In Defense of Readers

In the beginning of his novella “Notes from Underground”, Fyodor Dostoyevsky asks a question:
What can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

And he answers:

Of himself.

For the past few weeks I’ve written and talked about myself more than I did in my whole life. I had to introduce myself to my fellow writers as a group, then to a number of them individually. I had to write essays about myself under topics like “the writer in the world” and “writing as recovery”. I had to answer questions in three interviews; none of them is published yet. Talking about myself has become a recurring nightmare. But this is not the reason why I disagree with Dostoyevsky for the first time since I read him around twenty years ago. The reason is that I don’t think I’m going to say anything important now.

Basho, the Japanese poet and one of the masters of Haiku once said, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo,” and this is exactly what I do as a reader, and how I want the readers of my books to read them.

I have to admit that I almost misquoted Basho. Certainly, he said that sentence, but he added that when you go to the pine you have to leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Again, this is the first time to disagree with Basho since I knew him a long while ago. I cannot do this, Mr. Basho. It is not me. I even wrote in my novel The Creator, that the act of passive receiving of a book shouldn’t be called reading in the first place. It is rather an act of negating oneself.

I think of reading as a process of interaction between the reader and the book. So if there is a person who is essential for understanding a book, be it mine or not, this person is you the reader not me the author.

Borges once quoted George Berkeley [or Bishop Berkeley] as saying that the taste of an apple is neither in the apple itself nor in the mouth of the eater. So to taste a book, all what you actually need is a book and yourself. It’s like making love.

Maybe Roland Barthes theory about The Death of the Author is archaic by now. Maybe no one believes in it anymore. But I still do. I can read “The Old Man and the Sea” regardless to the fact that it was written by a man who killed himself in the end. I can enjoy reading Emily Dickenson without the halo her poems actually do not need.

But, still, I have to say things about myself, not only to you, but to anyone who might read me. Milan Kundera once wrote a dictionary, a very small one, compiling the words he uses. He wanted his translators to know them well because he noticed in some translations of his works that there were words he never used. I think I need to say who I am not. This is more important than who I am. And easier, too.

My name suggests that I am a Muslim, it is Ahmed, and this is one of prophet Muhammed’s names. Being from Egypt could mean a bunch of things. It could mean that I am Arab, Middle Eastern, or African. It could mean that I adopt certain political stances. It might imply that I must be interested or even concerned with specific issues like dictatorship, democracy, free speech, revolution, etc.

But what does it really mean to be Egyptian? Of course I was born, and lived three quarters of my life in Egypt. Of course the literature I know most is the Egyptian one. This is true with music, cinema, all the arts, and the history. But I spent half of my life reading poetry, novels and literature in general from all over the world, and I do allow what I read to shape me. Egypt, or any other country for this matter, is actually too little to define me. Even Islam is not enough. Of course I’m culturally Muslim. But culturally, I am a lot of things, too.

Being seen as an Egyptian Arab Muslim writer is the last thing I might like, accept or even respect. A writer is an identity that is enough for me.

We talk all the time about freedom and how essential it is for the writer to write. I think it is equally essential for the readers to be free when they read. I know Billy Collins is not that sophisticated a guy, but he once had a very smart comment. He said: I am not reading Emily Dickenson to know anything about Emily Dickenson, but to know something about myself.