Mohammed Hasan Alwan, winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel A Small Death, spoke with Publishing Perspectives yesterday about his novel and his win:
“It’s his passion for travel,” Alwan said of Ibn Arabi, the 12th-century philosopher and poet at the center of his novel, “that drew me. Every two or three years, he’d move to another place.”
Alwan’s life has also been peripatetic, and that is reflected in the settings of his books and stories, a few of which have been translated into English.
Six stories and excerpts:
“Oil Field,” trans. Peter Clark, is set in a village in Saudi Arabia:
When Ja’far’s father went to work for SakOil, I asked my Dad about these oil fields everyone was talking about. He told me they weren’t that far from our village. That evening I kept on asking and asking him about them, and eventually he took me up to the roof of our house. He pointed with his slender hand to the eastern horizon, where five spots of light flickered uncertainly.
“Mukhtar,” trans. William Maynard Hutchins, is set in Abha, Riyadh, and London:
When my mother asked me to spend the summer in her brothers’ house in the south, I employed every sophistry of my sixteen years—an age when only a mother pays attention to your budding philosophy of life—to explain to her that life forces surge northward, that the south, from which she and my father came, was becoming obsolete, that Ibn Khaldun (who had inspired this claim) was a great man, that the money could be better spent on a vacation, and that her brothers were actually not that nice. I attempted to persuade her without abandoning the subdued tone of voice and timidity passed down generation to generation but eventually found myself disembarking from the plane in Abha, motivated only by filial obedience after Ibn Khaldun failed me when my mother discredited his northern chauvinism by pointing out that Nice and Cannes are in the south of France.
An excerpt from The Beaver, trans. BCLT’s Arabic literary translation workshop (2011), is set in Oregon:
The very first time I saw the beaver, I felt a connection. He must have felt the same way too, or he wouldn’t have climbed up the rocky bank and started messing around with my basket and blanket. I looked at his two front teeth, which were tinged a pale orange colour from gnawing too much oak and willow bark. They reminded me of my sister Noura’s teeth before she’d embarked on the braces and bridges operation that made her mouth look like a busy construction site in the few months leading up to her wedding. His fat buttocks reminded me of my sister Badriyya’s. The last time I visited her before I came to Portland, I’d kept on at her about how annoying it was to see her dragging them behind her like two women, every time she turned around carrying a tray of tea and cheap nuts. The beaver looked up at me with a weary expression, trying to read my mind. He had the same look as my mother did whenever I told her I was about to go abroad, and she would shake her head in disbelief, muttering helplessly over and over “God forbid!”.
An excerpt of A Small Death, trans. Paul Starkey, is set in Andalusia, Damascus, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.:
Alwan also has stories available in two collections