By Tugrul Mende
Omani novelist Bushra Khalfan’s novel, Dilshad, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) this year. The plot, which revolves around the a young native of Muscat named Dilshad, takes place in the Omani capital during the first half of the 20th century. Omani culture and some of the poverty present in the country, are reflected on through the story of the protagonist and his daughter, Omani culture and the poverty they are living in. The novel has been described as one of „hunger, sadness, adventure and love”.
ArabLit contributor Tugrul Mende spoke to Bushra Khalfan about the inspiration behind the IPAF-shortlisted novel and her interest in Omani social history.
Before writing novels you published short story and poetry collections. What compelled you to write a novel?
Reading a novel means entering another world, and I’ve always thought that novelists are made of the same stuff as magicians. My short stories have concentrated more on matters of the heart and existential questions, but when the subject I wanted to write about was my country’s social history and my beloved city, Muscat, I came to a realization that a short story wouldn’t do it justice.
Your novels are very complex, with different timelines and strong female characters, as is the case with your first novel The Garden. How did you prepare to write your novels?
To write about Oman in that particular and peculiar era required lots of research and countless personal interviews with people who lived during that period, as well as those who participated in major events that changed Oman’s modern history.
And why did you choose the title The Garden for your first novel—what does that title represent to you?
The title of the Arabic edition of my [first] novel is “al-Bagh”, which is a Farsi word and is used in old historical Muscat to describe the garden that has a mansion in its center. This word is not used outside of Muscat and selecting it was a reflection of the state (Oman) itself and all the internal conflicts it has suffered.
How does it feel that you were nominated and what does this nomination mean for you as a writer?
I was thrilled but also in some ways nervous. I am delighted for my less fortunate characters because their voices, their longings and thoughts, will be heard loudly and maybe in different languages.
How were your two novels received in the Arabic press?
My first novel was very well received in Oman, and the Gulf region, but my new novel, Dilshad, was very well received by the Arabic press, the Arab readers, and by critics all over the Arab world.
You published Dilshad with Takween; how hard was it for you to find the right publisher in comparison to your first novel?
Both my novels didn’t face any difficulties with publishing. I have been writing and publishing for about quarter of a century now and I do believe that my collections of short stories and poetry have established a good reputation for me as a writer.
In what way did the language and style you used change when you switched between different timelines?
Depending on the timeline, we need to take into consideration the time, the change of location, and the cultures. The different dialects used in the villages of the mountain region are different to those of the capital city of Muscat, which has so many different languages integrated with Arabic. Add to that the experience and maturity of the characters themselves as we travel back and forth from one timeline to another, and that affects the evolution of the language used.
What does your writing process look like and what can you recommend to young writers who wants to start writing novels?
I am somehow a slow writer, which means that it takes so long for the ideas to be processed internally. And as the idea itself is processing, a certain amount of research will be taking place, and that usually takes a few years. Once I start the actual writing, I devote all my time to it, and I give it all the time it needs. But I also have a very strict routine which I set for writing, which is around eight hours every day.
For new writers I recommend that they allow time to work its magic: give time its time, as they say.
In what way do you think does the IPAF plays a role for novelists? What does it mean for your specifically?
The IPAF is one of the prestigious literature prizes in the Arab world, and it is the best platform to reach to a wider range of readers, and to attract the attention of scholars. I am optimistic that it is a way of taking the Omani novel a step further towards the world of literature internationally.
Your novels seems to have a historical feel to it. What sparked your interest in using the historical setting and what does it tell us about modern-day Oman?
In the last fifteen or so years, my attention was especially concentrated on the history of Oman and the Arabic Gulf states from the 18th century onwards, because it helps me understand the social history. I am very much interested in this because, through the lens of history, I can understand the basis and the changes in the formation and reformation of Oman’s society during the era of expansion and trade with India and Africa and the British Empire in the Gulf, as well as the discovery of oil and the social changes that accompanied that.
You are very active in the literary scene. How much has the literary scene changed in the past few years and what do you hope for it?
A new generation of writers has emerged, a generation which has easy access to information, thanks to the internet, a generation that has been well educated and had someone to look up to and be inspired by. Omani writers have been recognized on a national and international scale, writers that if I may say, have somehow paved the way for this new generation.
Bushra Khalfan is an Omani short story writer and novelist, born in 1969. She has been writing short stories, novels, and articles for a quarter of a century. Her collection of open texts, Dust (2008), was awarded the Omani Writers’ Association Prize. In 2014, she founded the Omani narrative laboratory and has run it since then. Her novel Dilshad was shortlisted for the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.