Egypt: From blogger to best-selling novelist

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Egyptian author Ghada Abdel Aal never intended to become a writer or a social critic when she began her blog, “I Want to Get Married,” in 2006. But her incisive and sharply satirical prose struck a deep chord among young people in Egypt and the Arab world in general — men as well as women.

Today, Abdel Aal, whose blog has become a best-selling novel, is a widely recognized media figure and representative for a generation of young professional women throughout the Middle East. She is a regular columnist for the Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk. Her book has been adapted as a television series and translated into Italian, German, Dutch and English.

In the fall of 2010, Abdel Aal joined 37 other writers from 32 countries for a three-month residency at the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa.

“For me, it’s the whole journey, the whole experience of being here in the United States and interacting with other writers. It’s really a good time to clear your mind,” she said to one university class, according to a live-blog by Web journalist and Iowa graduate Lauren Sieben.

In a paper delivered at a lecture series in Iowa, Abdel Aal said, “I am one author of a new generation of authors emerging from spaces at the intersection of the novel and the blog, poetry and hip-hop, native language and English, and who can write about personal experiences in a complex cultural landscape.”

Blog beginnings

Abdel Aal, who is a trained pharmacist, began her blog after the death of her mother, when everyone began treating her “as this poor orphan who needs to be in some guy’s home,” she said in an IWP interview. “So they basically started introducing me to anyone with a heartbeat.”

In her blog, Abdel Aal addressed the intense pressures on young women to get married, writing in a direct and humorous way that was unprecedented in Egypt. She anticipated being attacked online and planned to just vanish, since she was writing anonymously. Instead, she found unexpected enthusiasm and support from men as well as women.

Men were saying they didn’t realize how women felt, Abdel Aal said, while women claimed that everyone was blaming them and not listening to their side of the story. “The girls were saying, ‘You speak in our voice.’”

Like many others, Abdel Aal reveled in the freedom to write whatever she wanted in the blogosphere. The importance of blogging in Egypt and other Arab countries cannot be overestimated, she said. There are countries with young people “who are not allowed to speak out. There are social restrictions, religious restrictions and political restrictions. All of that came to an end when we discovered blogging.”

Blog and Book

If her blog broke new ground, the transition from blog to book was unheard of in Egypt at the time. Moreover, she had written her blog in dialect, not the classical Arabic of virtually all publications in the country. When it was published in 2008, however, the novel was a sensation, and its first two editions sold out in a matter of weeks.

I Want to Get Married addresses the plight of millions of young Egyptian women who face constant pressure to get married to validate their personal worth and status in society, regardless of their professional or other accomplishments. But the book is hardly a dry social treatise. Instead, it details a series of encounters, both hilarious and sad, with unsuitable suitors — a suspicious policeman, a soccer fanatic, a religious fundamentalist — that take place in what Egyptians call a gawaaz al-salonat (“living room marriage”).

“Not so much arranged marriages as suggested ones,” wrote Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer in a profile of Abdel Aal, where a potential husband meets a prospective wife and her family “over awkward cups of tea.”

Abdel Aal may be dealing with subjects — family, love, marriage — that have preoccupied writers for centuries, but she does so with a fresh sense of humor and irony that focuses as much on herself as those around her.

She described preparing for one such meeting by wearing “a puffy white thing” that she speculated was either her grandmother’s mosquito net or her uncle’s parachute. At the time, she wrote, she was willing to marry “any multi-celled organism … as long as it was willing to snatch me out of the storefront of singledom.”

Nevertheless, she was startled when she gazed upon the suitor’s face and discovered that it “was basically a big ball of hair that has sprouted some eyes.” She was prepared to remain open minded until she and her family realized that the two women accompanying him were not his sisters, but his first two wives.

Stereotypes and Writing

Among her public appearances in Iowa, Abdel Aal talked to one university class on “Images of the Muslim World.”

“The students really appreciated that her career was launched by a blog that spoke to so many young women in the Middle East,” said IWP staff member Kecia Lynn. “Hers is a very 21st-century story.”

Abdel Aal said many Americans seem to have a fixed image of Muslim women like herself who wear a hijab.

“Everyone is talking about us, no one is talking to us — and that’s frustrating,” she said.

In her interviews and talks, she stressed that the image of Muslim women as oppressed is a misperception. “You can’t think Egyptian women are like Afghan or Saudi women. You can’t just say ‘Muslim women’ — there are 60 kinds of Muslim women.”

Abdel Aal recognizes that writing a second book will be a different experience from her first, when there were no expectations or pressures. “I’d like to show some kind of development in my style, but I don’t want to lose my humor,” she said.

Her subject will be a familiar one: the image and role of women in society. “At least in Egypt,” she said, “we only live as women, in a sense, for nine months. Before you get married, you’re a girl. After you give birth, you’re just a mother — you’re not a woman anymore. So I’ll play a little with that idea.”

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