Author and ambassador Mohamed Tawfik on balancing two distinct careers
By Frank E. Bartscheck II
Photographed by Mohsen Allam
Egypt’s current Ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Tawfik, has a long track record of diplomatic work since he first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983. But the career diplomat, who has also had postings in Australia and Lebanon, is also a published author and translator of several fiction novels and books of short stories.
Tawfik was at The American University in Cairo (AUC) last month to give a public lecture about his 2013 book candygirl, which was the selection for the university’s inaugural freshman common reading program One Book, One Conversation, One Community. candygirl explores the thin line between virtual and physical reality in the story of the Cerebellum, an Egyptian physicist and genius hunted by a foreign intelligence agency.
Just as AUC’s One Book program is meant to unite the freshmen class around a common reading assignment, Tawfik noted in his lecture that works of fiction can unite people across time, space, culture and geography, pointing to an experience early in his life.
A Cairo University graduate, Tawfik started out as a civil engineer and was once working on a site in Ain El Sira, Cairo. During lunch hour, he would swap stories with the Upper Egyptian laborers, who were open about the difficult circumstances of their lives and the sense injustice they often felt. One day, the workers learned the young Tawfik had visited foreign countries and implored him to share his experiences. So the civil engineer spoke about his time in Paris, Vienna and other European cities.
During these exchanges Tawfik noticed a transformation within the laborers. The eyes of each man had the fire of imagination burning brightly, fueled by daydreams of exotic experiences. Tawfik’s stories offered the men a momentary respite from their hardships, and in their minds they “waltzed in Vienna or serenaded their sweetheart in a gondola in Venice.” These lunch-hour exchanges taught the author the importance of a good story and its ability to transform and unite.
After his lecture, the ambassador – an intelligent, articulate, warm and humble man – sat down with Egypt Today to talk about his own dual life as a diplomat and novelist. Edited excerpts:
When did you begin writing?
I have been writing since [my time at] the university. I was studying engineering and writing at the same time.
How do you find the time to write while also conducting your diplomatic work?
Writing is a full time job. If you want to have a writing career and at the same time have a career as an engineer or a career in diplomacy, it basically means you have to be working all the time. You don’t have the luxury to waste your time, which is the main thing you learn. You can do anything you want and achieve anything you want if you learn how to manage your time and to make a rule not to waste any time. Anything that you do has to be useful in one way or another.
What is the inspiration behind the title candygirl?
Very good question. For the last 15 years I have been leading an online writers workshop. One of the participants in [one of] the workshops had candygirl for her [screen] name so I just borrowed it.
Is there an overlap between fiction writing and international diplomacy?
The overlap is basically in bridge building. As a diplomat you are always looking for ways of bringing people together and building bridges. In a sense, this is what you are doing when you write a novel because you are communicating with people. At the same time, you are prodding and encouraging these people to be creative and to read your work in completely different ways and reach conclusions that you [may] never even thought of. It’s all about creating connections and that is the area where you have the overlap. Of course there are areas that they become two totally different things.
You translate your own work from Arabic to English, which is a time consuming and arduous process, why do you translate the work yourself?
“I do it for two reasons. The first and simple reason is that I can. The second reason is [a little different]. I do translating in public whereas I do writing in small, confined [non-public] spaces. So translating my work is kind of a relief and a very welcome change after spending a few years writing in small rooms. I am able to go to restaurants and cafes to do the translating in the presence of others. So in a sense it is a nice way to shift the way you are thinking and prepare yourself for the next novel.
One of the things I have learned from doing my own translation is to respect and admire those people who do translation as a profession. Translating is an enormous amount of effort and can only be done by someone who loves translating. Not just translating the words, but translating the culture. You also get to understand more about your own work when you do your own translation.”
Do you find there is much creative leeway in translation?
If you are asking if I translate literally exactly what is written? Of course not. First of all, the thing you learn when you translate from Arabic to English is that in Arabic you have a lot of redundancies. It is not visible when you are reading in Arabic, but the moment you start reading the work in English it becomes too redundant. The other thing, when I was translating The Tower of Happiness, that book had a number of jokes and I spent a few days trying to translate the jokes. Basically, I ended up just eliminating one of them because it was impossible to translate.
Therefore there has to be on the one hand a certain amount of flexibility. But on the other hand you have a work that exists and you want to maintain its integrity, so it is always a balance and it is not an easy balance to keep. You have to be careful that the reader will get the same impact in a different language as the reader in the original language.
Additionally, after finishing the translation, what I do is go back and make changes to the original for the next print because you realize [through the course of translating] that some things don’t make sense. Translating is a different way of looking at your own work: You look at it externally when you translate, whereas when you are writing you look at it internally.
Do you find the act of translating your work to be more time consuming than the actual creation of the fiction?
It is not more time consuming than the actual writing because [with translating] you have something to work from. When you are creating the actual work you have nothing to work from.
There is no mention of your diplomatic career in your biography on the book jacket or your publisher’s website. Is this an open secret? If so, why?
I don’t think [my diplomatic work] is relevant on one hand. On the other hand, it is always a delicate issue whether people will be offended by your writing because you are a diplomat. So the way I manage all of these years to maintain this balance was, not to keep it a secret, but to keep these two parts of [my life] separate. So I have two sets of friends, one on the diplomatic side and one on the creative side.
As a public figure do you feel there are any limitations on your creativity or have you ever found yourself influenced to mitigate what you choose to write about?
Well, luckily no. First of all, if you try limiting your creativity you end up not producing anything worthwhile artistically. [Secondly], if you find a work is too provocative you can postpone publication, but you cannot in the creative process have any limitations. Of course the editing and publication process can force you to make some compromises but regarding the diplomatic work, no, I do not take it into account when I am writing.
Have you ever considered publishing non-fiction?
I find fiction more interesting. It is possible that I will do something in non-fiction in the future. But non-fiction is trickier. Fiction is something that is totally unrelated to my work and therefore it does not require permissions and clearances. If I were to go into the non-fiction it would be a bit trickier.
Do you have any advice for students?
I would suggest three things. Number one, you can do anything you want. There are no limitations of what you can do. You don’t have to do it today, you can take your time, but once you decide what to do, you should stick to it in order to achieve it. The other piece of advice, nothing you learn is useless. Everything that you learn will come in handy at one time or another. Don’t be afraid to read about any topic, don’t be afraid to take a course in any subject you find interesting – eventually, it will all come together. The last piece of advice I would give is to not compete against others, always compete against yourself. Do not compare yourself to others, always try to improve on yourself.”
With such drastic and dramatic changes sweeping through Egypt in the past few years, where do you see Egypt today and moving forward into the future?
I think Egypt is taking confident and steady steps forward. The last time I was in Cairo was eight or nine months ago. There is no doubt that there is an improvement [since the last time I was here]. There is no doubt. The streets are cleaner, for one. There is also more sense of hope. Six months ago when I met members of the US business community, all I received were complaints and problems they had. Today when I meet them, I hear “Thank you very much for helping resolve this.” Problems are being resolved every day. We have a government that is very action oriented, that believes something has to be done and quickly, and they are doing their best. It is not going to happen overnight but certainly with this attitude I think we are going to improve, and within the foreseeable future we will see things improve dramatically. et