An epic novel with a magic ring

Hoopoe sat down with Sherif Meleka, author of Suleiman’s Ring, (Hoopoe, March 2023), to find out more about what drove him to write about an enchanted ring which brings good fortune to an Egyptian oud player, creating a compelling narrative which combines elements of magical realism with political history.

Sherif Meleka was born in 1958 into a Coptic Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt. A trained medical doctor, he emigrated to the United States in 1984. He is the author of numerous novels, poetry and short story collections in Arabic. Suleiman’s Ring is his English-language debut. He currently lives in Jacksonville, Florida, USA.

What was the inspiration to write this novel?

It was October 2006. I was driving my car and thinking about Egypt, feeling very preoccupied by the fate of my mother country that was going through bad times, with a real drop of the middle class, a noticeable decline of the living conditions for a majority of Egyptians, and the uprising of a flimsy minority of nouveaux-riche who were tightly linked to the ruling Mubarak family.

And then this thought crossed my mind like a bolt of lightning: what if I had the legendary Ring of Solomon? What could I do with it to improve Egypt’s fate? So, I imagined King Solomon in today’s Egypt and wondered what he would do with his magical ring. And then I asked myself, why not bring back his father too, King David? I always admired his struggles as a common shepherd, as a fallible human being, then as a grand king, all of which was expressed in his poems and songs.

When I got home, I began to write. I started with David (Dawud) and set the novel in Egypt’s 1940s in order to allow time for Solomon (Suleiman) to develop and use his magic to change the fate of Egypt. Did Suleiman’s ring succeed in changing Egypt’s fate in the end? I don’t want to give away the answer, each reader will come to his / her own conclusion.

Is Suleiman’s Ring your first novel?

No, it’s my second. My first novel was Plastic Flowers, published in Arabic in May 2006. I have published ten novels, four books of poetry, and four collections of short stories since. Suleiman’s Ring is the first of my novels to be translated into English.

When was Suleiman’s Ring first published?

The first edition was published in 2008 with El-Hadarra lil-nashr. Ten years later, the second edition was published in 2018 by Dar Ghorab. A year earlier, in September 2017 the novel was submitted to Hoopoe.

Did you deliberately pick a Jewish character to write about in Suleiman’s Ring?

Since Solomon and David were both Jewish, I wanted to describe the discrimination suffered by the Jews including their forced expatriation after the 1948, 1954 and 1967 Egyptian wars with Israel.

In my other books I was drawn to describe the suffering and anguish that minorities endure. In Plastic Flowers I write about how legal immigrants were treated like guinea pigs and placed under surveillance. In The Dance of the Rainbow, I write about a child who experienced sexual abuse. In Awaiting the Report and in Mariam and the Men, I described the anguish and torment of women. I also write about the discrimination and oppression of Orthodox Copts in Plastic Flowers and in Angels also Rise to the Third Floor, and about biases against Christians in general in The Calling of Farah.

What do you love about writing and does it come easy to you?

I believe that writing liberates me. I am able to recreate a new world for myself, a world where I make rules as I see fit. I get to observe my imaginary characters and follow them pass through life, and learn from their actions.

My first collection of stories and first novel were about life in America. Immigrants was built around stories of different emigrants and their interactions with a new lifestyle and a new culture, as well as the devastation of 9/11 which took some of their lives.

Plastic Flowers on the other hand, explores the lives of migrants brought into an imaginary secret island that belongs to the CIA. There, they’re gathered to be surveyed by its agents, pretending to be regular inhabitants of that island feigning to be part of the USA territory. The purpose of the island’s scheme was to study why certain Middle Eastern groups turn violent against the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.

I don’t just write about Egypt, but Egyptians constitute the majority of my characters as I believe—as an Egyptian American—they should. For a writer has to be honest in the depiction of his characters and extract them from his own experiences. Even though I’ve lived in the US more than any other place in the world, I still dream in Arabic!

Now does it come easy? Sometimes I find the ideas flow with ease but from time-to-time writer’s block hits and nothing flows! But overall, it’s a wonderful experience to be able to express your thoughts and feelings in front of your own eyes. Sometimes they surprise me when I go over them.

What has truly influenced your writing over the years?

I believe my writing is the reflection of a life-long accumulation of events, encounters, practices, and all the books that I’ve read. Obviously, a major influence was Naguib Mahfouz’s work. He wrote realist and historical novels, as well as modern and post-modern works. He even explored magic realism in some of his philosophical novels.

My earliest influences in magic realism, however, came from multiple readings of One Thousand and One Nights and its magical worlds. Later, I discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated into English by Edith Grossman. I consider Garcia Marquez to be the greatest writer and I love Grossman’s translations because they make me feel each word of his, as if I were reading Marquez’s work in Spanish.

Talk about the experience of having your book translated into English. Did you work closely with the translator?

In Cairo in 2002, I met with Raymond Stock, an American scholar, expert in Arabic literature, and a translator of multiple novels by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

I followed up with Raymond over the internet and reviewed each chapter he translated, making edits where needed. Suleiman’s Ring has all its dialogue written in colloquial Egyptian dialect (and sometimes Alexandrian parlance), which sometimes poses difficulties for the translation. I intentionally chose to use colloquial Arabic since the main theme in my novel is “identity.” So, the characters had to all blend in, particularly in how they speak.

Where do you see your writing in the future?

SM: I just finished writing my eleventh novel and nineteenth book. My dream is to have all my work, present and future, translated into English so as to be available at least to my family and friends in the USA and elsewhere, and to others who don’t speak Arabic.

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