IPAF winners Raja Alem and Mohammed Achaari in joint appearance at London Literature Festival
Speaking about her prizewinning novel “The Doves’ Necklace” at the London Literature Festival (LFF) last Saturday, the Saudi novelist Raja Alem said: “When I look at ‘The Doves’ Necklace’ I feel as if I have taken a whole generation to a therapist and allowed it to express how it felt growing up in Mecca in the 70s or 60s, or my aunts’ generation.”
Her characters express their agonies growing up in this inward-looking place insulated from the outside world. “How could a person coming from this background get exposed to the 21st century? This shock is in my book.”
In mid-March “The Doves’ Necklace” and Moroccan writer Mohammed Achaari’s book “The Arch and the Butterfly” were declared joint winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The award marked several firsts for IPAF: the first time in its four-year history that the prize had been awarded jointly; the first time a woman had won it, and the first time it had gone to a Moroccan. The joint award was good news for the publisher of both winning novels, al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi of Casablanca and Beirut.
Mecca-born Alem is a prolific author and the winner of several major Arab writing awards. She has written four plays and ten published novels (two of them written in English with Tom McDonough) and has collaborated with artists on several art books.
Raja and her artist Shadia Alem co-founded a women's cultural and recreation centre in Mecca, and have a creative collaboration unique on the Saudi and Arab arts scene. Their installation The Black Arch was chosen as the exhibit for the first-ever independent Saudi pavilion at the Venice Biennale in June.
Achaari is the author of ten books of poetry published since the early 1970s and a short story collection. "The Arch and the Butterfly" is his second published novel. Twice elected head of the Moroccan Writers' Union, his political activism led to his imprisonment in the early 1980s. More recently he has served as Morocco's Cultural and Communications Minister and as an MP.
The LLF event was the first-ever joint public reading by Alem and Achaari of excerpts from their winning novels. The author and broadcaster Paul Blezard chaired the session and interviewed the authors.
The event was held in a suite high up in the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank arts complex. The authors sat with Blezard on a stage against a dramatic backdrop of the slowly turning London Eye big wheel, a huge inflatable purple cow lying on its back and, across the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament.
In addition to being an LLF event, the session came under the umbrella of the Shubbak Festival, London’s first-ever celebration of contemporary Arab culture which began on 4 July and runs until 24 July.
The 126-page IPAF book ”Excerpts from the Shortlist 2011”, distributed free to those attending the event and signed by the authors at the end, proved invaluable. The book contains biographical information, photographs and extracts from the novels of the six shortlisted authors in Arabic and in English translation.
Alem and Achaari read the excerpts from their work in the original Arabic, and Blezard then read the English translations. Even those members of the audience who did not know Arabic appreciated the chance to listen to the authors reading; in the Q&A session afterwards one attendee said how struck she was by the evident poetry and musicality of the language.
In the interviews Alem responded to Blezard’s questions in English while Achaari spoke in Arabic, with translation into English by IPAF board member Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Massih. Abdel-Massih is Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and is currently on secondment to the University of Kuwait.
IPAF was launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007. It is funded by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy and run with the support of Booker Foundation located in London: it is often dubbed “the Arabic Booker”. The prize is worth $50,000, plus the $10,000 that each shortlisted author receives.
Blezard introduced the session with a reading from the introduction to “Excerpts from the Shortlist 2011” by the Chair of this year’s IPAF 2011 judges, Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi.
Al-Azzawi describes the huge number of new Arab novels published every year in almost all Arab countries as a “not only new but astonishing phenomenon.” Traditionally poets played a dominant role in Arab literature “but in the last two or three years something happened that has turned the Arab literary scene upside down.”
Al-Azzawi attributes the change to the influence of IPAF: “the ‘fever of writing novels ‘has caught everyone in the Arab world. Even poets and critics are now trying their luck in writing novels...”
He ended: “Good literature expels evil spirits. It gives us wings to fly and makes us freemen and women.”
“The Arch and the Butterfly” tackles the themes of Islamic extremism and terrorism from a new angle. A left-wing father who believes his son is studying in Paris is told by Al-Qaeda in a letter that the son has died as a martyr in Afghanistan. The novel examines the impact of this shocking news on the man’s life and on his relationship with his wife.
“The Doves’ Necklace” is set in Alem’s home town, the holy city of Mecca. Al-Azzawi writes that the novel “enchants us with an unprecedented account of the holy city Mecca. Behind the city’s sacred facade there is another, hidden, world full of prostitutes, thieves, killers, terrorists, sex maniacs and poor foreign workers who have lost all hope.” This harsh environment is set against with the beauty of the love letters the book’s central character Aisha writes to her German boyfriend.
Alem explained to the LLF audience that the title of her novel alludes to “The Dove’s Necklace” by the philosopher Ibn Hazm, a philosopher who lived in Andalusia during the glory of Arab rule in Spain. His book “is about love: how love is the answer to the problems of the world. Love starts as a game but it ends up serious.”
By coincidence the excerpt from Achaari’s novel refers to Ibn Hazm’s great work. After receiving the letter about his son’s death the father experiences profound upheavals, one of which involves writing a series of “Letters to my Love”, published first in the newspaper he works for and then in book form. A critic describes them as the most important work on love since “The Dove’s Necklace”. A footnote in the English translation explains the reference to the book by Ibn Hazm (994-1064 CE).
As a tribute to Alem, when reading the excerpt from his novel in Arabic Achaari replaced the title of Ibn Hazm’s book “Tawq al-Hamama” in which “dove” is singular, with “Tawq al-Hamam” the title of Raja’s book, in which the plural is used. Raja smiled and touched Mohammed gently on the shoulder as he read the alterered title in his text; at Blezard's request, Abdel-Massih explained to the audience the reason for Raja's gesture.
Asked about the role of the novel in contemporary Arabic literature, Alem said the novel is the best way to know about Arab countries and to “reach inside each other”. Literature not only gives us wings, to use Azzawi’s phrase, but “gives us insight into each other. When I read Mohammed’s book it gives me insight into a world that is remote from me.” Regarding her novel, “if I didn’t write this novel probably nobody would know anything about Mecca because it is a mysterious world.”
Achaari was previously known primarily as a poet. Asked what a novel can do that poetry cannot do, Achaari said that the novel is important for him as a poet because it allows him “a new dimension of addressing people – how to evoke their imagination and change their insights and their orientations.”
He said that he and Raja are very interested in presenting through their novels “the reality people are living today. This was not the case with the early Arabic novel which was written for history or had more interest in past history and superficial realism. Both of us meant to present a new form of the novel and we also wanted to give a representation of today’s present not just deal with our Arab heritage.”
Alem said she felt a sense of responsibility when she writes about Mecca and introduces the people in her book to readers. Blezard asked whether this sense of responsibility was towards the people about whom she is writing, or her readers. Raja said it was to both: “When I write about my people it’s as if I am exposing them, the way I see them, because I have an insight inside those people. And when I introduce them I expect to be responsible in front of readers because I’m allowing them to see how we think.”
Blezard asked about the reception of novels among audiences who “don’t have this background of being brought up with the novel, being more used to poetry.”
Achaari said the novel form is very well accepted by the public, “who are really fed up with repetitive forms, easy reading, and are now looking forward to read books that respect their intelligence, that are not familiar. Maybe we are able to present something that answers the reader’s expectations.” He added as proof that his novel was very well received the fact that it was published three times in one year.
Blezard asked Alem whether she has a freedom in constructing her novels that Western authors perhaps don’t have. “Actually you’ve got a green field out there that you can do whatever you want with,” he suggested. “It doesn’t have to fit within the niche publishing that we have in a highly evolved Western culture.”
Raja replied: “Yes. My reference when I write is the Western novel but I’m influenced by old Arabic books such as ‘Al-Hayawan’ by Jahiz. It’s like the way ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ was written – it evolves, it starts from a little seed and goes up and up building up the story. I came from this tradition, added to the Western way of writing – so I never felt that I am restricted when I am writing, although I am coming from Saudi Arabia.”
Raja said of her novel: “I’d like to note that in the beginning I wrote it in English, in a way to have a foreign eye looking at our life because when I am writing Arabic, it is like there is an Arabic eye or an eye which has a censorship built in. I didn’t want to see my life with that eye, I wanted to see it as a foreigner at the beginning to explore what is around me. So I wrote it in English to feel freer writing it – then I translated it into Arabic, using the skills I had in Arabic to refine it. So I felt totally free when I wrote ‘The Doves’ Necklace’”.
Blezard asked Achaari whether he recognised Alem’s assertion that in writing with an Arabic eye there is a self-censorship built in.
Achaari said he had written the novel through his own eye not the Arab eye. “If you read the book you will find out that I did not subject myself to any internal or external censorship – on the contrary, I dealt with private and public issues, I dealt with love, I dealt with corruption both social and political. You must be aware that now many changes have taken place in the Arab world and even censorship is much less than before.” He believes that it is “not only the author that has to be free from internal and external censorship, but also the reader as well has to really exert an effort for that.”
Blezer asked the two writers what winning IPAF meant to them. Alem said: “I write as I breathe, every morning I wake up and start writing, reading – it’s my life. I never looked back at what I wrote or counted what I did – I wrote many books.” But when she won the Arabic Booker “I suddenly looked back – I saw this heap [of books], this curve - imagine me a girl from Mecca where announcing your name is a shame and I’m here, it’s a big curve.
“When I look at this curve and I see it not with my eye but with the eye of girls there in Mecca it’s possible, everything in life is possible, it’s what you make of your life. You cannot say ‘I’m born in this country or that country, I’m oppressed, I’m so and so’ – no, it’s not where you are, it’s what you are. And the Booker made me realise this.”
For Achaari a main benefit of the prize is that it enables a novel written in a language, Arabic, that has only a limited readership to generate much interest and to be read in other languages.
“The Arch and the Butterfly” talks of Islamic extremism and terrorism from a new angle, Blezard said. How was it received when published in Arabic?
Achaari explained that his novel is not simply about terrorism but is about a person who receives a letter that his son who had been studying in France has been killed while involved with the Taliban. “For this person everything is shattered, and he even lost his sense of smell, and that’s why he starts recalling stories about his life, about his father, about his German mother, about his lover, and he starts to reconstruct his story through these other stories.”
The novel is “not really about terrorism, it’s about the violence which we have to put up with in the Arab countries. For us when we hear about for instance a terrorist act in the West we always as Arabs think of it as something that is external to us, something that isn’t linked to us, that we are not terrorists. But actually we are living terrorism inside our Arab countries and when something affects us the whole view of violence and terrorism changes.”
The authors were asked whether they were aware of the poetry in their prose and whether they put it there on purpose or whether it is a natural way of writing prose given the poetic tradition of Arabic writing.
Achaari made a distinction between musicality and the poetic “because the importance when writing is working with language, manipulating language ,creating a new aesthetic, and this for me is poetry, this is for me the poetic. Not sonority in a sense. I am basically a poet, I have published ten poetry books, and perhaps this has its impact.”
Alem said: “Your style is like your fingerprint: you don’t choose it. When I started writing in Arabic people said it is as if I am possessed by an ancient seeress who’s speaking through me. I didn’t learn this language in school, I didn’t learn it anywhere. If there is a sense of Sufism, a sense of poetry in my books I didn’t choose it and I wrote in English to escape this because it’s complex language. So when I write in English I want to escape this. .. and I wanted to master the novel.” But – “after all I think we Arabs when we write novels cannot escape the musicality or the poetry.”
She added that “when you read my books in Arabic they are really complex they are like something you read on a cave wall written by somebody who extends from past generations. I don’t know where it came from but it’s beautiful but in a way sometimes you want to get away from yourself and write differently.... maybe this is what I’m doing.”
On the question of whether novelists can build cultural bridges, Achaari said “if Western readers are able to understand us better through our novels this means that novels can set networks of communication... and open windows to our culture. I wish this could be realised.”
He hoped that schools and universities in the West would open up to contemporary Arabic literature. “Paradoxically enough French contemporary mainstream and avant garde literature is taught in Maghrebi schools but not contemporary Maghrebi writers and literatures.”
The information on the prize published in the IPAF book of excerpts says: “translation into English is assured for the winner”. Achaari’s novel is being translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid and is due to be publishedby Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in September 2012.
Alem’s novel is represented by the London-based literary agency Andrew Nurnberg Associates, which also handles two other IPAF winners, both Egyptian – Bahaa Taher and Yousef Ziedan.
According to Andrew Nurnberg Associates “The Doves’ Necklace” is currently on submission with publishers in the UK and US, and several are interested. There is no deal in the offing just yet, though the agency is hoping for one shortly. Although Alem originally wrote the novel in English, the plan is to retranslate her polished Arabic version back into a fresh, fluent English version, and it is expected IPAF will sponsor this once there is a publisher on board, as one of the conditions of the prize.
The agency has already sold “The Doves’ Necklace” to Editions Stock in France and Unions Verlag in Germany. The novel has also sold to Marsilio Publishers in Italy via Alem’s Italian agent, Maria Cristina Guerra.
Alem asserted that had her novel been about the Arab Spring, it would have been translated immediately into English given that the Arab Spring is in fashion. She recalled a man in Tahrir Square tearing at his clothes and declaring “What is this life? – I am going to die in Tahrir Square. The characters in my book are all saying the same. They are in Midan Tahrir in a way."
The opening section of her novel is narrated by an alley named Abu al-Roos. “Abu al-Roos is in a way my Midan Tahrir, where the characters are fighting” she said. One of the characters, Youssef, “spent his life defending history and defending the past, while he doesn’t have a present”. The girls in the book “took a lead, and they are doing something I couldn’t imagine myself doing.”
As for the son of an Imam, who is supposed to follow his father and become an Imam himself, “he stays working as a photographer, enlarging photos of the surroundings in order to understand what’s going on.”