Photos courtesy of Ghada El Absy
From her very first collection of short stories back in 2014, up-and-coming novelist Ghada Elabsy has managed to establish a strong connection with her readers. And taking on one challenge after the other, she has gained regional and international recognition; all while serving her message to humanity and ultimate duty towards her society, as a trained haematologist specializing in blood cancer.
Many will know her as a rising novelist who, in the space of just four years, has managed to win plenty of local and international awards and prizes. Some may even know that while writing is her passion, her professional job cannot be any far removed from the world of fictional characters, feminist literature or the complicated mechanics of the Arabic language. Elabsy, a full-time physician, has yet one more unrelated but impressive talent: she’s also an opera singer with a number of solo performances at the Cairo Opera House under her belt.
Passion, talent and a social duty
With seemingly convergent career paths, Elabsy has decided to follow all of her three dreams. She recounts how she was destined to work as a haematologist after a cousin to whom she is very close was diagnosed with a fierce type of leukemia and lost his sight at the age of four. “Mahmoud asked me to be a doctor to cure him and this is the reason I joined the Faculty of Medicine and specialized in blood diseases,’’ she says.
Elabsy also recalls how she has always wanted to be a singer, ever since she was a student at school. “I am a singer because singing is the first decision I took without any kind of pressure, when I was five years old and my music teacher asked who wanted to sing. I simply raised my hand and started singing,’’ she says. She performed as a solo singer at Cairo Opera House between 1999 and 2002.
Language too held Elabsy’s fascination at quite a young age. “For me, the composition lessons at school were the most interesting things I experienced as a child, I am very grateful to my Arabic teachers who really taught me with all integrity and professionalism the true and the exact basics of the Arabic language,’’ says Elabsy.
Revealing that the first time she started writing was after going through some personal tragedies in her life, Elabsy adds that for her, writing is not just a choice, it is rather a necessity, a daily routine that keeps her balanced. “For me, writing is my way to know myself and the world surrounding me, writing continuously opens closed doors in your life that you can’t ever imagine will be opened,’’ she says, stressing her preference for writing about things that she doesn’t know and that she avoids writing about her life and her personal experiences.
A writer’s journey
In 2014, at the age of 32, Elabsy began writing and released her first collection of short stories titled Hasheshet El-Malak (Angelica). But would her writing create a language of communication between her and her readers? Elabsy wondered, especially that she had never studied writing or even taken any courses or workshops. “At that time [the only thing I had going for me as a writer was] that I am a good reader.’’
The collection was well received, both in Egypt and the region, and even mentioned by veteran literature professor at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad Nadia el-Henawy in her book on feminist literature.
The unexpected success prompted Elabsy to write her second collection of stories Awlad El-Hoor (The Sons of Nymphs), also in 2014, and to enter it into the Central Competition of General Authority for Cultural Palaces, which is affiliated to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “I didn’t expect it to win first place, and I was so happy that the prestigious General Authority for Cultural Palaces published it as it was sold at an extremely affordable price and made available at newsstands,” Elabsy recalls. As most of its stories were published in newspapers and websites, Awlad El-Hoor resonated widely.
Elabsy then decided to try her luck further afield by participating in a competition affiliated to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture in the name of the renowned Iraqi poet, narrator and critic Nazik Al-Malaika. “I wanted to support Iraq on the cultural level because in 2014 the Iraqi crisis was at its peak as a result of ISIS terrorist practices in Mosul.’’ Elabsy won the story section award for her work “Manwella” and describes it as a turning point in her career because she got the chance to interact directly with Iraqis whom she describes as great intellectuals, as well as art connoisseurs. Eager to visit Iraq, “this amazing historical country that was for years and years the headquarters of the Islamic Caliphate State,” Elabsy says wasn’t afraid to travel at that critical time. Upon her return, she wrote a series of articles inspired by her trip.
From Iraq, Elabsy set her sights on Lebanon, where in 2015 she approached Al Saqi publishing house to contract her first novel, Al-Fishawi. “Al Saqi is a huge English-Lebanese publishing house who are very picky in choosing which books to publish. They don’t care if a writer is well known or a bestseller; all they care about is high-quality literary content,” says Elabsy, proudly adding, “Al-Fishawi is now being sold at Al Saqi’s massive bookstore in London, imagine my feelings at that time when I learned that my first novel was to be displayed in that huge bookstore in London.’’
Al-Fishawy narrates 100 years of Egyptian history, starting shortly after the English occupation in Egypt and ending with the events of June 30, 2013. “The main challenge was not to write about this century but to decide what to talk about in these years, what I should highlight and what I shouldn’t,” says Elabsy who explains the novel chronicled her vision of her country as an Egyptian youth, and that she had to return to her origins to form a complete vision. An example is the candid way she presents the history of Christian and Muslim relations. “I searched about our Muslim, Coptic, Arab and African roots and highlighted that there were extremists living in Egypt years ago and why there was extremism in the past.’’
But even before its official release, the polyphonic novel—which is divided into nine chapters each narrated by either a character or an object—was bringing home the accolades, claiming fourth place in Dubai Cultural Magazine competition in 2016. “This award proves that what I write appeals not only to Egyptian taste but to tastes in the Arab world as well,’’ Elabsy says proudly.
The novel also attracted international attention; and Elabsy was surprised when one day she received a call from the University of the Philippines asking if they could run a translated chapter in a book about the world literature in the 21st century. “This book will be included in the Philippines’ high school curriculum, and the chapter from Al-Fishawy will be the only example of Arab-African literature in the book. I was over the moon,’’ Elabsy recalls.
More self-exploration led to her second novel El-Eskafy El-Akhdar (The Green Cobbler), which won the Akhbar El-Adab award in 2016. “El-Eskafy El-Akhdar was more of a letting out of certain inner emotions in the form of words,” says Elabsy who was astonished after finishing the work to find she had unintentionally penned a fantasy novel. “My writing procedure is divided into two parts; the first part any writer does consciously, like setting the plot construction and outlining the characters. The other part; the writer does unconsciously, so you find yourself writing certain things unconsciously then you start to ask yourself how did I write this? And why?’’ explains Elabsy, who believes in the concept of afflatus, or inspiration, and that much of what any writer writes is involuntary.
A leap to realization
On the off chance that she might be chosen, Elabsy, in 2017, submitted the first chapter of El-Eskafy El-Akhdar translated into English to the International Writing Program (IWP), which every year selects 35 writers from all over the world to join its three-month program. After an interview at the American Embassy in Cairo, Elabsy was granted a spot in the program and she joined writers from Macedonia, Belgium, Palestine, Burma, Russia, Argentina and Brazil, among other countries, in Iowa.
“The other Arab participants were a Belgian-Palestinian poet but she applied as a Belgian citizen, an Iraqi Kurdish writer and a Moroccan writer,’’ Elabsy says, adding that only she and the Belgian-Palestinian poet were writing in Arabic. “The experience was very rich, the condensed program is full of fruitful activities. Each writer has a scheduled day to read part from his work in two languages: his own and English.” For her main theme, Elabsy chose “the mood of high emotions,’’ and her paper titled “The Unspoken Language” argued that the truest words that really express our emotions are the ones that are not said.
On the sidelines of the program, Elabsy was invited to speak at the Examined Life annual conference at the Carver College of Medicine. Chosen alongside two other American writers to speak about being both physicians and writers, and the relationship between writing and medicine, Elabsy gave a 90-minute speech about her experience as a doctor, writer and singer. “I prepared a short documentary about Egypt entitled “Takaseem’’ (XXWhat does it mean?XX) with the collaboration of Egyptian painters and photographers; and for the soundtrack I used an Oriental music piece composed by the late great musician Mohamed Abdel Wahab. It was an amusing journey inside Egypt, and the attendees were dazzled by this documentary as its music and every scene truly reflected the Egyptian identity. Every word of my speech showed how I was proud of being Egyptian as I explained to them where I came from, my identity and the sources of my pride.’’
Before travelling, Elabsy had printed pamphlets with the names of the Egyptian artists taking part in the documentary and distributed them at the conference before giving her speech in which she likened herself to an owl. “The owl was the symbol of wisdom in ancient Egyptian culture, and it can see through the dark. In my job [as a hematologist] I must see beyond the darkness,” she said, adding that she is a physician in the first place, which imposes upon her duties that she cannot give up.
At the IWP, Elabsy also got to showcase her skills, not only as a writer and physician, but as a singer too, appearing alongside the Chiara String Quartet in a performance titled “The Memory.” The Grammy-nominated quartet worked without any musical sheets, performing from memory as three IWP colleagues read out parts of their works about memory. Elabsy was asked to sing about memories, and chose “Al-Atlal” (The Ruins) by the late great Umm Kulthum. “After I finished, the audience was crying and applauding for perhaps three minutes continuously, they were deeply and emotionally [touched] despite not understanding the Arabic words of the song,” Elabsy describes.
She also sang at the end of her Carver College speech where audiences told her they were impressed by her voice and the Oriental music. “They asked me to give them the names of the Egyptian singers and composers who made these immortal songs, I was so touched because I felt that I was an ambassador for our great Oriental music.”
Back home Elabsy’s friends recently uploaded a video of her singing in the hospital she works at, while they were celebrating her birthday. The video got hundreds of thousands views, and Elabsy vows, “[I] will continue writing, singing and performing my duties as a doctor all in parallel till the last day of my life.’’
Elabsy is currently working on her upcoming fiction novel, Leilet Yalda (Yalda’s Night), “a somewhat religious novel tackling the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites” through the life of the great Persia poet Khawaja Shams-ud Din Muhammad Hafez-e, dubbed Hafez.