Yemeni Novelist Wajdi al-Ahdal on Being Birthed by a Poet

Today, we celebrate Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal’s twenty-fifth literary birthday with a translation of an essay that ran in Khuyut:

By Wajdi al-Ahdal

Wajdi al-Ahdal at an AFAC-funded writing workshop run by the Romooz Foundation in Sanaa, Yemen.

After my discharge from the army — service was compulsory — I returned to civilian life with three books, including my first literary work. At the time, I was a naive young man in his twenties, and I didn’t know anyone who worked in the media.

I remember carrying my first novel, The Last Sparks in Sheba, to a printer. I met the publisher and asked him to print it, but I was disappointed when he asked me for cash!

He asked: Had I published short stories in newspapers and magazines? I answered in the negative. Moving from one question to the next, the man discovered that I read neither newspapers nor magazines, that I did not know any Yemeni writers personally, that I was unaware of cultural institutions and literary events, and that I’d never been in contact with anyone who had either close or distant relations with the press.

He asked, incredulous: How will anyone know your novel’s been published?

By this point, in truth, I was sweating, and I had no answer. This kindly man advised me to start out by publishing short stories in newspapers and magazines, so that readers could get to know me.

I left him plunged deep in thought, wondering how writers could summarize a story — with a beginning, middle and end — in just two or three pages?

After a few months, I managed to adapt my imagination to the short-story form. I then faced the hurdle of publishing, since I didn’t know anyone, and, in those years, I also had a hard time with my social networks. I was nearly friendless, and I never met anyone outside of university classrooms.

A fine literary magazine called Aswat (Voices) fell into my hands, and I very much enjoyed it, so I decided to mail my stories off to them. I sent out four stories for them to choose from. In that magazine, Yemen’s biggest literary names were published, as well as a constellation of Arab writers. I said to myself, in this moment, that I’d staked my literary future.

Then one day, a fellow university student surprised me by coming up and saying, “Congratulations.” He talked for ten minutes, and I was in such a state of complete shock that I didn’t understand a word of it. He used big words, and my mind at the time couldn’t comprehend them; my heart beat fast, as though I were running.

Those were the strangest moments of my life. I felt the earth tremble beneath me, and it seemed that, after such a shock, my feet couldn’t hold me up. Doubt chewed at my heart and pounded like a hammer against my mind, as a sorrowful voice whispered in my ear, echoing, “Don’t be happy…there’s been some confusion…you know you didn’t send him your stories. Maybe this guy has you confused with someone else.”

This fellow student was surprised at how embarrassed I looked, and how badly discouraged. I don’t believe that I thanked him; I just told him that I was going off to the bookshop to make sure what he’d said was really true.

All that way, I swung between believing he was truthful and a liar, all while thinking: “Impossible. I didn’t send him any stories.”

I got to the bookshop, bought a copy of the 26th of September newspaper, and set off. I flipped through until I got to the page of the great Yemeni poet Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh, and I was amazed when I saw he’d published two of my stories, and that they took up an entire page, with an introduction that spoke in positive terms about their writer. The flow of this man’s noble humanity, and his words of encouragement —  here distilled and intensified —  had the effect of an earthquake on my soul.

The pen that’s now in my hand is unable to describe my feelings in that moment. It was as if the flow of energy in my body was the equivalent of a whole city’s electricity. In a very few seconds, I was transformed from an amateur who had never yet published any text to a writer being heralded by the greatest author in our country, or rather, being baptized, as a writer with his own particular style. This feeling of extraordinary happiness happens just once in a writer’s lifetime.

I remember I bought 17 copies of this newspaper, and at night I didn’t sleep, staying awake until dawn, catching a glimpse of my whole literary future and thinking that, by some happy chance, by some arrangement of fate I couldn’t understand, I had set my feet upon the land of literature.

I’ll never forget the date: It was March 30, 1995, and I still celebrate this day every year, as my literary birthday.

Before that date, I was a desperate and frustrated young man floundering in total darkness, not knowing whether to pursue my attempts at literature or to leave writing alone, restlessly struggling between the voice in my mind that called me to focus on a way to earn money, and the voice in my heart that called me to keep on writing, even if I lived in hardship and misery.

The tribute from the great poet Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh, and the publication of my stories, helped me to make the decisive choice to listen to the voice of the soul, and to give my absolute allegiance to literary writing.

Without al-Maqaleh’s words of encouragement, I would not have had the courage to walk literature’s jagged path, nor to be patient with the many thorns that surround it.

I imagine that the spiritual father of Yemeni literature could not have believed the enormous impact his words would have on me. With a word from him, he set my destiny in motion, in perpetuity.

And what happened next? I barely overcame my extreme embarrassment and visited al-Maqaleh in his office at the Center for Studies and Research, where I thanked him. He welcomed me and praised my talent in front of a crowd of well-known literary faces, saying to them words I have never since forgotten: “Yemen’s literary future depends on this young author.” There were looks of astonishment on the faces all around, and, even today, I feel a thrill of surprise at these words.

He told me that his pages were open to me, to publish what I liked, and he kept his promise and published several more of my short stories. Aswat magazine, which he oversaw, also published my story “My Annoying Nose,” which caught the attention of several public intellectuals, and made them ask about who had written it.

This great friend has also supported me in all times and crises, including serious incidents that occurred because of a young man’s imprudence, and al-Maqaleh’s personal intervention played a role in saving me from these predicaments. When Mountain Boats was published — the novel that provoked the ire of the regime — the former President of the Republic, Ali Abdullah Saleh, summoned al-Maqaleh and asked if he’d read the novel. He said yes, and Saleh told him that the novel attacks and mocks national symbols — by which he meant himself. Thereafter, the great poet of Yemen replied: “There’s nothing in the novel that states or indicates that, so, if someone sees himself in the novel, that’s his issue!”

I was not the exception; this committed intellectual stood by hundreds of writers, providing unlimited support and encouragement to generations of creative people, and personally contributing to saving many leftist intellectuals from arrest and prosecution, providing them with opportunities to live in dignity and work at the research center he headed up.

Certainly, we are a fortunate generation, to have come at the time of this great cultural leader, the likes of which the Yemeni nation had not seen before in his influence and his creativity.

Also read:

Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh: A Name Embedded in Yemen, which includes translations of several poems

Several poems by Abdul Aziz al-Maqalehin Carbon Innovationstr. Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen, with commentary

Young, gifted and Yemeni: Writers find inspiration despite war

Previous writers’ beginnings:

Kuwaiti Writer Bothayna al-Essa on Finding Her Voice in the Morgue