Jona Fras interviewed Iraqi novelist Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi about his IPAF-longlisted novel, The Sad Night of Ali Baba, how he went about writing it, and why al-Rikabi believes “that I had to write this novel, whatever happened.”
Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi: Despite the difficulty of summarizing the ideas of a novel whose pages contain tens of characters and events, one might do so by referring to the name “Ali Baba” itself: a nickname popularized by the Americans, used to refer to young thieves and plunderers, while at the same time the true criminals were ignored — those that came at the heels of the invaders not to steal from random houses or shops, but rather to plunder the entire country. From here, my work proceeds in a deconstructivist manner: starting from the margins in order to dismantle what may appear to be solid facts, but which soon enough end up toppling down, one after the other.
JF: The novel’s title will undoubtedly remind many readers of the famous story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” even though these readers may also have a more specific interest in modern-day Iraq. How did you decide on the title, and why does it refer to “sadness” specifically?
…what happened in Iraq after the American occupation was the association of the name “Ali Baba” with young plunderers, in which the Americans played a role. So “Ali Baba” came to mean “thief”; the original naming was inverted.
AKR: We know that Ali Baba in the famous folk tale takes revenge on the thieves that pursue him with the help of his slave maid. But what happened in Iraq after the American occupation was the association of the name “Ali Baba” with young plunderers, in which the Americans played a role. So “Ali Baba” came to mean “thief”; the original naming was inverted. In my novel I attempt to deconstruct this ambiguity, and focus rather the role of Ali Baba in exposing the thieves. The novel’s narrator might thus represent the character of Ali Baba himself, as he works throughout his narrative to uncover what is hidden from him. He is the one revealing the true criminals – although, of course, he does not forgive the petty thieves either. As for the word “sad”, it refers to the occupation; any form of occupation, in any country on the face of the earth, will be a “sad night” for the people that suffer under it, and especially so when this occupation is accompanied by a civil war with thousands of innocent victims.
JF: We can read elsewhere that the idea for the novel The Sad Night of Ali Baba goes back to your experiences of life in Iraq in recent years. When did the idea for the novel take shape? Were there any specific events or conditions that led to your decision to write it?
I don’t think I have ever encountered as many moral dilemmas in writing any of my previous novels as I did with this one.
AKR: I don’t think I have ever encountered as many moral dilemmas in writing any of my previous novels as I did with this one. It is my testimony on what has happened, and I would never have been able to forgive myself had I not expressed this testimony in the form of a novel. When the situation had gotten most heated, at the outbreak of sectarian violence following the  Samarra bombings, I came to know for certain that all thought and philosophy, modern and postmodern, was just senseless prattle unless I managed to use it in writing a novel on what was going on. By this I do not mean that I wrote it it proceeding from a specific ideology, but rather that there was a humanist obligation demanding that I reveal the truth — or at least the truth as I saw it, from my point of view — about the horrible atrocities that Iraqis were now committing in cold blood, in a way I never imagined possible… This is why I decided to write the novel, and the result is what it is.
JF: When did you begin writing the novel, and what were the difficulties you encountered during the writing process?
AKR: I wrote it over a period of two years and a couple of months. I faced no difficulties that I can remember because I had already gathered all the materials necessary to deal with the subject. As I’ve already mentioned, I believed that I had to write this novel, whatever happened. I had also lived through the events narrated in the novel, in all their particularities and details, including fleeing from Baghdad with my family before the occupation.
JF: Did you seek information from any specific people during the writing process, or from written sources? Or did you rely more on your own personal experience? Was this different from what you were used to when writing your previous novels?
AKR: This novel is a mixture of my personal experiences together with consulting other people and written sources, all of which are listed in the novel, as with my previous works. Most of it came from my own experience, however, as I had lived through all the events that I wrote about – as I have already mentioned.
JF: How are the various historical periods referred to in the novel linked with each other – for example, the comparison between the gunshots heard by the novel’s characters and those celebrating the installation of Ottoman governors? Does history play a solely “metaphorical” role in your novel, or does it have a wider significance?
The close interrelation of the different historical eras is in that they are all linked to periods of foreign occupation of Iraq – whether it is Ottoman occupation, or British, or the latest American one…
AKR: The close interrelation of the different historical eras is in that they are all linked to periods of foreign occupation of Iraq – whether it is Ottoman occupation, or British, or the latest American one… What is meant by the “occupation” is any party that has acted as an occupier, with the Iraqi people as the victim. The novel might be metaphorical in some ways, as is the case with any contemporary novel. What weighs heavily on it, on the other hand, is the reality of the suffering of an ancient people – one of the most ancient in the world, going back to the Sumerians – transformed into a victim of colonialism, in all its various disguises.
JF: Why did you utilize first-person narration in the novel? What are, in your opinion, some of the principal motivations for the narrator, and how does the narrator differ from the other main characters of the novel?
AKR: I use first-person narration in most of my recently published works due to its intimacy and sense of familiarity with the reader. As for the narrator’s motivations, they are nothing more than the motives of a human being living his daily life and trying to protect his family, while trying to write a novel at the same time – which is what happens in the end. Certainly the other main characters are different in that they have limited knowledge of the various happenings in the novel, compared to the narrator; the latter represents the primary focus of the novel, as all of the novel’s events pass through him.
JF: What is your opinion on the relevance of your novel for an audience outside of Iraq and the Arab world? If an anonymous reader asked you “why do I need to read your novel?”, how would you reply?
It embarked upon its little adventure like it was some sort of computer game – and never realized that, on the ground, in reality, the problems don’t go away when you say game over.
AKR: My response would be that my novel contributes to revealing an important aspect of what has actually happened to a country that has for decades been preyed upon by colonizing powers due to its huge oil reserves. Totalitarian regimes famed for their foolishness, backwardness, and poor administration have taken the helm, embroiling themselves in war after war, all of which granted the colonial powers – ever ready to pounce – sufficient excuse to plunge into occupation. And the end result of this was that the gates of Hell were thrown wide open. The same occupying force that managed to subjugate the country in record time now sees, after eleven years, that the situation has only gotten worse. It embarked upon its little adventure like it was some sort of computer game – and never realized that, on the ground, in reality, the problems don’t go away when you say game over. The result are withered spirits and scattered families, homelands torn apart and violated freedoms, and hatred of the kind that leads to the roots of evil sinking ever deeper.
Jona Fras is a graduate student at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His current work focuses on colloquial Arabic in the Levant and its use in the media.