This June, London’s Shubbak Festival brought together authors Jana Elhassan and Mohamed Hassan Alwan in conversation with BBC broadcaster, writer, and arts critic Bidisha. Attending the event were representatives of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Banipal magazine, as well as a number of literary translators, bloggers, critics, and readers. ArabLit contributor Amira Abd El Khalek was there:
The conversation between Elhassan, Alwan, and Bidisha raised interesting questions on contemporary Arab fiction, writing, stereotypes, and characterisation. The event, a first for Arab arts at Asia House, also posed the question: Where does the Far East begin and the Middle East end? Both authors read excerpts from their novels translated into English and answered questions from the audience.
Alwan started the evening by talking about contemporary Arabic fiction and how it is undergoing a transformation by breaking away from taboos. “A new generation of writers is emerging,” he said, “and, though they come from different countries, they have a common message to send.” By being experimental and by changing the rules, they are attempting to break free from the dominance of the classical school of writing.
Elhassan argued in favor of standing up for the right to write, as it is a way of expressing oneself. She grew up in a conservative milieu in Lebanon, where writing was considered taboo. As a teenager, writing was a comfort zone, an escape. She said that having a career as a writer in the Arab world comes at a cost. It is not a privilege.
Elhassan’s novel, Me, Her and the Other Women, touched upon reality versus the imaginary where Sahar, her heroine, decides to escape the reality of events around her and turn into her own imaginary world. According to Elhassan, all human beings have the same feelings and needs and ways of expressing themselves, but they have different opportunities. Every part of the world comes with its problems and yet the human essence is the same everywhere.
Sahar is forced to construct an imaginary world, which becomes her reality, while her outer life is crushed. She comes from a family where both parental figures are disconnected from reality and unable to communicate with each other. She therefore resorts to identifying with other people in her life until she is able to find her own identity.
Alwan’s novel, The Beaver, deals with a protagonist who, in order to see and remember things clearly, also needs to distance himself from his current reality. Ghalib leaves Saudi Arabia, the country he has lived in for 40 years, and begins to reconstruct three generations of his family’s history. By observing the behaviour of a beaver that he encounters by the banks of a river, Ghalib is able to draw parallels and similarities between humans and beavers.
Beavers are shown to mirror the behaviour of human beings and vice versa: their suspicion, lack of trust, and sense of insecurity is all reflected in Ghalib’s family. They also destroy their surroundings, the way humans do. “It is something we have in common,” Alwan said. “We are genetically beavers.” Essentially, the grandfather, the father and the son all reflect the same character. Ghalib is able to liberate himself by choosing to leave. It is like being trapped inside a building, Alwan told us. The protagonist was not able to recognise the size of his problem until he got out.
Religion has a role to play in Elhassan’s novel. Sahar’s parents use religion in order to abuse others and to cover for their deeds. The weaker societies are, the more people are attached to their religious identities because it makes them feel safe, al-Hassan believes. Religion, however, is not emphasized in Alwan’s novel. His is more about social pressures. The references to religion in The Beaver are more personal, and what anyone might deal with within the course of a life.
Family is a theme rendered quite powerfully in both novels. The conflicts depicted between the members of Ghalib’s family in The Beaver are very passionate. Alwan admits that what he describes in his novel is not that of a typical family but there is a sense of familiarity. You would expect these struggles to happen in any family where there is an absence of the father figure.
Elhassan also referred to one’s scars. She said, “Scars shape you. Until you are aware that the scars you have made you the person you have become, you are not capable of changing who you are.”
At one point, Sahar realises that she is behaving like her mother, something she would never have imagined. Elhassan said that members of society often push individuals to be a typical sort of person because they themselves have something missing in their lives. “If you encounter something bad in your life, do you have to live with it, or does there come a time when you say you can make a change?” Al-Hassan asked. “One has to go through ups and downs to be able to make this change.”
She admitted that she herself had issues that she needed to confront before becoming the person she is now. She said, “If you are courageous enough to realize this, then it’s up to you: you can choose to make something of your scars or you can choose to remain with them for the rest of your life.”
This — Elhassan said — is where the power of literature emerges. Literature can shake you. “You feel that the emotions [the characters] are going through are real because you too felt that the experience was real,” she said. As a writer, one draws a life while depicting one’s characters. Writers create real people who go through life as just as they do, and so that the reader can see someone going through difficult times and emerging from them, no matter where that person is from. The power of literature comes from the impulse to write; it comes from inside out.
For Alwan, writing is a psychological need to make sense of the world. To him, writing is similar to recharging a battery. It is a way of viewing the world in order to understand what’s going on.
When asked whether or not their work was autobiographical and how that affects their future work, they both indicated that their works were not autobiographical. Elhassan’s work was inspired by a friend going through incidents of domestic violence, and Alwan’s was based on a variety of persons he had encountered in his life. One should be cautious, Elhassan said. Fiction should not be too personal; there should be a distance.
Another question from the audience dealt with the media and how conscious both authors were towards the stereotypes portrayed by the media. Elhassan responded that a writer offers human struggles and exposes the good and bad in people, showing the influence of these stereotypes in society. Lebanese society, according to Elhassan, though seemingly liberal, exposes a kind of oppression that is different from other countries and can be more harmful. “We have a freedom that is not the essence of freedom. We are not able to express ourselves. Everything is dominated by sects and politics. There are a lot of internal problems and one needs to dig much deeper to reach the true essence.”
Having lived in the United States after the tragic 9/11 events, Mohamed Hassan Alwan has been exposed to all sorts of stereotyping. He is still learning from this process, seeing how stereotypes are created and how to deal with them. He is very conscious of the way the media uses these stereotypes, especially coming from Saudi Arabia, a country that has always been perceived as dangerous and mysterious.
“We are a relatively new society and are going through developmental stages just like human beings. We are just reaching the early steps of maturity,” he said. Between societies, the details are different, but in the end, there are a lot of commonalities. It is his novel Sophia, however, that deals with stereotypes — not The Beaver.
This led to a concluding question on the East and the West, and how the two authors find themselves stuck between those two polarities, whether they have specific readers in mind as they write and how they try to accommodate their readers’ expectations. Alwan said that he doesn’t like to be responsive to what readers want to read. He prefers to challenge them. Having a reader in mind with specific requirements is not why he writes.
Similarly, Elhassan doesn’t have a reader in mind when she writes; however, she says “you realize that if you are writing about problems of the Middle East, you think about how the West is going to react.” Will they take it as a stereotype or will they embrace the story and see the similarity in problems across cultures? “You don’t want your literature to be used to enhance stereotypes,” she says. You don’t want them to crack the shell and take the essence, you want them to grab the essence as well as the shell.
These are interesting times to be reading and exploring Arab fiction, especially in light of literary prizes and the translation of bestsellers and award-winning works. The IPAF this year has faced some criticism for selecting texts from lesser-known authors. The Arab world is extremely diverse in terms of dialects and styles of writing and the stakes are high for current authors attempting to challenge the classical school of writing. Times are different and people are more connected to a grounded reality that is fast-paced, constantly changing, and more open to trial and error. As beautiful and as structured as it is, one fears that the classical school of writing may need a strong revival if it is to withstand the gushing current of contemporary Arabic fiction.
Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.