Essam Youssef’s latest release Two Officers, promises to be as controversial as his first drug-infused novel. We invite the author in for an exclusive Scene Session…
Author Essam Youssef shot to fame in 2010 with the release of ¼ Gram, his hugely controversial story of heroine-culture in Egypt. Three years later, he’s ruffling the authority’s feathers once again with his latest book Two Officers. The novel tells the “true story” of a deeply and dramatically acrimonious relationship between two Egyptian police officers (think plenty of drama, mystery, violence, revenge, love, sex (well implied) and hate), how their respective rankings determine their fates, and how the State (specifically the Ministry of Interior) handles its internal intrigues.
Congratulations on your new book! We understand it’s based on a true story, that’s pretty incredible…
I’d seen the story happen when I was young and like ¼ Gram it stayed in my mind. I’ve been trying to get it published for a very long time, but the Ministry of Interior kept blocking it. They refused to acknowledge that the story had even taken place, sending me an official letter in 2007 refuting the validity of the content. A little while after that I had a meeting with a general in the Ministry and told him, “One day I will publish this novel.” It’s been a long road, but I eventually got the approvals I needed.
And how was it that you came across this story in the first place?
One of the police officers was my brother’s friend.
Was he happy that you told his story?
Yes. I took his permission. It’s a very serious story and I was worried he would get in trouble or be sent to court. What unfolds between these two individuals goes beyond breaking the law. But, 15 years have, passed so even if it were to be brought up again, the case is officially finished.
Your first novel ¼ Gram spends a lot of time exploring the blurred boundaries between good and bad, and the darker side of human nature. Is there a similar theme running through Two Officers? Does the good cop explore his dark side? Or is there a sheer contrast between good and bad?
Waleed, who is the good cop, has a very stable nature. He comes from a nice family and lives right across from the Nile. His wife got hurt and he had no other choice than to take revenge. So, you can see the how things transformed inside of him as a character. Sherif, the bad cop, is from the very start a bad boy.
From your point of view, how many Waleeds and Sherifs are there on the streets of Egypt?
I believe 95% of them are good cops. I don’t mean they’re angels but they are good people.
Have you ever been arrested? If so what for?
Yes, for several things and many times. I’ve had problems with the police ever since I was a child. Things like driving without a license and so on…
Do you think bad cops are born or made? Could it be for example that social class or lack of education plays into it…
I believe nature is what makes a person good or bad. For example, my son is 11 years old and by nature he’s a good kid. Lobna, my 8 year-old daughter is very naughty. By nature as well. I don’t believe that it’s only because of the family and environment. Like in ¼ Gram for example, there are a lot of elements that make either good or bad people.
I sent seven years working with the Ministry of Interior so I dealt with a lot of police officers. Part of my role was to ensure equipment got delivered to the traffic department and I’d spend endless hours arguing with them, yet I never bribed a single one. That’s why I’m telling you not all cops are bad. Most of them aren’t.
But there’s an issue with corruption, so where do you think that stems from? The system or the citizens?
We are people who are afraid of the law but we don’t respect it. For example, if there’s a police officer on the street, we won’t double park. If there isn’t, we will. We don’t even react properly when we hear an ambulance siren approaching. We are an ignorant people. We aren’t educated properly, we don’t understand what it means to be a good citizen and no one is educating us.
But of course there are also major issues within the system. For example did you know that the Ministry of Finance actually takes custom taxes from toktoks but the Ministry of Interior won’t license a toktok!? So one side takes money but the other side refuses to provide the documentation.
What is the one thing you want everyone to take away from reading Two Officers?
I want people to understand what it means to be a police officer. I want to show the people the human side of officers.
Bear in mind, your average police officer wakes up every morning at eight, goes to work at nine and works until five pm. He doesn’t just work. He solves problems. So he’s under an insane amount of stress. They’re people that spend their whole day doing nothing but listening to your problems. He’s supposed to do what you want, when you want it. He’s under stress from the minute he wakes up until he finishes at five, then he goes home for an hour to see his kids, sleep, and wakes up again at eight at night and stays up until one or sometimes four in the morning. At the end of the month, he only gets paid 3000 LE. Now, he has another problem. He has to search for money to save his kids.
The Ministry of Interior is the back bone of the country; these officers are the backbone of this country. In the days when the police officers used to say, “Are you happy with the 25th, Elbesso ba2a,” the country became unstable. Everything in our lives is somehow related to the Ministry of Interior.
The traffic, the electricity police, the passports, your stolen car; everything goes back to some officer or another. So, what’s that officer’s story?
So, what if your son told you he wanted to become a police officer?
I wouldn’t want him to. I’d worry about him too much. If he were in a respectable system then I would love for him to be an officer. But unfortunately the system here is very corrupt. I would like for him to be a pilot. He still doesn’t know what he wants to be but I think he’ll grow up to be an engineer. He loves building things with Legos and fixing things around the house.
And what if your daughter wanted to may an officer?
No, of course not. Officers face too many hardships on a daily basis. If you spend more than 10 hours every day with criminals, thieves, and murders and corrupt people, how are you going to treat your wife once your home? That’s why I sincerely believe these men need counseling. It’s too stressful.
Do you write on paper or on your laptop?
I write with a pencil and paper. And I have those big sharpeners. I always have hundreds of pencils and they always have to be sharpened.
Do you have a day job or are you a full-time writer?
I have a production house. It’s not that big. But other than that, none. If it weren’t for ¼ Gram’s success, I’d be poor.
The story in your first novel 1/4 Gram happened before the revolution. Has its message changed since the revolution?
We had a huge drug problem when I wrote ¼ Gram. We used to arrest addicts because we didn’t understand addiction. So, I decided to write about it and thankfully it was a success. I’d written that we had 3000 recovering addicts at the time, and now they’re 50,000 and one of the reasons was ¼ Gram. Now, we hospitalize addicts and parents are beginning to understand what addiction is and how to deal with it. Today, our problem is much bigger. The country is currently drowning in drugs. We have drugs coming in from everywhere. All the drugs confiscated in Israel are shipped to Egypt. They’re at war with us so they ship us their drugs in order to harm us!
What are you working on now?
A love story based on a true story.
Does it have a happy ending?
Yes, a beautiful one. I already called my friend up - the girl who the story is about - and told her to prepare herself because the next book will be about her. I want this story to be successful because it’s a very nice and powerful story.
Have you ever thought about writing something fictional?
The thing is, I like real stories. Why should I tell you a fictional story when I have a true and powerful story to tell you? The other story I’m working on now is about a boy that gets kidnapped in 2012. I sent the first three chapters to my friends and they said that their hearts were racing while they were reading it. It’s a very powerful story. It’s based on true events but I changed some things around.
You were producing a movie for your book ¼ Gram. Do you plan on making a film for your new book?
Yes, but I don’t plan on working in production. I’ll only write the script. I don’t like working in production. I want it to be very Egyptian. Even though I write about a slightly higher social class, I like everything to be very Egyptian. There are a lot of good directors in Egypt. The problem is they don’t have good quality. The reason I spend two years writing a book is so I can ensure that it’s good quality. The book I’m writing Zehab w 3awda, which is about the kidnapped boy, I’ve been working on for five years. The love story, 2asr El Baron I’ve been working on for four years.
How about sex.? Would you ever going to tackle the Egyptian complexes around the issue?
No. I don’t like writing about that. I want my audience to include kids.
Don’t you think it’s important to make kids aware?
If 12 year-old read about something he’s too young to fully understand it will harm him. And this happened before. A young boy came to my office in his school uniform with ¼ Gram in his hands and he told me, “I want you to sign my book.” He’s the one that inspired me to tour schools and talk about drugs. He asked me to come to his school and talk to his friends about drug abuse. He’s a very smart kid. So I phoned the principle and set things up. The kid’s parents had hidden the book from him and he’d found it and started reading it. If I hadn’t been careful with what I wrote, I could’ve harmed him. The reason I was careful is thanks to my mother. She told me to make my book appropriate for young kids. I always like listening to what people have to say. I don’t always have to take their advice but I always take it into consideration and hear them out and discuss it with them. This child made me feel like taking my mother’s advice was the best decision I made. Many people thanked me for making my book appropriate. Even in Two Officers I imply the sexual encounters, but I never go into detail.
Has there ever been a story that you wanted to tell but you couldn’t because you’re in Egypt?
Can you tell us that story?
No. This story is going to be the last story I write before I die. I’m not going to publish it. My kids are going to publish it. It’s going to be like my will. I don’t want people to read it while I’m alive.
Is it something illegal?
No, it’s something very personal. I’m going to write about my relationship with people after I die. So, people will know I’m writing the truth and nothing but the truth. The reason I want to do this is because I want people to hear my opinion without arguing with me. I want them to read what I have to say without negotiating and to know what really happened. I believe that novel will go beyond everything I’ve written because it will be very true, personal and sincere. It’s going to be about my relationship with my best friend, my ex and my wife. I’ll write for example about why my best friend has been trying to reconcile with me for the past 15 years and failing.
What did he do to you?
It’s very simple. He didn’t invite me to his wedding because I was against the marriage. Up until yesterday he’s been calling me so we can sit down and reconcile. He knows he let me down and I can’t forgive something like that. Not inviting me to his wedding was a fatal mistake. Despite my being against the marriage, I would’ve have come and congratulated him. But he didn’t invite me and I’m his best friend so it’s over between us. Since then he’s been trying to reconcile. He even texted me yesterday.
Did you reply?
Yes, I always reply to everyone. Even the number I don’t know. And I have no problem with fans. I enjoy replying to them. I feel like I have to give them from my time like they gave me from theirs to read my book.
How do you see the last scene of your life unfolding?
The release of the book I’m going to write before I die. I’d also like to have a yacht and a horse, but those aren’t really that important.