Why Iraqi Novelist Ali Bader Shifted Women’s Liberation to the Center of His Work

The work of Iraqi novelist underwent a serious shift in the last few years. From a piece in Qantara:

aliAli Bader could have rested on his laurels. As an author of philosophical fictions, Bader achieved significant acclaim both in Arabic and in translation. But last year, when the Iraqi writer issued his twelfth novel, al-Kaafira (The Godless Woman), he was signaling a major break with his previous body of work.

With the female-focused al-Kaafira, Bader says, he leaves behind his masculinist first eleven novels.

Bader, who was born in Baghdad, began by writing and acting in the theatre and in film. His debut novel, Papa Sartre (2001), came at a moment of political change for Iraq and the wider region. After that, Bader issued a steady stream of novels that interleave philosophy and history. These books often center on the lives of male musicians, artists, and intellectuals. Bader said that, while writing these books, he was focused on how societies shift “under the pressure of history.”

Acclaim was not slow in coming: Papa Sartre won Bader a State Prize for Literature in Baghdad in 2002. His other novels also won critical and readerly applause. Both his 2009 and 2010 novels, Kings of the Sands and The Tobacco Keeper, were longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and The Tobacco Keeper has been translated into both English and French. But after writing another novel in 2011, Prophecies of Illusion, Bader decided he could no longer keep writing the same sorts of books.

“So I stopped for three years: to read, to study, and also to experiment.”

It wasn’t just his aesthetics that changed in 2011, Bader says. His ideas about socio-political change underwent a massive shift. After what followed the 2011 Arab uprisings, he said, democratic reforms no longer seemed like enough. His interest shifted from the mechanisms of political reform to a social revolution. Women’s liberation, he said, “is at the heart” of this.

Then it was late 2014. Bader was in a refugee camp in Belgium when he met an Iraqi woman in a bar. He discovered later that she was also living at the camp, and the story of her life inspired him to write al-KaafiraKeep reading at Qantara.