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Today’s guest is fantasy author Hadeer Elsbai! Her debut novel and the first book in The Alamaxa Duology, The Daughters of Izdihar, is described as “set wholly in a new world, but inspired by modern Egyptian history, about two young women—Nehal, a spoiled aristocrat used to getting what she wants and Giorgina, a poor bookshop worker used to having nothing—who find they have far more in common, particularly in their struggle for the rights of women and their ability to fight for it with forbidden elemental magic.” I’m excited she’s here today discussing research and combining speculative fiction with real-world inspirations in “The Doctoress on a Donkey: Finding Transformative Fantasy in History.”

US Cover of The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai UK Cover of The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

The Doctoress on a Donkey:
Finding Transformative Fantasy in History

In the mid-1800s in Egypt, there existed a small corps of female medics who rode donkeys as transportation in Cairo. It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, or at least it did to me, but it’s real: Muhammad Ali Pasha, then-Khedive of Ottoman Egypt, in a push to modernize the nation and prevent the spread of disease, decided to enlist women to become “hakimas” — translated as “doctoresses” — in order to provide services to the country’s cloistered women, who could not be treated by male physicians.

I discovered the doctoresses in a book called Policing Egyptian Women: Sex, Law, and Medicine in Khedival Egypt by Liat Kozma, which had sourced the information from a 1974 research article by LaVerne Kuhnke titled “The Doctoress on a Donkey: Women Health Officers in Nineteenth Century Egypt.” At the time, I was working at NYU Libraries, with access to a vast wealth of resources, and it was only my position that permitted me free access. I unearthed a treasure trove of research dedicated to the history of early modern Egypt, the sort of niche academic histories that would be unknown even to the average Egyptian, and certainly to the average American.

The aforementioned doctoresses lived by strict rules, as they were technically part of the Ministry of War and were subject to army regulations. Their marriages to doctors were arranged by government officials, their uniforms were standard issue, and the cost of the donkeys they rode was deducted from their salaries. We know virtually nothing about their individual lives or the adventures they were permitted to have. But fantasy and history work in tandem. History inspires fantasy, and fantasy novels can often inspire an interest in history. Fantasy can be a place to expand on the historical narrative in more freeing and transformative ways. Fantasy is an opportunity to give women and other marginalized groups bigger lives than the historical record permits.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to fit the donkey-riding doctoresses in The Daughters of Izdihar (though I hope to write about them in future books!), but I couldn’t have written the book without them, nonetheless, because it was the doctoresses that cemented my interest in the history of Egyptian women, which led me to Doria Shafik, who spearheaded the Egyptian suffrage movement in the 1950s, and became the main inspiration for The Daughters of Izdihar, and for one character in particular. I decided to share this history of my homeland in the form of a fantasy novel, where it would be more accessible than academic work, and give readers a different image of Egypt than what they perhaps might be accustomed to.

Incorporating all of this history into The Daughters of Izdihar was an interesting intellectual exercise, fraught with many questions. How closely should I mirror the historical record? How much should I merge the lives of different historical figures? How could I adjust events to account for the presence of magic? What aspects of 19th-century Egypt needed to be elided for my story to work? For example, women in 19th-century Egypt were secluded in harems, which, if incorporated into The Daughters of Izdihar, would have severely restricted the movements of my majority-female cast of characters.

I also, frankly, did not want to highlight harems, a historical reality that is often greatly misunderstood by the West, and which has contributed greatly to Orientalist depictions and understandings of the Middle East. I was already walking a difficult line, writing about overt misogyny in a Middle Eastern-inspired country.

And so the world of The Daughters of Izdihar wound up a simulacrum of 19th-century Egypt, with major events from the 1950s along with bits and pieces of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and my own experience living in Cairo. The book’s setting became a combined reality that didn’t really align with any particular time period in Egypt, because, after all, it’s a fantasy world. It’s not actually real, no matter how closely it mirrors real life.

In real life, Doria Shafik, after years of house arrest and isolation, allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off her balcony. Her fictional counterpart will come to no such tragedy.

This is the freedom that comes with writing fantasy that pulls from history: you control the narrative. The feminist leader does not have to die alone and unhappy. And the doctoresses do not have to embody the limited lives depicted in the historical narrative: they can transform into detectives, politicians, heroes, and villains — whatever you imagine them to be.

Photo of Hadeer Elsbai Hadeer Elsbai is an Egyptian-American writer and librarian. Born in New York City, she grew up being shuffled between Queens and Cairo. Hadeer studied history at Hunter College and later earned her Master’s degree in library science from Queens College, making her a CUNY alum twice over. Aside from writing, Hadeer enjoys cats, iced drinks, live theater, and studying the 19th century. THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR is her first novel.