Poor education, widespread superstitions, increasing poverty, and high rates of female gentile mutilation (FGM) have always been major problems that women suffer from in many cities of Upper Egypt. However, no one so far has come close to properly analysing the current problems and challenges that encounter women living in such areas.
In her latest book, “Al Sae’d Fe Boh Nesa’o” (or “Upper Egypt in the stories of its women”), young writer Salma Anwar documented her journey to Upper Egypt in which she listened to women’s stories, problems, struggles, and dreams. The book reveals secrets about women’s stories about customs, love stories, revenge, marriage rituals, as well as domestic violence.
Born in Cairo in 1982, Anwar started working as a freelance journalist and researcher in political sociology. Although she was a political science and human rights professor at Future University, writing was where she had always felt self-fulfilment. And besides publishing two previous books titled “Nabrogada” and “Allah … Al Watan … Ama Nshoof,” her last book managed to grab the attention of readers from various backgrounds.
In her interview with Daily News Egypt, Anwar revealed secrets about the current circumstances of women in Upper Egypt and the preparation stages of her book. She also provided information about her first poetry collection that will be published soon.
How did the idea of writing about women in Upper Egypt come up and why?
When I started my project on the women in Upper Egypt, I was not sure what I was going to encounter. I think I was not expecting as much as I indeed found! I was just trying to step onto new territory, explore what is happening there … and I must admit that my breath was taken. As a “city girl,” I was expecting stories similar to what I am used to hearing in girls’ gatherings. Classical stories about love and betrayal maybe, the usual difficulties young women would face in a traditional society, such as not being granted wide space to make individual decisions or travel all alone. But I was struck by how the southern women lead a totally different life with different challenges and concepts.
Believe it or not, I did not prepare anything! I was just letting the girls and elderly women drive the whole thing where they wanted to go. I was giving them my ears and heart, with little intervention here or there to provoke whatever was behind the tale. I was playing the little listening child role throughout the journey.
In the beginning, I had to find a local who is quite popular and trustworthy among the others to help me build trust with the ladies and invite them to talk to me. I did find “Nafisa,” the one to whom the whole book was dedicated. She believed in the project and loved it. She was also fond of me and genuinely wanted to help me out.
Why did you choose to present the journalistic articles in a literary form and novelistic language?
At the very beginning, I was planning to put it in a journalistic language, or something between journalistic and academic writing styles. However, after publishing a couple of episodes, I started to get some feedback from journalists and friends who thought that I was presenting something so unique that deserves a different type of presentation. Therefore, I rewrote the texts I had in a way similar to Amin Ma’louf’s style where you can read history in a fictional style. I always fell for his style of writing, and I thought it would be an appropriate way of telling women’s stories.
Generally, how do you evaluate women’s current circumstances in Upper Egypt, and what differentiates them from women in other Egyptian governorates?
Generally, women in Upper Egypt are very creative, strong, and have a real and deep identity—and even societal awareness that leads their local communities to a better lifestyle. However, they need much support. They need more of quality education with the purpose of enlightening and combating superstitions and backward concepts. The increasing poverty needs far more systematic efforts there; medical awareness also needs a real leap; and finally keeping an eye on the society there, by reporting and following up on social issues, is highly required.
I tried to make a sort of “spectrum” while collecting data. I mean, I was seeking different types of women of different ages and from different backgrounds in order to achieve some variety. By the end of the project, young ladies started to search for me and to spontaneously come and ask if I can record their stories.
In parts of the book, you provided a deep analytical vision of the stories presented. Did this require certain preparations or research?
I don’t think I intervened that much with the content, except for drafting the intro and the conclusion parts of the book, where I contributed my own vision and general commentaries. Other than that, I just let them tell their own stories. It is also true that some of them were really open to tell very intimate details about their lives, while others were not. In all cases, I had to put an effort to extract their tales and gain their trust, and I think personal skills matter a lot here. It is not enough to be a good researcher or journalist; you also need to know how to gain your source’s trust.
As a novice book writer, did you encounter any problems to publish your book?
Not at all. I think I was lucky in terms of publicity compared to my previous two books. It was welcomed, and it managed to catch the attention of publishers ever since it was published online as separate episodes.
How did you find the feedback about your book?
People received my book with curiosity! Most of the readers in Egypt knew what was previously told about Upper Egypt, material that was documented and presented by men. So it was a little distinguished to provide such stories told by women and introduced by a female author.
Do you have any future projects or upcoming books?
I am expecting my first poetry collection to see the light in a few months. It’s titled “Will bring Troy back to its people, then will fall in love with you.”