This week the Italian publisher Il Sirente issues Rogers by Ahmad Nagi, the 24-year-old Egyptian writer. After the commercial success of Che il velo sia da sposa by the young blogger Ghada Abdel-Aal, translated by Barbara Teresi and published last October by Epochè-Nigrizia, Italian publishers have taken it upon themselves to present a new generation of Egyptian writers to a fast growing audience base.
In his novel, Nagi mixes songs, movies, photos and memories of childhood, the dreams and daily life of an Egyptian teenager in the 1990s. He writes to understand his childhood through postmodernist means. A kind of irony and nostalgia imbue the lines of this innovative and enlightened book, revealing a tentative writer bent on seeing beauty beyond tradition.
"When I wrote Rogers, it was my last year of university: a turning point in my life. My grandfather was sick. And later he died. So I used to travel from Cairo to Mansoura to sleep next to him in his bed. During those nights, I started taking notes on my puberty -- when I discovered drugs, alcohol, movies and the Pink Floyd." The songs of Roger Waters, the lead singer in Pink Floyd, are frequently quoted in the book. "In my childhood, all my friends were fascinated by the same myths of a globalised world. But in this novel I tried to overcome the stereotype, introducing freedom of choice into a new global society. Otherwise, I show the complexity of our new modernity going from Toni Negri to fast food."
Rooted in both his country and elsewhere, those references form the opinions of the young protagonist. He studies philosophy: he is interested in logic, existentialism, Communism. He reads alternately in English and Arabic. He likes rock music and heavy metal. In his room are posters of both Eric Clapton and Sigmund Freud.
"My only question was what structure I should give my thoughts. I tried to write my novel in a different way, catching my memories without a beginning and end. Briefly speaking, Rogers has no plot. Of course, I'm not the first to do that." Is there a specific influence on your literary style? "My favourite writers are Dostoevski, Kafka, Cortazar, Juan Maias and Badr El-Dib. The last one is a very original Egyptian writer and traveller. He used to travel to India and lived there for a while. But I took the cue to proceed with my idea of lack of plot from Rayuela, written by the famous Argentinian writer, Julio Cortazar".
Yet Rogers is still deeply Egyptian. The city, where the protagonist lives, is a surreal version of Cairo, never so named. The short paragraphs tell of nights spent in microbuses with a girl until sunrise, the collapse of a building in a poor area, evenings with friends and pious stories of the Prophet. "Even when I talk about religion or problems between a father and his son, I try to get away from any specific Egyptian tradition."
Rather, he interprets the postmodern in his way: "In the 1990s Egyptian writers, influenced by communist ideology, talked about daily life to provoke a reaction from the public. I try just to find relations between human imaginations. I look for the beauty in daily events, without any ideology." With remarkable lightness, Nagi talks in his book about Yakoub, his flatmate, the time he spent staring at the ceiling, the death of his grandfather and his relations with women. "In Rogers," he admits, "there is still a very romantic image of women. It reflects the view of a teenager with his sexual lack of self confidence." And so Ahmad defines his novel as a game. He writes: "When I started describing this game I didn't know what I could achieve. [...] I could feel free only while writing. And so, the more I stuffed my sentences with games... the more I could reach a state of inebriation".
Ahmad Nagi is now working on a new book: "I just finished Seven lessons learned from Ahmad Mikki. At the same time, with the support of the Cairo British Council, he is working on an English version of Rogers.
Nagi is also a journalist and a well-known blogger. "Since 2004 I used to write a blog. I see it as a public laboratory for developing my writing. Moreover, we are publishing a monthly tabloid on the most important Egyptian and worldwide net-posts. Two pages are in English".
The translator of Rogers, Barbara Benini, confirmed Italian interest in young Egyptian fiction but clarified the situation: "Big Italian publishers are more interested in scandals and stereotypes than creativity, innovation or independence. Only small editors, such as Il Sirente, Jouvence, Edizioni Lavoro, are interested in emergent Egyptian writers".
According to Benini, among the more significant Egyptian books published in Italy in recent times were Essere Abbas El Abd by Ahmad El Aidy (Il Saggiatore), Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan (Neri Pozza) and the work of Alaa El-Aswany.
Unphased by lack of interest in emerging voices, continues to discover young talent. Last summer, she organised for the High Foundation Festival of Ferrara a reading, in Arabic and Italian, based on Rogers with electronic music by Massimo Croce as well as videos and dances by the Almagesto Group, founded by the dancer Alessandra Fabbri.
"I didn't have any problem translating from Egyptian dialect mixed with classic Arabic," she says of Rogers. "My only challenge was the absence of a plot. So I was very focused on rendering the huge number of references to movies, books and songs. My target was to keep the essential relation between those parts of the novel and the developments of Ahmad's memories".