At the London Lit Fest with Mohammed Achaari and Raja Alem

Photo courtesy @Zuberino.

By Zuberino, Guest Author

Yesterday afternoon, London played host to the winners of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (popularly known as the “Arabic Booker”): Morocco’s Mohammed Achaari and the Saudi author Raja Alem. Their first ever joint reading was both part of the annual London Literature Festival and of Shubbak, a month-long celebration of Arabic culture organised this year by the city of London. (Others taking part in this year’s LLF include Hisham Matar, Leila Aboulela and Zaha Hadid.)

Courtesy @Zuberino

As soon as the reading was announced a few weeks ago, it shot straight to the top of my must-attend list. So on this glorious summer afternoon, I headed off to the Southbank Centre adjoining the river Thames, where the two authors were holding court in a fifth-floor auditorium. The vista behind their stage took in not just the shimmering river but also two of the capital’s most recognisable landmarks – the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament/Big Ben.

On the stage were Alem and Achaari, flanked by Paul Blezard, the emcee for the afternoon, and Marie Therese Abdel Messih, who translated for Achaari. Blezard is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an experienced presenter at literary events. He conducted the afternoon with considerable suavity and a cut-glass accent. Professor Abdel Messih is a scholar and one of the trustees of the IPAF award. (The Achaari quotes below are transcriptions of her translations.)

These pictures are so good it's almost like spying! I see Andy was there. Courtesy @Zuberino.

A hundred-odd people listened as, over the course of an hour, the authors gave their views on the writing process, what winning the IPAF has meant for them, the state of Arabic fiction and its relation to society and the state. Alem spoke in English while Achaari spoke in Arabic. Both authors read excerpts from their prize-winning books, with translations read by Paul Blezard. Towards the end came a Q&A session with the audience, which ended all too quickly. (It always ends too quickly when the emcee says there’s just time for one more question, and you’re bouncing up and down in your seat, hand flung up in the air, trying to attract his attention while he breezily looks away in another direction and calls on some doddery ancient instead…)

Some quotes from the event:

Courtesy @Zuberino.

Mohammed Achaari on current Arabic fiction:
“Arab readers are really fed up with repetitive forms – easy reading – and they’re now moving forward to read books that respect their intelligence, that are not familiar, and maybe we’re able to present something that answers the readers’ expectations.”

Raja Alem on her influences and how she wrote “The Doves’ Necklace”:
“My reference when I write is Western novels but what I’m influenced by is old Arabic narratives, for example, the Thousand and One Nights. I come from this tradition. For this book, I’d like to note that in the beginning, I wrote it in English—in a way, to have a foreign view of our lives. When I write in Arabic, it is with an Arabic eye. I didn’t want to see my life with that eye, I wanted to see it with the foreigner’s eye. So I wrote in English, to feel more free as I was writing it, and then I translated it in Arabic.” *See Nadia’s suggested correction below.

Outside. Courtesy @Zuberino.

Mohammed Achaari on censorship and The Arch and the Butterfly:
“If you read the book, you’ll find that I did not submit myself to any internal or external censorship. On the contrary I dealt with private and public issues. I dealt with love, with corruption – corruption in the social and political fields. Now, many changes have taken place in the Arab world, even the degree of censorship is much less than before. I believe that it’s not only the author that has to be free from internal or external censorship but the reader too has to exert an effort for that.”

Raja Alem on overcoming obstacles:
“Everything in life is possible. It’s what you make of your life, you cannot say I was born in this country or that country, I’m oppressed, I’m so-and-so. It’s not WHERE you are, it’s WHAT you are – and writing the book made me realise this.”

Mohammed Achaari on terrorism:
“The novel is not really about terrorism, it’s about the violence which we have to put up with in our Arab countries. When we hear about, for instance, a terrorist act in the West, we as Arabs always think of it as something external to us, something that isn’t linked to us, that we are not terrorists. But actually we are living terrorism inside our countries – and when something affects us, the whole view of violence and terrorism changes, when it is related to our part of the world.”

Zuberino loves books and theatre and lives in London. He tweets @zuberino.

Another report:

From Susannah Tarbush at The Tanjara, where Achaari says: “Paradoxically enough French contemporary mainstream and avant garde literature is taught in Maghrebi schools but not contemporary Maghrebi writers and literatures.” Hm. Too bad he couldn’t affect that when he was culture minister.

Also, Tarbush notes: “Although Alem originally wrote the novel [The Doves’ Necklace] 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….”


  1. Great that someone for Arab Lit was there! It was such a good talk and the reading was beautiful. It was so enjoyable that both authors read in Arabic and, after each, that the extracts in English were read. I would like to say (and that is no negative criticism to your extract of the talk, far from it) that Raja Alem did not say “When I write in Arabic, it is with an Arabic eye”, she said that she wrote the Dove’s Necklace first in English because when she writes in Arabic she can feel the “self-censorship” that this eye imposes on her view. What I would like to stress is that she said “self-censorship” not “Arabic eye”. It is the interpreter who translated “self-censorship” as “Arabic eye” in Arabic, and then in English, when she translated it for Achaari and that was a most unfortunate mis-translation. Not the only one. Anyways, the authors said that the translation of both books will be published at the end of next year. Can’t wait.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Nadia! I know the Achaari is coming out from Bloomsbury-Qatar ( Did she say who’s bringing out The Doves’ Necklace in English? Is she going to co-translate it with Tom McDonough?

  3. Oh cool! Thanks for the link! Both authors said that they will be published by Bloomsbury. Incidentally, they also said that the translation deal is what the winning of the prize ensures (which made me think, on another note, that if winning such a prize ensures a translation of the book, that puts a whole other dimension – a practical and useful one – to prize-winning doesn’t it? I don’t know anything about what prizes include usually, other than money sometimes, but if translation is now included as a perk, for foreign language books, that is fantastic news for writers and their readers.) As Zuberino very well said the Q&A was oh so short! We didn’t have time to ask for, well, anything. The translation process is what I wanted to know about, particularly as Raja Alem, by her own account, has a manuscript in English from her very own plume!

  4. Yeah, fah on the short Q&A session!

    And I hadn’t heard that BQFP had also picked up ‘The Doves’ Necklace.’

    AUC Press has told me before that the IPAF does *not* include translation (by way of saying that the Naguib Mahfouz Medal is the only prize that does). But IPAF organizers have made noise that it does include translation…not exactly sure how/by what mechanism, since different publishers pick up different winning works.

    Maybe they mean, “translation is practically guaranteed” because there’s such interest in the winner? Got me!

    However, I really don’t like the second to last rule on this page ( for the IPAF. That’s the big downer of the prize for me.

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