Former Egypt Today writer Khaled Talib’s debut novel Smokescreen whisks readers on a fast-paced journey that begins in Cairo and weaves international espionage into a story of intrigue and murder
By Dominika Maslikowski
Born and raised in Singapore with ancestry going back to southern Yemen, thriller author and former Egypt Today journalist Khaled Talib says Cairo is an inspirational place for writers to find their muse. He recalls that during his year at the magazine in 1998, his favorite assignments included covering a gallery opening to later learn that the owner was King Farouk’s niece, and raising awareness about the environment with a story about a recycling project in Nuweiba. Talib found his muse in Khan el-Khalili, where he says he got the idea for his debut novel Smokescreen, inspired by Cairo and his native Singapore and slated to be published by Typhoon Media this month.
“One day at an old Egyptian shisha cafe, I sat beside an old man in a nice suit. I thought he was an Englishman. We spoke a bit, and it came as a surprise to me that he was a Libyan diplomat,” Talib recalls. “The man told me that he was constantly mistaken for a European. How deceptive, I thought. I studied the other faces around me, and spotted an African man in a white garb and turban, fidgeting with his prayer beads. Before I knew it, the other characters in my head had invited the man in the nice suit and the African into my head. They were plotting. All of a sudden I realized I had an advantage. I was in Cairo and I could write a novel about Singapore’s connection with Israel.”
Talib came to Egypt in 1998 at age 33 specifically to join the staff of Egypt Today as a senior writer, and was charmed by the magazine’s location at the time in Mohandiseen with its villa, garden and family atmosphere. He says he still keeps in touch with some of the friends he made at the magazine and admired the publication’s mix of analysis, opinion pieces and objective journalism. But adjusting to life in Egypt wasn’t without its challenges.
“I was disoriented by changes in the working environment when I first arrived in the city. I used to dread taking a taxi for fear of being cheated if they knew I was a foreigner. Although I could pass off as an Egyptian, the moment I opened my mouth, my secret identity would be exposed,” Talib remembers. “Of course I plan to return to Cairo on a regular basis. As they say, once you’ve drank the water from the Nile, you’ll return. The city is fascinating with its rich culture and history.”
After his stint at Egypt Today, Talib went on to work at Community Times as an editor, but later left Egypt to return to Singapore and never worked in journalism again.
“I felt jaded, bored. Around this time, an old friend and former editor of mine, who had previously worked in a PR agency, asked me to assist her with an assignment when she started her own agency. For me, it was learn as you go. Before I knew it, I was running my own company,” he says, referring to Newsline Communications, the PR agency he co-launched and has been running since 2002.
Today NBC represents clients from small businesses to multinational corporations, and Talib writes and puts out press releases, pitches stories to the media and manages crises for clients in industries from technology, aviation and healthcare to the entertainment, construction or tourism industry.
Working full-time and writing novels isn’t easy in Singapore, but Talib says he likes to keep things in perspective and not get caught up in the daily rush and negativity of the city. Though people in the Southeast Asian island are very driven and productive, they often lose sight of the ordinary pleasures that make life enjoyable.
“The good thing about living in Singapore is that things get done quickly without hassle. It’s almost a society of automatons. The downside is most people are not happy and they are very impatient. Things move so fast people don’t even have time for themselves. People complain the place is boring and they don’t know what to do during their free time. Many people have forgotten to enjoy the ride — they want to reach the destination quickly. It might take forever for some and before they know it, the alarm goes off,” Talib says. “Also, I think most people here — not all — lack a sense of humor, which is unlike Egypt and the rest of the world […] In many ways, I live in my own world. I like to travel a lot, see the world and ignore the complaints.”
Talib has spent the last three years running his PR agency, and penning his debut thriller novel that begins with a scene at the famous Fishawy Café in Khan el-Khalili. He says that discipline has been critical, and that his years as a journalist in Cairo sharpened the research skills needed to write a good story.
“It’s tough to write a novel while you are working at the same time. Discipline is key. I spend hours daily writing, and sometimes I even forget the time. I don’t fix or a set time to write, it can be any time. Whenever I can squeeze some time, I do it. Sometimes I get tired, so I’ll hold it off for a few days or weeks even. You can’t force inspiration,” Talib says. “And it doesn’t help that the weather here is unfriendly — it’s hot and humid.”
The edgy spy thriller has received positive reviews from New York Times best-selling authors Keith Thomson and Ruth Harris, and was praised by its Hong Kong-based publisher as taking “the espionage thriller genre to a unique level.”
Smokescreen draws inspiration from the infamous “Operation Susannah,” a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt, the Jewish state’s role in shaping Singapore’s army, the bombing of an oil refinery by a Palestinian group, and the US position on Palestine in a fast-paced journey that begins in Cairo and weaves government officials together into a story of intrigue and murder.
Writing the novel left Talib drained, and he promised that he’d never write another after struggling with limited time, rejection and frustrating revisions. He was “out of breath, drained of emotion and sapped of energy,” he wrote recently as a guest blogger on janicegablebashman.com. But he soon found himself working on a new story, this time set in Europe, and managing to transmute “pain into productive writing.” Talib says although he can write other styles, it is the thriller and suspense genres that excite him most.
“No doubt, writing can be a daunting effort. It’s actually very scary to put down your thoughts on paper. It’s more scary to expect that your words will be worthy of someone else’s time and attention,” he wrote in the blog post on December 10. “I guess you have to believe in yourself. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a “TKO [technical knockout.] Writing a manuscript is like being in a boxing ring. You need the eye of a writer… and the thrill to write.” et