The experience of reading a book in the country where it was set was a surprisingly immersive experience for writer Sunny Singh. So when she published her own novel, Hotel Arcadia, this year, she encouraged her readers to send her pictures of the book in the place where they had read it, with gratifying consequences.
Egypt’s summer of 2013 was scorching in more ways than one. As the sun beat down relentlessly, the military regime began its brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. State repression was accompanied by street clashes and sporadic mob violence. Political instability had long emptied the country of tourists. Perhaps it was not the best time to be travelling the length of the Nile, yet there I was…listening, watching, trying to make sense of the beginning of one of the most brutal regimes the country has known.
In my bag, I carried a book that I had bought the year before: Paul Sussman’s The Labyrinth of Osiris. I had pre-ordered it and jokingly threatened that he’d have to sign my copy when it arrived, relishing his embarrassment. Paul had gracefully but firmly refused to sign my copies of all his other books too, although I never discovered whether this was out of misplaced embarrassment or pure collegiality. Then just before the publication date, he suddenly passed away. I was so shocked that when the book arrived not too long afterwards, I could not bear to open it. For over a year, it sat on my shelf, reproaching and enticing me all at the same time.
I thought I would read it in Egypt. After all that was the country of Paul’s imagination, and fiction. Yet from Alexandria, to Cairo, then further south, the book remained unopened, at the bottom of my bag. Then, one morning while I was in the desert, the army began to crack down on the protesters of Rabaa Square, a brutal massacre that probably left over a thousand dead, and many more injured, imprisoned and worse.
When I returned that Friday to Luxor, the city was eerily quiet. After Friday prayers, some people had raged through the souk, ransacking and burning shops. A few doors down from my guesthouse, someone had tried to torch – unsuccessfully – another hotel and from my rooftop terrace, I could smell the faint traces of char and smoke. A curfew had been declared, which meant I was stuck – in my hotel.
The hotel’s Salafi owners were deeply apologetic for the inconvenience although I could see they were more that slightly relieved that there weren’t many guests to worry about. It wasn’t all bad though: the kitchen staff whipped up eclectic meals from leftovers and whatever they found, and there was plenty of shisha to be smoked. As the sun sank beyond the Nile, into the Valley of Kings, the Luxor temple turned ghostly. Few of its lights would be turned on, and none of the locals who habitually visited it in the cooler hours ventured out into the streets.
During the curfew, on that rooftop, with sounds of occasional gunshots from somewhere beyond the souk, I smoked endless shishas, and finally read Paul’s book. It was appropriate, I think, given that his novel seems a eulogy for much that he loved. I could look out over the rooftops and imagine Khalifa, the protagonist and a son of Luxor, weave his way home from another terrible day of crime-solving. I watched the ruins of Luxor temple change colours from dawn to dusk, and then turn darkly spectral in the night, and had to occasionally pinch myself to differentiate the book from reality.
I wished then that I could email Paul. I wished I could send him a photograph of his book with the temple as its backdrop. That I could have told him how I had alarmed the diligent waiter with my tears as I read the final pages. I am sure Paul would have understood because books are not only about the stories they contain or even their writers.
As a reader, I have long believed that it isn’t only what we read that forms us, but also where and when we read. Sometimes the greatest of words leave little impact, while at others, the simplest prose cuts through to our soul. As a writer, I am always curious to know where readers take my work to read, to think about, and hopefully to love.
With Hotel Arcadia, I decided to find out. I am asking readers to send in photographs of the novel wherever they choose to read it. They can send in the photographs by email, or post them to my Facebook page, or on Twitter or Instagram, with the hashtag #wherebooksgo. I use the hashtag too, to post photographs of books I am reading. It is both a way to recommend books I love and to thank the writers for the magic they create with their words.
On my website, there is a growing archive of #wherebooksgo photographs, from near and far. Some of the photographs are from places on my travel bucket list and remind me of how many breath-taking places I have still to discover. But more than that, the photographs are little reminders that reading is a step into a magical experience that can transform - temporarily or permanently - how we see and live in the world.
For me as a writer, the #wherebooksgo photographs are a glimpse of that magic that my readers experience. And that is both an extraordinary privilege and an immense joy.
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