London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Blue Elephant (2012), best-selling Egyptian writer Ahmed Mourad’s phantasmagoric novel shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), delves into the shadowy worlds of magic, sorcery, psychiatry and drug addiction, with a surrealistic style blurring the line between dream and reality.
Unlike Vertigo (2008) and Diamond Dust (2010), Mourad’s third novel has received mixed reviews. Despite the huge readership it has garnered, The Blue Elephant’s inclination towards surrealism and the supernatural has drawn criticism against the author, who is also an award-winning cinematographer. Mourad was accused of avoiding addressing Egypt’s social woes, particularly given what the country is going through politically, economically and socially.
Some critics went as far as categorizing The Blue Elephant as an “art-for-art’s-sake” novel. But Mourad disputed such claims, arguing that “The Blue Elephant is a realistic novel . . . All the taboos it addresses are ubiquitous in Arab society and have permeated our culture for centuries.”
The Blue Elephant’s selection for the IPAF shortlist was not without controversy, particularly since Mourad has always been dogged by charges of emulating US crime-thriller authors such as Dan Brown and Stephen King. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mourad denied the claim, maintaining: “I have my own style,” adding: “The use of crime as a pivotal incident that acts like a catalyst in fiction is older than any of the authors you mentioned.”
Asharq Al-Awsat: What message did you want to send in The Blue Elephant?
Ahmed Mourad: The Blue Elephant is first and foremost a psychological novel, a provocative dialogue through which I reveal the dark side of Man’s psyche. It is a stone thrown in stagnant water to expose what is beneath, an argument with our inner devil when it speaks—or our occasionally more evil selves! I discuss love through three intertwined relationships, which most of us experience at some point in our lives: a wife, a lover, and a sweetheart the protagonist does not win over. It is about false feelings, forgiveness. What if Man did not forgive himself for his own mistakes? What would his world look like? All of these questions are discussed within the framework of a thrilling story generated by a mysterious crime.
Q: How were the characters of The Blue Elephant conceived? Does the setting, Ward 8 West, really exist?
Ward 8 West does indeed exist, in the Abbasid Hospital for Mental Health, which looks exactly as I described in the book. The characters are fictitious; however, they do embody certain psychological constructions and societal structures. I drew some of the protagonist’s characteristics from doctors across the profession.
Q: You said in a previous interview that realism in literature is one of the most difficult writing styles. Unlike Vertigo and Diamond Dust, The Blue Elephant plunges into a world of hallucinations, dreams and surrealist imagery that challenges reality. How do you see this shift taking place in your career as a novelist?
The Blue Elephant is a realistic novel; it is neither a detective novel nor a whodunit. All the taboos it addresses are ubiquitous in Arab society and have permeated our culture for centuries: true love, forbidden passion, magic, drugs, hallucinations. The surrealist images are derived from what a person sees under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Despite their fantastic nature, they are merely captured in a way that serves the drama and plotline of the novel. The shift for me is in finding a new area to explore and enjoy, then leaving it for the reader to take pleasure in. I hoped its new language and structure would be exciting to the reader.
Q: Some accuse The Blue Elephant of lacking a social or human element and categorize it as “art for art’s sake.” This stands in stark contrast to Vertigo (2008), which tackled the issue of corruption among businessmen in Egypt. Does the novel in fact address any specific social issues?
Are love, forgiveness, relationships between men and women, and Arab society’s fascination with magic not social issues? Is crime in the name of love not at the heart of social concern? Corruption in Egypt was covered extensively in my previous two novels, and it’s not the only issue there is to talk about.
Q: Towards its end, the novel veers towards the world of magic and sorcery, which seems to be inconsistent with the scientific rigor that we see at the beginning. Do you have any comment on that?
There is no contradiction between magic and science. The two worlds both exist; two parallel lines intersect at times throughout history. They are both mentioned in the Holy books, and it’s difficult to get rid of one at the expense of the other. The novel was written using the shock technique, so I did not have to prepare the reader for what the protagonist would face. Revealing too much to the reader beforehand spoils the fun.
Q: The Blue Elephant uses the first-person voice rather than a third-person narrator. Can you tell us about this technique and its impact on the book?
Using the first person creates a sort of unity between the reader and the protagonist; it prevents the reader from being a step ahead of the protagonist in terms of having foreknowledge of what the protagonist is yet to know. Thus, dramatic surprises occur at the right time. The technique allows the reader to hear the inner voice of the protagonist, adding a third dimension to the character. It also allows the reader to question and use their brain throughout the text.
Q: In The Blue Elephant, there is a visual ploy based on blurring the line between dreams and reality, leaving the reader in an optical quandary. What impact did your work as a cinematographer have on your writing?
Putting doubt in the mind of the reader requires blurring the lines between dreams and reality and shattering every attempt by the reader to distinguish between the ceiling and the floor until they are completely united with the protagonist. In addition, the verbal shock, together with the visual description, becomes deeper and affects the reader in a way similar to how the drugs affect the protagonist.
I usually draw the scene and then film it, if possible, with a camera. Or I visualize it before I fit my characters and events to its mold. I study what I am going to write about at night and then early in the morning I write, after having become familiar with all the details.
Q: There is considerable use of English-language vocabulary throughout the novel. Isn’t that strange for an Arabic novel? What’s the story behind the ☺?
The ☺ is part of the vernacular of life now. It is a reality we experience through social networking sites and mobile phones. Who does not know it as a silent expression of a smile? The English language has penetrated the entire Arab community, but our Arabic language has absorbed it and churned out Arabic words that are expressive and understandable. That’s the magic of Arabic.
Q: There are those who say that US authors, such as Dan Brown and Stephen King, and Hollywood crime movies have had a major impact on your style. Where do you put yourself in the context of these writers, and to what extent do you differ from them?
Of course, those are some great authors I respect. I also respect all of those who write in the Arab world, and I appreciate their experiences. But the use of crime as a pivotal incident that acts like a catalyst in fiction is older than any of the authors you mentioned. Isn’t The Thief and the Dogs, by the great Naguib Mahfouz, a thriller despite its societal projections and in-depth dissection of the protagonists’ psyches? I admit that I read translated world literature. I also understand the feelings of wonder Arab readers and critics have towards that genre, which we still have not dealt with adequately. But I have my own style, and my early readings started with the pioneers of Arabic literature, most prominently Naguib Mahfouz and other great writers. As for where I fall in the mix, that is for the reader to decide.
Q: In The Blue Elephant, there is detailed scientific elaboration on mental illness and types of alcohol, to the extent that some people have described the book as an “encyclopedia of spirits.” How did you come by this information, and is it a novelist’s responsibility to be scientifically accurate in his writing?
I got the information from the experiences of others, their lives and their feelings about addiction to sex, drugs and alcohol. I am a good listener. I know that now it is difficult to convince the reader that I do not even smoke cigarettes.
Of course, novelists have to be scientifically accurate in their writing insofar as it serves their work and has a dramatic purpose.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Blue Elephant? What were the stages in the writing process?
It took about two years between conducting research on psychiatry and body language, learning poker, reading Abd Al-Rhaman Al-Jabarti’s History of Egypt, conducting psychological interviews inside Ward 8 West, and just writing every day. Then editing and revisions took about three more months.
Q: Did you expect The Blue Elephant to be shortlisted for the IPAF? Do you think it will enhance the standing of crime fiction in Egypt and the Arab world?
I did not expect it to be shortlisted for the IPAF, and was incredibly pleased by the news. It is a prestigious award recognized both regionally and internationally, and it is known for discovering new works.
Despite my objection to The Blue Elephant’s classification as crime literature, the IPAF strengthens opportunities for literary writing and creates passion for reading and writing, motivating writers to improve their literary output.
Q: To what do you credit the recent increase in your readership?
First God, and second the reader who wants to dive into exotic worlds and read about them, written in a style that touches them, which they also understand and interact with. My main goal is to try to present those concerns and ideas that are important to the reader but which, sometimes, they do not themselves consider.