INTERVIEW: Salwa El-Hamamsy on the unexplored side of literature

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 2 Oct 2021

On Saturday 9 October, AlKotob Khan bookstore in Maadi Salwa ElHamamsy will launch the third edition of “Tales of the Nile – Modern Egyptian Short Stories,” which just came out a few weeks ago.

book cover

The book brings together the English translation of a selection of less than 25 short stories by new and mostly self-published writers. The stories offer an insight into the evolution of Egyptian society and the new challenges faced by men and women, old and young.

“The purpose of this initiative is really two-fold: the first is to grant a wider exposure of modern short story writers whose work is unlikely to otherwise get the attention of translation from leading publishing houses that are only too focused on the big names; the second is to grant foreign readers a good insight into a vibrant and very diverse Egyptian society,” said El-Hamamsy, the founder and coordinator of the initiative.

According to El-Hamamsy, “this is why we decided to call this series of translations that we started five years ago: Tales of the Nile. 

“When we talk about the Nile we are first and foremost really talking about Egypt,” she argued.

As spouse of an Egyptian diplomat who had been posted around Africa and Europe, El-Hamamsy had believed that when all is said and done the world looks at Egyptians as "children of the Nile. But no, the stories are not directly related to the Nile, but certainly they are stories from the people whose lives, culture, and identity are firmly related to the Nile,” she said.

The original idea of this volunteer initiative that she has embarked on with three volunteering translators, Amal Eissa, Mona Naguib, and Taghrid Fayyad, started around 10 years ago during one of her diplomatic travels as she was attending some cultural events where she received many questions about contemporary literary production in Egypt.

“I just thought it was very unfortunate that our share of translated literature is so small and that the enormous flourishing literature movement of Egypt is not at all fairly expressed for the foreign reader,” El-Hamamsy said.

As someone with unexplored interest in literary writing herself, she knew well that it is not easy for a new writer, young or old, to capture the attention of a publisher, much less that of a translator.

“This is why the translated titles in the three editions of Tales of the Nile include a few short stories of unpublished writers; this is part of the objective to show the ongoing evolution of literary production even if some of it is still in the amateurs’ rein,” she said.

However, El-Hamamsy said that the scheme was implemented a little over three years ago. “It is quite taxing for a limited volunteer initiative to go through piles of short stories and to make the selections and translations,” she said.

The three editions of Tales of the Nile have been put on Amazon self-publishing since 2019. “Printing the publication is a very costly project for a volunteer’s resources. I only opted to print a limited number of the books to acquaint the reader with the initiative,” she added.

In 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit hard, while posted in Zambia, El-Hamamsy held the first book discussion of the first edition of Tales of the Nile.  She found a lot of attention, even if essentially within the circles of the diplomatic corps in Lusaka.

However, it was this “clear interest” that got her to pursue “some form of an institutional and maybe state-support” for her Tales of the Nile. 

“I have already approached the Ministry of Culture and the National Translation Council and maybe we can get some arrangement to upgrade this initiative and turn it from volunteer-based to something more sustainable,” she said.

El-Hamamsy is of the opinion that the big interest that Egyptian readers have been showing in reading translated literature, both classic, modern, and contemporary, is part of a wider world phenomenon of readers who are interest, as part of the globalisation era, to read translated literature.

“We have a very evolving society – in fact a very diverse society with a lot to say and share through its literary production,” ElHamamsy said. Tales of the Nile, she added, is only an indication of the possibilities of attention that the contemporary literary production of new Egyptian writers could get

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