International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist Profiles: ‘Suitcases of Memory’

Suitcases of Memory, longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), is Lebanese author Sharbel Qatan (Charbel Kattan)’s debut novel. Qatan, who was born in southern Lebanon in 1970, moved to South Africa at the age of 20. He lives and works in Johannesburg.

The novel is structured around five abandoned suitcases at the Beirut airport, each of which can tell a part of the story of contemporary Lebanon. From the synopsis:

There are also ‘orphan’ bags, whose owners cannot be identified… that is, until Ehab Alem arrives in the customs department. As a child, he lost his father in mysterious circumstances at the beginning of the Lebanese war, and he has dedicated his life to searching for him. So Ehab decides to solve the riddle of the five ‘orphans’ of the airport. Inside each bag is a story, told by its contents to those who are good at listening. As the owner of each bag is found, a different story linked to a part of the Lebanese war is told. In his quest to find each owner, Ehab starts to find himself by recalling his childhood. He begins to realise the meaning of life, revives his own hopes and falls in love, in turn bringing his own story to completion.

What moved Qatan, an IT engineer, to write a novel? Well, there was the lost bag, as he told France24 and IPAF organizers. He also told IPAF organizers:

I began writing “Suitcases of Memory” in the middle of 2007, but a year before that, I had begun to feel an almost unbearable need to write pressing upon me, and I had had the idea of the lost suitcases for a long time after a little incident which happened in Beirut airport…. But before beginning, I made a study of novel techniques, especially the aspects of conflict and suspense, and novel characters, and from time to time I would urge myself on to writing.

It was particularly difficult to keep going, he said, being “so far away from the (Arabic) literary environment.” He initially worked at a library in South Africa, and discovered a large number of Arabic novels, “So I ended up reading more than two hundred novels by writers from different Arab countries.”

But for a long time, he continued his “normal life between my family and my job,” defeated by the lack of an Arabic literary life in South Africa. Then suddenly, he said, “I experienced what I would call an ‘awakening’, which came unexpectedly, in the midst of the busyness of daily life.”

He continues to search out connections to the Arab literary world, and said, “I am thirsty for everything literary and have only the internet to quench this thirst.”

Qatan is now working on his second novel, and says that writing is fundamental to his life, “even if I am a late beginner.”

A salute to Qatan for this, and to all of us “late beginners.”

Audio interview:

With France24

Goodreads page:

Just one review, which isn’t even a review but a “3 star” rating.

Read an excerpt of the novel here.

The book is also available online:

For sale.

Other longlist profiles:

Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada

Habib Selmi’s The Women’s Orchards

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s ‘Embrace at the Brooklyn Bridge’

Hawra al-Nadawi’s ‘Under the Copenhagen Sky’

Jabbour Douaihy’s The Vagrant

Youssef Zeidan’s ‘The Nabatean’

Rabee Jaber’s ‘The Druze of Belgrade’ 

Sharbel Qatan’s ‘Suitcases of Memory’