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 on April 26 and continues until May 2 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. Otared is out now