Dec. 4, 2008
Arabic writer-without-borders had productive time in the state of 'YES!'
Arabic-language writer Tarek Eltayeb knew nothing about Iowa before he came to the University of Iowa this fall as a participant in the International Writing Program. But he knew the meaning of the word that sounds the same in Arabic -- an emphatic "YES!" And by the time he returned to his home in Austria, he'd definitely had a positive experience, writing 50 poems and beginning a novel. And he had spent more time in this state of Yes! than he had spent in Sudan, the ancestral homeland with which he strongly identifies.
Eltayeb's father immigrated to Cairo in 1952, escaping turmoil in Sudan and pursuing dreams nurtured by American movies, and Tarek was born seven years later into a Sudanese enclave in the Egyptian capital where the Sudanese language was spoken and the cultural traditions of Sudan were observed. "The border was not so hard then," he explains, and it was common for Sudanese people to migrate north seeking opportunities.
After experiencing that Sudanese environment, he went to live with his grandmother in the oldest part of Cairo, where the culture was substantially different and only Arabic was spoken.
And then, at the age of 25, Tarek made another move north, traveling to Europe for an education. He considered Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but settled on Austria, because that was where he could receive the financial aid he needed to complete his schooling.
"I didn't want to go to London or Paris, the traditional European destinations for Sudanese intellectuals, but to go to a new place and begin again," he explains. "I was then 25 years old, and I said, 'I will begin again.' I went to Europe, just looking for a change, go to school and return, not to emigrate. But every time I went back the Cairo I found the gap was bigger for me -- worse in Egypt, better in Austria."
Sudan was not an option because conditions there under the military regime and rising fundamentalism have deteriorated decade by decade. "The '40s through the '60s was a wonderful time in Sudan, with famous universities and groups of writers" he says. "But in the '70s things changed -- '80s worse, '90s worse. So the writers left, to Egypt and to Europe." He has been there only once, nearly 30 years ago.
And so Eltayeb stayed in Austria, not just to complete his education but to live, teach, marry and write. He teaches the Arabic language, economics and translation from German into Arabic. "I am now 50, but I think I am 25 because I was born again," he says.
Which is not to say that the transition was easy. "I came with no language, no money, and I had to begin again," he says. "I had to learn a new language and be in a new country. I didn't have 'cultural shock.' I had language shock, and weather shock."
And he also had the dislocation experience that proved pivotal in his future as a writer -- loneliness. "When I went to Austria, I began to write -- that was 1986 -- only for myself, because I was lonely and isolated," he explains. "My contact was my own history -- to bring my family, friends, my place, even my dreams onto the paper. For the first 15 years, all my dreams were about Egypt.
"Then one day I found somebody who wanted to have some short stories from people living in exile, and I sent the first one. And he wanted another one, and he began to take all my short stories. In one year I published 13 short stories. It came very quickly."
Now he publishes stories, novels, essays and poems widely, and his work has been translated into numerous languages. The protagonist of his first novel, "The Palm House," was a Sudanese man who is lonely and cold in Europe. "I am in there," he laughs, "but I won't tell you where."
In 2005 he wrote a single page of another novel that came to life three years later in Iowa. "I just needed the right place," he says. Tentatively titled "Woke Up in Iowa," it is the story of a man who wakes up with amnesia, finding himself locked in a room with only a few clues, one of which is a copy of the Iowa Review. "Who am I? What is my language. What is Iowa?"
The answer to that final question is clearly "YES!" Eltayeb, who has been Sudanese, and Egyptian and Austrian is now also an Iowan, an identity he has no difficulty embracing. "This is the longest time I have ever been outside of Cairo or Austria; maybe I will come back and spend my next 25 years in Iowa," he says with a laugh. "I have never had the feeling that I am a migrant. I have no borders."
Biographies of all the writers who were in residence this fall are accessible at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html. Eltayeb attended the IWP with the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State.
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