Interview with longlisted author Mansoura Ez Eldin
When did you begin writing The Orchards of Basra and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I began planning for it, making notes about the characters and the world of the novel, in November 2017. I then started writing, but sporadically, starting from February 2018.
As for the inspiration, the idea for the novel has been with me since 1996, when I was starting my university studies and bought a copy of the Great Book of Interpretation of Dreams, ascribed to Imam Ahmad Ibn Sirin. I loved the book and used to read it practically every day, engaging with it as a piece of creative writing. The refined artistry of the verses interpreting dreams, using a linguistic, religious or environmental starting point, appealed to me. I was particularly struck by a dream in which the angels gather the jasmine from Basra, and Al-Hasan al-Basri’s interpretation that the intellectuals have left the city.
I knew that I would write about it one day, without having a clear idea about what I would write exactly? It was an idea postponed, a lasting preoccupation. I played with the details in my mind and imagined scenes from the unwritten book for two decades. All this time was a period of fermentation and preparation, which was useful to me when I began the actual writing.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
The preparation stage, involving reading and researching, took a long time, but the writing itself was smooth and pleasurable. I finished The Orchards of Basra in Shanghai in September and October 2018. I was there at the time as a guest of the Shanghai Writers’ Association.
After returning from Shanghai, I put the manuscript aside for two months, then went back to it to make some edits to the language and style. 2019 was a hectic year for me, since I travelled a lot and edited the translation of a huge book, as well as putting the finishing touches to a travel book about China. For this reason, I delayed the publication of The Orchards of Basra until 2020.
How have readers and critics received it?
The novel has had a fantastic reception from both critics and readers. Many studies and reviews were written about it. It has reached the bestseller list in Egypt several times since being published and I have received encouraging comments about it from readers from different cultural backgrounds.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I have nearly finished the second part of The Orchards of Basra. The hero of the novel is a character mentioned in passing in the first book. While I am here in Paris, in a literary residency, I am also working on a book with the themes of memory, childhood and the scars of the past.