Ashraf El-Ashmawi

“Imagination is the key”

A Q&A with Ashraf El-Ashmawi, author of The House of the Coptic Woman: A Novel translated by Peter Daniel (AUC Press, 2023).

Ashraf El-Ashmawi‘s concern for justice and equality as depicted in his new novel, The House of the Coptic Woman, was prompted by the representation of justice as a blindfolded woman. The setting is based on his observations of the hidden tensions simmering beneath the surface in rural Upper Egypt. Collaborating with translator Peter Daniel, together they convey cultural nuances and sectarian strife in an enriched storytelling experience.

Can you share the inspiration behind The House of the Coptic Woman? What motivated you to write this novel?

This novel was inspired by my dedication to the cause of justice and equality and specifically by that famous portrayal of justice as a blindfolded woman. I’ve always wondered how she can balance the scale she’s holding if she can’t see. At the same time, I’ve long been concerned by the cases of sectarian strife in Upper Egypt which would periodically spike for no clear reason. Those permanently combustible embers lurking beneath the surface should give any society cause for alarm, especially a generally safe agrarian society such as that in rural Egypt.

These concerns gave me the novel’s characters – Hoda, the Coptic woman, and Nader, the judicial investigator – and the setting: the village I called Tayea, the Obedient. No one must stray from the accepted rules and norms. Over time, the villagers started to call it Tayha, the Lost One. The pun reflects the villagers’ sense that they are the lost ones. As normally happens with me, I could visualize the events of the novel before I began writing. I could also see the characters on my bedroom ceiling and observe them talking and moving as though I was in a movie theater.

Actually, the idea of The House of the Coptic Woman had been haunting me for years. But I didn’t want it to be my first book, the one through which I introduced myself to readers. Perhaps it was because of the sensitivity of the subject. Now I believe I was wrong.  I also think that my long career in law helped me a lot with this novel. It could picture the buildings, the people in them, and how Nader did his job as a judicial investigator because that was my job for twenty years, starting in 1990. It was easy to get into Nader’s head and depict how he thought and felt. But Hoda was a new challenge for me, as the female characters in The Lady of Zamalek had been before this.

On the whole, I largely relied on my imagination to develop the plot and weave the drama. Central roles in this were played by Ramses and Nabawi el-Dib, employees at the judge’s lodge where Nader stayed. I really enjoyed bringing them to life.

How did you collaborate with translator Peter Daniel to ensure the essence and cultural nuances of the story were preserved in the English translation?

This wasn’t the first time I worked with Peter. Before The House of the Coptic Woman, I collaborated with him on The Lady of Zamalek. I’ve worked with quite a few translators because my novels have been translated into eight foreign languages so far. But Peter is one of the best, in my experience. He’s very precise in his work and he has a subtle literary sense. He often comes up with useful suggestions for problems that might arise with the novel in translation.  For example, with certain unusual terms associated with the events or people in Tayea, he’d propose some alternatives that conveyed the sense in English while remaining faithful to the original meaning.

We had occasional working sessions over the phone or over a coffee somewhere.

Generally, he’d send me a torrent of questions and proposals every once in a while, which I would answer and which we’d discuss in further detail if necessary. Peter doesn’t go about his work in a routine way.

I feel he’s painting a picture parallel to mine through translation.  With The House of the Coptic Woman, he also offered some innovative suggestions for how to convey the sectarian strife as it unfolded in the Egyptian setting to foreign readers.

I learned a lot from him, in this regard, about how to address the Western mentality through the Arabic novel. I owe him a lot.

Can you discuss the character development in your novel? Which character did you find the most challenging or interesting to write?

Developing characters is hard work but it’s a lot of fun. I start planning the plot through the characters. I create a file for each of them. But I start bringing them together on a large sheet of paper, like painters or architects use. Using coloured pens or pencils, with a different colour assigned to each character, I trace the flow of the dramatic events and how the characters interact and evolve along the way. This sketch serves as a kind of overview or maquette for the novel, which makes it easier to see the project as a whole. Then, I start detailed writing notes about the characters, their traits, and actions in each of their files. I even do this for the secondary characters, for I believe they too should make an impact on the reader. If I feel they can’t, I get rid of them.

I enjoyed creating the characters of Ramses and Nabawi, the caretaker and guard at the judge’s lodge, and of course, the character of Hoda the Coptic woman. In general, I like complex characters and I keep them front and centre in my novels because I enjoy writing about them. Nader was the easiest to develop, of course, because I had the same job and experienced the similar circumstances. I also asked the same questions that haunted him. On the other hand, I made sure he was different to me in many ways, including his social circumstances. It would be too easy to write about myself all the time. I always like to feel challenged.

The setting plays a vital role in many novels. How did you create the atmosphere and sense of place in your story?

Choosing the right setting and atmosphere is crucial. It has to be as unique as possible.  So, it’s something I think about once the idea of the novel becomes clear. I rely on my imagination for all my fictional works, even if I’ve lived in or frequently visited a place I want to write about. To me, imagination is the key. I enjoy imagining things and I think it adds more magic than if I were to describe something real or relied less on imagination and more on linguistic artistry or post-modernist experimentation. The world I introduce readers to in The House of the Coptic Woman is a product of my imagination. Yet, most readers believe that it actually exists because it shares an atmosphere with many villages and its inhabitants share the concerns of many Egyptian villagers. Tayea is not based on any one village I’ve visited. Rather, having traveled extensively in Upper Egypt and seen many villages in the course of my career, I was able to form an archetype that embodied all the ills I’d come across in many places. I felt that this was the right setting for my novel: a strange and mysterious world to a judicial investigator who grew up in the opulence of the capital and was on his first posting in rural Upper Egypt. Once I’d established the broader setting, I began imagining the smaller worlds particular to each of the protagonists. I didn’t elaborate. All I needed were some simple but meaningful brushstrokes to bring it out.

What kind of research did you undertake while writing this novel, especially concerning the historical and cultural aspects?

Research and experience are half of any novel; the other half is constant revision. Between the two is the game: the joy of writing. This is the part that requires the least effort but is by far the most enjoyable. It’s an amazing feeling to create something original out of nothing. For this novel, I focused my research on two subjects.  The first was the history of discrimination against Copts in our popular culture, which I find strange because Egyptians are not at all xenophobic. I discovered that, for hundreds of years, rulers and their governments were always the cause due to erroneous interpretations of the faith. Sometimes they deliberately let the mistake fester if that served a political end or, they would clamp down on that mistake for a similar political end. The religious extremists were like marionettes, controlled from behind the scenes by unseen persons who would never be brought to account. The second subject I worked on was the dialect and the words and expressions used by the people of northern Upper Egypt. I also needed to become more familiar with some Christian rites and rituals and the organisation of the Coptic Church. Fortunately, I was able to turn to some Coptic friends who work in the Church and who helped me a lot. As for the technical details regarding police and judicial work, that was easy for me given my twenty-year career as a judicial investigator.

In your opinion, how does literature bridge cultural gaps, especially when dealing with themes that might be unfamiliar to readers from different backgrounds?

I believe that art, in general, can bridge the cultural gaps between people from different parts of the world. Literature is a human activity, and this human element is the passport that takes people across the bridges to other peoples and other cultures. The closer art and the novel in particular come to what it is that makes us human, the more translatable it is and the more it can touch the minds of readers from cultures and environments different to the author’s. By the same token, a novel that is remote from that shared humanity removes itself by the same distance from translatability and universality.  

Are there any specific authors or literary works that have influenced your writing style or the themes you explore in your novels?

I was influenced by many writers at the outset of my literary career. Foremost among them was Naguib Mahfouz. As I had the opportunity to meet him many times, I was as impressed by him as a person as I was by his writings. There were many other great Egyptian and Arab authors who I admire a lot, though I’m afraid they wouldn’t be familiar to Western audiences because of insufficient translation.

I was quite influenced by George Orwell who’s a genius in every sense of the word. In fact, I was so impressed by Animal Farm that I tried to model my first novel on it. Latin American literature is amazing. Isabel Allende has long been my favourite writer to the extent that I think her style has influenced mine.  In general, I’d say I belong to the French descriptive school ((??)) of writing which emphasises the visualisation of the scene. I was simply drawn to it, and I spontaneously adopted it in my writing. Of course, I keep trying to hone it with every novel I write. The idea of enabling the reader to visualise the dramatic events unfolding in front of him while reading is both amazing and enjoyable. I think that’s one of the things I like best about writing.

Can you talk about your writing routine? Do you have any rituals or habits that help you stay focused and creative during the writing process?

I’ve been writing every day for twenty years, except Fridays when I prefer to read, generally poetry in order to refine my language. My routine is quite simple. I start writing with a pencil on unlined paper – lines make me feel cramped and unable to write. I write out the main ideas and the first draft in full by hand and then enter it on the computer, making changes while writing. Then I start revising. I type quickly on my laptop, so I have no problems with computers. It’s just that the beginning has to be with pencil and paper. It doesn’t matter whether I work in the daytime or at night. What’s important is that I work a straight seven or eight hours, with only a half-hour break for something to eat. Writing makes me hungry and even crave sweets sometimes. I wear light loose-fitting clothes while I work. I prefer not to write outside my office at home. I feel more at ease there, at my own desk at home with my books within reach on the shelves.

I prefer not to write outside my office at home. I feel more at ease there, at my own desk at home with my books within reach on the shelves.

The hardest point is at the beginning of a novel when I freeze up for a moment as though I don’t know how to write or I’m about to start my first novel. My stomach cramps up from the tension. Then that goes away as soon as I write a good opening passage. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike; I sit down at my desk and summon it. If nothing comes, I go over what I wrote the previous day. I might write only half a page or a page per day. I work in complete silence, without music and with headphones on for extra silence. If I get a writer’s block, I’ll go out to the balcony and have a cigarette. Then something strange happens. I’ll see the scene clearly and how the character develops. And sometimes some key sentences come to me. It’s amazing. The balcony has never let me down. I can’t explain why, but it works for me, at least up to now. Another part of the way I work is to imagine what the cover of the novel I’m working on will look like. Every once in a while, I design a cover using certain applications on my computer. My publisher always rejects them when I show them to him. But it’s like a game. It amuses me and helps keep my morale up.  

Lastly, what can readers expect from your future projects? Are there any new stories or genres you are excited to explore? 

Yes, I have some ideas that I think are fresh and I’m still fleshing them out. I feel that I haven’t yet written what you might describe as a great novel or one that I’m satisfied with a hundred percent. Also, I’ll never start a novel unless I have another in my desk drawer as a backup. Life’s short, so I evade death by writing. It’s as though I’m constantly pleading with fate to give me more time until I publish what I’m working on, which is why I keep a backup project ready to hand. It sounds silly, but it keeps me going like a lot of simple things that please us.

Right now, I’m working on a new idea that was not in my backup drawer. It came to me suddenly, out of the blue, after finishing my last novel, Maximum Speed Zero, which came out in June 2023. It was weird how the idea sort of took over my mind, leaving me no alternative but to write it. So that’s what I did. So far, I’m enjoying the process. I’ve only written two chapters, but I can already picture most of the rest of the novel.

My main aim, with each new work, is to keep readers in suspense, unable to predict what happens next in the novel world they’ve entered, glued to the book until the very end. My greatest hope is to continue to succeed in this. Ultimately, the purpose of art is to give enjoyment and I believe that delivering the unexpected and diverse are major ingredients in this.  This is why no novel of mine resembles another. Even if the novels have some ideas in common, their particular themes, settings, and characters are worlds apart. If ever I feel I have no new idea to offer, I’ll give up writing. I write to live a new life with each new book, not a life of monotonous routine.

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