Author draws on her Bedouin roots as well as her rich knowledge of the Arabic language
CAIRO: Pursuing her quest for freedom, female author Miral Al-Tahawy, an offspring of Bedouin culture and a woman drenched in Arabic character, found both herself and her writing. During an evening dedicated to her literature at the Kotob Khan bookstore in Maadi, Al-Tahawy explored Gazelle’s Taps, her latest masterpiece with some of her enthusiastic readers.
Al-Tahawy, who often resorted to escapism and fantasy worlds during her childhood that led her to writing, earned a master’s and a doctorate degree in the Arabic language with an emphasis on Bedouin traditions and women, an area that has yet to be thoroughly explored in literature.
Applauded for her work, the writer – with an ever-present smile, oriental features and long black hair – began her journey with a short story collection in 1995 entitled The Tent. It revolves around a world of women controlled by men, was a notable success. Although she began with vanity publishing, as in paying money in order to see her work on bookshelves, three years later she was honored at the Cairo Book Fair and her name swept across front pages of newspapers. She was also short listed for international prizes and won the National Award for excellence in literature in 2000.
In Gazelle’s Taps – now translated into several languages including English, French, German, Spanish and Italian – Al-Tahawy tells a story of Muhra, a woman torn between past and present, wavering between tradition and a modern changing world.
Like all Al-Tahawy’s books, the central figure of the novel is a woman, an Arab with Bedouin origins like herself.
Her female characters are usually shades of her personality and reflect her special history in her own Bedouin-influenced society. Whether it’s a cry for freedom, an adventure, an exploration of her own desires or a desperate need for understanding, Al-Tahawy’s past and personal experience colors her novels and brings them to life. Her descriptions are detailed, rich and intense with a distinctive quality, even for the casual light reader.
Her keen eye for details and sophistication in using the Arabic language, combined with her talent for revitalizing it, has earned her comments from her readers, who say that her language “must be too hard for the average reader, especially young people who many say have refrained from heavy Arabic and classical reading.
Al-Tahawy, however, begs to differ, as she insists that her work is neither “classic, nor can it be distinctly categorized. She adds, “The language and the style are in harmony with this era, this point in time, I believe.
“However, written work is like a puzzle, 38-year-old Al-Tahawy told her readers in the cozy cafe centered in the heart of the Kotob Khan. “You might not understand a word, but you get the meaning. Every script dictates its own language and style. My writing [in Gazelle’s Taps] entailed mystery and secrets, so the language had to illustrate this.
“It is not a showing-off of language, she added on a second note. “[My writing] reflects a desire. [The language] is not only meant to be understood, but also felt.
Gently teasing her readers, she says with a smile, “But then again, I do not make compromises in my writing. It was hard for me to write it. And the readers have to make some effort [in understanding] too. The reader should be my partner and equal [in intellect].
Reflecting on her own life, Al-Tahawy says that her bumpy ride through life, tragic experiences and travels have shaped her literary culture and approach to different areas in her novels. In her early life, Al-Tahawy did not receive the support she needed. She was raised in a traditional family, the last in line after six boys – a family that was not accustomed to the idea of a young woman pursuing a different dream surpassing undergraduate education, marriage, settling down and having a big family.
Even her marriage to poet Ahmed El-Shahawy, which in the wake of her writing career seems such a conventional decision, was seen as a departure from custom. Then again, marrying outside her tribe was seen as a break with the sacred tradition of old families.
Al-Tahawy’s writing style is fresh, she explains, and born out of her own interpretations of such experiences, never relying on stereotypes.
Nevertheless, Al-Tahawy said that romanticizing experiences through emotional writing does not form the core of a novel. “The [process] involves hard work, reading, learning and even researching.
“It’s not enough that I love horses for instance, to be able to write about them. I need to know about them and to understand them. A novel is not solely a romantic state.