21 Questions

‘Life is full of surprises’: 21 Questions with Zeinab Badawi

The award-winning journalist and author of An African History of Africa talks Tolstoy, opera, and the writer she would most love to cook for.

Rachel Deeley
Zeinab Badawi
Photo credits: Jamie Simonds; bwzenith/iStock Editorial via Getty Images

For many of us, Zeinab Badawi is a name synonymous with incisive, informative journalism and hard-hitting interviews that hold prominent figures to account. Her work as an award-winning journalist, accomplished TV presenter, and (as of 2021) President of SOAS, University of London, is known for elucidating complex global issues and championing the voices of those most affected by them.

Badawi's debut book is no different. Ambitious in its scope and depth, yet eminently accessible and absorbing, An African History of Africa tells the comprehensive story of our planet's oldest inhabited continent, spanning everything from the beginning of the human race, to kingdoms and medieval empires, to the postcolonial independence of African nations.

Badawi, who is Sudanese and British, has drawn from years of on-the-ground research and interviews with academics, historians, engaged citizens, and cultural custodians to write this book. The result is a narrative that firmly re-centres African perspectives and experiences, which existing literature on the continent's history – often shaped by Western, Eurocentric worldviews – has largely overlooked.

We caught up with Badawi to learn more about what inspires her as a writer and reader, and uncover some curious details about her unexpected hobby, biggest fear, and the strangest job she's ever had.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Chinua Achebe. The vividity of his work is second to none, his handling of complex topics is rich and thought-provoking, and his prose is attractive and precise.  

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?  

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I felt sorry for Oliver – and it taught me an early lesson in life about social injustice.  

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

I embarked on my writing journey after being inspired by UNESCO’s General History of Africa volumes.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Working the manual lifts at Harrods – hectic during the sales. I had to be super careful not to trap people between the doors when it was crowded. They would often jump in or out of the lift, thinking doors would stop automatically – but they didn’t!   

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Read your work out loud to spot repetition and mistakes. 

Tell us about a book you’ve re-read many times

I have never re-read a book many times – there are too many I want to read for the first time. But I have read all of Jane Austen’s books and those by the Brontës.  

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Everyone says this, don’t they? Tolstoy’s War and Peace

If I didn’t become an author, I would be...

A doctor. It was my ambition from my earliest memory. 

What makes you happiest?

Being with family and friends.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I adore Italian opera – especially Verdi. 

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Sitting in a room with wonderful green views in all directions. It has to be warm. I hate the cold.  

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

A guy just kept on following me around taking photos of me at an event. He was harmless but it was a bit disconcerting. 

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

The late Egyptian writer Nawal Al Saadawi, and I would serve her Middle Eastern mezze, kofte, rice and salad, followed by cardamom-infused black tea. 

What’s your biggest fear?

Another world war.  

If you could have a superpower, what would it be? 

The power to end poverty. 

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

African Europeans by Olivette Otele.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

A definite no.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

In the past: coffee always, tea never. Now: tea always, coffee never – life is full of surprises.  

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy. 

What inspired you to write your new book?

A desire to give voice to the brilliant African historians and academics across the continent so that they can convey their own history – which has often been overlooked.  

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