BabZhar / Egypt
Egyptian Creative Young Women
Eman S. Morsi - 16/08/2008
For 21 year old Salma Salah this year has been the best school year of her life. As a fourth year Cairo University literature student, Salma was able to publish her first collection of short stories, Khorouj (Exit), that has won her a lot of positive criticism by renowned Egyptian critics writing in literary magazines.
At the early age of 11 Salma found herself writing simply for self-expression, never with the idea of publishing or showing her writings to anyone, however, with time she began to write to communicate ideas to others as well. At this stage she began to publish her works on websites devoted to Arabic cultural production and through the feedback she received she began to improve her style and to read more and more.
Having had an impact on cyber literature readers, she finally got an offer to have her stories published by the Malamih Publishing House, a new publishing house owned by political and human rights activist, Mohammad Al Sharqawi, and dedicated to the publication of works by young, promising writers.
In writing, Salma upholds the strong belief that the human and the humane should always come first and that they can only emerge if there is freedom. "My main goal has been finding ways of getting out of a world that is forced on us to a world of one's own choice, the idea of emancipation" she explained, adding "for me emancipation doesn't mean that you have escaped something you have been forced to do and didn't want but rather that you have succeed in changing the status quo, in changing those around you, in coming up with something different."
In an interesting style that includes vivid and lively descriptions, the use of the stream of consciousness and the dream-like atmosphere, amongst a lot of other techniques, Salma's writings are very representative of the new literary generation while at the same time being truly unique and intense. The short stories, most of which are not more than one page long, deal with such universal themes as freedom and alienation on all levels.
In addition to those techniques symbolism is used in abundance in her work, however, her use of it is neither vague nor complex and obstructive. "I try to make sure that if the readers do not understand the symbols in the text they would still find the over all story entertaining and complete." She explained.
Salma's writings are an exact reflection of her lively, playful and youthful personality. For her the act of writing is not a serious job but rather an act of playfulness and entertainment, which explains why she does not focus on only one literary style. "Every vision and every idea imposes its own style but in the end all of these different styles put together reflect who I am." She said, adding, " I do not like Realism that much not because it is old fashion but because I feel that literature has to have a dreamlike aspect even if it is nightmarish. Writing should not be an exact imitation of life. For me writing is like a game and Realism sometimes crushes the fun in it."
The visual artist
Malak Helmy: Kalam Milaza - Mixed Media, 2004
Malak laughs at the comments explaining that she hears them all the time and proceeds to explain how "Samir" came into being. "It was part of a project I did. I'm interested in issues like the power of the gaze… and so I would go out in the street and try and capture the moment of an odd interaction- where you can possibly shift power between the changing roles of spectator and spectacle." She said
Malak's interest in art began from a very young age due to the artistic interests of her family. Ever since her graduation from the American University in Cairo in 2004, Malak has held several exhibitions and participated in two residencies one of which was in Bangladesh and the other in Finland. Most of her works have reflected her strong bias for interactive and playful art as seen in street paintings, posters and performances.
For her, art is the collective experience that it was originally meant to be. "I'm really interested in the urban landscape and the idea of audience participating in a work. I don't have a problem with indoor galleries but I prefer public spaces where there are more opportunities for interaction and more possibilities to explore." Malak explained.
In line with this interest she took part, last November, in "Tales Around The Pavement" which was a public art project in Cairo, part of the international festival, Meeting Points 5 . Malak’s project was truly interactive and playful. She cleaned up an abandoned kiosk in an alleyway connecting two busy streets downtown and turned it into a "wishing booth" kiosk. "The project plays with the idea of how places in the public space are appropriated by different people and change their function with not only the change in owners but often according to how the people around it choose to use it at the time (from a cigarette kiosk to a poster board to a mosque rug cabinet, to a street light). It is also just about making a playful, soft magical space in the city” she explained.
After cleaning the kiosk and covering it with iridescent paper Malak and the other artists participating with her put up a sign over a slot in the kiosk window that said "place your wish here and come back tomorrow" and they ended up getting all kinds of wishes from people who took it seriously to those who were playing along. The wishes were collected daily and then they were illustrated and stuck on the outside walls of the kiosk. "It lasted for 8 days during which there was a great accumulation of drawings." She said with a smile.
Malak also believes that works of art are done best when done in collaboration with other artists."When several artists come together to work on one project all our experiences are brought together and the work comes out more powerful and often more interesting." Malak said.
Like Salma who uses myriads of styles in her stories, Malak also prefers not to stick to one artistic school. "When I'm working on art projects what is more important for me is the idea of how things are connected as opposed to a specific school. I am more interested in the different terms of engagement, new ways of exploring and making sense of things and of course exchanging ideas and interacting." She said.
© Photo: Tarek Hefny
Yasmine began to write from the very early age of four because her father was always out for work and would only return very late after she had already slept so her mother taught her to write to him letters telling him about what had happened through out the day. As she grew older she would write children stories for her younger brother to read and when she was in school she constantly showed her works to her Arabic teachers who gave her advices on style and grammar that helped her improve. "I was never shy of showing my writings to people. However, I only showed my writings to the ones whom I felt believed in me as a writer." She said
Surprisingly enough Yasmine never dreamt of becoming a writer and even more surprising, she never wrote poetry until she had been in college. "I started off by writing short articles or stories and then moved to poetry. By that time I had read more, had a better control of the language and had created my own style." Yasmine said.
By the time she had graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy, Yasmine had begun to seriously pursue writing along side working in a pharmacy. However, her parents who had made her interested in writing as a hobby were not very enthusiastic about the idea. "My family members looked at me as crazy, my dad believes that writing in Egypt doesn't help you make a living and my parents didn't understand why a pharmacist like me would want to write and publish" she explained.
Luckily she had the support of Sahar el Mougy, one of the established contemporary Egyptian novelists who, seeing that her style had matured, encouraged her to publish her first collection, Nafas Aakhar fil Hojra (Another Soul in the Room). When she did, the slight resistance and at times indifference on the part of her family soon disappeared. "When I actually went forward and published my poems my parents were very supportive and very happy for me and came with me to my book signing event." she said smiling.
Yasmine has taken up the modern Arabic free verse style which is not bound by the rhyming, two parallel columns shape of traditional Arabic poetry. "I don't like reading traditional poetry and have always preferred reading prose until I discovered free verse." She said. Her favorite poets are Foad Haddad and Salah Jahin.
Eman S. Morsi