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Egyptian writer shares passion for her country with the world

By Catriona Davies, CNN
updated 12:23 AM EST, Sat March 9, 2013
Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif travels the world's literary festivals talking of her hopes for her country.
Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif travels the world's literary festivals talking of her hopes for her country.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ahdaf Soueif was the first Muslim woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize
  • Her most recent book "Cairo: My City, Our Revolution" was a personal account of the Egyptian revolution
  • Souief will be in London this weekend for Women of the World Festival

(CNN) -- Ahdaf Soueif isn't in one place for long. She has spent the last month touring India and Australia, and is back in her native Egypt for a few days before heading to London.

She is in demand for speaking engagements, particularly at literary festivals, to help the world understand political events in Egypt, still in turmoil more than two years after its revolution.

Soueif, 62, is a Booker-shortlisted author and political commentator whose most recent book "Cairo: My City, Our Revolution" gives a personal account of her involvement with the protests in January 2011 that led to the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Soueif is not one for commentating from a safe distance. On the day before we speak, she has yet again joined protesters on the streets of Cairo.

Read: Remarkable women, inspiring quotes

"I came straight from the airport to the streets," she said.

On January 25, 2011, when hundreds of thousands of protests began flooding into Tahrir Square in Cairo, Soueif was at a literary festival in Jaipur, India.

"I did my final event and then went sightseeing and shopping in Jaipur," she said. "When I got back to my hotel I had I don't know how many messages, so I turned on the TV and saw what was happening in Tahrir Square."

It was amazing and totally inclusive.
Ahdaf Soueif

She had been planning to spend another 10 days in India, but instead got the first flight back to Cairo to join the demonstrations.

In her book, Soueif describes euphoria in joining the demonstrations with her two young nieces.

"It was grassroots, millions of people walking out," she said. "It was amazing and totally inclusive."

For Soueif, the revolution that began in January 2011 is still a work in progress, because despite free presidential elections in June 2012, there have not been the changes in social justice that many were hoping for.

Despite the setbacks and continuing violence, Soueif is adamant the country is better off than it was before 2011.

"I'm very optimistic," she said. "The change that has happened in people was huge. People have broken free and expressed what they want."

Soueif said she joins protesters on the streets of Cairo two or three times a week when she is not traveling the globe on speaking engagements.

"It gets tiring, but at the same time it's re-energizing because there's a tremendous positive energy flowing," she said.

"It reminds you what it's all about and of the determination of people."

Soueif was born in Cairo to intellectual parents and spent her childhood between the United Kingdom and Egypt. She studied English literature at university in Cairo before researching a PhD in Britain.

She married the late British poet Ian Hamilton, with whom she had two sons, Omar Robert Hamilton and Ismail Richard Hamilton.

The change that has happened in people was huge.
Ahdaf Soueif

Soueif has written two novels, several collections of short stories, a book of essays and edited a hefty tome an Islamic art.

Her second novel "The Map of Love" in 1993 made her the first Muslim woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

"What it meant to me wasn't just about being the first Muslim woman or Arab, it was just great as a writer to make an impact," she said.

"Map of Love" was translated into 28 languages, with the Arabic translation by her own mother.

"It was a tremendous privilege to work with her. She was incredible," said Soueif. "We had some rows to begin with along the lines of 'whose book is it anyway?', but it was a very rich experience.

"I still remember the times when we would sit and mull over the right translation for a certain expression for hours."

In recent years, Soueif has been too busy as a columnist and commentator to write fiction, although hopes to write another novel when she can find time.

Last year she was listed by Arabian Business magazine among its 100 most powerful Arab women.

She is currently working on her own Arabic translation of her Cairo book, but is struggling to find time in her busy schedule.

"If I get two clear hours, that's what I work on," she said.

Ahdaf Soueif will be appearing at the Women of the World Festival at London's Southbank Centre from March 8-10.

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