By Yasser Abdel Hafez
Khaled transcribes testimonies at the Palace of Confessions, a shadowy state-run agency situated in…Read more
Yasser Abdel Hafez is an Egyptian journalist and novelist, and is an editor at the literary magazine Akhbar al-adab. His first novel On the Occasion of Life was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. His novel The Book of Safety, translated by award-winning translator Robin Moger, (Hoopoe, 2017), is an intriguing tale of modern Cairo, that follows Khaled, the main character, into his obsession with a mysterious book and its author.
Where did the initial idea come from for The Book of Safety?
In the early years of my career, I worked for a while as a crime journalist. I met criminals and victims, I visited crime scenes and spent many hours in police stations and court departments, in addition to having visited a prison once.
I saw tears and remorse. I met criminals who were considered to be geniuses in their field. I met one who loved art and wrote poetry, I met another one who was tormented by what he did, and one who did not care, no matter how horrible an act he had committed.
When you deal with the underworld, you discover that there is a completely different reality that differs from what we see. The world of darkness and shadows has different motives, different ideas, and a singular view of life, as if there were two adjacent and separate worlds despite what unites them.
I always wanted to represent this world without ethical judgment and beyond good and evil.
Did you first develop the main character and then build a story around him?
No, I’ve always envisioned a whole world. Perhaps it starts with just a scene or a vague feeling but the characters are not essential to me at the beginning of the writing process. There must be major, active, lively, and charismatic characters but they are not as important as the main idea of the work. Everything follows the mysterious spirit of the work.
Do you tend to give more importance to the style, the plot, or the characters, while writing?
Writing is practical, like cooking. You must pay attention to all of its ingredients, all its elements. If you give more attention to an element and neglect the others, the result is an unbalanced work. The novel is not only about language or characters, it’s not just an idea, it is all of that and more.
Among all the novels that you read, do you have a favorite anti-hero and in what way are his / her actions interesting for a reader?
Jack Merridew in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He is just a boy but that does not prevent him from being rude, violent, and evil. Perhaps he represents the frightening side of our souls, which has existed since our childhood—a dark side that can appear at any time, an essential part of our nature, a basic instinct born with innocence.
What is your life motto?
Till I collapse.
What author, living or dead, would you like to meet and what would you ask or tell them?
Virginia Woolf. Perhaps I would try to convince her not to commit suicide and that nothing is worth it. She most probably wouldn’t be impressed by my words, so I would start to help her choose the most colorful stones with which she could fill her pockets before going down to the river and I would try to stall her as much as possible.
If you were writing your autobiography, what would the title be?
I was not there.