Ahmed Magdy Hammam

Ahmed Magdy Hammam: ‘My Novel Is a Literary Cry against Crimes’

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YEREVAN/GIZA, EGYPT — Ahmed Magdy Hammam (born 1983) is an Egyptian novelist, storyteller and journalist. Ahmed started working as a cultural journalist since 2010, collaborating with Al-Ahram, Akhbar el-Yom, Al-Dustour, and other media. He was also the editor-in-chief of the World of Books magazine. He has published many fictional and short stories in the Egyptian and the Arab periodicals, publications, and websites. Hammam participated in many cultural and artistic conferences and events in Egypt and abroad. His books have been published in Cairo, Dubai, Dammam and Beirut, including: From Cairo (novel, 2008), Ibn Awaa’s Pain (novel, 2011), The Gentleman Prefers Losing Cases (short-story collection, 2014), The Story Factory (25 interviews, 2016), Ayyash (novel, 2017), Recipe No. 7 (novel, 2017 and 2018), Reports to Sarah (diaries) (2019), etc.  His works have valued him awards (including the Sawiris Cultural Award), as well as recognition of criticism and a wide circle of Arabic language readers.

We Armenians learned about Ahmed Majdi Hammam when his novel Organized Death on the Armenian Genocide was published this year. “With his latest novel Maout mounazzam (Organized death), writer Ahmed Majdi Hammam, a serious and melancholic voice that comes from deep Egypt, uses a certain shocking title but that says a lot about his narrative. A story announcing the setbacks, expectations and tragedy of humans in front of an unfair, torturer, greedy, and bloody and unpredictable society” (Edgar Davidian, L’Orient-Le Jour).

Ahmed, first of all it will be interesting to know about your personal and educational background, as well as where you work now.

I was born in the UAE to Egyptian parents, and I grew up there in the city of Al Ain, in Harat al-Souriin (Syrian Quarter) neighborhood in a Bedouin environment. This blending of Gulf, Syrian Levantine and my own Egyptian culture contributed greatly to giving me a unique cultural mix.

When I returned with my family to Egypt, I studied Arabic language and literature at the Faculty of Education at Helwan University. Currently, I work as a cultural editor for Al-Dustour daily. I also write for some Arab newspapers and websites as a correspondent from Cairo. 

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In his review about your novel in L’Orient-Le Jour Edgar Davidian called you a writer, who never addresses innocent subjects. So what are your subjects?

In my literary project, I focus on the issue of diversity. I do not like to write two books that are similar, neither in terms of idea nor in terms of narration techniques. In my novel Jackal’s Pains, for example, I wrote about psychological impairments and hidden internal distortions compared to the apparent physical damages. In the novel Ayyash, I wrote about corruption in the press through the character of the protagonist – a rambler and an opportunist. As for The Gentleman Prefers Losing Cases, I wrote about personal defeats, and how to receive them with open arms or in a humorous way. Finally, in Organized Death, I chose to open the file of the Armenians in Egypt, and the genocide to which the Armenian people were subjected at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, and put it in comparison with contemporary crimes, especially those that coincided with the period of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt in 2012 and 2013, and its extension after the fall of the Brotherhood until 2016.

When and where did you learn about the Armenians and that tragic page of their history?

This happened by a strange coincidence. A Syrian friend on Facebook published the immortal picture of crucified naked Armenian girls, attaching a comment on the occasion of her Armenian grandfather’s birthday, and wrote a summary of his path during the displacement and deportation from Anatolia to Syria, specifically Aleppo, and how he miraculously survived. Only then I did realize this tragedy and start reading about it. I was horrified by what happened, it touched my feelings deeply, and I decided to write about the Armenians. That was probably in 2011 or 2012. 

Organized Death is built in four chapters as the four seasons of a life.

I cannot say that the novel Organized Death is only about the Armenian Genocide, because it expands to deal with other matters. Although the issue of the genocide occupies a large space in the novel, but on the other hand, I can say that the novel, largely embodies the life and end of an Egyptian-Armenian woman, passing through her tragic life story, which is the history of all Armenians and reaching her present that belongs to her alone. In one way or another, the Organized Death is my literary cry against intolerance, terrorism and murder. And for me an Armenian heroine was more suitable to be the main character of the novel.

The geography plays a pivotal role in your novel. What are the connections between your proposed geography and Armenian existence?

In principle, I do believe that good literature — in some of its manifestations — is a good geography, and perhaps the course of the Armenian diaspora after the 1915 genocide was one of the factors that tempted me to write about the Armenians. The dispersion of Armenians to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan provided me with raw material in terms of geography. It was a “big canvas” of artistic work. Then came the presence of Armenians in Egypt and the penetration of Armenians into Egyptian history and geography, which encouraged me to write more about them. Therefore, I had to travel to the Armenian districts of Lebanon, but also to visit Armenia itself, to see personally the role that geography played with the Armenians. That is why the novel has as preamble the words attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Geography is destiny.”

 Is there a prototype for Magda Simonian, the heroine of the novel?

No, Magda Simonyan is absolutely born in my imagination, but the circumstances surrounding her have realistic references, whether her family story associated with the Genocide, or her present and sufferings with her criminal neighbors, related to the chaos coincided with the era of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, or even her tragic end in the bombing of Church in Cairo, which is a real event.

How has the reaction of Arab readers been?

The vast majority of the reactions I received were positive and encouraging. The readers of the novel sympathized greatly with Magda Simonian, whether because of the bloody past embodied in the Genocide that made her ancestors flee to Egypt, or because of her precarious present on the personal and public levels. But this does not negate the existence of some very few reactions from some Arabs who made pro-Turkish statements. Probably they are most likely Arabs belonging to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. I read some of these statements on the publishing house’s Facebook page.

Was there any response from the side of Turkey?

Not at all, and even when the publishing house, Hachette Antoine, took the novel to the Istanbul Arab Book Fair, there were no reactions, neither negative nor positive. In fact, I was so worried about the employees of the publishing house while they were at the Istanbul Book Fair that they would share the fate similar to what happened to Hrant Dink, or at least be arrested and imprisoned, that I thought do not announce the novel’s presence at that fair. But things went smoothly: perhaps the Turks had not even heard of the novel.

Are you in touch with Armenians in Arabic countries?

I have good contacts with the Armenians of Egypt, and I communicate less with some Armenians from Syria and Iraq.

Do you have an intention to visit Armenia again?

In 2015, I visited Armenia, attended the commemoration of the centenary of the Genocide, joined the procession to the Memorial of the Genocide victims and delivered flowers on their memory. I also visited Yerevan Lake, Garni Temple, and other Armenian cities.

Let me mention here the role of the Cultural Resource Foundation, which contributed to supporting me with a production grant to write the novel. I also want to mention the role of the Embassy of Republic of Armenia in Egypt and an Armenian charitable organization, who supported me with many references and facilitated my travel to Armenia.

I may be in Armenia in April 2022, to talk about my novel and discuss it in some Armenian universities and literary forums. I am not sure yet, but I must strive to make this journey.

Do you intend to continue writing on Armenian subjects?

I am thinking about writing the second part of the novel. There are many unknown Armenian martyrs, relatives of the heroine of the novel who were mentioned briefly. I think of zoom in on one of them and create his story. In any case, I will not be able to do this in the near future, as I am currently working on other novels and short stories, which I had planned to write for a long time.

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