The Spanish Flu plays a significant role in Egyptian writer Ahmed Mourad's 2014 novel 1919, which takes readers to early 20th century Cairo, a time when demonstrations were taking place across Egypt in protest of British occupation.
Blending real and imaginary events, the celebrated author – who is known for his thriller novels – took a jab at historical fiction with his fourth book, exploring the city's political landscape at the time, as well as its aristocracy's palaces and its underbelly, not flinching from its gambling dens and prostitution rings.
The Spanish Flu is an important plot catalyst in the book and shapes a number of its characters' fates, including Ward's, an Armenian refugee in Egypt who loses her parents to the deadly influenza. Before writing his novel – which is being adapted into a film – Mourad did considerable research about the 1918 pandemic, which affected more than 500 million people around the world. It was a time defined by uncertainty and fear, and Mourad found it captivating.
So, perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that Mourad says he plans on writing a novel based on the current pandemic. After all, there are a number of similarities to be drawn between the two time periods, even if they are set a century apart. However, speaking at the 39th Sharjah International Book Fair, the Egyptian author says he would like to wait for some time before he attempts to bring the events of today into his fiction.
“Maybe when the experience is complete,” he says. “I have to wait until some time has passed, and gain perspective because for now we’re too much in the thick of it, especially since it's such an unprecedented experience.”
Earlier this year and after the pandemic took hold, Mourad launched the I-Read initiative, aiming to discover 20 emerging short story writers. The selected stories, all of which take place during the pandemic, were published in October in an anthology called Universe Nights.
“I’m very proud of this initiative. We managed to introduce 20 up-and-coming writers to readers during the pandemic,” he says.
Mourad says he never expected his novels to end up on bestseller lists and needed encouragement when he started out. In his debut novel Vertigo, a thriller that confronts Cairo's seedy nightlife, he was "experimenting with story structure and exploring inner flow. The feedback was that it would have good readership, so I went ahead with it."
After the novel was published in 2007, Mourad began taking a series of creative writing courses to hone his storytelling sensibilities and craft. His second novel, Diamond Dust, which came out in 2010, was translated into a number of languages and was even adapted into an eponymous film starring famed Egyptian actors Asser Yassin and Menna Shalaby.
Mourad, who has now written seven novels, says there is still a scarcity of fast-paced thrillers and suspense novels in the Arabic literary landscape, saying he'd like to see more works in the genre by emerging writers.
Though an established screenwriter in his own right, Mourad says he tends to concentrate more on writing novels. He doesn't even see himself as "a writer of the silver screen".
"Personally, I believe that novels and films have their respective sets of readers and audience. It is true that cinema broadens the reach of novels, but I write fiction, and if it can be adapted for the silver screen, that is just a bonus.”
Mourad's book The Blue Elephant, a psychological thriller, was also adapted for the big screen and was a box office success in Egypt.