This year, Egyptian novelist, literary editor, and Hoopoe author Yasser Abdel Hafez participated in the special Spring Residency of University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world.
Each year the IWP brings together to Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, about thirty of the world’s emerging and established writers to write, share their work, and become part of a lively literary community, by taking part in the Residency’s unique intercultural experience. Since 1967, over 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have been in residence at the IWP.
Abdel Hafez, currently managing editor of Akhbar al-adab literary newspaper, is the author of The Book of Safety, translated by Robin Moger (Hoopoe, 2017), which won the Sawiris Award for Established Writers, with the English translation receiving the Saif Ghobash Banipal Translation Prize. His first novel On the Occasion of Life was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Platitude, his third novel, is forthcoming this summer.
Over the course of the nearly ten-week Iowa program, which began on March 13, Abdel Hafez and the other Spring Residency writers, aside from working on their own projects, gave public readings and lectures that shared their work and cultures, and participated in panel series on literary issues and forces shaping writing around the world.
On April 4, Abdel Hafez joined a panel discussion entitled ‘How have you approached the specter of professionalization in your own writing?,’ presenting his paper ‘The Call of the Read Writer.’
On May 7, as part of the Shambaugh House Friday Reading Series, streamlined on Facebook, Abdel Hafez read the first chapter ‘The Blind Squirrel’ of his novel set in Iowa that he started during the Residency. The other two authors also contributing readings from their work on that day were Silvia Hosseini, teacher, literary critic, and media commentator from Finland, and Pamela Rahn Sánchez, poet and visual artist from Venezuela.
The closing session of the IWP panel series was entitled ‘What We Saw: Images of America.’ “It is a long tradition, it is very illuminating,” said Hugh Ferrer, IWP associate director, in the introductory remarks of the final event. The writers-in-residence shared in an ‘open mic’ format their experiences in the United States. “The similarity between the name of the city Iowa and the Egyptian word aywa—meaning ‘yes’ in Arabic—gives me one more reason to remember this city forever,” said Abdel Hafez. “When I am back in Cairo and I hear someone say aywa, automatically I will add to its Egyptian meaning various images like the Iowa River, that I stood beside, or see myself sitting among the students at Iowa Memorial Building, studying, writing, or reading.”
The Spring 2022 residents also joined in the International Translation Workshop where graduate-level students of literary translation and creative writing work one-on-one with the IWP writers in a workshop format to create polished English translations of Residency participants’ materials.
Finally, in addition to attending weekly cultural activities and collaborating in theater and dance productions with the University of Iowa, the IWP writers traveled domestically, to Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City. “The purpose of these trips is to introduce IWP writers to different, important, and diverse American literary communities,” says the program’s website.
While in New York, the Spring Residency IWP writers joined the Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, convened by PEN America, in the United Nations building, an event held as a direct response to the invasion of Ukraine and other humanitarian and authoritarian crises unfolding globally. Writer and PEN international president Jules Romains stated that writers are “an army without banners” and that it was time for “the pen to fight the sword,” demanding that writers take a stance against the atrocities unfolding in Europe. “This year’s session was devoted to discussing several issues, foremost of which is the Ukrainian war and its effects,” posted Abdel Hafez on his Facebook page. “There was also a demand to condemn Israel for the premeditated murder of [Palestinian] journalist Shirin Abu Akleh.”