‘The Desire To Go Beyond the Walls and See the World’: In Conversation with IPAF Winner Mohammad Hasan Alwan

Although award-winning in French, Mohammed Hasan Alwan doesn’t have a novel available in English. When he took the this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, it became certain that would change. Chip Rossetti talks to Alwan about the subject of his IPAF-winning novel, as well as the prize and Alwan’s next novel:

By Chip Rossetti

Alwan with his fellow shortlistees, at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the day after the award was presented. Photo: Daniel Lowe.

Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is one of the most famous Sufi scholars and mystics in Islam — beloved today by some who venerate him as a Sufi sheikh, and rejected by others who find his ideas heretical. He wrote a number of texts on religious and philosophical topics, but spent his life traveling widely across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in the Sufi tradition of siyaha, or wandering travel. Born in the ta’ifa of Mursiyya (the petty kingdom of Murcia) in al-Andalus, Ibn ‘Arabi resided at various times in Baghdad, Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Anatolia, among other places. He began his Sufi studies under a series of masters in the Maghreb, and later, as a young man, made the Hajj pilgrimage, after which he lived in Mecca for three years and wrote his greatest work of mysticism, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (The Meccan Illuminations).

Eight centuries after his death, Ibn ‘Arabi (or at least a fictional version of him) is the protagonist in Mohammed Hasan Alwan’s novel Mawt Saghir (A Small Death), which on Tuesday night won the 2017 IPAF award. Alwan, 38, was born in Riyadh, but moved to Oregon in the US so he could get an MBA, and then did his PhD in international marketing in Canada at the University of Carleton. Today, he splits his time between Riyadh and Toronto. Mawt Saghir is his fifth novel: his last one, al-Qundus (The Beaver) was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2013. What follows is a brief question-and-answer session conducted with Alwan as he discusses Ibn ‘Arabi, his legacy, and the concept of travel as a theme in fiction.

What led you to Ibn ‘Arabi as the subject of your novel?

Mohammed Hasan Alwan: Lots of people think I chose him because of his Sufism, his philosophy and his ideas. All of those are great things about him, but what intrigued me was his life of travel. He is not really known for his travels, since so many other aspects of his life overshadowed that. But I have a great interest in traveling: it was the subject of the only nonfiction book I’ve written [al-Raheel: nazariyyatuhu wa-l-‘awamil al-mu’aththira fihi (Migration: Theories and Key Factors ).] I wanted to know what triggered this behavior in him and why he continued to travel for fifty years. It turns out that his life story hasn’t fully been written to include this, which I found frustrating. So I turned my frustration at these gaps into fiction.

As someone who spent much of his life traveling, Ibn ‘Arabi seems very modern, never staying in one place and accustoming himself to new cities and circumstances.

MHA: He was definitely ahead of his time in so many aspects. And the fact that we find him so interesting, from an intellectual perspective, is because he was a thinker of enduring value. But so many people admire him only from a religious perspective, not for his teachings and ideas.

Given that Ibn ‘Arabi provokes strong feelings among people today, what kind of reactions have you had to the novel from readers? Have you had any hostile responses?

MHA: When I was writing this novel, I assumed that people who loved Ibn ‘Arabi wouldn’t like it because I humanized him. And those who hate him wouldn’t like the fact that I wrote about him at all. But I haven’t received any harsh responses yet, mostly (I think) because I focused on him as a human character, rather than on his ideas.

The IPAF prize comes with money to support the translation into English. How do you think readers who aren’t familiar with Ibn ‘Arabi will see this novel, especially in light of sometimes simplistic or reductionist ideas in the west about Sufism?

MHA: Actually, while doing my research for the novel, I got the impression that Ibn ‘Arabi was more famous in the west than in the Arab world. There has been interest in his ideas for a long time. So many universities are focused on his legacy, including a number of PhD theses. It’s not a dark spot in the west. But of course, Ibn ‘Arabi is not an easy figure to read or understand. That means he is read by elites only, whether in Arab World or in the West.

You’ve spoken about the research you had to do to write this novel. Did you discover anything about Ibn ‘Arabi that surprised you?

MHA: Some things I come across were surprising, but not everything we read about Ibn ‘Arabi is necessarily true. He made a lot of enemies in his own lifetime, and was received differently in different places. Some things that are attributed to him he may not have written. Some of them show him taking an intolerant stand against other religions, particularly Christians. But we have to put that in context, since he grew up in al-Andalus, in societies that at the time were at war with Christian kingdoms. At the same time, he was also capable of writing the famous lines: “I follow the religion of love, whichever direction its riding-camels/Are headed, for love is my religion and my belief.”

It has sometimes been said that good writing can start good conversations. What kind of conversations would you like your novel to prompt in its readers?

MHA: I’d like readers to get out of the book something I intended from the beginning: namely, to see historical figures such as Ibn ‘Arabi as humans. The most direct way to understand their thinking and philosophy is to understand what triggered their thinking on a human level. Ibn ‘Arabi spent the first seven years of his life in a city under siege, and early in the book, I included a sentence saying that, “Those who are born in a city under siege will always have the desire to go beyond the walls and see the world.” I was trying to set the stage for him as having an inner force that propelled him to travel.

And lastly, are you working on a new book? Any details you’d be willing to share?

MHA: Yes, I am working on a new novel: it will also be a historical narrative, but with a more recent setting, in the 18th or 19th century. I’m thinking of it as a multigenerational story, but that’s all I’ll say about it for now!