We all know him as the author of the onscreen hit, “The Blue Elephant,” but Ahmed Mourad’s journey as a professional photographer-turned-famous modern Egyptian Arabic novelist has been nothing short of inspiring!
We were excited to sit down with him for a Prime Talk to find out more about his extraordinary life and career.
GETTING TO KNOW AHMED MOURAD
Prime Magazine: What factors influenced your career choices and when did they take place in your life?
Ahmed Mourad: It could have been the result of having a mother who was extremely passionate about reading. My mother was from a different generation, one that would go to a book fair instead of going to the park. It was a bit of a challenge because the book became my only joy, to which some would say that is quite sad. On the contrary, I was actually happy that I loved books so much. I read many different writers’ works such as Ehsan Abdel Kodus, Yousef Edris and Naguib Mahfouz.
I had another defining life moment, which was studying cinema. I graduated from Lycee El Horeya, Bab El-Louk, and after that I studied at the High Institute for Cinema. After making four films and graduating at the top of my class, I stopped making movies. I didn’t want to simply teach there either; I wanted to follow the newly found path of current media.
I was in a state of hibernation from 2002 to 2007, doing nothing but working, eating, drinking, and reading everyday. This was by far the biggest, most climactic moment. I started to think about what I want to be doing in ten years. I realized that in ten years I wanted a better salary, a better car, a bigger house, and another baby. But that wasn’t going to happen with my growing belly and evident hair loss.
I took a decision that I believe was a combination resulting from all the fields I worked in, whether photography, cinema, politics or simply reading. I decided to take the plunge and start writing. At that point I finished “Vertigo” and things just took off from there.
PM: You said your mother was very involved with reading; do you have any family members that participated in the fields of writing, photography, or cinema?
AM: My father was a photographer and I have four uncles; three of them were also photographers, so photography was widely present in my family unlike writing, which wasn’t present at all.
PM: It is said that a character from a novel could be a reflection of the writer’s own character. Which of yours characters would you say is the closest representation of yourself?
AM: If we take the “The Blue Elephant” as an example, Yehia hates vegetable soup and so do I. I add things from my personality and some things from my own life to the character. I can’t say that there is a character that specifically embodies me because if a writer depends on that, he would run out of ideas.
PM: Do you have any special rituals that you do before writing? And did you do any of them while writing “The Blue Elephant”?
AM: I usually like to write in the early morning or the afternoon with a cup of coffee. I can’t have any distractions or noise around me while I am writing.
Sometimes I like to hear music, but I don’t have any special or odd clicks. Ernest Hemingway, for example, used to write while he was standing up – he believed that would make his sentences shorter and less boring, because he would get tired quickly.
PM: What inspired you to write “ The Blue Elephant”? Who did you meet and how did you get your information?
AM: First, I needed a doctor who worked at the place itself, and in that I was very lucky because I had a friend – a writer – who used to work at Al-Abassya Hospital. He put me through to doctors who currently work at “8 West” – the section of the hospital in which the story takes place.
Being present in the actual hospital setting gave me a good dramatic base. The jargon thrown about was also very helpful to me. That is one of the reasons why a lot of English words are present in the text; that is how a doctor is taught.
I also bought a lot of psychology books and I started reading. I was indirectly trying to find my own Schiz [schizophrenia], which would fit perfectly with Sherif or Yehia. Then I also did some studies on body language and its concepts.
PM: The trips of the “The Blue Elephant” pill were described with complete and utter specificities. How did you put yourself in such a state of mind?
AM: You are embarrassed to ask if I took the pill personally but I want to tell you something – I had two ways to gain my insight concerning this point. A friend of mine did healing sessions with DMT shots, so I only took the gist of it and transformed it to be a correlation for a crime that has already been committed.
At some point, I’d sleep on the paper I was writing on and just imagine what trip it might take me to and how the twist of the DMT journey would take place. For instance, the dream of the bug leaving Yehia’s finger and bleeding its way out was a personal dream of mine. So I added my own dreams, with controlled hallucinations and ultimate focus, to create this mystical trip of DMT.
PM: What is your favorite chapter from “The Blue Elephant”?
AM: One of my other favorite scenes is when Yehia meets Lobna by the Nile and a romantic scene takes place. I believe that one of the hardest things to write is a romantic scene.
PM: Now we move from the novel and focus on the film. Even though your background is mostly cinematic, why did you start working on a novel rather than a script?
AM: I have a deep passion for novels. To dive deep into a character or to vividly describe an event is not present in a script like it would be in a novel. You would notice that if you compare two movies made, one based solely on a script and the other on a novel, you would find a much deeper sense and feeling to the latter. Generally novels support a good foundation for the work than a script.
PM: Did you contact Marwan Hamed regarding “The Blue Elephant” or was it the other way around?
AM: Marwan and I are actually close friends. We became friends when we worked on the script for “Diamond Dust” together.
So, one day we were casually talking and he asked me what I am working on, I said a novel named “The Blue Elephant.” One thing led to another and he wanted to make a film out of it.
PM: Was Khaled El Sawy the first and only choice you had for Nakel’s role?
AM: Yes, he was. He is one of the greatest actors that are present right now. He matured greatly during filming and you could see it with your own eyes.
PM: How did Marwan tell you he wanted to change the ending of the movie, since the book and the movie each hold a different ending?
AM: When you write a book, you are addressing only about 2 % of the Egyptian people. You are giving it to someone who could pause and reread a page, which he reads whenever he feels like it and where he feels like it.
On the other hand when handling a movie a larger audience is addressed. You have to explain everything and adapt it to fit that massive audience. You must satisfy the people and build up a good background for the audience to enjoy the movie. It wasn’t at all because we thought the audience is not fit for such an ending or anything of that kind.
THE INTERACTIVE BIT
We presented Ahmed Mourad with 10 pictures that he had to relate to himself in some way.
AM: I see dreams obviously and choices. If I were to choose, I would choose the blue one.
AM: The female in the life of a man.
AM: Crime is always said to be present in my books. I believe that crime has been present on earth since Cain and Abel, the first crime ever committed. A crime moves events and actions.
AM: My happy place. I just want to dangle my legs in the water (what I usually do during vacations).
AM: Horrific, because it makes me ask, what’s next? That doesn’t mean that these are the best. It’s these moments of happiness that lead to doubt and worry.
AM: Giza, Giza, and Giza. If I would describe it in one word, I would say disappointment. Disappointment for a culture and a foundation that we don’t know how to invest in.
AM: Two people talking to each other, there is a dialogue. A case of Schiz you might say.
AM: A great material for writing and a reminder of something I have totally ejected out of my life, cigarettes.
AM: My whole life I have been with my father in the studio so, this, to me is completely familiar…more than you could imagine.
AM: Morrison inspired my writing. He is really controversial. One thing people don’t know about me is that I write with pictures. I always make up a file with everything related to the theme of my novel or the time in which it takes place and simply absorb everything about them.
PM: Photography or cinema?
PM: Deals or Sequoia?
PM: Maya or Lobna?
PM: Sherif or Nakel?
PM: Favorite local writer?
AM: Naguib Mahfouz.
PM: Favorite local director?
AM: Marwan Hamed.
PM: Favorite local actor?
AM: Adel Emam.
PM: Favorite local band or singer?
AM: Abd El Halem Hafez.
PM: Favorite international writer?
AM: Paulo Coelho.
PM: Favorite international director?
PM: Favorite international actor?
AM: Leonardo DiCaprio.
PM: Favorite international band or singer?
PM: Favorite movie of all time?
AM: The Godfather.
PM: Favorite writing location?
PM: Favorite word?
Ahmed Mourad completed the lightning round in 1:31 minutes.
PM: The first question is from @TaboBakr_, “if you could be any character form ‘The Blue Elephant,’ which one would you choose and why?
AM: I can’t simply escape Yehia. I know our traits don’t match that much, but his habits and thoughts are similar to mine.
PM: Rahaf Saher and Malak Yasser ask if there is any upcoming project for any of your other works?
AM: There are always ongoing projects, “Vertigo” was made into a series, “The Blue Elephant” into a film and luckily “Diamond Dust” and “1919” also hold new upcoming projects too. There is also “El-Hashasheen” project, but it isn’t based on a novel, it’s a different project.
PM: Nada Ouf asks: if Maya took the pill with Yehia, why did she wake up remembering everything but he didn’t?
AM: Maya didn’t take it with Yehia, because a person can’t simply take the pill if the person next to him is not aware of their surroundings. What I mean is, one person must be sober and cautious in case anything occurs to the one who consumed the pill. It could lead to serious consequences if both people, or if everyone in the same area, took the pill.
PM: Shady Samy asks how did Yehia see “3am Sayed,” while he was supposedly not hallucinating?
AM: The world, I believe, is just. If the other side of evil has appeared, then the other side of good will too. He is a good soul who pushed the character in the opposite direction of what Nakel is pushing Yehia in. Once Yehia was aware of this fact he was caught in between the lines, 3am Sayed’s soul appears.
PM: The cookie monster is asking if success changed you? And if it did, how so?
AM: Yes, of course success changes people, it creates this obsession of never letting your fans down. The exposure to the light burns – you have to know when to appear and when to lay in the shade. It is a very balanced case that needs caution.
My relationship with the readers or my fans didn’t change either. If you look at a discussion session related to a certain book, you would find that it is the same as the first one. The only problem is that I can’t answer each and every one of them so I would satisfy his or her obtained curiosity.
PM: Amany Naseb is asking what was the first thing you ever wrote in your life?
PM: Sarah Kamel is asking if you have any tips for writers?
AM: If you want to be a writer, then write. If it takes you six hours to get one good sentence then fine, if you only write two pages or even ten, then just write.
If you are writing a novel don’t stop writing until you are done, if you stop writing for a day, then you have to make it up by another. It is just like exercise, you have to maintain daily activity.
Also, reading and writing have got to come in hand in hand, because reading is one of the main things that help you become a better writer. Reading and writing must be an obsession.
*Excerpts from this interview have been translated from Arabic.
It was a pleasure having Ahmed Mourad over at the office, especially since our team is teeming with fans! We look forward to his upcoming projects.
Special thanks to Nino’s for catering Ahmed Mourad’s Prime Talk interview.