Recently, Professor Mona Russell’s Fall 2019 Class at East Carolina University set me Questions on The Naqib’s Daughter and this is a compilation of my answers:
What inspired me to write The Naqib’s Daughter is what inspires me to write in general: passion for a subject comes first; then the key, the viewpoint, from which to write about it.
In the 2002 run up to the Iraq War, when it seemed inevitable in spite of protests world-wide, and in spite of the warnings of experts on the Middle East, I found myself turning to historical parallels to this ill-advised rush into a invasion of an Islamic country by a western power. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, 1789–1801, immediately came to mind as the prototype, indeed in hindsight the precursor, of Western incursions into the Middle East. At the time, the French invasion was clothed in the language of French Revolution enlightenment as a civilizing mission to an oppressed, backward people. “We will be greeted with roses”, the French assured themselves, as other invaders have many times since.
I began to read widely on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, in French, English and Arabic sources, especially original sources of contemporaries of the events. As I did so, the real, historical characters began to impose themselves on my narrative. I was drawn to the characters that had attempted to survive in turbulent times while maintaining their humanity and dignity. Lady Nafisa was one, and so was Nicolas Conté. The swashbuckling Alfi cut such an astonishing swathe in the English press of the day, that he could not be ignored.
As for Zeinab, I was so intrigued reading about her “wedding” to Bonaparte in Jabarti’s chronicle, that I wondered what happened to her after the French departed. I had to search through volume after volume of Jabarti’s chronicles of the post-French years until I came upon a brief mention of her tragic fate, she who was the innocent victim of ambitious and unscrupulous men.
Napoleon’s reluctance to marry her was of course based not so much on her age as on the fact that he had no interest at all in her, and was already married. He only agreed as a formality for political expediency. Nicolas Conte’s relationship with her was completely different, based on genuine affection and a sense of responsibility to protect the abandoned Zeinab. Was she wrong to fall in love with him? Nothing could be more natural, and from her point of view, blameless.
So it is particularly unfair that Zeinab should have been the only one to suffer dire consequences. Since it is the prerogative of the novelist, as opposed to a historian, to alter the ending, I chose to give her a way out. Especially since, in this case, it was an entirely plausible alternative ending: Jabarti’s tells us that Lady Nafisa took in and saved several of her female servants who were abducted by the French as concubines.
To interject a personal note here, prompted by one of the questions I was asked, I found Zeinab’s treatment at the hands of her callous father especially shocking because I myself was raised by the most loving, protective, and empowering father imaginable, as my autobiographical first novel, The Cairo House, attests. Granted, Egypt in the 1960’s was not Egypt in the year 1800, but still, the natural instinct of a father seemed perverted to me in Shaykh Bakri. Indeed, I would be disappointed if readers gathered the impression from the book that this abusive father/daughter relationship was the norm then, let alone that it is the norm today. Jabarti the historian, a contemporary of Shaykh Bakri, condemned him roundly for sacrificing his daughter; even in those days, Bakri’s behavior was untenable.
All the same, we should remember that it was not unusual in those days for young daughters to be considered marriageable assets, and not only in the Middle East: in pre-revolutionary France, daughters of the aristocracy were regularly married off, often against their wishes and very young, in their early teens, to form alliances between powerful families, and the exchange of dowry was an essential part of the marriage contract.
One advantage that I had in my research is that I am trilingual in French, Arabic and English, and those three languages, in addition to Ottoman Turkish, which I could only read in translation, were the four essential languages of the original contemporary sources recording Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The diplomatic dispatches alone are fascinating. The problem, when research is so engrossing, is to know when to stop reading and start writing.
The key, in writing a work of historical fiction, is not to approach it as overlaying “fiction” onto the history, but rather to be so thoroughly immersed in the atmosphere of the period, to live and breathe it, so that you move inside it as naturally and effortlessly as you do in your real everyday life. Then you find that your historical characters’ language, their thoughts, motivations and actions, arise organically, and they take over as fully three dimensional figures in the work of fiction. That said, the challenge, for me, was self-imposed: to stick as closely as possible to the actual sequence of events, the dates and locations, so that there would be few if any anachronisms, or liberties taken with history.
In writing The Naqib’s Daughter, I hoped readers would get a historical framework on the wars of the early 21st C. There is nothing new about the present day. We do not learn from history, and we do, unfortunately, repeat it. Nor is anything ever black or white, good or bad. I hoped readers would see these events from several different viewpoints: the conquerors and the conquered, the invaders and the invaded, the West and the “Muslim world.”
I would say, for me, growing up in Cairo in a politically prominent family and coming into an awareness myself of political events in the sixties and seventies, the years of the Nasser police state were oppressive and even traumatic. But on the personal level, there was a closeness then among family and friends, a strong sense of belonging, a richness of culture, an easy hybridity of Western and Arab/Muslim lifestyles, that I miss in the Egypt of today. But I still go back regularly, and I am still proud of my heritage of Egypt’s long and glorious civilization. It is truly called “the mother of the world.”
As a writer, I am motivated to write by curiosity, passion, even obsession with a topic, unlike writers who approach their craft as a profession from which they earn a living and set aside time, nine to five, to write, and then after hours network within the publishing industry. My approach is more personal and sporadic. There are days when I do not write at all and days when I come up for air only for the barest necessities. Even so, there is much to be said for consistently sitting down and starting. Starting is the hardest part. Just start.