Mohamed Tawfik is the Egyptian ambassador to the United States. When he took the lectern at the American University in Cairo recently, it was not to discuss the tensions in Egyptian-American relations, or to analyze the latest upheavals in Iraq and Syria. Instead, he was there to discuss a book titled Candygirl: An Egyptian Novel.
Literature, as much as diplomacy, is Tawfik’s passion. He is the author of three novels and three books of short stories. Candygirl, which he published in 2010, is set in 2007 Cairo as a ruling Egyptian regime is crumbling. A shrouded critique of Hosni Mubarak’s sclerotic government, the book is a science fiction thriller tracking the fate of those involved in Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs. The protagonist is an Egyptian nuclear scientist who is on the run from espionage agencies; he submerges himself in a virtual world, where he proceeds to discover true love. “A good novel for me is like a good symphony,” Tawfik told a packed auditorium. “It is not only based on the events and the characters, but a very important part of it is the empty spaces, the silences, the room it leaves for each individual reader to interpret.”
Tawfik must squeeze his writing in between demanding diplomatic assignments. He served as ambassador to Lebanon and Australia before taking up his current post in Washington in September 2012 during the turbulent tenure of former President Mohammed Morsi. He became the familiar face of the Egyptian state on American TV news shows after Morsi was overthrown less than a year later, justifying the lethal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protest camps.
Candygirl’s title is after the avatar in the form of a woman that the protagonist falls in love with. Although Candygirl is a middle-aged writer’s depiction of cyberspace, Tawfik has found an audience among a generation of young Egyptians who pride themselves on being digitally literate. The book is required reading for AUC’s current freshman class, as part of the university’s One Book, One Conversation, One Community Common Reading Program to enhance a culture of reading among students. Students are participating in an essay and creative arts contest around Candygirl, and various related debates and panel discussions are also being held. AUC President Lisa Anderson, who launched the reading program, calls Candygirl “fascinating and thought-provoking.”
A public servant’s bent for literary experimentation is an Egyptian tradition. Perhaps the most illustrious example is Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote thirty-four novels plus hundreds of short stories and movie scripts while working as a functionary in various government ministries. Tawfik Al-Hakim, another of the country’s literary luminaries, worked as a prosecutor in the courts of Alexandria and various provincial towns. Al-Hakim introduced a new style of dialogue writing, a balance between formal Arabic and colloquial Egyptian that revolutionized the Arabic novel and theater.
Tawfik told the Cairo Review that he found inspiration in George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel about a government surveillance state. To him, Orwell’s story is “a description of how governments in general are always willing to use technology to further their own control and their own interest.” He sees similar tactics used in the West after September 11 and in Egypt today, where the government has technological tools and public support to maintain control. “The challenge is how to do that and at the same time not affect the basic principles that are in the constitution,” Tawfik said.