Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan has, it seems, never done just one thing. He was writing his doctoral thesis when working on his fifth novel, A Small Death, set around the life of the peripatetic philosopher Ibn Arabi (1165–1240 CE). This book, published the same year he earned his PhD from Carleton University in Ottawa, went on to win the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Before that, Alwan completed an MBA in Oregon, where he met the long-toothed inspiration for his Prix Arabe-winning novel The Beaver, also shortlisted for the IPAF. Originally from Riyadh, Alwan now moves between Saudi Arabia and Canada, and is working on his sixth novel.
We spoke with Alwan about the responsibilities and process of writing a historical novel, the reasons travel is so central to his life, and how he would improve the literary scene in Saudi Arabia.
Marcia Lynx Qualey (MLQ): You’ve said you were reading a biography of Ibn Arabi before you started writing Mawt Saghir (A Small Death). I know you also did research into Ibn Arabi’s life, and life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. What did you think then, and what now, about the novelist’s responsibilities when writing about historical figures and historical periods?
Mohammed Hasan Alwan (MHA): There is no responsibility. A historical novel is no different from any other novel in terms of being a pure work of fiction that is a product of the novelist’s creativity and imagination. History, in this context, is just a source of inspiration. Novelists are free to use this inspiration as they please to create a piece of art.
The word “novel” under the title is a sufficient disclaimer that the novelist is not responsible for how the readers perceive the history in the novel. Even if the novel was a complete distortion of history, the novelist is entitled to that, as part of their freedom of artistic expression. We have inherently accepted fiction as an alternate realty. A science-fiction novelist is not bound by the laws of science. The historical novelist is no different.
MLQ: How did you think about the language in which you wrote A Small Death? Did you want it to be like the language in al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (by Ibn Arabi), or as you imagined people using language at the time, or in a more modern vernacular, and why?
MHA: I could not possibly imitate the language of “al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah”—or, if I did, I would write an unreadable novel. It’s an 800-year-old book written by Ibn Arabi, who was known for using language that is vague and difficult to understand, even by people from the same period. Therefore, I used my own language, yet infused with the language I imagine was in use at that time. When reading novels based on history, I’m sensitive to the way people talk. Not only their choice of words, but the construction of sentences, the style of conversations, and the various influences on all of that from a cultural point of view. I tried my best to imagine how people spoke at that time. It was not an easy task, knowing that people used to write differently from how they spoke, and because Arabic has this increasingly widening gap between the classic and spoken forms. I cannot make Ibn Arabi speak the same way he writes. It is not logical.
MLQ: You’ve said many times that this novel is about traveling. What does it mean to travel? Do we “travel” when we take a weekend vacation to another city? What is traveling, as you think about it? What motivates your interest in it?
MHA: Travel is a combination of geographical relocation, cultural interaction, and state of mind. To travel is to put myself in a state of constant contrast, analysis, indulgence, and experience. I travel with an underlying conscious decision to change, whether temporarily or permanently. The time spent in travel is irrelevant.
My motivation to travel is still unclear to me, but I think I get bored very easily.
MLQ: Certainly any historical (or future) novel is also a commentary on the present. Historical fiction in Arabic has often worked as a specific political commentary on the contemporary world, i.e. Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat or Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt. Do you see A Small Death as commenting on the politics of today? Or did you want to avoid these politics?
MHA: I came to realize throughout my short journey of writing that a novel loaded with hidden messages is annoying and deceptive. Moral preaching or a political argument disguised as a novel is intolerable to me, regardless of how beautifully it is written. I believe in art for the sake of art. To write is to contribute to the collective effort of artists to keep us human. However, history repeats itself, and thus it is sometimes inevitable that we observe a connection between past and present. This might be the case in my novel. But even if the readers notice that, it was not my main intention.
To write is to contribute to the collective effort of artists to keep us human.
MLQ: You recently told Chip Rossetti that you are working on another historical novel set in the eighteenth/nineteenth century. Is that also set around a particular historical figure? Because it’s a more recent time period, is writing the book different?
MHA: No, it is not going to be about a real figure. I am still working on the structure of the novel, and the first difference I’ve noticed is that I am, this time, dealing with much more information. Recent history is readily available, but it leaves me with an overwhelming amount of information that takes more time to process and incorporate in a novel.
MLQ: Your previously IPAF-shortlisted novel The Beaver is a very different novel, a contemporary Saudi family story with humor and family crises. Your short story “Statistics” was also about a contemporary family. Were you in any way freer when writing about the distant past? How do you balance the possibility of censure for your writing?
MHA: My choice of genre has nothing to do with censorship. I have clashed with censors since my first novel. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my novels became available in Saudi Arabia as a result of an overall march toward openness and freedom. So, the answer to your question is no. In fact, belonging to a culture that is very ideologically attached to its history makes writing about the past more challenging.
MLQ: Was the reaction to The Beaver any different in the French translation (where it also won a major prize, the Prix Arabe) from the reaction to it in Arabic? Did French readers and critics pick up on any different themes and aspects, versus Arab readers?
MHA: Yes, indeed. The French readers were more curious about the dynamics of Saudi families. They asked questions that the Arab readers mostly could answer for themselves. However, making comparisons between the two versions of the novel is not easy, because the novel was read more widely in Arabic. I also don’t speak French, which limits my chances of hearing directly from French readers.
MLQ: Saudi novelists have won three of the International Prizes for Arabic Fiction (well, Raja Alem was, perhaps unfairly, a cowinner). No other country has had this many IPAF wins (Egypt has two, and even Lebanon has only one). What does this reflect?
MHA: Let’s be careful not to use the results of ten years since the launch of the IPAF as an indicator of the literary scenes in the participants’ countries. There are other Arab countries that have never won the prize, yet they still produce beautiful novels every year. Saudi Arabia is witnessing a growing appetite for novels, and this is very notable. However, one prize is not a sufficient measure to understand the underlying factors that affect every scene in the region.
MLQ: If you had $1 million to spend on the development and support of Saudi literature, and no rules on how to spend it, what would you spend it on? (Anything goes: libraries, creative-writing programs, prizes, Saudi comics magazines, festivals, magazines, free-speech campaigns, sending writers abroad for meetings . . .)
MHA: One million is not sufficient. The literary scene in Saudi Arabia has seen inadequate investment for decades. But aside from the cost, I would like to see literature penetrating every aspect of our lives. I want children to read more in schools and families to find hundreds of literary events every weekend to spend quality time at. I want public, private, and nonprofit institutes to promote literature in very attractive and goal-oriented ways. I want young bright writers to think of literature as a lucrative career. I want to see more strict laws to protect copyrights and help literature to become a viable industry within the society.
I would like to see literature penetrating every aspect of our lives . . . I want young bright writers to think of literature as a lucrative career.
MLQ: You told me back in 2012 that you wrote poetry before writing novels (and that poems were “good at declaring feelings, but not exploring them”). Do you still write poems, and do they satisfy some part of your literary aims? Or have you entirely moved away from them?
MHA: I don’t feel that I’ve stopped writing poetry as much as I feel that poetry stopped coming to me. Somehow, the way I think and express my thoughts and feelings became incompatible with poetry. I like to elaborate, explain, and take my readers for long walks. However, it is not up to me to quit poetry. Somehow, it has shaped the way I write, and that’s why my novels are often seen as poetic.
MLQ: What do you think, lately, about the controversies over other book fairs having Saudi Arabia as a “guest of honor”? I know you wrote a commentary on how Book World Prague was right to honor the KSA—after some writers spoke out and said the opposite. What benefit (and possible detriment) do you see to these “guest of honor” postings?
MHA: I believe there is nothing to gain from barring any country from being a guest of honor at a literary event. By doing so, we are reducing nations to only their current political state, ignoring their cultures, histories, arts, and people. Being a guest of honor means shedding more light on the country, helping it to communicate and helping others to understand it. In fact, I think it is more beneficial to make countries that are very different than us guests of honor rather than culturally and politically similar ones.
MLQ: I know you aren’t keen on naming names of other favorite writers and their books, but can you perhaps tell us what it is you’re reading right now?
MHA: I am reading a bunch of history books in preparation for my next novel. Anything that has to do with the Middle East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been on my reading list for more than six months now.
Mohammed Hassan Alwan is a Saudi novelist and the 2017 recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel A Small Death, a fictionalized account of the real-life Sufi saint and traveler Ibn Arabi. His other works include numerous short stories and the novels Touq Altahara (2007), Sophia (2004), Saqf Elkefaya (2002), and Al-Qundus (The Beaver, 2011), which was shortlisted for the IPAF and which won, in French translation (tr. Stéphanie Dujols), the Arab World Institute’s Prix de la Littérature Arabe. In 2009 he was selected as one of the thirty-nine best Arab authors under the age of forty, and his work was published in Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World, edited by Samuel Shimon. He was also published in the IPAF anthology Emerging Arab Voices, edited by Peter Clark. He currently lives between Toronto and Riyadh.