An Interview with Sondos Gamal al-Hosseny
I met Sondos for the first time in Barcelona. We were both finalists for the IEMed literature context “A Sea of Words,” with other 13 young writers from all over the Mediterranean and the European Union. We did not talk much during the four days in Barcelona as she was very shy and a bit (wrongly) insecure about her English. We talked more afterwards, through the internet, and I got to know her better. She seemed very curious about other cultures and I was surprised by her total lack of prejudices. Despite her young age she prooved to be definitely much wiser than I assumed, as many other brilliant young Arab women I met before, .
In Barcelona she gave me a copy of the book she has recently published, “Their Fear is Themselves”. What I like about this is that Sondos goes through issues and topics that I could rarely find in the Egyptian literature I have read so far. The fact that this is the book written by a young author is for me even more surprising. This makes me think that, despite all the disappointments and the backslashes we have witnessed in Egypt since 2011, books like Sondos’ are the definitive proof that something has really happened. Things previously kept secret are now publicly discussed and a new generation of intellectuals is emerging from the chaos . A spark of optimism, that, over time, might become a burning fire.
Here we publish the interview that Sondos accepted to give us about her activity of young author in this special moment for her country’s history.
Would have been possible for a young author to publish a book such as yours before the fall of Mubarak?
Mubarak's era lasted 30 years, and every year was not like the other. There were the Eighties, after the murdering of Sadat, then the Nineties and the terrorism issue, and then after 2001 a lot of things changed. Sometimes he was trying to pretend that he was giving us a space and freedom of expression, and sometimes he closed every space.
So the answer is no, a young author couldn't publish a book as mine without being afraid of negative consequences. To be honest there was no official censorship, but if a book, an article or a blog succeed and the people started to talk about it, that could be a problem for the author and the publisher or the newspaper. There were a lot of episodes like that. Even in the schools when a student wrote an essay he should have not said that he was against the regime. But there were also some brave people who started not to be afraid, even in the Eighties. Their words and examples helped my generation to conceive the revolution.
What has changed since the Revolution in the Egyptian cultural scene?
The Egyptian cultural scene has changed a lot after the revolution. Those young people who stood up in the streets and demanded freedom and social justice changed much of the nation's mentality. Nevertheless, their impact was not homogeneous, but it developed in two opposite shapes.
There is obviously a trend towards the refusal of our great revolution and its distortion; you can find this trend often in media and movies produced by circles close to the old regime.Then there is a second trend which encourages the revolution and tries to disseminate its principles through cultural products.
In my opinion this situation has become like a war. It is not about culture anymore; politics has overshadowed every single cultural event and jeopardised its capacity of innovation and its beauty.
Nevertheless, besides this two main trends, you can find an increasing amount of wonderful artistic production which did not exist during Mubarak's era. These new forms of art are not yet majoritarian, but I am sure that in few years time their impact will be much greater, as occured in other revolutions in history.
What does it mean to be a young Muslim woman in Egypt nowadays? And how does it influence your literature production?
Well, maybe Mubarak's era had an advantage: it united us in the same oppressing way without giving us many specific classifications. But now the situation has become very complicated.
A young Muslim woman should always say what her ideology is before start talking as she can be accused by other people for every possible reason, even because of the way she is dressed. This people are not just Christians or seculars. They might be Muslims as well, but maybe they have a particular stance against the Muslims brotherhood, or the Salafis. This political conflicts are dividing the community, with the result that now it is somehow even less free than before. Many times you don't fear the state power, but the people around you because there is a decreasing acceptance of the others’ opinion.
Of course all these processes influence my writing and inspired a lot of my stories. I wrote them in order to make the people think about what they are doing and how their behaviours have changed in just few years.
It is not complicated just for a Muslim woman who wears the Hijab, but also for Christian women or Muslim women who choose not to wear it. After the revolution and the Islamist power a lot of changes occurred in the Egyptian streets and you can notice that in the speeches full of hate between all the political parties. That is very clear in the media, literature and of course in the streets.
What does Egypt need to realize the great hopes prompted by the Revolution? What role for young intellectuals?
First of all Egypt needs the youth to be united again as in the days of 25th January Revolution. All the society should focus on the great goals of the revolution. The people may take some time to realize that all these ideologies are not at all a reason for conflict, but they forge a real and modern community. Their variety is a factor that can make the Egyptians refuse a certain kind of rule in the future.
I mean that in Egypt there will be always a lot of ideologies and religions and we should know how to live with each other as a one nation and profit from the differences among our community. The role for young intellectuals is to raise the value of freedom without making it a good deliverable just to whom agrees with them. In order to write a positive literature the young authors should focus on what unifies us and not on what splits and divides our community. This should be also the role of the media; they should not impose to the people a certain point of view as before. This way of conditioning the people's thought should stop immediately. It is very ridiculous to put supervision on the media and all kinds of arts.
But I think that in the end no one can make the Egyptians forget their revolution and their rights, and the main aim of the young authors should be just to remind the Egyptians of this.