London, Asharq Al Awsat – ‘Hob fi al So’odeya’ (Love in Saudi Arabia) is the title of Saudi writer Ibrahim Badi’s controversial literary debut, which has just recently been published by the prominent Dar al Adab publishing house in Beirut. Badi, a 26-year-old journalist, has previously worked in theater, garnering various awards both in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The author’s choice of title conveys his desire to surpass the limits; the content being equally reflective of this endeavor, exposing and scandalizing and adopting an audacious tone. But the novel also transcends on another level; other Saudi writers have previously published novels that stirred up anger and controversies – but under pseudonyms, yet Ibrahim Badi takes credit for work and reveals his name for all to see. Al Badi says that he wrote a literary text and that he doesn’t scandalize but only writes, and that he sees a difference between the two.
Q: At the opening of your novel there is a daring, or rather outright flagrant scene, as if you’re telling your readers to not put down this novel, that they will find in it what they have never read in any Arabic novel – is this easy bait to fish for readers?
A: Why not the opposite? It’s as if the scene is telling the reader: “Leave this book, if you do not like what you read.” Anyway, the scene is part of a novel, or more precisely, part of a novel narrated within the original novel. It is a preface as the page numbers indicate. The chapter following this scene is entitled ‘one’. To some readers, this scene may seem like the climax of the plot, as it briefly relates what the mental and emotional relationship between Ihab and Fatma had reached. Then the encounters and events between the two characters go back in time and into the future, swaying, basically only to stabilize in this ‘preface’.
Ihab and Fatma are the main characters in a novel entitled, ‘Rajul wa Khamas Nisaa’ (A Man and Five Women), which is written by the protagonist of the novel ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’. It’s from this point that we come to realize that the preface doesn’t simply serve the purpose of narrating the climactic scene in Ihab and Fatmas’s relationship, but rather extends to recount the most important relationship among the five, which they all center around. The events continue to vacillate between the past and the future (old and new romantic relationships). I know what you meant with your question was the ‘sensationalism’ of the scene and whether or not it was used as bait. To respond to that I would go back to the narrator who believes himself to be ‘the most audacious’, in fact he bets on it. So perhaps from here, it was he – not me – who selected that particular passage. Additionally, this scene is part of the novel ‘A Man and Five Women’, which is part of my novel ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’. Since I’m the one who created this character [the narrator], I say: Perhaps he wanted for such scene to be an ‘antecedent’ for other scenes to come. This ‘vulgar’ description in a section of the novel comes from the character [the narrator] and how he views his own literary work.
Q: The writer’s presence is felt in the novel and he struggles against the protagonist, which becomes a method through which you express what goes through your mind. A clever literary trick, but you end up getting caught in a trap when the narrator admits that, “My novel will be the most audacious of all”. He expects it to take his name to the “front pages of newspapers and satellite television channels’ by virtue of its scandalous content – isn’t this a confession that what you have been seeking from the start was the spotlight since you started writing the first page?
A: If this is indeed a trap, who set it for me? Myself, the narrator, the novel?
The interpretation of the title of the novel ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’ carries a lot of significance. Some may see it as the headline for the five love affairs; perhaps like others, I might consider it as ‘tales of love in Saudi Arabia’. This is where the main theme emerges, in my opinion. The narrator’s aim in the work is for his novel to be the most flagrant, so he expects it to deliver him to the “front pages of newspapers and satellite television channels” – this being in the simplest and most superficial sense. But there is something behind the story, which is: what made him think in this manner? Is his novel ‘A Man and Five Women’ a pornographic novel, and a ‘Saudi commodity’, or is it ‘literature’? Is it a ‘scandal’, or do all the ‘technical requirements’ apply to the novel? What about all his suffering and efforts in this narrative? Don’t forget the narrator’s life with his wife and how she perceives and treats him, how she calls him an ‘idiot’ for buying a lot of books and for considering writing a novel.
Q: You deny claims that say you imitate Rajaa al Sanea’s ‘Banat al Riyadh’ (The Girls of Riyadh), yet in a particular passage in your text you link between the characters in your stories and others created by other Saudi novelists. To what extent can you say that these contemporary Saudi novels encouraged you not just to you engage with them but to try and surpass them, too?
A: Perhaps the narrator tried to deny the allegation that he was imitating Saudi novelists, not just Rajaa al Sanea but others too, including as stated in the novel, Abdo Khal, Raja Alem, Mohamed Elwan, Leila al Jahni. But he was also wondering about the similarities of his novel in relation to the works of the aforementioned novelists, namely, ‘The Girls of Riyadh’, ‘Fosoq’ (Debauchery), ‘Setr’ (Cover), ‘Saqf al Kefaya’ (The Limit’s Ceiling), ‘Sofia’ and ‘Al Fardoss al Yabab’ (Wrecked Paradise). The narrator considers that ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’ ties between all these novels and simultaneously questions if the ‘absolute incognito world’ for the protagonists of these stories is the common denominator among them all.
Q: It was repeatedly stated in the novel also that the writer intended to publish it under a female pseudonym. Was this your intention, one that you changed at the last moment? And if so, why? Weren’t you afraid to bear the burden of all those who preceded you who used pseudonyms?
A: Whenever a novel was published under a female pseudonym, it would make me smile. It reminds me of the hero in the novel ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’, the narrator, who wanted to write using a woman’s fake name for fear of embarrassment and for fear that his novel would be deemed biographical, which would ruin all his creativity. The novel was completed a year ago, on 23 November, and I started writing it three years ago. I do not deny that it was my intention to publish it under a fake name, justifying this ‘on the literary level’, as the narrator says, knowing that many stories will be published under pseudonyms – especially women’s.
However, I changed my mind for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that publishing under a pseudonym may suggest that I’m not confident about my text and what I had written, it could also reflect a fear of confrontation. I use the words Dr Abdullah al Ghazami, to whom I reserve great respect, in which he says, “Perhaps writing under pseudonyms connotes a problem with the text itself. These writers, despite all the embarrassment and harm that they could face if they published their real names and revealed their true identities, indirectly suggest that the text, from an intellectual perspective, is deficient. They imply that they’re not convinced that it’s complete, or that they lack the conviction in their innovative and literary abilities, or perhaps they lack the courage – and creativity is usually associated with boldness and courage. When there is a lack in this courage, there is also a lack in creativity”.
Q: Your protagonist, Ihab, is a Don Juan who doesn’t want to settle for one girlfriend or lover. He uses creams and frequents beauty salons; do you think this is new a model for Saudi youth?
A: Why not a new model for Arab youth, or Indian, European, American or Venezuelan young men? Also, is it really new? It suffices that you compared the character to Don Juan, as others will also do, which could indicate how old, not modern, the character is. But on that same note, what of Fatma? Is she the prevalent new model for the rebellious girl, or is she the new model for the ordinary girl?
In the end, to a certain extent, the novel was able to express what goes on in my mind (my private world) in terms of the characters, starting from the narrator to Ihab [the narrator’s protagonist] and the five women, or the 25, which is quite far from being a model for anyone.
Q: Let’s be frank and admit that the obsession with relationships with women dominates the whole novel?
A: Generally, and from my point of view, novels accentuate reality and make the issue in question appear to be the center of everything. We cannot say that a Lebanese novelist’s work represents the Lebanese society, just as an American writer’s work doesn’t represent American society, inasmuch as the ‘Da Vinci Code’ is not representative of the religious Christian community. We cannot completely immerse ourselves and be comprehensive about this whole matter, even if the work is realistic. Literary works should not be subject to a ruler’s rigidity for measurement, regardless of whether or not they reflect reality and the truth.
As for considering the relationships between the sexes as one of the priorities of the dilemmas in all communities, then I agree. Why else would the novels, ones that were mentioned in ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’ such as ‘The Girls of Riyadh’, ‘Debauchery’, ‘Cover’, ‘Ceiling of Subsistence’, ‘Sofia’, ‘Wrecked Paradise’ be published? This is without mentioning, ‘Al Qaran al Moqadas’ (Holy Matrimony), ‘Al Akharoon’ (The Others), ‘Al Awba’ (The Return) and ‘Jahiliyya’ (Paganism). I know that all of these novels have tackled the matter differently and featured different themes, but the relationships between the sexes are present in all the aforementioned, even if it wasn’t always the main theme. It wouldn’t be contradictory if I were to say that these stories were born of reality (if we were to consider the relationship between the sexes as a priority), but although they emerge from reality, they do not necessarily represent it.
In this day and age, one can say that the demand for narratives that recount the relationships between the sexes surpasses all else, which in turn indicates that this issue is one of the priorities of the age, socially speaking. What can confirm this on an Arab level is the novel ‘Zakerat al Jasad’ (The Memory of the Flesh) by the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mosteghanemi, which saw an unprecedented number of reprints. Saudi has the ‘Girls of Riyadh’, and on a global level one could cite Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Zahir’.
Intellectual and political narratives used to be the prevalent genre, even in Saudi. This is why the novels of Turki al Hamad, Abdul Rahman Munif and Ghazi al Qosaibi were popular. But now, even al Hamad in his novel, ‘Jarh al Zakera’ (Injured Memory) tells the story of a woman in her forties and her yearning for Doctor Selim, and al Qosaibi addresses the relationship between the sexes in his novel ‘7’ among others, away from the symbolism and beyond the actual story, and every narrative has another narrative behind it. I think that we are at the ‘love story’ age, there is no doubt.
Q: Your protagonist insists on drawing up a long map for his lovers and says that he has various regulations, among them for those he meets over the internet. However, this flirt is stricken by a love that agonizes him, but also has an intense attachment to his mother. Isn’t this an attempt to feature two contradictory outlooks on women?
A: I think that the novel tries to discuss all that is contradictory, starting with the narrator, who is thinking of writing a novel while dreaming of fame at the same time. Ihab who is happy with all that takes place between him and Fatma, still accuses her and even imagines her betraying him all the while claiming that he’s faithful but then he betrays his wife. Also, there is the ‘kind’ mother who raised him on good morals who then prompts him to seek revenge from his father. There are endless contradictions in this novel and they cannot be counted, much the same as they are in our lives.
Q: Who will believe that your main Don Juan character in the novel who flirts with all the women is not representative of you when you have likened him to yourself in many aspects? Like you, the protagonist presented his play in Beirut and on the same stage, also his mother is not Saudi Arabian, and even physiologically speaking when you describe him, he shares many of your features. Why all this insistence on casting yourself in the story then emphasizing that you are not writing a biography, isn’t this a not-so-innocent contention?
A: What you say really makes me smile, perhaps even laugh. All those who are aware of the rules of narration would understand that autobiography differs from what I wrote. The problem is that many people will disregard this, including those who are well-acquainted with the rules of narration. They will in fact, according to the narrator, search within his biography to compare. I do not blame them, as this is always the case for any writer with his first novel. I’m not the first to come up with this or the first to narrate it like that, this ‘trying to mix between fact and fiction.’ Consider Paulo Coelho in ‘The Zahir’ and ‘Eleven Minutes’, or Rabei Jaber ‘Beritos Madina Taht al Ard’ (Beritos, A City Underground), and others such as ‘Youssef al Englizi’ (Youssef the Englishman). Since I am ‘confused’ and play with the fact as to whether the narrator is also Ihab, why not play the same game between myself and the narrator so that together we can make up Ihab’s character? I do not consider this a defect, although I’m neither Ihab nor the narrator. In my opinion, Ihab is a character who was unjustly treated by his society.
In ‘The Zahir’, Coelho merges fact and fiction and we can’t really tell if the wife in the novel is indeed based on his own wife and whether she betrayed him or not. So basically, this ambiguity or imposition of myself on the events is nothing new. What could be perceived as new is the method by which this idea is employed and its centrality rather than it being marginalized.
Q: You are playing with fire and risk playing a literary game that confuses fact with fiction in a manner that could transform the novel into a serious story. You could anger a lot of people by portraying Saudi society in an unfamiliar way, how concerned are you that your book will soon be in the hands of readers?
A: I’m pleased that you considered it a literary game; I hope that all readers could see it that way. I say ‘I hope’ because I expect that some will deal with ‘Love in Saudi Arabia’ as a novel that defames the society when in reality I’m not exposing or scandalizing, only writing. It’s the reader’s right to interpret it as they wish. I don’t blame those who will be angry, but the readers must remember that it’s just a ‘novel’. Naguib Mahfouz justified ‘Awlad Haretna’ (The Children of Gebelawi) as just a ‘novel’ that can be interpreted in any way the reader so wishes.
Q: The novel is centrally preoccupied with the notion of true love and that which stems from the desire for entertainment, but you tried to say that this doesn’t just come out of nowhere and that it’s related to a detached family and divorced parents, in addition to a mother who discovered that her son was all she had left. Then he runs away from her and spends seven years in search of a woman. This is important background for your protagonist that you haven’t sufficiently developed despite its importance, why?
A: Many will question the lack of development behind Elwa’s character, I would imagine, but also other characters such as Hatun, Diane and Donia. Maybe others will ask why the narrator’s character wasn’t developed. Let the reader develop them as they see fitting and even be a fourth writer; the first being Ihab; the second the narrator, and the third, myself. I am glad that you took heed of this context and background, and I will be even happier when readers see other contexts away from the thrilling elements.
Q: Flowing language, a modern and fast rhythm, as well as and an interesting plot, in short – a talent that a writer aspires to in their debut. Don’t you worry that people would disregard your talent in narration and occupy themselves with the sensationalism and that critics would ignore your talent as a novelist?
A: I’ll admit I hesitated repeatedly before publishing this novel, especially when I knew that if I were to publish it I would only do it under my name. I sent the manuscript to a number of publishing houses but Dar al Adab played a major role in encouraging me particularly after reading their assessment of the novel which I felt conveyed their astute understanding of it. They also did not consider it an ‘explicit’ novel. They stated that, “The novel is enjoyable not because of what it tells of sexual exploits, but because of its elevated standard of technicality.” I also got a lot of encouragement from my friend, Ali Atta who was a great help. That’s when I started to be convinced that some people might actually read the ‘novel’ and regard it as literature, not a scandal, and that they’ll read into the ‘talent’, not the ‘Saudi commodity’. I am not obliged to convince those who see the novel as a ‘scandal’ that it is otherwise – they are entitled to their opinion as I am entitled to mine and we should both respect each others different views.
One can mention here Rashid al Daif’s ‘Tastafel Meryl Streep’ (To Hell with Meryl Streep), Mohamed Choukri’s ‘Al Khobz al Hafi (For Bread Alone) and Ulweya Subh’s ‘Donia’, among others, and even before them, al Tayeb al Saleh’s ‘Musim al Hijra ila al Shamal’ (Season of Migration to the North).” On an international level, for example, are Coelho’s ‘Eleven Minutes’ and Marquez’s ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. We cannot say that all these authors were preoccupied with sensationalism over literature, nor can we say that they refrained from literature because it trespassed our ‘red lines’!
Q: You simply wrote about what you say happens in cars, restaurants and behind closed doors, in other words what takes place discreetly – why would a young man go through a risky adventure like that alone?
A: “I’m only chaos that expresses itself”, this is how I justified the content of the book to my mother (Fatma) before anyone else in the dedication of this book. She advised me, as did others, to be patient about publishing this novel in particular. And yet in my mind the words kept repeating themselves like a mantra: “There is only one thing that can make a dream impossible – the fear of failure”. This is from Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’.
At a time when people asked me to wait and postpone the novel (which took a full year), there were others who encouraged me, making it seem like “when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you fulfill your desire.” This was affirmed when Dar al Adab consented to sparing me from having to contribute any money, which is usually the case. It was also reflected in their assessment of my work, and the support of my friends (Abdel-Motelib, Emad, Malek, Ali, Saleh, and others) who awaited the publication of this book and who trusted me – especially my brother Abdel Mohsen (who was three years my junior) and who sadly passed away before the novel was published.