Two people meet and their lives are changed forever. This is the oldest and perhaps the most universal story. If an Egyptian does not speak English begins when Noor, an Egyptian American returning to Egypt in search of meaning and culture, meets an unnamed Egyptian whose hopes and dreams have been all but decimated by political unrest and a worsening drug addiction.
Filled with imagery and prose that can only be achieved by a brilliant poet like Noor Naga, this is a novel aimed at asking questions (sometimes directly) rather than providing answers. At first the issues are political – centered on class, identity, culture, globalism – but as the novel continues (and reveals its metafictionality) it abandons politics and becomes philosophical and existential, focusing specifically on perception and the act of writing: What do you know? Where do you know that from? Why? What are the moral implications of claiming, as writers do, to know what someone else’s experience of the world is like?
Doma Mahmoud: I love the title of this book. As I read it, these different variations came to mind. If an Egyptian can’t speak English, or can’t speak Arabic, or can’t speak as fluently as others, and all the implications of each of these scenarios. I also thought. If an Egyptian writer cannot write in Arabic, who does he write for?
Noor Naga: I sort of think about it in two ways. There’s the book I’m writing and there’s the book the American writes in the book. In many ways, his text is intended to be presented to an English-speaking American audience. In the third part, you realize that this is a memoir and that it is written not just for a general American audience, but for this particular group of student writers. They are young and steeped in policies which they imagine to be universal, but which are in reality very culturally specific. I tried to problematize that as much as possible, to pit their value system against an alien environment where it fits in and doesn’t fit in. Noor’s character tells a story that erases another as it is told. It was very difficult to do. I was trying to give space to this male character while emphasizing that the filter through which you put even his parts is fundamentally biased. And that in some ways you can’t trust this character of Noor or even me, the author of the book.
DM: I want to ask you about this point regarding the filter. This point really came out in the book and it was actually quite disorienting because it challenged the confidence I had for the story I was reading. I’m sure it was intentional on your part, so I wonder what was the reason for this choice.
NN: Originally, I was trying to write both POVs, the boy’s and the girl’s, and give them equal weight. It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I realized that it was not possible for me, as Noor, to write her point of view convincingly. And that it would be more logical to have only one point of view: the American writer. I’m very suspicious of myself and I guess I also wanted the reader to feel uncomfortable and suspicious. That was all the interest for me. To force the reader, in the third part, to wonder about this experience that we create together, as author and reader, to bring a fiction to life.
DM: This book definitely did that to me. I wanted to ask you a question about the male character. How did you keep a balance between making that point about the limitations and biases of fiction and maintaining the integrity of the male character. To me, I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be suspicious of what I read about him just because it had been passed through that filter.
NN: I certainly didn’t want Part 3 to come across as this deflating revelation that the reader had been tricked into believing this complete lie all along. This is why the end workshop is a memoir writing workshop, not a fiction workshop. We know what it means to have an unreliable narrator, but it’s easy to overlook how unreliable all writers are. Noor’s character really tries to be honest in his portrayal, but that doesn’t mean we can trust him. The point of pointing out her limitations and biases was not to portray her as dishonest or malicious. On the contrary, it was about creating a character of a writer aware of his limits but still trapped by them.
DM: It was refreshing to read something that I came away with more questions than answers. In your acknowledgments, you thank someone for teaching you to value a nice question over a nice answer. It really came out in this novel. Each chapter of the first part begins with a question. I certainly ended the novel with so many questions. I wonder if that was the case for you after finishing it. What question(s) are you left with after finishing? And what makes a question beautiful?
NN: Well that’s a very good question! I think I like questions that are really balanced, where there’s enough strength behind different answers to make things decidedly inconclusive. Moral questions are my favorite. Who’s wrong ? What could people have done better? For me, there were a lot of driving questions in this book. I don’t know what’s left in the end. Because in a way, writing the book was a way to purge the questions from my system and not be haunted by them anymore. It’s a way for me to say, “I don’t know. But you can read it and let me know if you have any answers. One question that remains for me is the question of: who do you feel for? Do you feel more for her or for him? And why? It’s so interesting to see how people react depending on who and where they are. So far many of my friends who were born and raised in Egypt are nicer to the girl than I thought. They don’t have the same complex with regard to nationality, they don’t feel threatened in their claim to belong. In contrast, my Diaspora friends tend to be much harder on the American girl and it seems so obvious that it’s a function of their own insecurities. They don’t like her because they identify with her or recognize her on some level, and so that’s really a way of punishing themselves.
DM: One of the central elements of the book is the power dynamic between the two main characters. Power is constantly shifting and mutating depending on where they are, what they are doing, what they are talking about. Do you think one of the characters ultimately holds the ultimate power over the other? Why?
NN: They transfer power to each other. In the end, however, only one character survives and continues to tell the story. And that says a lot.
I have always wondered what this book would look like if it had been written in Arabic and intended for an Arabic-speaking readership. It made me think a lot about the English publishing industry and how it pursues certain stories and denies others. And the power inherent in participating in that. Much of my writing of this novel was influenced by my hyper-awareness of my own position. I am Egyptian but I was also born in the United States and I hold the American passport. I grew up in Dubai, which is sort of an Arab country but not an Arab country at all. Part of the reason I was able to publish this book is because I tick some boxes that Egyptians born and raised in Egypt might not tick, even if they write in English. I have access and currency. So this novel was my way of thinking about it and almost incriminating myself.
PM: Noor’s character is named after you. Sounds like a decision you’ve probably spent a good number of hours on. Explain this to me.
NN: Well, in the original draft, that’s how I had it. Then I changed it because I thought it might distract the reader or it might be too fancy. Too much stuff layered on top of each other. I also wondered if readers unfamiliar with metafiction would immediately think that it’s autobiographical and that I would have to explain over and over again (to people like my mother and neighbors!) that it’s still fiction. .
Eventually I decided to call it Noor because I wanted to emphasize that the author of this book is not exempt from the criticisms leveled at the American writer in the novel. It is certainly a guilt-inducing book. I wrote and published the thing. I took the opportunity. But at least am I aware? This may be a cop-out, but I wanted to point out all the inherent problems with taking a truth from one world and then releasing it and profiting from it in another world. And I wanted to do it in a fun way. There are so many writers I love who write author characters for this very purpose. César Aira, Alan Hollinghurst, Youssef Rakha, Ruth Ozeki… I just thought: I can have fun too! And then I hope that the satire will pass.