Friday, September 30, 2011

At first, Ghada Abdel Aal didn’t see herself fitting the mold of a successful Egyptian writer.

“He had to be a man, over 60 years old with gray hair, thick glasses and probably dead for the last six or seven years,” Abdel Aal said with a laugh. “I had no idea that a young woman like me could have the opportunity to publish a book in Egypt.”

After her experience in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) in 2010, this best-selling author and award-winning screenwriter feels a little bit more like an author.

“It gave me the confidence to go back to Egypt and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a writer,’” she said.

Abdel Aal became a writer in response to the sense of urgency Egyptian culture imposes on unmarried young women. Pressured by what she describes as a looming “expiration date” – usually age 30, when a woman is deemed too old to get married – she endured countless gawwaz el-salonat, or “living room marriages.” Traditionally, such encounters place a man and his perspective wife together in a living room, accompanied by their families. After two or three meetings, the couple decides whether to get married.

After her family’s unsuccessful attempts to find her a husband , she turned to blogging, seeking advice and anonymously sharing her experiences about these “living room marriages.” Her blog received a positive response from both men and women who were relieved to see someone sharing their same thoughts.

IWP Associate Director Hugh Ferrer said Abdel Aal’s presence was a great asset. Though a first glimpse at Abdel Aal's take on marriage may lead to conclusions about her feminism, she invites readers into a unique perspective.

“Ghada forces everyone to swim against the typical stereotypes,” Ferrer said. “She’s not against the larger institution of arranged marriages. She’s not just trying to tear down the towers. What is really important about her writing is that she brings out a topic not often acknowledged and encourages people to discuss the issue.”

Now 32, she said she is “expired.” Though she still does hope to get married one day, through her writing, she no longer feels the same urgency to settle down. Abdel Aal is now working on a second novel, drawing from the different styles she was exposed to at the International Writing Program. As a writer, Abdel Aal is moving on from marriage to other issues Egyptian women face.

“‘You speak in our voice and we’ve been waiting for that for so many years,’ many Egyptian women have said to me. And now I feel there is this responsibility to spread that voice,” she said.