One pleasant stop on my recent trip to Cairo was the American University’s bookshop near Tahrir Square. It’s a treasure trove of books on Egyptology and Egyptian fiction in translation. Among the titles I picked up was the dystopian novel Otared by Mohammad Rabie.
This novel, originally published in Arabic in 2014 and published in English in 2016 by Hoopoe, the fiction imprint of the American University of Cairo, is a grim dystopian tale of Cairo in 2025.
After several botched revolutions in which the people repeatedly fail to effect real social and political change, Egypt is invaded by a foreign power. The army crumples, most of the police collude with the occupiers, and the general public doesn’t seem to care. A small rebel group decides to take back their nation, and one of its agents is former police officer turned sniper, Otared. The rebels basically become terrorists, deciding the only way to get the people to rise up is to make life under the occupation intolerable, which means killing as many innocent civilians as possible.
The world Rabie paints reminds me very much of the insane landscape in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, with its violence, its cruelty, and its bizarre customs (in Otared almost everyone wears a mask) that begin to make sense once you learn more about the world. Throw in a nightmarish disease that affects only children, plus a national death wish, and you have a grim but compelling read. No science fiction novel has gut punched me this hard for a long, long time.
Mohammad Rabie is an emerging force in Egyptian letters. Born in 1978, he graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in 2002. His first novel, Amber Planet, was released in 2010 and won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award Competition in 2011. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, came out in 2012. Otared was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016 (popularly referred to as the Arabic Booker). Curious to learn more, I sat down with Rabie (OK, I shot him an email) to speak with him about his writing.
What inspired you to write Otared?
Mainly the events that occurred in 2011. The Egyptian revolution was my inspiration, the struggle to overthrow the dictator, then dealing with the situation afterwards, trying to find solutions to all the problems at once, which all the parties obviously didn’t succeed in accomplishing. Also, dealing with the Egyptian state, the real dictator in the country. We thought that the state was supporting us in some way, but we realized very late that it was always against us. All this ended up with the great failure of the revolution. It was clear that we were on the route to failure from the middle of 2012. At some time that year I started thinking about writing Otared.
One of the things that struck me when reading the novel was the almost total absence of religion. Since it’s such a cornerstone of so many Egyptians’ lives, this must have been deliberate on your part. Why did you make this creative decision?
I believe religion is the major reason for our current situation. We look at the president as the equivalent of God on earth, he cannot be criticized or opposed, and if one did so he must be sued and punished. So beside praying, fasting, and other religious rituals, there is a deep and strong feeling of surrender to the ruler of the country, as if we surrender to God. In Otared, and according to the logic of the novel, you will find most of the characters willing to die, and the main reason is to be transferred to a better place – in the case, heaven — it is nearly the same situation now in Egypt, people give up their own freedom just to have a better afterlife. It may be hard to understand this idea for a Westerner, to put it simply, we tend to stay under injustice, to be rewarded by God at the end. There may be no religious rituals in Otared, but the core of religion is one of motives of the characters.
Otared is one of the ugliest novels I have ever read. I don’t mean that as a criticism — we live in ugly times, after all — but I was wondering if some passages were difficult for you to write? They were certainly difficult for me to read!
Well, at the beginning it seemed just a normal novel to write, I stopped writing after three or four months, and then started writing again for nine months until I finished the first draft. These nine months were so stressful, I used to write and rewrite every day for one or two hours, at the end I was completely mentally exhausted, and this never happened before.
Otared has been published in both Arabic and English. Has the reaction been different between Egyptian and Western readers?
There were mixed reviews all the time, some of the readers considered it a “masterpiece,” others thought it was just a waste of time, maybe not a novel to start with. As for the Western readers, I didn’t have the chance to hear a wide range of reactions yet.
Could you tell us a bit about the state of Egyptian speculative fiction today? Any suggestions for other works that have been translated into English?
Actually that’s a new genre in Egypt and the Arab world, with a very few serious novels in the last century. There are three main novels you should consider reading though: Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy, The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, and a novel that will be on shelves soon: Using Life by Ahmed Naji.
What can we expect next from you?
There are a couple of projects, maybe I will go with the one on dictatorship in Egypt.
Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles. His novel set in Tangier, The Last Hotel Room, examines the refugee crisis. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.