An Interview with the Sudanese Author Tarek Eltayeb

Journal article by Renate Malina; Research in African Literatures, Vol. 28, 1997, Publisher: Indiana University Press, USA

“I was seventeen and in love and so I wrote poems, of course. I showed them to my friends, pretending they were written by somebody else. I was highly satisfied when they loved them. Unfortunately, I threw them away.”

Tarek Eltayeb was born in 1959 in Cairo into a Sudanese family. He completed his studies in business administration at the Ain Shams University in Cairo in 1981. Since 1984 he has lived in Vienna where he has continued his studies ― actually, he is about to receive his doctoral degree. At that same time, he began literary activities, writing in Arabic. In 1992 he published his first novel, Mudun bila nakhil (Towns without date palms; Ist ed. Köln: Al-Kamel, 1992, 2nd ed. Cairo: Al Hadara, 1994) and the play al-Asanser (The lift), which was performed in Cairo as well. His collection of short stories, al-Gamal la yaqif khalf ishara hamra (The camel doesn't stop at red) was published by in 1993 in Cairo (Al-Hadara). He has published widely in Arab and European periodicals, and several of his short stories have been translated into English, French, and German. A second novel and a second collection of short stories will be published in the near future.

Renate Malina: What are your memories of your childhood and family?

Tarek Eltayeb: I was born in Ain Shams, one of Cairo's oldest districts, and lived there with my parents and brothers and sisters. Then it was a poor district of a few small houses. I remember the open country not far from my home, one part of it a sandy desert with Bedouins and the other part with mango trees, date palms, and tomato fields, and a little river where we tried to fish. Today this area is completely changed; you can only see houses, most of them high-rise buildings. My strongest memories are connected with my grandmother's home in the old district of al-Husayniya, where the houses date from the period of the Mamluks. There, old traditional customs were still alive, such as Zaar, which could be translated as "exorcism." The sick person had to dance to the point of losing consciousness. Some of these experiences I used for some of my short stories that haven't been published yet. But my best memories are of the summers in al-Arish where my father worked as a member of the border police. We had five months of complete freedom, full of games with the other children of the country. I was mainly in the company of the sons of the other border police officers stationed in al-Arish. We played in the sand ― it seems to be nothing compared with today's children games, but running in the sand or hiding things in it was wonderful. Thus, I never found my sandals again, which I had hidden during such a game. We also swam in the sea, but mostly supervised by adults. On these occasions, the women in their Galabiyas went into the water with us, but only up to their knees. Usually the adults went swimming in the evening – men and women in swimsuits, but separately. Today, women only go swimming rarely, and then completely wrapped up in their Galabiyas You can only see women in swimsuits in particular places, for instance in Alexandria.

Renate Malina: When did you start writing?

Tarek Eltayeb: I was seventeen and in love and so I wrote poems, of course. I showed them to my friends, pretending they were written by somebody else. I was highly satisfied when they loved them. Unfortunately, I threw them away.
When I was twenty, I tried prose, making notes in an exercise book-as I do even now. It was a mixture of ideas and memories of real events. But it was only in Vienna that I started writing seriously. At first it helped me to get over loneliness and home sickness. And later on it proved a way to find myself. After my first short story had been published in London in an Arab periodical (which made me very proud), I realized that writing was part of myself.

Renate Malina: When did you start writing?

Tarek Eltayeb: I was seventeen and in love and so I wrote poems, of course. I showed them to my friends, pretending they were written by somebody else. I was highly satisfied when they loved them. Unfortunately, I threw them away.
When I was twenty, I tried prose, making notes in an exercise book-as I do even now. It was a mixture of ideas and memories of real events. But it was only in Vienna that I started writing seriously. At first it helped me to get over loneliness and home sickness. And later on it proved a way to find myself. After my first short story had been published in London in an Arab periodical (which made me very proud), I realized that writing was part of myself.

Renate Malina: But isn't writing a lonely job?

Tarek Eltayeb: I don't feel so. Of course, I'm alone when writing, but I'm in a world full of people: I see them, my eyes are like a camera, my ears hear voices, I don't feel alone.

Renate Malina: Couldn't writing be a painful inner process?

Tarek Eltayeb: Not for me. I don't have much trouble with writing, and I think that only fluent writing is good literature -- not when you struggle for words. But it could be painful before writing or afterwards when you read the text.

Renate Malina: I have noticed that you very often use the first person in your stories.

Tarek Eltayeb: Yes, for me it is the most true-to-life form, giving you the possibility of describing bad features of a person without judging that person from a superior point of view.

Renate Malina: But wouldn't that be possible in the third person as well?

Tarek Eltayeb: Yes, that might be possible, too. But I think that wishing to show the bad sides of a character, writers use the third person. Generally speaking, in present-day writing more stress is put onto negative aspects than in former times. Rarely, however, is it done in the first person, for they fear being identified with their characters. Thus it happened to me that after a reading I was asked why my father had been so cruel to me, while in reality my relations with him were always excellent. But I try to be unbiased in using the first person and to say things to support the narrative.

Renate Malina: Who are your protagonists?

Tarek Eltayeb: The leading persons in my stories are mostly Arabs because I know their mentality best and most of them are also men, as I can in fact identify better with men than with women. But I can say that in my latest unpublished short stories, Austrian characters very often appear. It seems that my knowledge of Western society and especially of Austrians has extended enough so that I also can have a critical look at it. But all this takes time. It means understanding, then accumulating experiences, then observing again, then re-checking again. Recently I have written more about Vienna and people of my neighborhood.

Renate Malina: What are your favorite subjects?

Tarek Eltayeb: The subject I deal with most is the adaptation of human beings to foreign surroundings where they feel lost. How to adapt to such a situation without giving up your own personality. How you can live together with others, even large groups consisting of individual beings. As for myself, I feel at home in groups because they remind me of my family.

Renate Malina: Why did you come to Vienna?

Tarek Eltayeb: When in 1981 I finished my pre-doctoral studies, university conditions for Sudanese had been changed, which meant that I would have had to pay for my studies. Since a real fee reduction was not possible, I decided to go abroad. First I had the intention of going to Germany, but they asked for a whole year's fee in advance. Since I have a brother living in Vienna, and since for people from the Third World the university is free of charge, I came here.

Renate Malina: How would you describe the Arab man in relation to woman?

Tarek Eltayeb: I could answer by one of my stories (a first-person story) in which the protagonist gives an account of his attempts to find the right woman. His future wife had to be obedient, obsequious, beautiful, young, a virgin of course, without any prior harmless love dream. If she is a working woman, then one in a "female" profession. A divorced woman is a woman with a past and therefore out of the question for my hero. Even if the girl he thinks he loves shows him her affection, he must reject her because of this forbidden liberty. He is convinced that women have to fulfill his ideal illusion, which he never doubts, and therefore he must fail. This is a story, of course, but not so removed from real life, where I can see that most Egyptian men show similar attitudes.
Considering contemporary Egyptian life, I find that man has more authority than in the time when I was a youngster. Equal rights were more or less predominant, even if only outwardly, and today's segregation of the sexes was not observed as it is now. Man decides the way woman 's life is to be led since he has financial power. I wouldn't say that the situation in Austria is completely different in this point, but the authority of men is more hidden and, in any case, controlled by law.

Renate Malina: How do you see women's actual position in Egypt?

Tarek Eltayeb: I have lived in Austria for twelve years, spending about one month a year in Egypt. For me the difference is tremendous. Most of the women in Cairo are veiled now (this started about 1984). You can also see more bearded men wearing the Galabiya, avoiding looking at women and greeting them. In my own circle of friends, I see them marry veiled women more often, thus increasing their social prestige. One of the first questions today seems to be: Does the future wife wear a veil, or when will she take it? If her parents didn't worry about it, then it's her husband's duty to do so now. And this applies to each social class. As I see it, nothing has improved for women. The fact that a woman must be veiled is equal to a ban. Being for- bidden something reduces your possibilities of expressing yourself, which start with your head. So the veil is a symbol for hiding your personality.

Renate Malina: You once said that you very much liked being visited by friends in Cairo at any time.

Tarek Eltayeb: Yes, our home was open to everybody. In the morning the women from the neighborhood came to have a chat with my mother to prepare some meal together, in the afternoon our school friends were with us children, and in the evening the men came alone or with their families. Today things are changed. Men are not free in the evenings; they very often have a second job to maintain their standard of living. And furthermore, today every- body has a telephone to announce their visit.
But anyway, there are no set appointments for friends, and you couldn't say that so-and-so doesn't fit in and therefore I don't invite them together as I do here, where I invite people separately. In this respect, our society is more open. And you have no idea either when a guest will leave. Here such moments of surprise are rare. Sentences such as "We have to leave because of the children 's bedtime" are not used in our world; children just sleep wherever they feel tired.
When staying in Cairo, I always make the same mistake. Since my stay there is limited, I had better arrange friends' visits in the first days in order to be free for my personal affairs during the remaining time. But that doesn't work with friends. I ought to know better by now. Here in Vienna, I wouldn't like that typical Cairo situation of friends coming and going as they please, for I have to work here. It would disturb me. Living in Cairo, I would have to organize my working day and thus I would be free for visits in the evening only. But also, here I do not try to hide because I'm very pleased to have a friend's visit if it is announced by a phone call.

Renate Malina: What differences impress you most when you compare today's Cairo with the Cairo of your childhood?

Tarek Eltayeb: In the overcrowded streets you wouldn't like to stop and have a chat with your neighbor or somebody you meet by chance, as you used to do before. Today empty streets don 't exist anymore. Apart from the tremendous traffic in the main streets, the narrow streets, too, are full of parked cars, since almost everyone has one. And low houses have given way to tall buildings with ten or more stories. The little shops have been changed into supermarkets. There is more noise, dust, and dirt than ever in the town with its over fifteen million inhabitants. These are all negative impressions, of course, but who wouldn't glorify his or her own childhood? But I have positive personal impressions, too, connected with my writing, which have acquainted me with so many people whom I meet for discussing literature.

Renate Malina: Do changes in Cairo also appear as the subject of your stories?

Tarek Eltayeb: Yes, I think in my play The Lift you could clearly see the social changes. This open-door system opening the economic market for everybody has produced a complete change in society. A lot of people became rich in a short time. These new rich have changed society. They are a pure economic power without any culture being subjected to the media's influence. Mostly they want to imitate foreign people's lives. For instance, if they see an impressive mansion in a TV serial such as Dallas, then they build a similar one, but in poor areas, as they have done amid the farm houses in the Suez Canal region. And there are the foreign workers in rich Arab countries. Back in Cairo they can afford everything, thus increasing prices.
The middle class slowly seems to disappear. The rich become richer and the poor poorer. In my play the protagonist wants to be rich, but he fails because of his definite high moral standing.

Renate Malina: How can you maintain your language level living in a foreign country?

Tarek Eltayeb: By continuous reading. I'm reading all the time-periodicals, books, every recent publication I can get. But I have noticed that my language is changing. I have lost much of my dialect; therefore it would not be so easy for me to write a play because of the right melody of the language that you actually need to be hearing. My language tends to the standard language now, something I also observe with my Arab friends. We speak almost the same language using words of different dialects mixed with standard Arabic. The Arab reader accepts this without feeling estranged. I try to write simple sentences, avoiding complicated constructions or choosing beautiful words. What matters to me is to be understandable.

Renate Malina: Which genre of literature suits you most?

Tarek Eltayeb: It's the short story because of being short. But it's more difficult than writing a novel, though that takes more time. At present, I make notes of isolated ideas.

Renate Malina: In your short stories you shed light on certain conflicts your heroes have to deal with. Can they solve their problems or do they fail?

Tarek Eltayeb: In my short stories I allow only a look at certain situations, but keep everything else open. I want to give clear messages showing that there are errors and faults of life, faults of society or the surroundings. My heroes are often helpless and might, therefore, fail. What I want is to make readers understand situations that could possibly change their minds, but I don 't give advice.

Renate Malina: What are your writing habits?

Tarek Eltayeb: First, I have a file-card box where I collect my ideas and I always have a little piece of paper with me for notes. I write every day-not with fixed hours, but I prefer the evening, starting about six or seven, and my best time is late in the evening or sometimes even in the night.
I use notebooks, big ones for everyday and little ones when I travel. Usually I make a note of the date and the hour, too, since I work on various subjects at the same time. When I have finished with a project, then I use the computer.

Renate Malina: Are you afraid of the future?

Tarek Eltayeb: I'm not. Although the financial situation of the whole world is not really favorable at the moment, I don 't fear the future. I had such bad times when starting with jobs in Vienna that I couldn't imagine worse conditions.

Renate Malina: Do you have literary models?

Tarek Eltayeb: I wouldn't say so, although I admire important authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Attayeb Salih, to whom I'm grateful for his kind preface to the collection of my short stories and to whom I feel very close.

Renate Malina: How has your writing been received?

Tarek Eltayeb: I'm very happy that my writing is appreciated by so many Arab readers. I got very good reviews in different Arab periodicals in Paris, London, Beirut, Cairo, and a1so in Sudanese and Israeli literary magazines. And I was very pleased by the long review of my novel in the magazine Al-Arabi and a BBC broadcast in which my writings were discussed. What I'm especially happy about is the article in the Egyptian magazine Dirasaat Sudaniya, where my novel has been compared to an exhibition of paintings in which all the colors are true to life.