On Nov. 24, Egyptian novelist Khaled Alkhamissi read excerpts from his bestselling novel “Taxi” to an audience in Frankfurt as part of the “Festival of Egyptian Culture.”
“Taxi” is Alkhamissi’s 2006 debut novel, which gave him a sense of celebrity unknown to most contemporary Egyptian writers, selling thousands of copies more than other established contemporary fiction writers. Comprising of a collection of 58 vignettes recounting conversations with cab drivers around Cairo, “Taxi” catalogues opinions of fictional, but stereotypical Egyptian characters on politics, culture, religion and, of course, traffic.
Many of the daily economic frustrations documented by Alkhamissi were later described as causes for the uprisings earlier this year. “This democratic cacophony transforms into a fresh and fast crash course not just in the backdrop to the Arab spring,” wrote critic Chris Ross in The Guardian, “but in all aspects of contemporary North African culture and people.”
The festival in Frankfurt, at which Alkhamissi spoke, has been running yearly since 2008. Its original purpose was to commemorate Howard Carter’s archeological discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920’s. Since its inaugural year, however, it has become a showcase of much more than Egypt’s ancient heritage, bringing together contemporary musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, and even comedians to portray Egypt’s current cultural offerings. The lectures, exhibitions and screenings will run through April 2012.
Alkhamissi’s recent reading was held in the foyer of the Tutankhamun exhibition, which includes a replica of the enigmatic Pharaoh’s tomb chambers. Project Manager Chrisoph Scholz described the ancient backdrop as a nod to the undeniable international fascination with Pharaonic Egypt. Scholz says he hopes to see a cultural exchange between Egypt and Germany in which “Tutankhamun is the motor,” which “creates for the Frankfurt audience a general positive atmosphere around the topic of Egypt”
I asked Alkhamissi about how it feels to represent Egypt abroad as a novelist, particularly in a period when Arab writers like Alaa Al Aswany and Hisham Matar are regularly sought-after commentators on current events for a Western audience on matters local to Egypt.
“Egyptian and Arab novelists have played a general cultural role throughout the 20th century,” he explained. “Most of them worked in the Egyptian press and had opinion pieces that pervaded intellectual and cultural debates within Egyptian society.”
Alkhamissi cited numerous examples of this recent tradition, including Tawfik Al-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idriss and Fuad Haddad. “What happens today among Egyptian novelists,” he believes “is the natural continuation to an organic connection between culture and politics in Egypt.”
As for the role these thinkers play once they leave the borders of Egypt, Alkhamissi is more suspicious. “I can’t imagine that any novelist can represent his country. He primarily represents himself,” he argues, adding that the burden is on the international audience, not the Egyptian writer, to understand his work and its context. “I don’t change myself and I don’t change depending on the audience. The audience on the other hand has to make the effort to receive what is said properly.”
In this vein, Alkhamissi writes off the quotes that cover new English editions “Taxi,” which claim that the book “predicted” the revolution, as the promotional tools of publishers. “The publishing process…is connected to the logistics of profit and loss,” he explains.
“The descent of millions of citizens into the streets and squares calling for the removal of a regime,” he told me, is the product of “extremely complex social phenomena,” with roots in “historical, social, cultural, political, economic and financial elements.”
In order to understand it, “we must return to the 19th century and the beginning of the formation of Egyptian citizenship,” as well as “the processes of gradual maturity from the second half of the 19th century until our current day.”
Nevertheless, Alkhamissi firmly identifies with the protest movement. “What is required today is to identify the protesters throughout Egypt’s different squares,” he says, “to appoint a civilian presidential council that administrates the transition period in a transparent way as an alternative to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”