Ahdaf Soueif: 'The most adventurous way to engage with politics is through fiction'

The Egyptian writer spoke about fiction writing, activism and the Arab uprisings at her Hay Festival Abu Dhabi appearance

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13:  Journalist Ahdaf Soueif attends Barnard College's 7th Annual Global Symposium at Barnard College on March 13, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
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Her work in recent years may be mostly non-fiction and reporting, but Booker Prize nominee Ahdaf Soueif is trying to find her path back to fiction.

In her debut appearance at the inaugural Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, the Egyptian novelist revealed that after books such as Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, an insight on Egypt's social and political fabric during the Arab uprisings, she is now convinced she should be turning away from reportage.

"After The Map Of Love, I hijacked myself away from fiction and into activism," the Cairo-born writer, 69, told the audience at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Her 1999 novel, focused around a love story between a British woman and an Egyptian man, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

"For the last year, I've been in a place where I'm convinced that what I should be doing is fiction, and possibly the bravest, most adventurous way to engage with [politics] now is through fiction in a way my writings of the last 20 years can't do."

In conversation with Hay Festival director Peter Florence, Soueif opened up about her struggles with balancing her urge to advocate politically with her creative instinct.

"You can't turn away from what is happening to countries, regions, to people's lives. It's an emotional and creative position.

"But yet I find it impossible to fictionalise. What's now on my mind are the old people who died in Egypt before and after the [2011] revolution, and I cannot write something that was not to do with them, but yet I can't fictionalise them because that would be disrespectful. I'm groping towards some new way of doing this."

But Soueif, who was educated in Egypt and England and writes in both Arabic and English, is not only a writer. The I Think of You author is also a keen advocate for her fellow wordsmiths, establishing a literary festival in Palestine in 2008 to both celebrate the country's talent and shine a spotlight on the Palestinian people's cause.

"When we first started inviting people, they would not come," she reminisced of the early years of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). "Often we got no response or refusals ... but by the third year, we had people knocking at the door saying they wanted to come."

The annual festival, which has been attended by the likes of Things Fall Apart author Chinua Achebe and poet Mahmoud Darwish, is held in multiple cities "so that people don't have to cross checkpoints, we did".

Soueif was first inspired to start the festival after visiting Palestine to report for The Guardian, and identifying a hunger for literary events.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tom Oldham/Shutterstock (1894286b)
Ahdaf Soueif
Ahdaf Soueif in the 'Room For London' by Art Angel, Southbank, London, Britain - 21 Sep 2012
Ahdaf Soueif said Hay Festival Abu Dhabi was 'big, smart and committed'. Courtesy Shutterstock

"When people knew I was there, they insisted on having literary events for me. There was one in Ramallah, just me reading and talking, and I realised people had crossed checkpoints to come to this," she recalled. As we were in the middle of talking, there was an explosion. People said to carry on, it was butane gas but it was an actual explosion."

The author felt compelled to share her experience with those unaware of the realities of life for those living under occupation.

"I had gone expecting to find scenes of misery and desolation; what I found was a normal life where people were insisting on living with as much normality as possible. It was an extraordinarily full of grace way to live, under the circumstances."

The author paid tribute to the launch of Hay Festival in the capital, saying that the event was "big, smart and committed".

"I hope that Hay's presence here will weight in the balance of openness and diversity and respect for human rights."