Khaled Al Khamissi is an Egyptian novelist, columnist, lecturer, writer and cultural activist. He shot to fame with his insightful fiction novels Taxi and Noah’s Arch and his nonfiction novel 2011. He is now the Chairman of the Cairo Greater Public Library.
I come from a family of writers. My grandfather, uncles and friends of my family were writers. I was born in an apartment with no walls, only books! Literature, books and culture were ingrained in me from the beginning. It also had a bad impact on me! I kept thinking if I could write better than authors I grew up reading. The answer is always “no, you can’t.” I had the dream of writing when I was 15 and I was only published when I was 40. I began with Taxi (2006) which was politically motivated. I felt anger in the streets of Cairo and I wanted to pen this anger.
I do not like the term “Middle” East; middle from whose perspective? I refuse to accept a colonial term. We must reinvent terminologies again to free ourselves. As a man of words, we must declare war against oppressive linguistic tendencies. Culture is important for critical thinking because we must critique the conditions we live in. To question is the answer! All ideas of the eighteenth century that now shape administration in schools and universities are inherently ‘westernised’ and are inadequate.
A very small percentage of people in this world read, who do not let the media shape their thinking. These are the ones who are capable of bringing about a change. We writers have a role to play, which are political and social in nature, never to be mistaken for a luxury. Those who write for a pastime do not deserve my respect and as a reader, I take the pen seriously.
We are all influenced by what we see. Even if we read thousands of books on Russia in the 19th century, my favourite being Fyodor Dostoevsky, deeply imbibing the tenets of the society then, I know I shall never be able to write about it. I must write on something my body feels, touches and smells directly. We are shaped by the pains we witness, the oppression we face and the failure of political establishments. I cannot write on corruption in Nigeria if I have not lived there during times of distress.
Crime and Punishment happens to be a personal favourite! However, coming back, I would say again that concepts formulated even a hundred years ago are no longer relevant. The idea of nihilism was important to the social context then, not now. Can we defeat death? No? Progress in medicine says otherwise. With time, perceptions change.
I think these festivals are extremely important because they are the link between different people with diverse cultural backgrounds. We need these bridges. Festivals centred around books can be the answer to all cultural troubles. If I need to promote any book or the literature of my country, these venues are all I shall look for.