Ibrahim Nasrallah on Reality in Fiction and Fictional Reality

Ibrahim Nasrallah’s The Time of White Horses, trans. Nancy Roberts, has just been released (April 2012) by AUC Press. The book, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009, follows the story of three generations of a Palestinian family and, through them, narrates Palestinian history between 1917 and 1948. The family is fictional, but based on extensive interviews.

Nasrallah’s most recent novel, قناديل ملك الجليل (Lamps of the Galilee King), was just released in Arabic at the end of 2011. It centers on the (real) Daher al-Omar, who revolted against Ottoman rule and is considered a pioneer of Arab liberation.

Nasrallah talked with author Susan Abulhawa at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair yesterday, and spoke about the difference between real and fictional characters (translation approximate):

I used to say that this character was imaginary, whereas this character is real. … But then a reader said to me, “She is a real character. Why are you telling me that she’s imaginary?” And I think that this is true. Because, generally, I write imaginary characters. This is the first time that I’ve written with historical characters, not imaginary characters. And hence, when I do so, the reader believes this will turn into a real character. …. Sometimes … the real is what the reader believers. Whether this character is real, whether it came from that era, or whether it was imaginary. So perhaps I couldn’t answer your question which one was real and which one was imaginary. If the reader…will think this one is real and this one is imaginary, that will spoil the entertainment of the reading.

He added later, in response to a question from the audience:

Every single character comes from reality.

Nasrallah also talked about other intersections between “reality” and “fiction.” Nasrallah, who first dreamed of becoming  musician and whose first genre was poetry, published his first novel, Birds of Caution, in 1996. He talked about wanting to document life in Palestine pre-1948, and how there has been a general absence of such work. But how could he write about this time when it hadn’t been done by Ghassan Kanafani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Emile Habibi—he, who was born six years after the nakba? Nasrallah said he was anxious when tackling the project:

When I decided to start, I was scared again. So I started with my personal experience, in Birds of Caution. And this talks about my childhood…in the Wihdat camp where I lived in Jordan. I benefited from my experience in hunting birds. I’m the child in the novel hunting sparrows and caging them so that they can be captured by the other children. So my son, when he read the novel, he insisted that he capture a bird. So he caught a sparrow and I said, Ali, you brought dinner for us. And he said, No, this is my sparrow. So he went to the balcony, and he painted the tail of the sparrow, and he let it go. He wanted to mimic what the child in the novel had done.

More on Ibrahim Nasrallah:

The Guardian: Writing of Jordan, Dreaming of Palestine 

Banipal: A review of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s ‘Inside the Night’

Al Akhbar: All Roads Lead Back to Palestine