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Award-winning Egyp­tian writer Mo­ham­mad Ra­bie, who will ap­pear at the Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Book Fair on Sun­day, tells about his fu­tur­is­tic, dystopian novel Otared, which was in­spired by the Arab Spring and its af­ter­math

It was one of the most me­morable book re­views of last year. As our critic pon­dered the English trans­la­tion of Mo­ham­mad Ra­bie’s award-winning tale of a fu­tur­is­tic Egyp­tian dystopia, she con­cluded by say­ing that “read­ing Otared is, by and large, like hav­ing a hand grasp­ing the back of your head, forc­ing you to look through photos from hell”.

Seven months later, Ra­bie is not only fa­mil­iar with the quote, he also seems to quite like it.

“That was the in­ten­tion of the book,” he says. “Part of what I wanted to do is draw a paint­ing of a mod­ern hell to the reader.”

He cer­tainly does that. Otared be­gins with a hor­rific mur­der in con­tem­po­rary Egypt. It then moves for­ward to an in­cred­i­bly bleak 2025, with Cairo split into ar­eas oc­cu­pied by the Knights of Malta and a re­sis­tance led by the Egyp­tian po­lice. But the po­lice are cor­rupt and their hero is the tit­u­lar Otared, a sniper shock­ingly am­biva­lent about his targets. The book de­servedly earned Ra­bie a spot on the In­ter­na­tional Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion short­list last year, which means the 38-year-old Egyp­tian will be one of the ma­jor draws at the Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Book Fair, which starts to­day and continues un­til Tues­day at the Abu Dhabi Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre.

That is as much a tes­ta­ment to the in­trigu­ing sub­ject mat­ter of his third novel as it is to the au­thor him­self – Otared boasts a dizzy­ing ar­ray of sub­texts and ideas about the state of Egypt in the af­ter­math of the Arab Spring. “The novel de­scribes the events that hap­pened in 2011 from a dif­fer­ent view,” he says.

“There have been many writ­ings on the Arab Spring, but of course, there might be in­di­vid­u­als who are not in­ter­ested in what hap­pened at all.

“So for me, there is noth­ing un­usual about Otared be­ing set in 2025, it’s a ran­domly se­lected year. I was just try­ing to avoid any com­par­i­son be­tween the cur­rent events in Egypt and the novel.”

Yet you can barely turn a page with­out find­ing an al­lu­sion to the dashed hope of the Egyp­tian up­ris­ings. Even the open­ing mur­der has its ba­sis in re­al­ity.

“It was a real crime that took place in Cairo sev­eral years ago,” he says. “I just added a very few de­tails and the rest is real. It’s a sum­mary of what the reader will see in the fol­low­ing pages, but ac­cord­ing to the logic of the novel, these events oc­curred in a dif­fer­ent world – or a dif­fer­ent hell.”

As much as it is tempt­ing to sug­gest that Otared is a means by which Ra­bie can work through his feel­ings about the Arab Spring – par­tic­u­larly when po­lice of­fi­cers in 2025 are mock­ingly com­ment­ing on it – he does not think it is that sim­ple.

“Not at all – I wanted to em­pha­sise that po­lice of­fi­cers are not sim­ple, shal­low char­ac­ters – they have mul­ti­ple and very com­pli­cated thoughts on the Arab Spring,” he says.

“If you’re ask­ing about me, what hap­pened in Egypt in 2011 was my life achieve­ment, which I don’t re­gret par­tic­i­pat­ing [in]. Even though the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion was a to­tal fail­ure.”

Life achieve­ment? Given he then won the Egyp­tian Sawiris Cul­tural Award in 2012 for his de­but Kawkab An­bar, made it to Ipaf’s nadwa writ­ers’ work­shop the same year and was sub­se­quently short­listed for the prize for Otared, that is some state­ment. “The nadwa was a good chance to read other peo­ple’s work and hear their comments on my thoughts and writ­ings,” he says. “It is very im­por­tant – un­for­tu­nately, not all Arab writ­ers agree. They be­lieve writ­ing is a per­sonal act and not to be shared with any­one else be­fore pub­lish­ing.”

This, in a way, is what Ra­bie will be talk­ing about dur­ing his ses­sion at the book fair on Sun­day, which will look at the thorny is­sue of the lit­er­ary ed­i­tor in the Arab pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

What are Ra­bie’s views on this? “That’s a long topic,” he says with a smile. “Briefly, we are not very fa­mil­iar with the idea of some­one else edit­ing our texts. We see it as ‘rude in­ter­ven­tion’, not as an act of de­vel­op­ing the book. That’s why you will find a lot of Ara­bic books with gram­mar mis­takes and ty­pos – not to men­tion the main task of the ed­i­tor: mak­ing the book read­able.”

Mo­ham­mad Ra­bie will take part in Lit­er­ary Ed­i­tor: The Miss­ing Part in the Arab Pub­lish­ing In­dus­try on Sun­day at 5.30pm at the Al Mul­taqa Lit­er­ary Sa­lon. is out now

Courtesy Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture

Au­thor Mo­ham­mad Ra­bie will take part in a dis­cus­sion about the role of the lit­er­ary ed­i­tor at the Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Book Fair.

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