Ahmed Mourad: On poison, diamonds and Vertigo

Ahmed Mourad’s latest novel Torab el-Mas (Diamond’s Dust, Al-Shorouq, 2010) is already being printed in second edition. The author of the bestselling novel Vertigo (Merit, 2007) is one of the few mystery/suspense writers in the Arab World. The author, who works as a photographer and runs his own studio, uses his scene-observing ability to create a new style of narration unfamiliar to the Arabic reader.

In Vertigo, when a young photographer witnesses the death of his best friend in an altercation between two business moguls, he gradually becomes aware of the drastic changes surrounding him in the country. Torab el-Mas follows a similar pattern: The death of Taha’s father at the hands of a street thug forces the son to see the world differently, a feeling that is only strengthened after Taha discovers his father’s diary which details the vigilant crimes he committed during his childhood in the Jewish quarter.

Mourad’s two novels are quite alike. Both abandon the typical superhero as a central figure, instead relying on a political and social angle that adds a compelling layer of depth to the story. The young writer’s extensive use of cliffhangers and complex integrated storylines keep the reader captivated. Mourad’s photography background is highly evident in his work. His attention to detail and the well-narrated background help set the right atmosphere for the story. His cinematic eye also helps in providing a well-structured action sequence.

Torab el-Mas, however, does not stand as tall as the author’s previous work. Although the author manages to keep the events in the book as gripping as the previous one, the book suffers from a serious case of typecasting when it comes to the main characters.

Mourad, who is celebrating the seventh publication of his debut novel and the success of his follow-up, welcomed Al-Masry Al-Youm to his studio for a conversation about his work.

“I see the world around me and I look for meaning in each and every scene I observe, even when it doesn’t ultimately have any,” explained Mourad. His ability to retain images in his mind allows him to merge these scenes.

His camera, always present with him, captures these small details, which create a series of sub-plots that he might add to his novel. “Torab el-Mas was inspired by my visit to the Jewish neighbourhood in Old Cairo. I was roaming the streets and saw all these Jewish Temples and icons; that image later became the base of my novel”.

On how he chooses his characters, Mourad always finds inspiration from his own surroundings. “I’m a normal person with nothing extraordinary going on in my life. I decided that my main characters should be the same.”

Taha, the main character from Torab el-Mas, is first introduced as a bored pharmacist who faces the same problems as any Egyptian man his age. Taha later embarks on adventures and pushes his limits.

Mourad, however, does not deny that most of Torab el-Mas’ characters are stereotypical. “I don’t have a single character that is ‘new’ to our society. On the contrary, I try my best to bring my characters from real life,” the author explains. “The main thing for me is how well-presented these characters are, how well-studied and honest their reactions were written.”

Torab el-Mas required multiple levels of research, as events in the novel run from the 1950s to the present.

“My initial research was chemistry-related; I was looking for a certain type of poison that my characters would use to commit their crimes,“ Mourad says. “This led me to more research, which led me to discover that this poison was available in Egypt only back in the fifties and only among Jewish merchants.”

Publishing was not a problem for Mourad, especially after the success of Vertigo.  “I was told by the reading jury that the book will take two months to be approved,” Mourad says. “Ten days later they called me with their approval.”

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