Reem Bassiouney The novelist talks about creating a more complex, Egyptian answer to ‘chick lit’ with her bestselling book Professor Hanaa.
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Chapter two – Reem Bassiouney – 5.57 minutes
An interview between Audrey Brown and the novelist Reem Bassiouney. Bassiouney talks about creating a more complex, Egyptian answer to ‘chick lit’ with her bestselling book Professor Hanaa.
Audrey Brown = AB
Reem Bassiouney = RB
AB: Reem Bassiouney is a highly acclaimed Egyptian writer and academic. Her second novel, ‘The Pistachio Seller’, won the best Arabic translated novel in 2008, and her fourth ‘Professor Hanaa’, has also been translated into English and it’s won the biggest literary award in Egypt. It’s ostensibly the story of Hanaa, who at forty is unmarried, and still a virgin. Bossy and self-confident, all Hanaa wants is to be head of department, and she wants to lose her virginity. At the beginning of the book she’s also dreaming of revenge on her colleagues.
(extract read from the book)
‘Tomorrow she would go to America where her first love lived, Ramy el Masry. Today she must lose her virginity, mark 500 papers, slap Samy soundly, then smash up Abdel Hamid’s head with a hammer’
AB: Now when I spoke to Reem Bassiouney from our studios in Washington, I asked her who inspired the idea for ‘Professor Hanaa’.
RB: I think lots of people thought that it might be…myself? I got lots of emails from people who read it in the Arab world or in Egypt, and they would always, in a very embarrassing manner, ask at the end, ‘does this have any autobiographical features?’, you know, and then I reply always and say ‘no, I am not actually forty yet, but I am also married with children, that’s not me!’. And I think this is the problem with women writing in the Arab world, because they seem to write only about themselves. Well I haven’t written about myself at all, so far, so…
AB: (laughs) Ok. Her fixation with losing her virginity, and the way she goes about it also, she ruthlessly seduces one of her students, Khalid, did you intend to shock us, by setting it up like that?
RB: There was yes definitely, there was the, the shock part, but I think it just came out like that spontaneously from me. I think it was shocking at the beginning, by the fact that she seduced this student ruthlessly and almost harassed him throughout the novel, but in a way, she’s not a loose woman, she just had a moment of a breakdown, where she felt like she really needed to lose her virginity, but we never see her acting in any way that shows that she’s immoral in an Egyptian sense, at all, really, after that.
AB: Well she doesn’t even seem to enjoy it, in a way…
RB: …No, exactly, it’s a sort of, an achievement, for her.
AB: Yeah and it’s so business-like, the way she does it…
RB: …Yeah, exactly.
AB: An you say she almost harasses him, she really harasses him! She threatens him, she’s quite a nasty piece of work!
RB: (laughs) Yeah that’s true!
AB: But you begin the book with a quotation from ‘Jane Austen’, and it says ‘men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story…the pen has been in their hands’. This is a very important concern for Hanaa, this is what drives her. Is it as important for you, as a woman writing, in Egypt?
RB: Definitely, I think that women writers in Egypt have yet to be taken seriously. There are lots of problems for women in Egypt, and it’s not necessarily, the oppression by men, it’s political oppression you know, it’s oppression because of poverty, and they don’t necessarily have to do with the fact…with gender, specifically, because the oppression is for both, men and women, depending what class of society they are in, depending on… their education, like we see in the ‘Professor Hanaa’ that you know her… Khalid is actually oppressed by her throughout, as you mentioned, you know, he’s harassed by her, simple because she comes from a better class and she’s also much more educated and she has power over him. I mean there are a number of wonderful writers in Egypt who wrote about problems of Egyptian women, in the sixties and the seventies, I still yet have to see people who really reflect problems and challenges faced by women now.
AB: So has this story, this book, has it encouraged a new wave of writing about women’s experiences, in Egyptian literature?
RB: I…I’m not sure about that, there is still the need, and people, unfortunately in the Western world, sometimes prefer to read about things that are about…oppression of women for example, because this somehow matches their idea of how women are treated in the Arab world, and I think writers are still targeting a specific market, and I think that’s the main problem for women writers. And that’s why my novel I think is in a way, different in that sense, and I don’t think there is a trend yet.
AB: I also felt that you were writing about Egypt actually, so for instance, what Khalid says about bribery, and bribes not always paid by a villain to a villain, in Egypt bribes he says, are mostly given by one of the oppressed, to another.
RB: Yeah, definitely, and I think this is not necessarily a novel about a woman or a man, it’s freely a novel about society and Egyptian society, with all the good and the bad things about it, as Khalid says you know, if it’s not for us taking care of each other, we would all perish. While at the same time, the corruption, is so much deep in the society that, at the end it’s not very clear who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor anymore.
AB: Now Haled also warns Hanaa that, she has to understand the old order before she establishes a new one, he’s talking to her when she becomes the head of the department. And he says to her, ‘no leader in Egypt should underestimate this old order’. Now your book was published in Arabic, three years ago but, given events this year, it seems like you were almost talking, as if you were watching events unfold?
RB: Definitely, definitely, as this is exactly what is happening now, because we have all the young people of Egypt, are thinking, we we have to clean up our country, we have to get rid of corruption, we have to have freedom and justice, however, there is a very strong system that is fighting back, and is fighting back fiercely. And that’s exactly what happens to Hanaa, in a way she takes the same stance, where she says, ‘you know what, we have to get rid of our corruption, our affiliation should be to the institution, while, while she’s saying this to people who have been working for years, in a very corrupt system, only interested in their own interests. Of course in ‘Professor Hanaa’, it’s almost the old system that somehow wins, and I hope that now, three years after the novel has been published, it’s actually the new system that wins. But it will take time, and it’s not going to be very easy.
AB: Reem Bassiouney and ‘Professor Hanaa’, is out now in the UK. I’m Audrey Brown and you’re listening to The Strand, Global Arts and Entertainment from the BBC World Service.