you've got $95 going free, you might be interested in Kamal's 'Rhetoric of Violence' or for a mere $105, his America in an Arab Mirror.
If you're REALLY fast and sign up to the McNabboGram today, you might be in time to get today's mailer and get Come With Me From Jerusalem for FREE! :)