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Conversations with Ahdaf Soueif
Cairo, January 2019
“ About the evasive nature of love, the ambiguity in motherhood and their fervent love for their country”
Interviewed by Lina Mowafy & written by Rana Soliman
Edited by Ahdaf Soueif
Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who rather curiously but wonderfully writes in English. Throughout her writing career, Ahdaf inhabited diverse roles being; a novelist, a journalist and political activist, all which emphasize her true self; a woman so committed to decipher the worlds she finds herself immersed in through the written word. Across both her political and fictional writing she deftly explores various themes, commenting on and describing the nomadic experience of the modern person, cross-cultural relationships and the conflicting emotion which marks the human state with eloquence and fluency. She integrates those aspects of the human experience to create stories that are timeless in their resonance.
Ahdaf was born in Cairo, and educated in Egypt and England, where she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Lancaster. Her stories have been published in the collection: I Think of You (2007) and she is that author of two novels, In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love(1999). Her translation of Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2000) is much acclaimed and she curated and edited Reflections on Islamic Art (2011).
After ”The Map of Love” was shortlisted for the Booker prize, Ahdaf felt that she “had a platform, an audience in the English-speaking world. I was living in London and I could see how the Palestinian issue was misrepresented in most Western media; it was only natural to use my new visibility to start talking about Palestine”. She moved to writing non-fiction political writings such as the book of essays, Mezzaterra, and Cairo: my City, our Revolution.
Ahdaf now lives in Cairo. She writes for The Guardian and is a key political commentator on Egypt and Palestine. She is also the founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, PalFest. From 2012 to 2015 she had a weekly column in the Egyptian national newspaper, al-Shorouk,
Lina Mowafy a contemporary Egyptian artist based in Cairo and Founder of The ArtsMart Gallery, which aims to democratize art by offering a platform to different artists catering to a wide range of tastes.
Lina graduated with a double degree in Art, and Journalism & Mass Communication from The American University in Cairo. She also studied portraiture painting at the Charles Cecil Portraiture School in Florence, Italy, after which she went on to develop her abilities by studying at Central Saint Martins in London. Lina has worked professionally in the advertising field for a couple of years before she became a full-time painter.
She boldly brings her entrepreneurial instinct and experience of womanhood in collision with paint and color against the canvas. Her layered experiences of life seep into her paintings and translate into complex multi-dimensional works of art offering a kaleidoscope perspective on the mundane aspects of life.
Visual Narrative is an exhibition taking place on the 8th of March 2019, pairing prominent artists with some of the most iconic women of this generation, who have impacted the Egyptian and global sociocultural scenes through their personal involvement in different fields including literature, sports, arts, politics and the non-profit sector. Each artist will meet with their respective inspirational role model with the purpose of building a connection and engaging in dialogue about those journeys. The artists will then attempt to depict in a body of work their own impressions on the essence of the exchange.
Lina is in the unique position of being both the curator and one of the artists represented in the exhibition. As an artist, Lina has been searching to contact Ahdaf Souief, whose writings have colored her years as a young adult. And for a long time Lina’s attempts to reach Ahdaf proved to be in vain, until one day, unannounced, Ahdaf walked into ArtsMart to pick up a painting for her son. It seemed to Lina that it was fate and both ladies agreed to set up a meeting at Ahdaf’s home in Cairo.
Lina visited Ahdaf Soueif in her Cairo home. Wonderful raconteurs, rich humor and a well of experiences and emotions filled the rooms as both women opened up their hearts discussing the evasive nature of love, the ambiguity in motherhood and their fervent love for their country.
Lina Mowafy: Do you have a writing process? Could you tell us more about it?
Ahdaf Soueif: Well, it seems that I can only write from a place where what I’m writing about matters deeply to me. I like what you could call “traditional” narrative; storylines that have characters at their centre. My job is to make the reader turn the page to know what will happen next because they feel an affinity with the characters and care what happens to them. I write, mostly, from within the character.
Lina Mowafy: What does Ahdaf Soueif have to say about love? I mean do you believe in it?
Ahdaf Soueif: Of course I do, yes, but quoting my son, “look where romantic love gets you!”
Lina Mowafy: What do you think keeps people together? Do you believe people are meant to stay together?
Ahdaf Soueif: Well, I suppose there are questions one answers differently than one would have 20 years ago! I wonder if perhaps the nuclear family as a form of social organization is not the one we were designed to thrive in? I imagine an Arab-design courtyard house; a home made up of private suites and common spaces where common family life happens. The children have access to the elderly, and young couples have natural time and space free of constant concern about their children. It would relieve the young of the burden of trying to make things work all by themselves, and dispense with the sense of uselessness that is so often the lot of the elderly. Perhaps a healthier way to live family life. Of course there is always the fear of conflict, but if we assume that everyone is doing their best .. Well, maybe what I’m suggesting is just another form of romance.
Lina Mowafy: Do you think romantic love is real?
Ahdaf Soueif: It is. You cannot deny the chemistry, the responsiveness that happens with a particular person and not the ten others around him. Ibn Sina described love as an ailment, a disorder with real physical manifestations: rapid pulse rate, irregular heartbeat, etc. But how do you keep this going?
Lina Mowafy: What makes romantic love not sustainable?
Ahdaf Soueif: There are other valid pulls on one in life that have the same weight as romantic love, but perhaps romantic love demands supremacy over everything, and so it becomes hard to maintain. So perhaps if two people understand this and are ready to work at it – together and in the same direction, they might succeed. There are couples whom you see in later stages of their lives, still very much together, but there’s really no way to know the passage they have gone through: who compromised what, and how much it cost, to what extent has it robbed one or both of them of who they really are. Romantic love has an element of theatre. How do you maintain this theatre when you are together all the time with a house to maintain and children to bring up and bills to pay and health issues to deal with? I don’t know.
Lina Mowafy: Doesn’t the theatrical part of love eventually evolve into something more? A sense of familiarity, maybe?
Ahdaf Soueif: Again, in theory, it should. It should turn into something deeper and calmer, morph from the state of “being in love” to a state where you truly “love” the person – and also have moments where the rush of being in love wells up to interrupt the constant state of loving.
Lina Mowafy: You manage to write about love beautifully.
Ahdaf Soueif: In The Map of Love this is what happens to Anna and Sharif. I think it is because both people came to love late in life, almost as a bonus. Both of them understood the value of what they had found and consciously took care of it. They took care of it to the extent that they spoke in a language alien to both of them so that neither had an edge over the other.
Lina Mowafy: They say that second marriages are happier because they come in a later stage, so you know more what you want and what you don’t, what do you think about that?
Ahdaf Soueif: I suppose if you are wise enough you become more aware of your responsibility in the failure of the first marriage. So you try not to repeat your patterns. Also, a second marriage is more of a choice; you don’t have to do it.
Lina Mowafy: I am starting to feel that love is about companionship rather than passion. Someone you can tolerate being with everyday. And like you mentioned things will rekindle on some days, but on all the other days you want to be in good company.
How do you feel about Cairo today versus the Cairo of the seventies the one you have experienced and written about?
Ahdaf Soueif: I feel somewhat estranged from the city. Until three or four years ago, I used to believe that if the political situation were to change we could retrieve my beloved Cairo. Now I am not so sure.
Lina Mowafy: Do you believe the change you experience nowadays in Cairo has to do primarily with people? That They have changed and their preferences have changed and that this adversely affected the public taste?
Ahdaf Soueif: There is that of course, but I believe it is a relationship between public taste and the institutions and direction of the state. We have a deliberate neglect of the traditional city and a strong sentiment that the old must be destroyed to make way for the new. And that’s terrible. Cairo’s beauty and value are a product of its age. You shouldn’t – and don’t need to – rid of the old, you restore it and extend the new from it. You protect it. And that is the job of the government. If the country’s laws and its planning and building regulations valued our incredible material heritage in the city, that would inform public taste. You can’t blame the people.
Lina Mowafy: Art has a way of changing things. What inspires you? Is it music, paintings, writing, reading, or film?
Ahdaf Soueif: Everything. And yes, I do enjoy visual arts. I was dragged into galleries and museums as a child – but I go of my own free will now.
Lina Mowafy: What kind of music do you listen to?
Ahdaf Soueif: I’m not listening to music much at the moment; it makes me a bit sad. But I do play classical music to my one-year-old grandson in the morning, Mahragant in the afternoon and Um Kulthoum and Fairuz at sunset. I play Eskenderella to him lots.
Lina Mowafy: Does this mean that you resist feeling sad?
Ahdaf Soueif: If sadness will produce something positive then I can welcome it, but if it just makes one miserable and paralyzed then, no, thank you.
Lina Mowafy: Sadness is a layered feeling and there are so many kinds of sad. What sort of of sadness are you talking about?
Ahdaf Soueif: Well, what I meant now was a kind of generalized sadness at the state of things, the planet, the world that my children have to try to make better for their children. Sadness at great opportunities that were lost and the price that’s still being paid for that loss. It is of course out of concern for this “state of the world” that I worked exclusively in cultural-political writing and activism for the last 18 years – but maybe now what I need to do is turn back to fiction –
Lina Mowafy: It seems like your grandson stirs a lot of emotion inside of you. It wasn’t the same with your own children?
Ahdaf Soueif: I think as a young mother, and you can probably relate to this one – of course I fell in love with both my children, that’s natural, but at the same time in that stage of your life you are juggling so many things that need looking after: your career, your finances, your marriage .. so however much you love your children and try to be a good mother your mind is not 100% on them. It can’t be. With my grandson, at this stage in my life, it seems natural that when I am with him I am truly focused on him. Everything else recedes. And that’s fine because I’m actually not trying to build bits of my life anymore. The result of this focus, of course, is that you see behaviors and patterns, you get to really know the child and that is totally rewarding and fascinating. It’s like watching the first human make sense of the world and of himself.
Once, he was 9 months old, he banged his head against the wall startled himself and, of course, cried. A little while later, after he was soothed I sat and watched him bump his head, gently, deliberately, cautiously. He was testing the process, working out the solidity of the wall, the amount of force in his head movement, the safety parameters within which he could act without hurting himself.
Lina Mowafy: He is creating his own boundaries.
Ahdaf Soueif: Totally. Last August, we were at the beach, there were no toys around for him to play with so I put two large empty plastic water bottles in front of him. He was in his eighth month. At first, he tried holding one of them without letting it fall. After relentless trials, he managed to hold it securely, then victoriously raised it up in the air. Then his project was to pick up both bottles at the same time. Then afterwards he rolled the two bottles behind the floor cushions and crawled round to see whether they still existed or not. This is a human who does not stop working from the moment he wakes up. That is the kind of talk my friends make fun of: the imagination of the novelist, they say. I don’t agree though, I think this is reality.
Lina Mowafy: To me, my focus and experience differed greatly between my first and second, I had twins during the revolution and I was very invested in it back then. But having children at that time was difficult. I used to call it a revolution on the self.
Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, I had a similar experience with my younger son. I had a full time job back then besides my writing, but his father was a full-time writer. In preschool they asked him “What does daddy do?” and he said “Daddy types”. Then they asked “And what does mummy do?” and he said “Mummy goes”. It broke my heart.
But bringing kids up in the revolution; that must have been very hopeful.
Lina Mowafy: It was more about worrying about the kind of world I am bringing my children into.
Ahdaf Soueif: You know, sometimes I find it a bit strange that the people like us, the people of this country, who have gone through such a traumatic experience walk around looking “normal”. I feel there should be some physical manifestation …
Lina Mowafy: The 28th of January was the last day I could breastfeed. My body simply stopped. Maybe that was for the best, so I wouldn’t pass on the toxins to my babies. Their father had left to join the masses. I was in a state of shock, the twins were crying and I had nothing to offer them.
Ahdaf Soueif: That is just brilliant, the way a mother’s body is so in tune with her kids’ needs. I used to flood when I heard my baby cry. Fountains. . Motherhood is something. It is everything. Parenthood one should say.
Lina Mowafy: Are you and your children friends now that they are older?
Ahdaf Soueif: We have always been friends. We talk about everything and we’re –reasonably – caring and careful about each other. I find them the best company, really – most of the time!
Lina Mowafy: My youngest son, is so much in tune with the cosmic energy, I call him an old soul. One day we were at the beach, and while his siblings were building sandcastles, he sat there looking at the sea and meditating. Then he said, “Do you know why everyone loves the sea? It is because it is Mother Nature and how can anyone not love their mother?” He is so interested in the big picture that I don’t know if he can manage the practical world.
Ahdaf Soueif: Oh wow! You have to really look after this talent and find ways to nurture it, but at the same time enable him to participate in the mundane little practical tasks of the day.
As the interview came to an end, Ahdaf congratulated Lina on her role in promoting the Egyptian art both locally and internationally and Lina thanked Ahdaf for being everything and beyond the woman she had thought she was. Both women shook hands, knowing that a beautiful connection was birthed between them and that they would meet again.