Many Western novels about Egypt risk emphasizing common stereotypes. But British novelist Paul Sussman is an exception.
Through several bestselling thrillers, he highlights overlooked historical facts and mythical stories, offering his readers alternative perspectives on on the country's ancient history and the intricacies of modern life.
Al-Masry Al-Youm talked to Sussman about his long fascination with Egypt and what he seeks to portray through his novels.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: It seems that you have a long relationship with Egypt. Your three printed novels take place here. When and why did you first come to Egypt?
Paul Sussman: As you say, my novels are all set in Egypt. The country, its people, culture and history are a huge part of my life. My fascination with it began in 1972 when my aunt took me to see the traveling Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in London. I was five years old and will never forget the magic of the beautiful 3000-year-old artifacts. I became completely obsessed with ancient Egypt and spent most of my childhood looking for lost Egyptian tombs in the back garden of our house in London.
I first visited Egypt when I was 15 and have come back many times since, both as a tourist and to work. Although writing has always been my career, I am also a trained field archaeologist and was lucky enough to spend years excavating in the Valley of the Kings with the Amarna Royal Tombs Project. We were excavating an area right next to the tomb of Tutankhamun, which first got me interested in Egypt.
Al-Masry: When you first came, did you intend to write about Egypt?
Sussman: Although Egypt was so close to my heart for a long time, it took me many years to actually write a book set there. To be honest, I was nervous to do so. I am such a huge fan of writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Ahdaf Soueif that it seemed almost insulting for me, an Englishman, to try to write a book about Egypt. Who the hell was I to write about Egypt when you have so many wonderful writers of your own who do it so much better than I ever could? But then in 1998, I was flying down to Luxor with an archaeologist friend, and he started talking about the lost army of Cambyses that became the subject and title of my first Inspector Khalifa novel. It seemed such a fabulous idea for a thriller story that I had to write it. I would never, ever dream of comparing myself to writers like Mahfouz and Soueif; my books are simple adventures rather than great literary works. That said, I hope, in my own small way, I have brought Egypt and its culture to a slightly wider audience.
Al-Masry: Your work is always based on some historical facts and myth. How do you capture these not-widely-known stories?
Sussman: I guess, I just pick up stories from traveling and talking to people and, also, reading. I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology and history, and over the years I’ve come across a lot of interesting and mysterious tales. The Lost Army of Cambyses was a story I heard from an archaelogist. The myth of the lost Saharan oasis of Zerzura that forms the basis of my latest novel, The Hidden Oasis, was something I’ve known about for a long time. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but it’s a wonderful tale about a beautiful oasis lost somewhere in the arid wastes of the Sahara desert. Interestingly, men trying to find Zerzura, such as Hassanein Bey and Prince Kamal al-Din, were the early explorers of the Sahara. What I particularly love doing is trying to create stories in which an ancient mystery has profound repercussions in the modern world.
Al-Masry: How do you prepare for your work and on average, how long does it take to write a novel?
Sussman: I’m obsessive about research and getting my facts right, and I travel and read extensively before starting to write. I make no claims to being a great novelist, but I still think it’s extremely important to be as accurate and truthful as possible about the places and situations one describes. I make a point of traveling to all the locations I feature in my books and taking extensive notes and photographs, as well as talking to as many people as possible. Three-quarters of the information I gather is never used, but I find that by immersing myself in a place, I am able to write about it with more authenticity. For The Lost Army of Cambyses, I spent three weeks in Siwa; for The Hidden Oasis, I spent a month in Dakhla living with a Bedouin family. I already know Luxor and Cairo well, having lived in both, but I still visit them frequently to keep my memory fresh. On top of that, I send literally hundreds of emails to check facts. To my shame my Arabic is not very good, and I’m constantly phoning Arabic-speaking friends for translations.
I usually research for about six months and then spend another three months planning the story in detail. Because my plots tend to be quite complex, with lots of different twists and turns, I have to work it all out beforehand so I know where I am going with the story. I then spend at least another year actually writing the book. So, from start to finish, it usually takes me about two years to produce a novel.
Al-Masry: In The Lost Army of Cambyses, you mentioned that terrorist groups sell antiques to fund their operations. How did you get this unusual idea?
Sussman: That part of the story is just a figment of my imagination. I’ve never heard of any specific instances of terrorist/fundamentalist groups selling antiquities to fund their operations. Having said that, archaeology and ancient remains can and do have a very profound political impact, and this is an issue that I try to explore in my books. In Egypt, for example, the 1922 discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb became tied to the politics of Egyptian nationalism. Likewise in Palestine/Israel, ancient remains have huge political importance, with both sides using archaeology to try to justify their claims to the land; Israelis in particular use archaeology as a political weapon. The point I try to make in my novels is that the ancient past is never really past – it can have a very big influence on the present.
Al-Masry: Your protagonist, the legendary inspector Yusuf Khalifa, is this character real or totally fictional?
Sussman: Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police is very much a fictional character. I’m not sure if there are many real Egyptian detectives who are quite as thoughtful, decent, broad-minded and humane as Khalifa. In fact I’m not sure if there are any real detectives anywhere who are like that. I did, however, base aspects of Khalifa’s character on people I know. In terms of appearance, I imagined him looking like an Egyptian archaeologist I worked with for many years. And Khalifa’s actual traits: brave, moral, kind, strong, intelligent, family man, feature those of different Egyptian friends. His personality has developed over the years. In the book I’m currently writing, we see a new side to Khalifa. He has undergone a terrible personal tragedy and this has changed him, made him a slightly darker figure. One thing I knew about Khalifa from the very beginning was that he had to be an Egyptian. There are so many books written by Western writers that are set in Egypt, and yet in which Egyptians only appear as minor characters or villains. It was extremely important to me to have a heroic lead character who was both an Egyptian and a Muslim. One of the things Western audiences tell me over and over again is how nice it is to have a hero who provides a different cultural perspective.
Al-Masry: On the human side Khalifa seems realistic, but as a police officer he’s more of an American policeman. Have you done some research on police work in Egypt?
Sussman: Certainly in my first book featuring Khalifa, The Lost Army of Cambyses, my main interest was in Khalifa’s actual character rather than the precise details of Egyptian policing methods. For subsequent books, I did more in-depth research into this area, but Khalifa remains far from a stereotypical Egyptian policeman. His boss, Chief Hassani, and some of his coworkers, are probably far closer to the reality of the Egyptian police force. It's always been a slightly difficult balancing act because on the one hand I want Khalifa to be a detective, on the other I want him to be a deeply moral human being. The two things don’t always go together. My main concern has been to create a believable and likeable hero rather than to present an absolutely accurate portrait of the average Egyptian policeman.
Al-Masry: In your writing you always jump between events. Is this your personal writing style, or is that dictated by the plot?
Sussman: It’s a little bit of both, although probably more because of the type of stories I try to tell. My plots tend to be quite complicated and feature a number of main characters in different locations at different times. Rather like a juggler keeping several balls in the air at the same time, I have to jump from character to character to keep the plot moving and, also to keep the reader interested. I suppose in many ways I see my books rather like films, cutting swiftly from one scene to the next. I think I adapt my writing style to the story I'm telling. At the moment I'm writing detective thrillers with lots of different plot strands. One day I might write a completely different kind of novel; something in the first person, perhaps, or with only one main character. In that case the story will probably be a lot more linear.
Al-Masry: Tell us about your new novel; is it also a journey through history?
Sussman: My new novel, which I am currently in the process of finishing, is called The Labyrinth of Osiris, and is again a mixture of ancient legend and modern politics. In my last novel Inspector Khalifa only appeared very briefly and I found that I missed him, as did my readers. So in this new book, he is again the main character. There’s also an Israeli detective named Arieh Ben-Roi who appeared in my earlier novel The Last Secret of the Temple. Although Khalifa – like me – has strong feelings about Israel, and the behavior of its government toward Palestinians, on a personal level Khalifa and Ben-Roi become friends. The two men start out investigating completely separate cases: Ben-Roi, the murder of a journalist in Jerusalem; and Khalifa a series of mysterious poisonings of water wells in the Eastern desert. It gradually emerges that the two cases are connected, and both detectives find themselves working together. While hopefully an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thriller, the book also explores issues of friendship between people of radically different cultures, of personal loss and bereavement, government corruption and corporate malpractice. I don’t want to give the plot away, but for one of the two detectives, the book ends in tragedy. Of all the novels I’ve written to date, this is the one I have most enjoyed, and means the most to me.
Al-Masry: As a writer who spent a long time in Egypt and is concerned about the country’s past and present, what is your opinion on the Egyptian revolution? Have you thought of putting this historical event into one of your novels?
Sussman: The 25 January revolution and the political upheavals across the Arab world have been one of the most extraordinary, exciting and important events on the global stage since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Although I follow Egyptian politics closely, I can honestly say that I never expected things to change as quickly and dramatically as they did. Mubarak’s power was so entrenched, his grip on the country so forceful that I just couldn’t imagine a day when it would ever be broken. That it’s been broken is a testament to both the courage and the determination of Egyptians. I personally was incredibly moved and elated by the scenes from Tahrir Square, so I can only imagine how Egyptians must have felt. I have always been interested in history, and this was history in the making. I'm very happy for your country and very excited about what the future holds for it. The revolution has had one downside though. Because I spent three weeks doing nothing but keeping up with events on the internet and TV, I am now late with delivering my new novel.
I’ve definitely thought about featuring the revolution in a novel. Unfortunately, I am already too far into the writing of The Labyrinth of Osiris to use the revolution as a part of the plot, although I have introduced a number of references to it. In my next Khalifa novel, however – which I am already planning in my head – I want to feature the revolution as an integral part of the story. It’s such an important and seminal moment in modern Egyptian history that I simply can’t ignore it.
Translated from the Arabic Edition