Saudi novelist Ashraf Fagih started writing fiction young, and his first collection — of sci-fi stories — was published when he was 20 years old:
From there, he shifted to historical horror with his gripping retelling of the Dracula story, The Impaler. He was won a slot in a 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction writing nadwa, and published his latest historical novel, رسم العدم (A Portrait of the Void), with the Kuwait-based publisher Takween this year.
This novel opens in Pisa, Tuscany, in 648 / 1250 CE, with an aged Leonardo Fibonacci — also Leonardo Bonacci, also known as Leonardo Bigollo Pisano (Leonardo the Traveler from Pisa) — appearing to answer for his crimes against religion, in the cathedral in Pisa, before the cardinal De Mora. The crimes? His mathematical heresies, such as the zero, borrowed off the infidel “Mohammedans.”
This Leonardo is old and ill and casually irreverent, and the book has both vivid filmic visuals and also a sense of comic timing. When threatened by a judge who tells the elderly mathematician to show respect, since they have sufficient charges to put him in prison for the rest of his life, the octogenarian mutters to himself, “The rest of my life?”
From there, the novel leaps back in time to 581/1185, when Leonardo Bonacci is a young man in Morocco, among “houses of the city are scattered like broken bread amongst the limbs of the mountains that protect their backs.” And indeed, it was among the people of North Africa that Leonardo the Traveler from Pisa learned the foundations of his mathematics.
A Portrait of the Void is a novel to be expected on Arabic prize lists next year. Meantime, Alfagih answers a few questions about what brought him to writing this novel, the surprises from his research, and who should play Fibonacci in the film.
First, why science fiction, and then why did you skip over the present to historical fiction? (is there a connection between the two?) What are the particular challenges of writing historical novels (beyond the obvious, researching the period)?
Ashraf Fagih: Farah Mendlesohn said that science fiction is “powered by a sense of wonder combined with presentism.” It is all about celebrating the magnificent and incomprehensible. I believe that a good historical-fiction piece should have the same impact. It should at least encourage you to question the version you’ve always taken for granted. That’s what I intended with the Impaler, and that’s what tempted me into writing A Portrait of the Void.
In science fiction, we invent inter-galactic empires and parallel universes to interpret our reality and speculate the future. But with history, we get to dissect the root causes. The outcome of both approaches is similar; to realize there’s always a bigger picture, and to humble our collective egos. Now that I’m thinking about it, the present seems to be too realistic for any creative approach to understanding ourselves!
The biggest challenge in writing historical novels is to find the climax of a struggle. You don’t want to end up writing yet another historical narrative. This is already available in history books. But to tackle a given biography from a different angle, and to transfer it into a humane tale that one can relate to, is the challenge in my opinion.
Did you travel to Algeria and Italy as part of writing the novel? Or how did you re-imagine Fibonacci’s 12th century journeys? The smells, the sights, the foods he ate?
AF: I visited Pisa some years ago, but only to see the Leaning Tower. I’ve been to Fez, too, which is as close as one could get to a town from the Middle Ages. But you do not really need to travel to these locations to be able to revive the sights and sounds on paper, especially if you are an Arab. I say this because I claim we are more exposed to the “other’s” side of the story, as we have been more influenced by translated literature and media. This is not necessarily the case with a Western author who may need to put extra effort to get into the “Oriental character.” I, of course, did some considerable research to comprehend many details and get acquainted with the period’s vocabulary. Nevertheless, it gives me great pleasure to be told repeatedly that I did a decent job in depicting the settings in this novel.
So . . why should we care about Fibonacci? Because he is involved in these historical moments, or was there also something that you saw or imagined or felt in his personality?
AA: No man is an island. With Fibonacci, I realized that I was learning more about Al Khwarzmi, Saladin and Ibn Arabi. I never knew about Bugia, nor did I fully appreciated the Abbasid Khalif Al-Mustansir (1192-1243), nor was I capable of believing that Sicilian Muslims fought under the banner of Frederick II in the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229), until I researched the life of Leonardo Fibonacci. These are all “collaterals” compared the scientific and philosophical revelations that originally took me through this journey. We Arabs are so proud of — almost dependent on — our heritage. We claim that we “invented” the zero. But how did our heritage affected the world? What was the nature of the interaction between us and our neighbors? What do we really mean when we say that the zero was an “Arab discovery?” The life of Fibonacci sheds light on all of that. Investigating the life of that 13th century Pisan mathematician taught me a lot about my own peoples’ history. That is why I chose to write this novel.
How did you work at re/constructing Fibonacci’s personality? And those around him?
AF: Stereotyping helped. I mean, here’s this man who authored numerous books on Arabic-style arithmetics, two centuries before the Arabic numerals were widely applied in Europe. The use of zero was considered heresy in his times. You could only assume that he was not grandly celebrated, to say the least. Let us also remember that this Christian Pisan spent his youth in Northern Africa, spoke Arabic, and travelled to Andalusia and Egypt. That was at the height of the Reconquista wars and the Crusades in the East. That would definitely add to the drama.
Fibonacci is hailed today as I genius, I gave him that, along with all the overhead of being an outlier, if not an outcast.
Historical accounts say that he earned the patronage of Emperor Frederick II — who was quite a controversial figure himself — and that Fibonacci was honored by his countrymen toward the end of his life. But there are still many gaps in the story. Was he satisfied with his accomplishments? Did he live in doubt, fear, disappointment? Was he expecting the celebration we are giving him nowadays?
How much is history? How much do we know about these characters’ lives, and how much space was there for invention?
AF: Aside of his remaining manuscripts, very little is known about Leonardo Fibonacci’s life. The date of his death is widely disputed. It is highly improbable that he personally participated in the Sixth Crusade. Even his famous portrait was sketched long after his death. Hence, I took liberty in composing a colorful panorama, myself.
However. We know a lot abut the court of Frederick II and his entourage of learned scholars. Those are real names that I’ve utilized in my little scheme to serve the lead character.
You say, in another interview, that much of your library is devoted to the history of the Arabian Peninsula. So will a future historical novel be set closer to your home?
AF: Certain drafts are in the making.
How have you shared this book with others this year, during Covid times, with most book fairs out of operation? What were you able to do (and not able to do) to launch the novel? What are the most important ways, generally, for Saudi authors to get their books out to a wider public?
AF: Book fairs are usually the best outlets. That option was limited this year, although Sharjah represented an excellent exception. I truly missed meeting the readers and my friends from the “industry.”
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t exaggerate the challenges. Lack of physical encounters allowed us — writers, publishers and readers — to focus on Internet platforms and to follow each other. I always joke that COVID would’ve been way more devastating had it hit us in the 80s, prior to the Internet and e-commerce.
I am happy to report that my novel was a best-seller through my publisher’s (Takween) website for the month of November. I believe that an electronic edition is inevitable. That will be the ultimate solution under the circumstances. Yet, the question remains: will an e-book fulfill the urge for recognition? This is a genuine concern in the Arab world.
What was something that surprised you, during your research into the time period? Are there other things that have surprised your readers?
AF: I am certain that many of the Arab readers will face a difficult time accepting my representation of Frederick Hohenstaufen and his attitude towards the Muslims, especially while entering Jerusalem in 1229. Emperor Frederick’s tolerance and openness, as portrayed in the novel, was baffling, even for his opponents. Strangely enough, the Jerusalem chapter of my novel is the least fictional. Its material was derived almost entirely from accounts by contemporary Muslim historians at the time, such as Ibn Al-Atheer and Ibn Wassel.
In general, and simply put, the character of Frederick II is exceptional. I think that we Arabs were so fascinated (obsessed?) by King Richard I “Lionheart” that we became oblivious to other equally influential figures. During his life, Emperor Frederick II was notoriously debated across both sides of the Mediterranean. His unprecedented interest in science (wisdom, as it used to be called back then) puts Fibonacci in his debt. We, as well, owe his legacy — particularly the bloodless Sixth Crusade — a serious reading.
If someone were going to turn your book into a film, who should play Fibonacci?
AF: Tom Holland would be young Leonardo. Older Leonardo Fibonacci would be Mark Rylance. But he’ll have to put some extra weight on!
What were your top reads of 2020?
AF: 1- Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee. I am embarrassed to declare that I just got to it! It’s been in the “next” pile for years. I read the Arabic translation by Ibtisam Abdallah, إبتسام عبد الله – المركز الثقافي العربي . It was still a brilliant tale. Absolutely captivating and tastefully painful.
2- الديوان الإسبرطي، عبد الوهاب عيساوي. This is the winner of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It didn’t disappoint. Good story with good build and a perfect set of characters. A bit lengthier than it should have been, however.
3- شوق الدرويش، حمّور زيادة. Finally got to it. Didn’t regret a moment. Hammour is one of the best of his generation.
4- حفرة إلى السماء، عبد الله العياف. First novel by Saudi filmmaker Abdullah Al-Eyaf. A compelling narration of the Saudi village-life in the 70s, before petrodollars and modernity changed everything.
5- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. I love plants. I believe in they’re collective-intelligence. I hope they don’t hate us for eating them.
6- Raphael: A Painteer in Rome, by Stephanie Storey. Yet another awesome work of historical fiction that takes place in Italy. Loved her portrayal of the renaissance period, and loved getting inside the minds of the magnificent trio: DaVinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.