“Cairo is the city I live in, but despite that I find myself forced to reacquaint myself with it every morning,” Egyptian author, Tarek Imam, says.
“The city is an exemplification of the Egyptian identity. It escapes definition.”
Imam’s newest release, Cairo Maquette, is a reflection of this polymorphous identity. Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the novel blurs the lines dividing the real and the imagined as it explores the transformations Egypt, specifically Cairo, has endured over the past decade.
“For me, binding reality with fantasy is a way of seeing the world. It isn’t just an artistic technique,” he says. “It isn’t so simple as to segment them. All dualities are ambiguous. Any good novel, for example, will not have a character that is absolutely good or evil. Humanity is at its most human when their morals are hard to pinpoint. So is existence.”
Reality and the imagined are inextricable in life, Imam says, and he tries to reflect that in his writing. “What generates dreams, after all?” he says. “Isn’t it reality?”
One leap of fantasy in Cairo Marquette springs to the future. To 2045, to be precise. From this vantage point, Imam examines the 2011 January Revolution, and its consequences on Egyptian society.
“The revolution seems to me like a flame flickering in the crater of a dormant volcano,” he says. “We are the children of a map that doesn’t know the word ‘change’ and does not welcome it.”
“Perhaps the problematic thing about the January Revolution is that it was, on the one hand, a historic moment, but on the other hand, it hasn’t yet entered history,” he said in an interview with IPAF following his longlist nomination.
“Everything which came after has changed it and renewed it as a present reality. This is what makes it hard to complete a text, when I feel that reality itself refuses to draw a conclusive line under itself. This made me question time itself within the novel.”
Imam began writing the novel, or at least one manifestation of it, while the revolution was continuing. The volatility of daily events spurred the work, he says.
“The events of the novel were changing from day to day, since the outside reality was changing the fictional one and feeding into it during the writing process.”
He says the revolution marked the first time that his generation had the opportunity to penetrate into the political realm.
“Most of us did not practice politics like previous generations,” he says. “We came to life when political life was sapped. At 33, I saw the only ruler of Egypt I knew overthrown. The revolution made me braver. It made me test my convictions on the ground. It revolutionised my view of art. It showed me the artist’s ability to resist and question repressive authors: political, religious and societal.”
The artist’s relationship with power and the desperate yearning for change is reflected in the events of Cairo Maquette. But perhaps, above all, what is communicated is an ardent love for Cairo, its history and potential.
“In one walk in Cairo, you’d have passed the pyramids of the pharaohs, the mosques of the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. The Khedivial neighbourhoods, colonial architecture and the slums of the present,” Imam says. “In one moment, she crosses all the times. The times are contiguous from the prehistoric to the postmodern. This mixture is us too, so it is impossible, in my estimation, to simulate, in a novel, a city that does not know harmony, with a harmonious structure or a linear plot. Such a form betrays its authority.”
Though Imam takes a number of liberties with the novel’s timeline, the precise prose make the time jumps feel seamless. An unwavering focus on Cairo, meanwhile, puts the Egyptian capital as the central enduring character in the novel, despite its menagerie of disparate characters.
“Literature gives you an enormous advantage over reality,” he says. “In that you can translate all time into the literary present. In the novel, I was keen on moving in parallel, not successive timelines. As if they were all contiguous to the same moment.”
Imam’s breakthrough work came with his debut short-story collection, New Birds Unspoiled by the Air, which he published in 1995 at the age of 18. Since then, he has published 11 novels and short-story collections, including The Calm of Killers (2007), The Second Life of Constantine Cavafis (2012), My Father’s Shrine (2013), The City of Endless Walls (2018) and The Taste of Sleep (2019).
“So many things have changed in my views of art and the world since I published my first book,” he says. “One is a tributary to the other.”
The most prominent artistic transformation that Imam underwent was around the period he took a five-year hiatus from writing.
“After my third book, I stopped for a period of about five years — so from 2002 to 2007,” he says. “I was wondering about the role of art or what I wanted from art. I started as a purely aesthetic writer, but decided the aesthetic function is not the only goal of art, and that art must also pose questions of change and revolution from within an aesthetic discourse, engage with its context, and believe in its chances of dismantling a prevailing discourse.”
The novel in the Arab world, he says, is in a boom. What long remained predominantly a European or American art form has now permeated across the world and the region, embracing representation and diversified storytelling.
“One important aspect is that the clash between the present and the past, with all its thorns and landmines, has taken a further step in the contemporary Arabic novel."
Yet, Imam muses that he might belong to a “braver generation” of Arab novelists.
“We are a generation that is largely determined to maintain a distance with the authorities, as we are not children of national dreams or major projects,” he says. “Our tendency to deny is much stronger than our willingness to believe.”