In Conversation with Mariam Fayez
Mariam Fayez is an Egyptian-American poet. Born and raised in Cairo, she came to New York in 2013 and studied social work, anthropology and creative writing at New York University. Her poems have been published in LUMINA Journal, Vol. XVIII, under the multilingual project La Lengua, and she will be graduating from Sarah Lawrence’s Poetry MFA program in May 2019.
R.Y., La Lengua’s co-editor, sat down with Mariam to discuss her writing.
This is the first of an interview series in which we shine a light on multilingual and multicultural writers and explore how this aspect of their identity manifests in and possibly shapes their work.
RY: Tell me about your background.
Mariam Fayez: Both my parents are Egyptian. My dad is of Albanian, Ottoman decent, and my mother is half Coptic Christian. I’m officially Muslim, but growing up I went to more churches than mosques. We attended mass at Saint Joseph church and I was named Mariam, which is the Arabic name of the Virgin Mary.
The stories I was told and the traditions we followed were mostly Catholic because my maternal grandmother converted from Coptic Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. She then married my Muslim grandfather, and both her conversion and her marriage to a Muslim were very taboo decisions. We also followed Muslim traditions, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, and my Catholic grandmother would fast with us.
RY: When did you decide to become a poet?
MF: I was always writing poems, but at the time, I didn’t know that they were poems. It started as something closer to prose, fiction, maybe diary entries but more creative than that, almost dreamlike. Later, I discovered Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, and many confessional poets who wrote very beautiful and depressing things. As a young teenager, I could relate to that. So, I told myself that maybe I should write poetry. I started writing “prose-y” narratives, but with shorter lines, and then I started paying attention to the melody and rhythm of the poems and how they sounded. Later, while attending NYU, I took Creative Writing as a minor. There was no major in Creative Writing available.
RY: Have you tried writing in Arabic?
MF: I tried. It didn’t go well.
RY: If you write in English and not in Arabic, for whom are you writing?
MF: That’s something that’s always on my mind.
RY: Some Egyptian writers like Nawal El Saadawi have been accused of “writing for the West,” because they are more popular abroad than in their own country.
MF: Exactly. Growing up, my grandparents spoke French, Arabic, and English, but I spoke mainly in English. I’m most comfortable writing in English, but I write for Egyptians, for the Arab world, for people like me. That’s the issues I’m battling with. Whom am I writing for? Who is going to read my poems if they are in English? The educated part of the population who are fluent in foreign languages, and who constitute a tiny minority?
RY: But do you have something to say to the non-English speaking population?
MF: I try every day to write for them. I don’t know if I’m saying much and I don’t think I’m writing anything that could have a huge impact on them.
RY: Why not?
MF: Maybe because of the way they might view me: as an outsider, someone who’s not “one of us.”
RY: How do you relate to 100 million Egyptians and 400 million Arabs?
MF: I guess that the only way to relate is the tradition, the culture, the food. There’s also the Egyptian revolution of 2011. I was part of the protest and I think that was the only time that I didn’t feel different from everybody else. On Tahrir Square, it didn’t matter anymore that I don’t wear the hijab. It was a real moment of national unity. When you’re being shot by rubber bullets, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. We were all in it together. We didn’t know whether the police were using rubber bullets or real bullets. We didn’t know whether we were going to die.
RY: Why do you write? How do you see your role as a writer?
MF: There are a lot of things about my identity that could get me in trouble back in Egypt. For instance, the fact that I’m queer. I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, and that’s not a safe topic to write about in Egypt. I’m also not very religious. I’m closer to agnosticism. I respect all religions and I find them all beautiful, but I don’t really have a faith, although I’m nominally Muslim. All these things make me a kafira, a heretic, someone who goes in many ways against everything you were taught is your Arab identity. So, I guess the reason I write is to humanize these topics, to normalize, to show that you can be both Arab and queer, or Arab and agnostic. This is what I’m trying to show through my writings. You can be exactly who you are without it taking away where you come from and where you’re proud of coming from. I’m very proud of where I come from. I love my country, the people, the history, even if its politics can be dangerous.
RY: How do you write for people who see you as a kafira, a heretic?
MF: That’s exactly the issue. And I think my writing is also a jab at them, a way of saying: “I’m going to do it anyway.” My poems can get me in trouble, but even if they threw me in prison, the writing will still be there. As Nawal El Saadawi likes to say to her detractors, “You can do whatever you want to me, you can kill me, but my writing will always be there.” Even a writer like Naguib Mahfouz was persecuted, and survived multiple assassination attempts by salafis and other religious extremists, for writing about prostitutes and other taboo subjects.
RY: Do you see yourself as an activist? How do you see yourself?
MF: I think that, for now, my activism is a little quiet.
RY: Are you intentionally flying under the radar?
MF: Yes. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of voice I want in my writing before throwing up big controversial issues and themes. I’m also concerned for my family. Ideally, I would like to be living in the US full-time and not flying back to Egypt as often as I do now. Then I would feel more comfortable publishing the type of poems I would like to publish and are most true to myself.
RY: Have you declined publication opportunities because they could get you in trouble?
MF: I have.
RY: You’re not doing anything wrong, but the question is whether those who think you’re a heretic know it.
MF: Exactly. They don’t. They think you’ve done the worst. And I’m safe in the U.S.A. while my family is exposed in Egypt. There are all kind of horror stories about writers and journalists being murdered there. That’s how the Arab Spring started in Egypt. It was sparked by the murder of Khaled Mohamed Saeed by two policemen who beat him to death. Pictures of his corpse circulated on social media and people posted “we are all Khaled Saeed.” I think there’s a quote that the scariest thing for a fascist regime is an artist and a journalist, and the regime will do everything they can to hush you… They will take you away, no questions asked, and you won’t ever be seen again. And things are even worse now with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the current president.
So, I need to take more distance before I start publishing. I’m currently working on a book, a very controversial project. I’m doing erasure poetry using passages from the Quran. That’s very controversial because you’re not allowed to deface the Quran. But I’m not defacing the book itself, I couldn’t do it. And I’m not using the original Arabic text, only its English translation. I want to make something very beautiful out of it. I go through my favorite surahs and highlight certain words and passages. I don’t actually erase; I just highlight what I like. That’s my long-term project. My thesis project for my MFA is about the mother and motherland, and the koranic erasures serve as chapter markers and structure the short book.
RY: You graduated from NYU with majors in Social Work and Anthropology. How do you tie your interest in social work into your poetry?
MF: The social justice dimension of my work is very important to me. Sometimes I write narrative poems about Egyptians or Arabs that are facing the hardships of life under certain regimes. I wrote a love poem, an ode to Syria, the Syria from before the war. People in the West talk about Syria as if these horrors could never happen to them. But I see it as something that could happen to us, it could have been us. In the Western narrative, Syria is this war-torn place filled with barbaric people, but to me, it’s the beautiful place I’ve visited several times. I disagree with the Western narrative on so many things.
RY: However, those who see you as a heretic will also consider both you and me as two completely Westernized, intellectually and spiritually colonized Arabs. Do you wonder about these things sometimes?
MF: Absolutely. They said the same things when some Arab artists started experimenting with surrealism. They were accused of copying the West. But they weren’t. They were creating Arab surrealism, or North African Surrealism. Why can’t you be both Westernized and a patriotic Egyptian? You can be both. We live in a globalized world. The U.S. has incorporated so many things from all around the world, and it doesn’t make it less American. I understand the rejection of the West among some Arabs, but I don’t share it. You can borrow something foreign and make it yours, like Egyptian surrealists did. Take kohl (eyeliner) for example. It’s an Egyptian invention that the whole world is using today. Everything is borrowed from somewhere else; you just have to make it your own.
R.Y. is the co-editor of La Lengua.