Syrian novel expresses distrust of storytelling

[inset_left]Al-Rawiyat
Maha Hassan
Dar Al-Tanweer, 192 pages
Beirut, 2014[/inset_left]

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In her most recent novel, Al-Rawiyat (Female Narrators), published last year, Syrian novelist Maha Hassan explores the esoteric realms of oral and written storytelling through a set of female characters, who are not necessarily connected, but are all obsessed with the art of narration.

From the book’s dedication to the unpublished “female raconteurs [who] . . . lived and died in darkness” to the last sentence highlighting the “emancipatory” powers of writing, a celebratory, almost naive tone dominates the novel.

The first narrator, Abbadon, says she lives two lives: A superficial, “typical” one concerned with the satisfaction of mundane day-to-day needs, and a “rich and dense” one centering on fiction writing. “[I was] born to tell tales,” she says, echoing the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir.

“Telling tales is the only entertainment and pastime she has to pass the days in peace,” the narrator says. Even when someone steals the manuscript of her debut novel and publishes it under their name, she does not seem too bothered.

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“What’s the harm? What is important is that my characters have a chance to come out to the world, that tales come out for people to read. What is important is the novel not the novelist.”

Rama, the last of the narrators, lives in a parallel, imaginary world, overflowing with fictional characters. Concerned about Rama’s sanity, her mother tries to “suppress” her imagination by exhausting her with all sorts of physical activities. Rama, who was born in India, inherited from her grandmother “the magical ability to tell stories.” Compared to her peers who find in bedtime stories a passageway to sleep, Rama waits for her grandmother to end the story so that she can deconstruct and reconstruct it from scratch. When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”

There are many similarities between these two narrators: both derive sexual pleasure out of storytelling. Abbadon says: “A sexual energy is generated inside me when I write.” But it would be a mistake to think that this is what Al-Rawiyat is all about, that the female protagonists are the 21st century version of Scheherazade, who tamed Shahryar after One Thousand and One Nights of storytelling. Al-Rawiyat is deeper than just a cry against patriarchy, or a manifesto calling for a feminist revolution. Beneath the bluntly “revolutionary” surface of the novel, there is a complex narrative structure threatening to subvert it.

Each of the book’s stories culminates with a twist in the plot that contradicts the narrator’s expectations and thus raises questions about their credibility and familiarity with the stories they tell. While Abbadon finds in Sabato the man of her dreams who does everything in his power to help her write her first novel, we discover at the end of their story that he has been using her for purely utilitarian purposes.

The same is also true of Rama, who realises—albeit too late—that Aravind, the musician whom she thought would liberate her repressed soul, is nothing but “an idiot who lacks imagination.”

“To tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant,” writes American critic Jonathan D. Culler in his Literary Theory. Faced with the narrators’ celebratory tone about the ability of storytelling to undermine patriarchy, readers have no choice but to take what they say at face value, and thus submit to their narrative authority.

However, following the disappointments the characters/narrators face, we start to doubt that they are worthy of our trust. The dramatic twists in the novel implicitly raise questions about the credibility of the narration and whether or not the narrator deserves the authority that the reader grants. Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell. The novel does exactly the opposite of what it preaches. Hassan’s female narrators give a fake impression of Scheherazade.

In what seems to be a diversion from the plot, Alice—a PhD candidate in “philosophy and its relation to art,”—visits Cairo, having been “possessed with the spirit of Pharaohs.” The chapter overflows with references to the success of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Alice says she “has trust in the Egyptian people. Those who toppled Mubarak are capable of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood, and will not accept a new dictatorship.”

For all the failure that the Arab Spring has proved to be, such remarks—which we now find as either cynical or naïve—are said by Alice with the utmost seriousness. Based on what has been written about Al-Rawiyat in the Arab press, there seems to be a consensus about the chapter’s irrelevance to the rest of the novel. In fact, the chapter is highly significant in that it underlines the discrepancy between reality and narration.

Alice, the narrator, is merely offering her “narrative” of the Arab Spring, which stands in stark contrast to reality.

We all heard about the events in Tahrir Square on television, or in newspapers and magazines. In other words, what we know about the Egyptian Spring is nothing more than “narratives” that express the views of their authors. We are surrounded by narratives. Take newspapers, magazines, TV channels, YouTube and social media; they are all platforms for multiple voices and narratives. But do all of them reflect reality? Al-Rawiyat answers in the negative.

The structure of the novel is confusingly divergent, with the frame narrative resembling a Matryoshka doll that encases four stories. The multiple and overlapping narrative voices mean readers never stop asking: “Who is speaking?” and “What are they talking about?”

Added to this confusion is Hassan’s tendency to give several names to each of her characters. Abbadon is both Miriam and Maha, while Sabato can be Ernesto or Franco. “Our names have no significance  . . . We are mere virtual creatures.”

A similar uncertainty surrounds the place in which the novel is set. It is “that big city which resembles Cairo, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London or Beirut.”

Al-Rawiyat is a well-crafted work whose turbulent form gives it the uncertainty and ambiguity of great works, such as Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and Ulysses by James Joyce, novels that raised more questions than they offered answers.

Arabic fiction faces up to the future

Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (L) wrote the highly-acclaimed Cairo Trilogy. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (L) wrote the highly-acclaimed Cairo Trilogy. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Well-known Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Towfik once wrote: “In fact, people in Egypt are fortunate. They do not need to read horror fiction in order to rehearse death. Horror—particularly its worst kind: fear of tomorrow—is a permanent sojourner with them.”

It is pitiful that a literary writer would shrug off an entire genre. But what makes this statement too ironic to be taken seriously is that it comes from one of the Arab world’s most prolific science fiction and horror writers. Many Arab writers and readers would still take Towfik’s statement at face value: after all, they would argue, why bother imagine the future, let alone a dystopian version of it, when the present is in such a woeful state?

Perhaps this attitude explains why the future has rarely been a subject for Arab writers—save for some exceptions—ever since the publication of Naguib Mahfouz’s masterpiece The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57). In the majority of Arabic works of fiction, the plot smoothly glides in one of two directions: the past or the present; or it vacillates between them.

However, Iraqi writers may be set to blaze a trail. In a much-awaited move, Comma Press, a UK publisher, has commissioned Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim to edit a short story anthology, Iraq + 100. The collection will feature ten short stories written by Iraqi writers and set in Iraq in the year 2103, exactly a hundred years after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

Each story should not exceed 6,000 words and must be set in one of 22 cities in Iraq and the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Writers are required to imagine life in one particular city and present a complete human story, Comma Press says on its website. Contributors should not limit themselves to science fiction; rather they are free to choose any literary genre that relates to the future. The book is promising and, if it goes to press, will make a valuable addition to the realism-dominated Arabic literary scene.

But the dearth of Arabic futuristic fiction begs a question: is the Arabic literary imagination sufficiently well-equipped to be up to the challenge? If the answer is “yes,” what accounts for the absence of an Arabic speculative fiction in the last 50 years or so? In other words, do Arab literary writers have what it takes to write original Arabic futuristic fiction, without relying heavily on a mainly Western legacy?

Indeed, speculative fiction is not entirely new to Arabic literature. Several 19th and 20th century Arab literary figures, such as the Syrian Francis Marrash and the Egyptian Tawfiq Al-Hakim, spring to mind as examples of writers who tackled contemporary political issues through speculative fiction.

Blasim, who has won the 2014 Independent foreign fiction prize for his The Iraqi Christ, appears to be aware of the challenge.

“Writing about the future is a new type of writing for Iraqi literature. Therefore, writers need to research and explore more in order to develop certain ideas and perceptions through storytelling,” Blasim told Asharq Al-Awsat via e-mail.

At the same time, the exiled Iraqi writer seems to be passionate about his futuristic project and his tone smacks of the enthusiasm of a scientist witnessing the emergence of a new phenomenon.

“Writing about an almost unknown life that is not based on your past or present experience is both wonderful and exciting. [It is] an attempt at understanding ourselves, our fears and hopes by means of breaking the chains of time. [It is] as if you are dreaming of the fate of man,” he added.

Blasim, whose debut collection The Madman of Freedom Square was hailed for its shocking and transgressive imagery, describes Iraq + 100 as a “little project” designed to spice up the largely uniform Arabic literary scene. “Just as we lack diversity and transparency in our life in general, we worship the single form and single idea!” the 41-year-old writer lamented.

However, speculating about the future is not without its challenges. JG Ballard, the British writer who is credited with initiating the New Wave in Science Fiction, argued that the genre is the “sole form of literature . . .that looks forward.” With the majority of contemporary Arabic literary output stuck in the past or the present, using mainly “backwards-looking” characters—to use another of Ballard’s terms— it is not going to be easy for writers of Iraq + 100 to make the shift to the future.

Blasim agrees that a thorough overhaul of literary techniques is much needed, not the least of which is forgoing the flowery language that needlessly decorates much of the oeuvre of contemporary Arabic writers.

He said: “Imagining life after a hundred years does not need one to lean on poetic language or their own personal experience; rather one should take their imagination to new shores.” Despite the warm reception of his work in the West, Blasim has been much maligned for his “foul language” and his books were banned in several Arab countries for that reason.

Arab critics are particularly fond of writers’ linguistic skills. This has rendered Arabic fiction pretty much an arena for linguistic muscle-flexing. But Blasim seems intent to break this habit: “I’m not interested in preserving ‘the beauty of Arabic language’,” he said in late 2012 during the Newcastle launch of The Iraqi Christ.

Projects like Iraq + 100 should be embraced. And young Arab writers should be encouraged to speculate about the future of a region constantly reshaped by conflict. They need to write about what Towfik said they fear most: tomorrow. The failure of Arab writers to produce futuristic fiction has been a mystery. The Arab intellectual and political scene, blighted with much repression and censorship, makes for an ideal environment to write about the future, a realm void of the political and religious taboos of the past and the present.

An Author’s Search for the Kuwait of Old

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For Mai Al-Nakib, a Kuwaiti writer who spent large chunks of her life away from her home country, writing fiction is “a way to open a space to kind of remind myself of the different kind of place Kuwait used to be.”

[inset_left]The Hidden Light of Objects
By Mai Al-Nakib
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 224 pages
London, 2014[/inset_left]

Speaking at the launch of her much-celebrated debut work The Hidden Light of Objects at the Mosaic Rooms in London on Thursday, Nakib described the book as a collection of loosely connected short stories held together by a series of vignettes that act like a “visible wire” weaving through the book. Each of the ten vignettes is narrated in the first person by a character who reflects on what happened.

hidden light cover

Nakib, 43, was born at a defining moment in Kuwait’s history and was only a few months old when her family left to London, then Edinburgh, before eventually settling in the US.

The short story collection is set against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. But the book steers away from directly engaging with political turmoil in the region, instead tackling the lives of ordinary people and their relationships to the everyday objects that shape their memories of past places.

In conversation with British–Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, Nakib said her book does not overtly deal with the region’s politics. Instead it emphasizes “the everyday lives of the people who live there.” The work is a celebration of and an attempt at conjuring up Kuwait’s past, the Kuwait that her generation, and that of her parents, are familiar with.

After returning to Kuwait, where she now teaches comparative literature at the University of Kuwait, Nakib was shocked by the dramatic transformation that had occurred in society. Kuwait used to be “more open, more heterogeneous and more cosmopolitan,” Nakib said at the launch.

“When I came back to Kuwait after a long time away, it was no longer the place I had known or grew up with. I look around me and see everybody has fallen into a state of amnesia. Nobody else seems to remember the Kuwait I was growing up with,” she added.

It is this state of collective “amnesia” that The Hidden Light attempts to reverse. Jinan, the protagonist in one of the short stories, laments the fact that after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait “nothing, not a thing went back to the way it had been. New people in the country, new food, new habits, new language.”

The stories are set inside and outside the Middle East, in countries ranging from Kuwait and Lebanon to Greece and Japan. The collection traces transient moments in the lives of people who do not have much in common in terms of their linguistic and national backgrounds. In this respect, the book often reads as a reflection of Nakib’s lack of a sense of belonging.

In an interview with The National newspaper Nakib said: “I do feel living in this part of the world there is always a feeling of instability lurking somewhere. That, perhaps, your home is never quite your home.”

When asked whether she thinks in Arabic, Nakib said English is her—and her mother’s—first language. It is the language she “thinks and dreams” in, she said.

In fact, the English language may prove to be the book’s Achilles’ heel, as far as Nakib’s ambition of reminding Kuwaitis of their country’s past is concerned. Translation will never do justice to the book. An Arabic translation of The Hidden Light will definitely lose the luster of the original.

Will Nakib speak to the present generation of Kuwaitis and succeed in reviving the memory of their country’s “golden” past? Perhaps not in this book, but I am sure she will when she starts “thinking” in Arabic.

Tale of an Iraqi refugee’s struggle to become British takes to London stage

Selva Rasalingam (L) as Kevin/Khaled Al Hamrani and  Nabil Elouahabi as Carlos Fuentes in The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes. (Photo by Judy)
Selva Rasalingam (L) as Kevin/Khaled Al Hamrani and Nabil Elouahabi as Carlos Fuentes in The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes. (Photo by Judy)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—“Arabs are savage tribes, but Britain is the land of democracy,” shouts Salim Abdul Hussein—or Carlos Fuentes—as he struggles in his broken English to convince the UK Border Agency officer of the validity of his asylum claim.

Based on a short story by the award-winning Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes is a captivating play, currently premiering until August 16 at London’s Arcola Theatre. Directed by Nicolas Kent and written by Rashid Razaq, the play is about Salim (Nabil Elouahabi), an Iraqi refugee, who comes to London to pursue his dream of becoming—as he puts it—a citizen of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Weary of everything Arab or Middle Eastern, once in London Salim does everything in his power to get rid of his national, ethnic and religious roots. He changes his name to Carlos Fuentes—not that it is a British name, but at least it is not Arab. He finds a British wife, Lydia (Caroline Langrishe), who patiently, yet in a patronizing manner, “rebrands” him. She teaches him how to speak properly and match his clothes so that he, or her “exotic” husband, can live up to the expectations of her curious friends.

Yet Carlos’s metamorphosis is interrupted by a series of disturbing nightmares. Soon he finds himself at Heathrow airport, handcuffed and accompanied by a nonchalant security guard waiting for the first flight bound to Iraq. To the security guard, the deportation of Carlos is as trivial as changing his socks.

The play opens and ends in Carlos and Lydia’s bedroom. The bed dominates almost half of the (Arcola’s tiny) stage that it stands for a third character. Carlos’s process of transformation, mainly orchestrated by Lydia, takes place on the bed. On it he recites to Lydia the names of Henry VIII’s six wives, is instructed he cannot wear a tie without a jacket so that he does not look like a waiter at a Lebanese restaurant, and is handcuffed by Lydia in case he suffers another horrible nightmare and turns violent.

Carlos is, like every tragic hero, a victim. He is the product of the political and sectarian conditions in Iraq that conspired against him and millions of his countrymen; he is the victim of Lydia who, like the security guard at Heathrow, fails to see the human side in him. In fact, she sees in him another “marketing project” and calls him “the work.” Salim falls prey to Carlos’s unattainable ambition to become British.

Carlos is unlikely to find the key to Britishness. This is emphasized by Lydia, who in the first and final scenes is shown on all fours desperately searching for the key to remove her husband’s handcuffs.

The Nightmares is not a tragedy, however. It is not a black comedy, either. Readers of Blasim’s short stories will be familiar with this apparent uncertainty: As a member of the audience, one does not know how to react to Carlos’s dilemma. More than once, I caught myself staring at the audience’s faces, looking for a clue as to how to respond to Carlos’s story. Some were grinning, some looked distressed. I felt confused.

Out of Place in Morocco

[inset_left]The Arch and The Butterfly
By Mohammed Achaari
Translated by Aida Bamia
324 pages Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha: May 2014[/inset_left]It is a rather disappointing beginning: the narrator, a middle-aged, Left-leaning Moroccan journalist, receives a one-line letter asking him to “rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honored you with your son’s martyrdom” in Afghanistan. The frustration and shock emanating from the radicalization of one’s child is not the most unique fiction theme, nor does it necessarily promise very much in terms of form and style. But the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction joint winner, The Arch and The Butterfly, quickly dissipates that initial skepticism by tackling a broad network of themes that keep building to a point where motifs of terrorism and trauma simply cannot hold on their own.

While it is tempting to portray Mohammed Achaari’s first novel as a family saga spanning three generations, narrated by Youssef—Mohamed Al-Firsiwi’s son and Yacine’s father—the book soon spirals beyond the perimeters of the genre. Achaari’s novel is suffused with mundane characters and mythological figures—Bacchus, Medusa, Hercules and Orpheus—and is rife with references to cities from Rabat, Marrakesh and Casablanca to Havana and Madrid. In fact, readers will—like Youssef—find themselves “thinking about all that at once [while unable] to concentrate on one specific detail” and constantly “assailed by various details from contradictory topics.”

The Arch and The Butterfly is—to the dismay of those seeking pure entertainment—a demanding book. It is a difficult read—almost inaccessible to those not expecting a novel tackling an array of topics in a poetic, sometimes aphoristic, style.
arch and butterfly

A wasteland

When he receives the tragic news of his son’s death in Afghanistan, Youssef’s perception of his physical environment changes almost immediately. He “steps for the first time into a wasteland,” so arid and “desolate” a place that he soon feels “no trace of pain or pleasure or beauty.” Youssef’s sensory impairment takes hold of him. His dilemma now lies in his failure “to make my inner self react.”

The news also takes its toll on his relationships. Youssef avoids making new acquaintances and limits himself to having only two friends. His marriage collapses. But the tragedy earns Youssef a new companion: his dead son’s ghost, “with whom I would share the details of my daily life . . . talking with him for hours” about everything from road works, demonstrations and beautiful women to “revolutions, betrayals and the death of illusions.” People in the street who see Youssef “caught up in conversation” with his new invisible friend soon spread rumors that the bereavement has driven him to the verge of madness.

In their first walk around Rabat, Yacine’s apparition complains to Youssef about the “huge cranes, bulldozers and cement mixers . . . blocking the street” and the capital’s rapidly changing landscape. Before his death in Afghanistan, Yacine “had dreamed of placing a giant steel arch across the [Bou Regreg] river,” an aesthetic architectural touch aimed at giving the impression that the river “ran through the fingers of [Salé and Rabat],” and thus connected the center of Morocco with the periphery.

Morocco’s fast-changing urban landscape dominates Achaari’s novel, and real-estate scandals in Marrakesh and Rabat are one of Youssef’s main concerns as a journalist. He feels betrayed by his friend, Ahmad Majd, a socialist turned tycoon who is involved in one of these scandals. Majd’s biggest project is a nine-floor butterfly-shaped building he believes will “free [Marrakesh] of the spirit of the distant past and bring a bit of frivolity into the city.”

But Majd’s ambitious and “provocative” architectural endeavor faces a legal snag: buildings in Marrakesh cannot be more than four stories high in order not to block the view of the High Atlas Mountains from the center. Of course, Majd manages to circumvent the law, arguing that “the city was a city and the mountain was a mountain,” unable to understand why anyone would “drink their coffee in the street as their sleepy eyes roamed over the High Atlas.”

It is the architectural audacity of the building and its contrast with the restive Marrakesh that Youssef has issue with: “People were struck by this building with its provocative shape, located in the heart of the Medina.” The Butterfly’s interior is more provocative—even “vulgar,” at least to Youssef and his friend Layla. It is an architectural pastiche of British and Asian sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, Persian miniatures, Turkish glassware and a kitsch statue of Bacchus, among others: it “felt like a museum.”

Compared to Yacine’s steel arch—an objet d’art linking Salé with Rabat—the butterfly-shaped building is not just a “vulgar” edifice erected in the middle of a city with a rich history; it blocks the view of the High Atlas, one of Marrakesh’s authentic landmarks. If similar buildings continued to sprout in the heart of the city, Marrakesh “would be like a tramp’s trousers, made up of different coloured patches from various times.”

Youssef’s attack on the transformation of Morocco’s urban identity can at times be overly direct. He criticizes the “palaces’ mixed architectural styles,” concluding that “Marrakesh had, in fact, literally and figuratively lost its authenticity.”

In the novel’s last chapter—the most dramatic and most absorbing—Youssef roams the labyrinthine streets of the old city of Marrakesh, playing the role of the flaneur: “I stared at the faces of the passers-by, almost certain they could not see me, as if I had become a mere vision checking the conditions of the city.” Contrary to his expectations, in the old city Youssef “felt calm and free,” although he admits to being unable to take part in the “tenderness bursting from the sleeping city.”

In this chapter, Youssef’s integration with his surroundings increases and Yacine’s ghost vanishes. The son’s disappearance is contrasted with Youssef’s increasing interaction with passers-by and his physical surroundings. At the entrance of the old city, Youssef comes across two men having a petty argument over olives. Although “unnecessary and useless,” the conversation, Youssef says, “cheered me up . . . and the alley would have been desolate without it.”

Almost immediately a child approaches Youssef, asking him a random question to which he has no clue as to how to answer. Still, he says, he was “pleased by the child’s curiosity.”

A blind tour guide

But it is not only Youssef who has a troubled relationship with his environment: Mohammed Al-Firsiwi, Youssef’s father and Yacine’s grandfather, shares his son’s defective sensory perceptions. Redolent of the image of Tiresias of Thebes, Firsiwi is a blind tour guide and the clairvoyant prophet of the Roman city of Walili (Volubilis).

Firsiwi immerses himself in the history of the area and is often “seen constantly excavating the site for something, though no one knew what.” Firsiwi breaks off his contact with the present and instead “spends his days chasing Hercules, Antaeus, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hylas, Venus, Medusa, Ariadne, Juba and Ptolemy.”

For Firsiwi, the death of his grandson threatens to end the family line. He urges Youssef to have another child—a plea his son shrugs off. In one of his angry fits, Firsiwi castigates Youssef for being “unconcerned about what will happen in the centuries to come because he lives in the present, in restaurants, bars and airports . . . [and] works on fleeting stories and novels that wilt as soon as they are picked up.”

Firsiwi is hard to work out. When asked by Youssef why he buried the statue of Bacchus in the courtyard of an obscure mosque, he simply answers: “I can just imagine the puzzlement of archaeologists in a few centuries’ time asking themselves what Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was doing in the courtyard of the twenty-first century mosque.” This blind grandfather stands apart from the rest of Achaari’s characters. He can be both mundane and otherworldly. His life remains shrouded in ambiguity. His words are inexplicable and his actions paradoxical and inconsistent.

The Arch and The Butterfly is a reflection on place, identity, authenticity and loss. The protagonists find their habitat in the past: Youssef in the old town of Marrakesh, and Firsiwi in the Roman ruins. As for the present, they feel as out of place as a statue of Bacchus in a mosque.

Iraqi writer Ahmad Saadawi wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Ahmed Saadawy (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawy

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi novelist Ahmad Saadawi was named the winner of the seventh International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in a ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, in recognition of his latest novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad.

Saadawi lauded the IPAF award in his acceptance speech, saying: “I would like to say that this prize gives very important momentum to the Arabic novel and the Iraqi novel.”

Frankenstein in Baghdad chillingly tells the story of a rag-and-bone man, Hadi Al-Attag, who haunts the streets of the war-torn Baghdad of 2005, searching for fresh human body parts to stitch together. Once completed, the patchwork corpse begins a journey of revenge, on behalf of those whose organs it is made up of.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in the run up to Tuesday’s awards ceremony, the 40-year-old Iraqi novelist said that the corpse “reflects our personal standards of justice, retribution, revenge and punishment . . . it represents the reality” in Iraq.

The chair of the judging panel, Saudi academic Saad Al-Bazei, announced the winner by saying: “We chose Frankenstein in Baghdad for several reasons: first for the originality of its narrative structure, as represented in the ‘what’s-its-name’ character [the Frankenstein’s monster], who embodies the violence currently experienced in Iraq, other Arab countries and the wider world. The story is expertly told on several levels and from multiple viewpoints.”

“For these reasons and more, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a significant addition to contemporary Arabic fiction,” Bazei added.

This is the first time the prestigious prize has been awarded to an Iraqi writer. Saadawi will receive a prize of 60,000 US dollars and his novel will be translated into English.

Born in 1973, Saadawi has published two other novels, The Beautiful Country (2004) and Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies (2008), as well as a volume of poetry, Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000).

Frankenstein in Baghdad was chosen from a shortlist of six works: No Knives in this City’s Kitchens by twice-shortlisted Syrian author Khaled Khalifa, Tashari by Iraq’s Inaam Kachachi, A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me by Morocco’s Youssef Fadel, The Journeys of ‘Abdi by another Moroccan, Abdelrahim Lahbibi, and The Blue Elephant by Egypt’s Ahmed Mourad, in addition to Saadawi’s Frankenstein.

Each of the shortlisted writers will receive 10,000 US dollars in prize money.

Egypt’s bestselling author tackles social woes with a surrealist twist

Ahmed Mourad. (Courtesy of the writer)
Ahmed Mourad. (Courtesy of the writer)
Ahmed Mourad. (Courtesy of the writer)

London, Asharq Al-AwsatThe Blue Elephant (2012), best-selling Egyptian writer Ahmed Mourad’s phantasmagoric novel shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), delves into the shadowy worlds of magic, sorcery, psychiatry and drug addiction, with a surrealistic style blurring the line between dream and reality.

Unlike Vertigo (2008) and Diamond Dust (2010), Mourad’s third novel has received mixed reviews. Despite the huge readership it has garnered, The Blue Elephant’s inclination towards surrealism and the supernatural has drawn criticism against the author, who is also an award-winning cinematographer. Mourad was accused of avoiding addressing Egypt’s social woes, particularly given what the country is going through politically, economically and socially.

Some critics went as far as categorizing The Blue Elephant as an “art-for-art’s-sake” novel. But Mourad disputed such claims, arguing that “The Blue Elephant is a realistic novel . . . All the taboos it addresses are ubiquitous in Arab society and have permeated our culture for centuries.”

The Blue Elephant’s selection for the IPAF shortlist was not without controversy, particularly since Mourad has always been dogged by charges of emulating US crime-thriller authors such as Dan Brown and Stephen King. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mourad denied the claim, maintaining: “I have my own style,” adding: “The use of crime as a pivotal incident that acts like a catalyst in fiction is older than any of the authors you mentioned.”

Asharq Al-Awsat: What message did you want to send in The Blue Elephant?

Ahmed Mourad: The Blue Elephant is first and foremost a psychological novel, a provocative dialogue through which I reveal the dark side of Man’s psyche. It is a stone thrown in stagnant water to expose what is beneath, an argument with our inner devil when it speaks—or our occasionally more evil selves! I discuss love through three intertwined relationships, which most of us experience at some point in our lives: a wife, a lover, and a sweetheart the protagonist does not win over. It is about false feelings, forgiveness. What if Man did not forgive himself for his own mistakes? What would his world look like? All of these questions are discussed within the framework of a thrilling story generated by a mysterious crime.

Q: How were the characters of The Blue Elephant conceived? Does the setting, Ward 8 West, really exist?

Ward 8 West does indeed exist, in the Abbasid Hospital for Mental Health, which looks exactly as I described in the book. The characters are fictitious; however, they do embody certain psychological constructions and societal structures. I drew some of the protagonist’s characteristics from doctors across the profession.

Q: You said in a previous interview that realism in literature is one of the most difficult writing styles. Unlike Vertigo and Diamond Dust, The Blue Elephant plunges into a world of hallucinations, dreams and surrealist imagery that challenges reality. How do you see this shift taking place in your career as a novelist?

The Blue Elephant is a realistic novel; it is neither a detective novel nor a whodunit. All the taboos it addresses are ubiquitous in Arab society and have permeated our culture for centuries: true love, forbidden passion, magic, drugs, hallucinations. The surrealist images are derived from what a person sees under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Despite their fantastic nature, they are merely captured in a way that serves the drama and plotline of the novel. The shift for me is in finding a new area to explore and enjoy, then leaving it for the reader to take pleasure in. I hoped its new language and structure would be exciting to the reader.

Q: Some accuse The Blue Elephant of lacking a social or human element and categorize it as “art for art’s sake.” This stands in stark contrast to Vertigo (2008), which tackled the issue of corruption among businessmen in Egypt. Does the novel in fact address any specific social issues?

Are love, forgiveness, relationships between men and women, and Arab society’s fascination with magic not social issues? Is crime in the name of love not at the heart of social concern? Corruption in Egypt was covered extensively in my previous two novels, and it’s not the only issue there is to talk about.

Q: Towards its end, the novel veers towards the world of magic and sorcery, which seems to be inconsistent with the scientific rigor that we see at the beginning. Do you have any comment on that?

There is no contradiction between magic and science. The two worlds both exist; two parallel lines intersect at times throughout history. They are both mentioned in the Holy books, and it’s difficult to get rid of one at the expense of the other. The novel was written using the shock technique, so I did not have to prepare the reader for what the protagonist would face. Revealing too much to the reader beforehand spoils the fun.

Q: The Blue Elephant uses the first-person voice rather than a third-person narrator. Can you tell us about this technique and its impact on the book?

Using the first person creates a sort of unity between the reader and the protagonist; it prevents the reader from being a step ahead of the protagonist in terms of having foreknowledge of what the protagonist is yet to know. Thus, dramatic surprises occur at the right time. The technique allows the reader to hear the inner voice of the protagonist, adding a third dimension to the character. It also allows the reader to question and use their brain throughout the text.

Q: In The Blue Elephant, there is a visual ploy based on blurring the line between dreams and reality, leaving the reader in an optical quandary. What impact did your work as a cinematographer have on your writing?

Putting doubt in the mind of the reader requires blurring the lines between dreams and reality and shattering every attempt by the reader to distinguish between the ceiling and the floor until they are completely united with the protagonist. In addition, the verbal shock, together with the visual description, becomes deeper and affects the reader in a way similar to how the drugs affect the protagonist.

I usually draw the scene and then film it, if possible, with a camera. Or I visualize it before I fit my characters and events to its mold. I study what I am going to write about at night and then early in the morning I write, after having become familiar with all the details.

Q: There is considerable use of English-language vocabulary throughout the novel. Isn’t that strange for an Arabic novel? What’s the story behind the ☺?

The ☺ is part of the vernacular of life now. It is a reality we experience through social networking sites and mobile phones. Who does not know it as a silent expression of a smile? The English language has penetrated the entire Arab community, but our Arabic language has absorbed it and churned out Arabic words that are expressive and understandable. That’s the magic of Arabic.

Q: There are those who say that US authors, such as Dan Brown and Stephen King, and Hollywood crime movies have had a major impact on your style. Where do you put yourself in the context of these writers, and to what extent do you differ from them?

Of course, those are some great authors I respect. I also respect all of those who write in the Arab world, and I appreciate their experiences. But the use of crime as a pivotal incident that acts like a catalyst in fiction is older than any of the authors you mentioned. Isn’t The Thief and the Dogs, by the great Naguib Mahfouz, a thriller despite its societal projections and in-depth dissection of the protagonists’ psyches? I admit that I read translated world literature. I also understand the feelings of wonder Arab readers and critics have towards that genre, which we still have not dealt with adequately. But I have my own style, and my early readings started with the pioneers of Arabic literature, most prominently Naguib Mahfouz and other great writers. As for where I fall in the mix, that is for the reader to decide.

Q: In The Blue Elephant, there is detailed scientific elaboration on mental illness and types of alcohol, to the extent that some people have described the book as an “encyclopedia of spirits.” How did you come by this information, and is it a novelist’s responsibility to be scientifically accurate in his writing?

I got the information from the experiences of others, their lives and their feelings about addiction to sex, drugs and alcohol. I am a good listener. I know that now it is difficult to convince the reader that I do not even smoke cigarettes.

Of course, novelists have to be scientifically accurate in their writing insofar as it serves their work and has a dramatic purpose.

Q: How long did it take you to write The Blue Elephant? What were the stages in the writing process?

It took about two years between conducting research on psychiatry and body language, learning poker, reading Abd Al-Rhaman Al-Jabarti’s History of Egypt, conducting psychological interviews inside Ward 8 West, and just writing every day. Then editing and revisions took about three more months.

Q: Did you expect The Blue Elephant to be shortlisted for the IPAF? Do you think it will enhance the standing of crime fiction in Egypt and the Arab world?

I did not expect it to be shortlisted for the IPAF, and was incredibly pleased by the news. It is a prestigious award recognized both regionally and internationally, and it is known for discovering new works.

Despite my objection to The Blue Elephant’s classification as crime literature, the IPAF strengthens opportunities for literary writing and creates passion for reading and writing, motivating writers to improve their literary output.

Q: To what do you credit the recent increase in your readership?

First God, and second the reader who wants to dive into exotic worlds and read about them, written in a style that touches them, which they also understand and interact with. My main goal is to try to present those concerns and ideas that are important to the reader but which, sometimes, they do not themselves consider.

North African author exposes a dark spot in Morocco’s history

File photo of Moroccan author Youssef Fadl. (Courtesy of the author)
File photo of Moroccan author Youssef Fadl. (Courtesy of the author)
File photo of Moroccan author Youssef Fadel. (Courtesy of the author)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In his latest book, A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me, Moroccan writer Youssef Fadel takes the reader on a vividly imaginative odyssey through a dreary period of Morocco’s history. Fadel’s ninth novel is a fictional testament to the Years of Lead in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw unprecedented levels of government violence against the opposition in Morocco.

Fadel’s handling of this period, on which much ink has already been spilled, is novel in the sense that he employs elements of fantasy and the supernatural. While it is true that it sheds light on government violations in Morocco’s secret prisons, A Rare Blue Bird is awash with what Fadel calls “patriarchal violence”: the “ordinary injustice” practiced outside prison, on the streets, at schools and in families. For Fadel, systematic violence in prison is nothing but an “echo” of that which is perpetrated outside.

Considered by critics as a sequel to A Beautiful White Cat that Walks with Me—a claim Fadel disputes in this interview—Fadel’s most recent novel traces a complex narrative network consisting of six voices. Each of which recounts a different side of the story of Aziz, a pilot whose passion for the open, blue sky lands him in an abysmal jail. Ignorant of Aziz’s whereabouts, his wife, Zina, embarks on an 18-year quest to find the husband she was separated from on her wedding day.

Asharq Al-Awsat: A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me is a delicate title whose poetic aestheticism stands in stark contrast with the cruelty and brutality we see in the novel. What is the relationship between the title and the content of the novel?

Youssef Fadel: The relationship between the title and the novel is similar to that between the protagonist, his past and his future: the pilot, the plane and the bird. [The protagonist] plunges to the bottom, to the nadir of the inferno—the bottom that opens into space. One has no choice but to spread your their and fly; whether in reality or fiction, it makes no difference.

Q: You had a personal experience in prison. Could you tell us about this experience and how it impacted your work as a novelist?

Imprisonment is always a tough experience, particularly at the beginning. Torture and interrogation could take place at any time, day or night. While your body refuses food, your inmate, who happens to come before you, devours your meal ravenously. You do not know where you are or how long you are going to stay, until one day you do not remember when you entered prison. You share with your jailor a mouthful of bread and some passing jokes.

Later, within the extreme confines of the most barbaric manifestations of this human experience, you find out that you can get used to it, and this is the most terrible aspect of the experience. Later on, following your release—having passed all this time—the experience would undoubtedly have an impact somehow. I have never wondered—nor do I find it necessary to—about the way in which my experience in prison has infiltrated my literary career.

Q: A Rare Blue Bird is the second novel in the trilogy that deals with the Years of Lead, after A Beautiful White Cat that Walks with Me. Can you tell us about the difference between the two works, and also your forthcoming novel that deals with the same period?

When I was writing A Beautiful White Cat that Walks with Me, I was not thinking about it as a part of a trilogy. I even find the term “trilogy” an exaggeration. What is common between these two works and the forthcoming one is that they all cover the same period, the 1980s. We might call it a trilogy figuratively, without necessarily having incidents or characters in common, as is the case with the previous works.

Q: What distinguishes your recent novel from the mainstream Arab prison literature is the element of fantasy. Instead of only portraying Aziz’s suffering in prison, you show him growing and spreading his wings before flying off, in an epic scene reminiscent of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Can you tell us about your use of fantasy in A Rare Blue Bird?

Personally speaking, I believe that the entire experience [of the protagonist] is a fantasy: For the protagonist to start in the sky and end up in hell, to kiss his wife after 26 years of marriage, to spend his days searching for a treasure in a cell that is 6 meters square, and for a woman to spend her life searching for her man. That the remaining elements identify with each other and melt into a one nightmarish atmosphere is no less normal. The situation we were in was a pure fantasy, leaving one with no choice but to flee for their life.

And [stylistic] matters are not a choice that the writer makes. They are forms that impose themselves and take shape in the characters’ behavior before [the writer’s] consciousness. For me, there is no other way of writing this novel. If one is to argue in different terms, one question arises: How is one to make of such events—which have been much discussed, heavily reported by newspapers, and elaborated on in the diaries of those who left prison alive and in their televised testimonies—a completely new novel?

Q: A Rare Blue Bird highlights dictatorship and violence outside prison by presenting a number of tyrannical figures, such as the pimp, Juju, the domineering father and the cruel uncle. Do you have anything to say to that?

What we see inside prison is nothing but an echo of what happens outside. We live in a society where patriarchal violence is committed excessively in the street, at school and in the family. Whether in [one’s] behavior or education, consciously or unconsciously, there are minor and major dictatorships with unknown victims falling and distorted histories being written. The writer attempts to throw light on the hidden aspects of ordinary injustice.

Q: The use of spoken Moroccan dialect in the novel is remarkable. Don’t you think this risks distancing the book from your readers in the Mashreq?

In these two novels in particular I only rarely used the spoken Moroccan dialect, preferring to limit the dialogue to a basic form and use the indirect style, which imparts a touch of dynamism to the novel. In addition, the spoken dialect is not so detached from classical Arabic—only in a few cases.

Iraqi novelist makes electronic cemetery for fellow émigré

A vast cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, where 5 million bodies lie buried. (Reuters/Akram Saleh)
A vast cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, where 5 million bodies lie buried. (Reuters/Akram Saleh)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ironically, Iraqi fiction has been flourishing ever since the US army invaded Baghdad in 2003. Several prominent Mesopotamian writers have emerged in the Arabic fiction arena, penning daring texts that seek to deconstruct the Iraqi identity during this critical phase in the country’s history.

During the post-2003 Iraqi novel boom, a new female literary voice has emerged: that of Inaam Kachachi. The Paris-based Iraqi writer started her literary career with Heart Springs (2005) and American Granddaughter (2008), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2009 and translated into French, English and Chinese.

Kachachi’s third and most recent novel, Tashari (2013), which has also been shortlisted for this year’s IPAF award, tells the story of an Iraqi Christian doctor, Wardiya, who finds herself forced to seek asylum in France at the end of her life, aged 84, having seen her family scattered to all corners of the earth.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Kachachi about her new novel, the Iraqi diaspora, and her duty to reveal to the younger generation the peaceful nature of their violence-stricken country.

Asharq Al-Awsat: “Tashari” is a strange title, which may be unintelligible to non-Iraqi readers. What does it mean? And how did you choose it?

Inaam Kachachi: The title may be strange, but its meaning is embedded in the novel’s context. [In colloquial Iraqi] Tashari is the birdshot that explodes in several directions. Despite my realization of its strangeness, I could not find a word more expressive of the current Iraqi diaspora.

Q: “This is the Élysée Palace, then,” says Dr Wardiya, the Iraqi refugee in France, to open Tashari. The sentence does not have a clear meaning. Does it reflect the refugees’ disappointment about or passion for the foreign countries in which they find themselves?

Neither. Wardiya has heard a lot about the Élysée Palace, but when she stands in front of it she finds it an old building with normal guards and a simple sidewalk with passers-by walking on it, without a cement wall blocking their way or a policeman deterring them. She is comparing what she sees with what she knows about presidential palaces and no-go areas in her country.

Q: Tashari follows the life of Wardiya, an Iraqi medical doctor, from Mosul, Baghdad and Al-Diwaniya to France. To what extent does Wardiya represent the tragedy of Christians in Iraq? Do you think Christians in the Middle East are suffering from an identity crisis?

Identity crisis?! Definitely not! They are one of [the country’s] most ancient indigenous peoples and an authentic part of its social fabric. I do not think there is a tragedy for Christians. In fact, there is a bitter reality that burdens all Iraqis so much so that it has become threatening to the components of the Iraqi character. There is an identity crisis for those whose mentality is too limited to understand that the Christians of the Middle East are the sons of this land, neither passing residents nor a “community,” as some sectarian people delusionally believe.

Q: At the beginning of the novel, Wardiya mentions a “witch expelling the people of the country [Iraq] into the four corners of earth.” Is the witch an implicit symbol of a certain party responsible for the fragmentation of Iraqi society?

The novelist may interlace realistic imagery with imagination without levelling accusations at anyone. Nevertheless, let me tell you that societies do not disintegrate as a result of external factors alone. As the well-known saying goes: “Man is his own worst enemy.” I also admit that there are “implicit signs” in my writings.

Q: Iskandar, a teenager whose father calls him the gravedigger, makes an electronic cemetery to bring together the spirits of Iraqis who die in exile. The project resuscitates his relationship with the country he belongs to but does not know, particularly since he lived in Paris. Is digging up memories the profession of migrants?

Digging up memories is the profession of both migrants and residents in the Arab world. Do you think those living in Basra, Aleppo, Kuwait City, Beirut and Alexandria do not suffer from the hammers of memory? Do you think they do not suffer the anguish of the troubling question: “What has befallen us?” Perhaps internal exile is more painful than the impact of external exile.

Q: Themes of life and death intersect in a remarkable way through Iskandar’s virtual cemetery and Wardiya’s character, the gynaecologist who “pulls babies from mothers’ tummies.” To what extent are boundaries between life and death blurred in Iraq today?

The answer to this question can be found in newspapers and news bulletins, and it makes one pessimistic. I strive to drive it away from my mind and writings because I know how life-loving these people are. Only those nations that stick to life can build civilizations. They tame animals and tune their daily lives to the rhythms of nature—namely, sunshine, rain, floods and sandstorms. They build cities, invent the wheel, issue laws and sculpt statues of Nineveh and winged bulls. Are we less determined than our forefathers?

Perhaps, Iskandar, my young protagonist, rushed to my rescue when he resorted to the idea of the electronic cemetery. It is a temporary solution that satisfies people who love life and travel in search of it and in doing so become scattered across distant continents. It worries them that they and their loved ones go their separate ways because of the randomness of their journeys. A cemetery that is bursting with music, colors, trees and arts and flies on the wings of imagination.

Q: Wardiya says she “does not want to slide into the trap of nostalgia . . . It is a psychological illness that attacks the fragile and affects the defeated.” Did you succumb to nostalgia while writing Tashari, particularly since you have been living outside Iraq for decades?

Nostalgia does not give one notice nor postpone its trap until after more than 30 years. I am lucky to be living in one of Europe’s most active countries in terms of Arab culture. My friend, the Moroccan writer Mohamed Al-Bahi, used to describe Paris as the beating heart of Arabism. My choice [to live in Paris] came from my need for the luxury of freedom, as I have been neither a refugee nor an exile. As for recounting Dr Wardiya’s life story, it is just a pretext to write about the Iraq of yesterday; it is not nostalgia so much as my responsibility as a mother towards my sons and daughters. The country they and their friends have seen on television over the past years, burning and bleeding on a daily basis, has never been a land of bombings and assassinations, but an ancient and generous country that was pleasant to live in.

Q: Several prominent Iraqi writers have emerged, particularly following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, such as Hassan Blasim, Ahmed Saadawi and Sinan Antoon, who have dealt with the bloody scene in Iraq. Tashari steers away from directly tackling the mechanisms of violence, despite the fact that it is the generator of the novel. What is your take on that?

Violence tires me, and my description of its mechanisms cannot match the skill with which it is being committed on the ground. Give me peace and I will describe it to you and furnish it with characters. Don’t you think that a warm, well-lit room conveys the darkness to us?

Q: This is the second time you have made it onto the IPAF shortlist, after the American Granddaughter was nominated in 2009. How do you feel about this? What is your view of the IPAF’s role in spreading the Arabic novel across the world?

Of course, I am happy. Should the IPAF, or any other literary prize, manage to publicize the Arabic novel among Arab readers, it would be enough and worthy of gratitude.

Q: Two Iraqi novels have reached the IPAF shortlist. Does this reflect developments taking place in Iraqi fiction? Or is it a mere coincidence?

It does reflect a development taking place in Iraqi fiction, which sees the publication of scores of titles every year. We are experiencing a true upsurge in Iraqi fiction, as if we, the writers, are striving to capture the shocking events taking place in Iraq and monitor their reverberations from our own perspective. This is taking into consideration that the publishing conditions [in the Arab world] are not favorable and that there are no cultural bodies that support young novelists. The novelists on the shortlist are just a humble sample of the massive number.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.

Moroccan novelist Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s Journey from Obscurity to the Limelight

File photo of the Moroccan countryside, looking out to the coast. (REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)
File photo of the Moroccan countryside, looking out to the coast. (REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)
File photo of the Moroccan countryside, looking out to the coast. (REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat— Moroccan novelist Abdelrahim Lahbibi’s name was not very familiar to Arab readers before his third novel, The Journeys of ’Abdi, Known as the Son of Hamriya, made it onto this year’s shortlist for the much-vaunted International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Neither of Lahbibi’s first two novels—Bread, Hashish and Fish (2008), which realistically documents the historical and geographical milestones of Safi, the author’s hometown, and The Best of Luck (2010)—brought the 64-year-old novelist and Arabic language and literature teacher into the spotlight.

Employing a familiar narrative technique, Journeys tells the story of a researcher stumbling upon a manuscript in one of Safi’s old markets that recounts the journey of ’Abdi, a 19th-century Moroccan traveller who embarks on an odyssey from Morocco to Hijaz, in present-day Saudi Arabia. The false document technique Lahbibi uses creates a meta-fictional narrative, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Lahbibi about his relationship with Safi, the narrative style of his third novel, and the impact being nominated for the IPAF will have on his career.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What does it mean to you that your third novel, The Journeys of ‘Abdi, Known as Son of Hamriya, has made it onto this year’s shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction?

Abdelrahim Lahbibi: Taking part in the IPAF is a special episode in the life of any novelist and constitutes a turning point towards the better for all entrants.

Q: Fiction from the Maghreb has been enjoying a great reception and readership in the Arab world, with many novelists, such as Waciny Laredj, Samir Kacimi and Mohammed Achaari, among others, establishing their reputations on the Arab literary scene. Do you have any comment on this, especially in light of the fact two Moroccan novelists have made it onto the IPAF shortlist this year?

Maghrebi fiction today is in a better position [and] maintaining a higher level of performance thanks to the rich literary works being produced, in terms of both content and form. It constitutes, along with the fiction of the Mashreq, a varied and creative fictional space.

Q: Journeys uses the well-known “false document” narrative technique—in this case, a manuscript that recounts the journey of ’Abdi from Morocco to Hijaz in the 19th century. This technique results in a parallel setting (a historical moment in time and geographic location) as well as a pluralistic narrative discourse with different characters and themes. Could you tell us about this technique and the difference such a narrative game makes?

This narrative game, the manuscript, constitutes the focal point of all the levels of the novel—narrative, language, description, characters, themes, and so on—bringing about a complete unity, a logical and organic sequence of events and a smooth and intriguing style, with the novel turning into a well-connected sequence of episodes. Even the denouement turns into a window open to interpretation and reflection about the potential fate of ’Abdi—it is a door to the unknown, or a reflection about another novel.

Q: In his search for knowledge across the Arab world, ’Abdi resuscitates some Arab historical figures, such as Ibn Khaldun, the 15th-century Arab Muslim historiographer and historian. Did you do much historical research while writing the novel? To what extent does the question of achieving a balance between the historical and the fictional preoccupy you?

Writing and editing a manuscript both historically and linguistically that belongs to the 19th century, taking the journey as its temporal and spatial trajectory, necessarily entails using references and sources. However, fictional editing is different from other editing in the sense that it turns the margins into another text, a meta-text, that merges with and complements the other while at the same time representing two different discourses narrated by different voices. The encounter between the fictional and the historical raises reality to the level of fiction, and at the same time gives the illusion that fiction has turned into reality.

Q: Dealing with the present through the past and the exploration of the depths of history is a common narrative method in Arabic and foreign fiction. What do you think of this kind of literary treatment? Do you think the Arab historical novel genre has matured?

Journeys is not a historical novel. Its characters are fictional, and so are most of its events. What is realistic in the novel are the narrative tools that delude readers into believing that what they are reading is true and historically factual.

Q: In your previous novels, Bread, Hashish and Fish andThe Best of Luck, Safi—your hometown in Morocco—dominates the narrative space and the characters. In your recent novel, the narrator stumbles upon the manuscript that sets the novel into action in one of Safi’s markets. To what extent has Safi inspired your work? Will you possibly transcend Safi and write about other places?

For me, the novel is the city. Each novelist has their own favorite city. The novel, in this sense, is the place that embraces us and shapes our emotional, social and psychological identities. We write about the city, whether in a positive or a negative way, out of love or hatred. We write about the city even when we are in the wilderness.

As for transcending Safi and moving on to other places and writing about them—that is contingent on the narrative necessities. However, the favorite place or city remains the essential core, dormant behind the words and lines.

In Bread, Hashish and Fish, Essaouira constituted a special place for a good deal of the novel. In The Best of Luck, Jeannette’s letters make reference to several places in France. As for Journeys, many places are described during the journey.

Q: How long did it take you to write Journeys?

It took almost four years.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.