Nael El Toukhy: a post-modern novelist’s eye on Egypt

El Toukhy, XLNael El Toukhy is a bright light among Egypt’s millennial writers at a breakpoint in Arab culture as well as politics. On a rooftop in Cairo we’re talking about the family effects of the Tahrir Square revolution: In every house in Egypt, he’s saying, you’ll find a father who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and a son who voted against them. Also: about the liberation of Egyptian talk, which used to be “just football.” The chatter on the bus every morning is now about politics, sex, religion, “everything.” Nael El Toukhy, 34, is speaking of his devotion to Woody Allen movies, Kafka stories, Borges fables and “noisy writers” in general. He is known for his own off-beat novels, but also – and it seems remarkable for an Arab writer — for his translations of provocative Israeli authors from Hebrew. The late playwright, Hanoch Levin, a fierce satirist, is “my dream,” he says. “I was curious, of course, about Hebrew, like everyone else in the Arab world. We don’t know anything about Israel from the inside.” So his blog publishes an Israeli poet, story-writer or novelist in Arabic every week. He’s serious guy with a light touch, a modernist and a sort of globalist who, like everyone else in Egypt, all but worships the immortal singer Oum Kulthum. She’s a modern goddess, as you’ll hear him say: there’s nothing like the experience of this woman’s sound, unless it’s smoking hash.

Of the daily battles around the new constitution and the war inside “the deep state”:

Nobody knows about this fight… At the start of the revolution, the Western media said: Egypt is on the road to Turkey… Other media said: no, the road to Iran. I say: let’s be surprised. This is the most beautiful idea in the Revolution: you don’t know what will happen in the next day; you have no plans. The politicians have plans. But I’m not a politician.

Of women, men, couples and families in the “rising generation” of Egyptians, his readership:

The individuals in Egypt are amazing. Society itself is a very awful factor. By society I mean the relationships between people in families. Authority in the family? We have to refuse it, and in the last three years we did. Many families were against the revolution; the new generation was against their families. I think it’s very significant to be against society and family and Mr. President, all at the same time.

I said I was reminded of a scene in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in which two sons of the patriarch come home tipsy one night — in the 1930s! — shouting “Long live the Revolution! … Down with the tyrannical wife! … Down with the tyrannical father!”

Same theme. Yeah! All the time the boys are more revolutionary against their families, because you know our society gives more freedom for boys than girls. But I saw this with girls also. How’s to say: ‘I am free. I can do what I think about.’ The concept of challenging the family to go to Tahrir Square is a sign. I think in every house in Egypt today you will find the father voted for the Muslim Brother and Mohamed Morsi, and the son voted for the counter-candidate; and all the time they are fighting eachother. I think the main thing since the revolution is that everybody discusses everything in public. When you get the bus, all the time you are hearing discussions — that Morsi did this because he’s a good man; or: no, he did this because he’s a bad man. It’s a really good thing, this fight.

On the “butterfly effect” of revolt that spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. The butterfly has a message:

Don’t fear anybody powerful. Nobody’s powerful… We learned it with Mubarak. Of course we were afraid of Mubarak. We thought he was like God and the Nile and the Pyramids. He will never go. He will never die. I thought: Mubarak is immortal. And then in 18 days he disappeared. There’s nobody behind the curtain.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    A terrific interview. Nael El Toukhy makes a spirited case for trusting in the momentum supplied by revolutionary fervor and generational change to carry the day in Egypt, no matter the obstacles. He says, “…let’s be surprised.” “This is the most beautiful idea in the Revolution: you don’t know what will happen in the next day…” “It’s a really good thing, this fight.” “There’s nobody behind the curtain” (i.e, Mubarak was never the omnipotent overlord he was made out to be).

    Up the road in Syria, another Arab rebellion, a shooting war, stutters on after nearly two years, but diehard Assad is still very active “behind the curtain.” Egypt is not Syria, but authoritarianism flourishes in many a human heart, together with a tyrannical zeal to impose one’s will. It’s humbling to see with what courage the rebels risk everything, their lives included, to rip the despot’s heel from their throat — and sobering to think that the same or a greater measure of courage will be needed to frame and stabilize democracy, should the rebels succeed in establishing it.

  • Potter

    Nael El Touky thinks that Amos Oz and David Grossman are boring. For me hardly that since they are writers that have long spoken of an Israel that should be seeking peace with the Arab world relentlessly and the insanity of the long conflict. But maybe “boring” is warranted for a young writer looking ahead and already tired of the intractability of the situation, tired of having to hate. So if I understand him, El Touky (lightheartedly and humbly) skips over all that and is already living in that better future, or trying to, or helping to make it with his blog, connecting, translating, sharing the work of younger Israeli writers (maybe like-minded?)… which is wonderful.