Monday, September 19, 2005
أن تكون احمد العايدي
Being Ahmad Al Aidi
A young author shares a lot with his audience
By Leslie Boctor
Getting a hold of writer Ahmed Al Aidi is a somewhat surreal experience. Turn to chapter one of his novel An Takoun Abbas Al Abd, (Being Abbas Al Abd). The mobile number sprawled in red lipstick in bathrooms across Cairo in the story is the authorï¿½s own number. Much to your surprise, he answers, and you find yourself tongue-tied, unsure of who to ask for, in a confusing moment that occurs somewhere between fiction and reality.
A year and half after the bookï¿½s publication, Al Aidi is still baffled by phone calls from curious readers from as far as away as Spain, Yemen and France, calling to inquire on the whereabouts of Abbas Al Abd.
ï¿½I didnï¿½t think anyone would call, because I wouldnï¿½t dream of doing it myself. It would never occur to me to question whether a phone number in a book was real and actually try it,ï¿½ says Al Aidi. Readers have called asking about the fate of the novelï¿½s characters, the authorï¿½s own situation, and a host of other inquiriesï¿½ï¿½things you wouldnï¿½t imagine,ï¿½ he says. The writer has done his best responding to the countless queries, sometimes indulging in tall tales to keep the caller entertained.
An Takoun Abbas Al Abd is the story of the humorous and twisted manifestations of various psychoses in the lives of a video rental sales clerk, his uncle, a psychiatrist, and a salesman named Abbas Al Abd, with ongoing commentary from the bookï¿½s narrator, who offers sarcastic insights such as: ï¿½We will only survive when we have turned all Egyptian museums into public washrooms.ï¿½
The novel, Al Aidiï¿½s first, has been heralded as a refreshing voice in Arabic literatureï¿½a judgment seemingly confirmed by the publicï¿½s enthusiasm for the book. The novelï¿½s first edition, published by Merit in November 2003, sold out a month and a half later. Since then, the book has barely remained on the shelf, with a pirated version appearing at Souq Al Ezbikaya between printings. Al Aidi himself had to borrow half a dozen copies from friends for a recent literary submission. Merit is releasing a third edition this month. An English translation by the Amerian University in Cairo Press is due out next fall.
Al Aidi, 31, is currently enrolled in a marketing program at the Open University. He has worked in various capacities as a writer and is currently the brains behind Al Dostourï¿½s popular comic strip Booka wa Sokomonnous. He recently co-wrote a film with Mohammed Hefzi, Al Tourbini, which will be directed by Ahmed Medhat.
A conversation with Al Aidi is full of sparks, questions and speculations that come tumbling out together. His questioning mind is open to possibilities, all of which seem to originate from musings on ï¿½what ifï¿½?ï¿½
He describes the bookï¿½s themes as an exploration of ï¿½a triangle of mine: hallucination, schizophrenia, phobia.ï¿½ He turned his questions on himself to examine his own phobiaï¿½giving out his phone number.
ï¿½Before writing this book, I never had a mobile. When you have one, the first thing someone asks is: ï¿½Where are you?ï¿½ And that doesnï¿½t sit well with me. I donï¿½t like someone knowing where I am,ï¿½ says Al Aidi. So he contemplated the worst-case scenario: ï¿½I asked myself, what would happen to my writing if I were exposed like this?ï¿½
Including his personal contact information wasnï¿½t the only gamble Al Aidi took with his work. In recounting how the novel came to be, the author often refers to the delete function, an integral part of his writing process. ï¿½I actually enjoy deleting,ï¿½ he says gleefully. ï¿½Not just the delete key, but delete shift especially, which makes the document bypass the recycle bin altogetherï¿½and poof! Itï¿½s gone forever!ï¿½ The novel is his fifth version, but Al Aidi candidly admits his second version was his best, but alas, it was deleted. Itï¿½s the restless reader inside him who needs to be satisfied, he explains. ï¿½When Iï¿½m reading it, Iï¿½m not the writer anymore, I am the first person to read it. Itï¿½s the reader in me who is deleting. I want to satisfy the reader inside me, and if heï¿½s not satisfied, Iï¿½ll change it to what he likes.ï¿½
For the sake of avoiding boredom, as he puts it, he toyed with the novelï¿½s dialogue, interspersing keyboard idioms such as brackets, punctuation marks and emotion icons within the text. In one instance, a character is mentioned, but isnï¿½t given a name. Instead the reader is asked to choose a name, and write it between two empty brackets. Depending on his frame of mind, Al Aidi reverted into an online chat style while he wrote. ï¿½Sometimes while I was writing, I felt like smiling, so I added a smiley face to the text,ï¿½ he explains. ï¿½Sometimes I would be playing with the volume on my computer, so I put things in bold letters.ï¿½
Al Aidi says he mulled over every word in the novel. The result is sentences that deliver sharp, witty and sometimes scathing blows, such as: ï¿½Youï¿½re the computer engineer with a loosened tie and package of CD-Rs in your hand. A blip in the digital cosmos. An electronic slave for the Bill Gates colony.ï¿½
As for his characters, Al Aidi says they emerged as voices in his head, who were at times demanding companions to live with. ï¿½The novel was already written, I was just looking for it,ï¿½ he explains. ï¿½And the characters spoke to me, they were the ones that knew what was going to happen, not me. I was just there to be a secretary. Theyï¿½d wake me up in the middle of the night for a cup of coffee, or to make a phone call, or to tell me to ï¿½write this down.ï¿½ï¿½
Al Aidiï¿½s inclusion of his number in his story turned out to be a brilliant literary gamble with a personal twistï¿½the writer managed to re-invent himself as a wholly accessible person. The only problem is his mobile is still ringing with calls from inquiring readers. Now the author feels the time has come to leave a voice mail message on his mobile explaining that Abbas Al Abd has disappeared. The pressure of the constantly ringing mobile has shifted his focus and energy. ï¿½Itï¿½s at the point where I canï¿½t handle another phone call!ï¿½ he says emphatically, but not without good humour.
Al Aidi is already thinking of his next novel. ï¿½I want to write whatever I really like, as if there would be no more novels to follow,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½I should write every paragraph as if it was the last one people could read. I should write with this urgency.ï¿½ But first things firstï¿½heï¿½ll get a new mobile number.
Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine