Kamel Riahi on Arab Racism, Writing, and His New Book

The Beirut39 interview with Kamel Riahi, conducted by Sousan Hammad, is certainly the most contentious and (thus) the most interesting in the series. Hammad has asked all the authors when they took up the craft of writing; Riahi’s answer is surely the most memorable:

I started writing before I was conceived, I was in my mother’s womb, busily recording her plot to shed my blood and abort me. I struggled with all the medications and drugs she took to abort the baby, I counted her breaths.

Riahi’s life didn’t seem to get appreciably easier after that. He says:

I was a farmer, a pig and lizard hunter, a trafficker of cloths from Morocco, an electrician, and a bookseller in the backstreets of the capital city. I was also a traveling photographer who moved from north to south in order to capture pictures of jungle women.

At the moment, however, Riahi is a professional writer, having published a number of short stories and novels. Among them is The Scalpel, which won him the 2007 Comar D’Or. His next book will be The Gorilla:

My forthcoming novel will be titled The Gorilla, already one chapter has been translated into English by Peter Clark, a British translator. The protagonist will be a black man as well, and the story will uncover the (sexual) bastardness, racism and discrimination against blacks in the Arab world.

Riahi also displays an interesting mixture of nationalist pride and heavy criticism in the interview:

…I noticed in my many trips across the Arab world, with my careful observation, that Arabs are perfectly racist. A month ago, I was joined by a black Arab poet in Algeria, and was stunned by how she was received. All of this has confirmed to me that I am heading into the right track with this theme. Even in Tunisia, the most civilized Arab country….

In my own observation, Arabs (if one can refer to such a grand unit) are rather imperfectly racist, with anti-racist strains here and there. But indeed, racism is certainly a big problem in Egypt, and I understand in Lebanon, and surely elsewhere in our region.

The first chapter of The Gorilla is available on Riahi’s website in English. In the opening segment, an (apparent) madman is climbing to the top of a clock tower, which is forbidden. Down below, a crowd has gathered. Pickpockets and gropers are at work, and police steal the batteries out of tourists’ cameras. No photos of this event.

But at the end of the chapter, we hear that everything is appearing live on television:

“They’re showing what’is happening on the television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news with which channel it’s on.”

People take out their phones. The message has reached everybody at the same time.

The danger the madman poses is unclear. What is he planning to do or say? How will it threaten the society or regime? Why are the police so worried?

Unfortunately, although the general thrust of this chapter is interesting, the translation is quite careless. I can (perhaps) figure out what Riahi meant by this sentence, but it takes me a while:

Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand was at the top of the clock like a gecko.

And I would like to see the Arabic to be sure he really meant for this onslaught of alliteration: “Suddenly the slumbering siesta is slaughtered by the sound…”

Read it for yourself on his website.