Ashraf al-Khamaisi on Writing Bedouin Lives, Thinking Globally

Raphael Cormack sat down with Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Ashraf al-Khamaisi, to talk about writing, life, and his International Prize for Arabic Fiction-longlisted God’s Land of Exile.

The interview in its entirety is on SoundCloud. Below, Cormack has extracted and summarized a few moments from the interview:

Photo credit: Raphael Cormack.
Photo credit: Raphael Cormack.

Raphael Cormack: We are talking today with Ashraf al-Khamaisi about his book God’s Places of Exile, which made it on to the long list for the Arabic Booker Prize.

Ashraf al-Khamaisi: Hello. Firstly, I would like to I am happy to be doing my first interview with ‘the other’, from my perspective.

RC: When did you become interested in writing and literature?

AK: I first became interested in writing in the third year of secondary school. I took a story I had written to my Arabic teacher, who was delighted. My teacher told me to read Naguib Mahfouz and read Tawfiq al-Hakim. When I was 18 years old, I entered a contest judged by Naguib Mahfouz and took first place. So Naguib Mahfouz, the international writer, shook me by the hand and liked my story! …

My first real appearance was in the first issue of the [literary] paper Akhbar al-Adab. On the right hand page was the Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, and on the left hand page Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad was on top and Ashraf al-Khamaysi below. After this I published stories in lots of newspapers and magazines including al-Gumhorriyya, Qisa, and more. [Then, in 1994 he was one of the winners of Akhbar al-Adab’s story competition, again judged by Naguib Mahfouz. His first novel The Idol (al-Sanam) was published in 1999 and his latest novel God’s Land of Exile was published in 2013]

RC: The themes of this novel are more philosophical than, for instance, political. Can you talk a little bit about the ideas in it.

AK: For me, the great issue in my life is the issue of death. If we go back to my first novel, al-Sanam, was the first time I covered the question: how do we conquer death? This novel (God’s Land of Exile) goes into this subject more deeply… For Hajizi the problem is death is “forgetting,” not with death itself. He doesn’t want to be forgotten and the symbol of forgetting is the tomb, burial. He doesn’t mind dying but he wants to stay around afterwards. He wants his corpse to stay. How come we make rooms for corn, for animals like cattle, and for books? We should make a room in the middle of the house for the dead! …

RC: Are you afraid of death?

AK: No, people who are afraid of death don’t live their lives. I’m the opposite … live every moment in your life and you won’t truly die.

RC: One of the good things about the Arabic Booker is the possibility of translation into other languages. Could you talk a little bit about translation?

AK: I am not one of those writers who writes only for his own country. I want to talk to everyone… My book does not want to emphasise historical events or the specific details of a place … My thinking is really global in every respect. It’s not about a [specific] war or anything like that, it’s a philosophical idea. It seems to me that all the great world novels are like this. Take Gabriel Garcia Marquez or [Paolo] Coelho. Great human ideas that I care about and someone who lives far away cares about, this is what the novel is about.

RC: Your novel is, then, both global and at the same time very Egyptian, and more specifically Upper Egyptian.

AK: It’s not Upper Egyptian, it’s Bedouin. …  About 20 years ago I spent some time in the desert so I know the atmosphere in the desert… I know its colour at sunset, its colour at sunrise, its colour in the middle of the day. I know the animals there and how they live… But sadness is sadness. An American feels the same sadness as someone from Africa. Yet still everyone has their own way of expressing sadness. The Bedouins express sadness in a particular way so I talked a lot with my Bedouin friends and they helped to describe the environment there.

RC: Finally, do you have a message for the readers of ArabLit?

AK: To the reader of ArabLit I say you should read Ashraf al-Khamaisi [laughs]. No, that’s just a bit of bravado.  What I mean is that Arabic literature has literature that is worth reading. There are outstanding writers: Naguib Mahfouz, is a man who gives a really true picture of Egypt. Yahya Haqqi has some amazing books. Outside Egypt there are some greats as well: Tayyeb Saleh, Abd al-Rahman al-Munif in Saudi, Ibrahim al-Koni in Libya, Mohammed Shukri in Morocco. These are outstanding writers. But we hope to keep going beyond these greats.