Earlier this week, Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah’s حرب الكلب الثانية, which prize organizers have been unfortunately translating as The Second War of the Dog, won the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
By Nora Parr
For those who know Ibrahim Nasrallah by his epic novel of the Palestinian Nakba Time of White Horses (2007), the style and content of his IPAF-winning text will come as a shock—at first.
Where Horses, set during the late period of Ottoman reform and then the British Mandate, was largely pastoral, full of heroes and martyrs (hailed as the Palestinian epic, it was his first novel shortlisted for the award in 2009), Dog War II takes place in a world where water and oxygen are commodities, where pollution suffocates its characters, daylight is scarce, and profiteering is the order of the day. Even Nasrallah admitted its gloom, telling readers “I felt darkness engulf me as I wrote.”
Dog War II was announced as the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction on Tuesday night in Dubai. The win has gotten relatively wide coverage in the English press—certainly more than most IPAF winners hitherto—largely because its keywords hit so many hot-topic buttons, with ‘dystopia,’ ‘sci-fi,’ ‘extremism,’ and ‘Arab world’ emerging as the most popular thus far.
Of course all of these headings need to be qualified. Just as pressing, however, is the wider context from which the book emerges. So, five things you need to know about Nasrallah’s award winning novel:
1) It’s not a dystopia
A dystopia is meant to be the inverse of an imagined utopia. In Dog War II, the horrible world portrayed in the novel and the hideous things that happen within it are not imagined—they have already happened. Events are largely extrapolated from the real-life history of the Middle East. Leaving the reader in little doubt, the novel draws on specific incidences and links them directly to the outbreak of the first ‘Dog War.’ The chain of logic that leads from past to future is the inverse of nothing; rather it a continuation of a present that is really (really) bad.
2) It’s not exactly sci-fi either
Yes there are some fancy bits of technology available to characters in the text, but like the question of dystopia, most of these things already exist. Nasrallah does say that the purpose of the future-setting is because “We must imagine the future in order to understand what is happening now”—a typical conclusion for sci-fi writing. Giving a reading from the novel in London in 2017 Nasrallah explained: “social media and Facebook are already here, and had to feature in the text [so that it could] imagine processes that are already in place.” However, ‘science’ in the unnamed city opens no new possibilities for humanity, and we are never exactly exploring the limits of technology—rather the constant focus is the limits of ‘man.’
3) Extremists – of our own making
Rather than acting as a placeholder for someone who has clearly left the norms of humanity and gone to an outer ‘extreme,’ the protagonist of Dog War II is in the process of transformation—from an opponent of a repressive government to a corrupt money-maker profiting from the despair of others. He is neither inherently good nor bad. This reflects a Nasrallah’s position that “the conditions of man determine his actions”—protagonist Rashid is the product of his own society. His sensitive and even humorous portrayal shows the ‘line’ between regime opponent and extremist (though he is more of a corrupt businessman than an ‘extremist’ as the news uses the word today) is quite blurred. “We have everything within us,” Nasrallah insists. “This is something we explore in literature.”
4) A wake-up call
The text has been called deeply pessimistic, and comments from Nasrallah about the writing process and his observations of the world as he wrote Dog War II seem at first to back this up. “We are surrounded by terror,” he said in London during his 2017 book launch. “The novel is a scream,” a plea to see things as they are, and to recognize the presence of future destruction in all the things we do and are. “We carry our destructive impulses in us wherever we go,” the author warned his audience. The key here, and what the novel explores, is the dichotomy whereby: “Individuals create hope, [but] collectives create despair.” It is what we do as societies, the structures we live in and normalize that create the dark future Nasrallah imagines. What the novel shows is the delicate relationship between the individual and society, and it asks its readers to look critically at how, “In a herd, man loses his mind.”
5) Part of a series – novels about structures
Totally unmentioned in media coverage of the win has been that Dog War II is fifth in a series, called “Balconies,” that continues to grow. Just like Dog War II, each of the earlier works (the last, Balcony of the Abyss was longlisted for the 2014 IPAF) takes place in an unnamed Arab city. Each traces the intersection of its characters with different social and particularly governmental structures. Balcony of Delirium (2005) follows a government information officer as he grapples with things made wilfully invisible (it’s just a job, but where does personal responsibility begin?); Balcony of the Snow Man (2009) follows a newspaperman and a novelist as both almost literally butcher their characters in life as in writing. The book questions the complicity of the writer in the perpetuation of forms unable to adequately express their subjects. Balcony of Disgrace (2010) follows a young woman caught in the fallacy of social ‘protection’ both on the part of the government and her family, when she stands accused of ‘dishonouring’ her relatives following her rape. She is imprisoned by the government, abused while incarcerated, and hunted on her release—even when systems mean to act well they do violence. Balcony of the Abyss (2014) follows the triangle of a lawyer, corrupt minister, and professor as adultery and politics pull them “into the abyss.” In Dog War II, the series continues to evolve as war and business intersect with complex characters; this time, placing the action in an open and empty future.
More optimistic than it seems
As for the differences between Dog War II and Horses (which, also often overlooked, is sixth—or seventh, depending on how you count—in a separate but parallel series the ‘Palestine Comedies’); Dog War II may just be the more optimistic. After all, the heroes of the Nakba story—inevitably—failed to save Palestine. Speaking at an earlier book launch for Horses, Nasrallah recalled how—as he neared the end of the writing project—he did not want to finish. To finish the text was to see Palestine lost, and indeed, in the final pages of the work, the villagers of Hadiyeh sit by the side of the road, their village destroyed, waiting for the Red Cross trucks. A dystopia of another sort, perhaps. For Dog War II, despite its cruel characters, its acute portrayals of violence, and the dark world it inhabits, at least there is an open future within which we might be able to imagine something different.
Nora Parr is an OWRI Postdoctoral Researcher at SOAS, University of London with the AHRC-funded project Creative Multilingualism. She teaches on Arabic and Comparative Literature and in Palestine Studies, and she is currently at work on a monograph titled Nation Constellation, which uses Palestinian literature—in particular the works of Ibrahim Nasrallah and his ‘Palestine Comedies’ and ‘Balconies’ series—to offer an alternative model for the imagined national community. Her recent publications include “Cannibalistic memory,” from Under the Midmorning Sun by Nasrallah.