Interview with Shortlisted Author Mohammed Hasan Alwan
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction to the news?
I was in my office at home in Toronto doing my usual work, when messages of congratulation on being shortlisted began to arrive through social media. Naturally I was happy and I was careful to check the reports were right, by looking at official sources. I told a group of relatives and friends and then I began to reply to the messages of congratulation.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for A Small Death, after being shortlisted in 2013 for The Beaver, which won the Institut du Monde Arabe Prize for the best Arabic novel translated into French for 2015?
I experienced first-hand the positive effects of being shortlisted in 2013, so I was happy that it was happening again. Being on the shortlist of the Prize gives a novel the exposure it needs to spark the interest of publishers, translators and readers of different kinds and this is very useful. It was because of its being shortlisted in 2013 that the French publisher, Le Seuil, noticed the novel and decided to translate it, in a programme where they only selected a single Arabic novel each year for translation. I wish the same good fortune, and more, for A Small Death.
Which books are you reading at the moment? Who are the writers who have influenced you as a novelist?
I am reading books about the recent history of the Middle East, trying to form adequate concepts of time and place so I can begin writing a new novel. As for the most important writers who have influenced me, generally I try to avoid mentioning specific names for a simple reason: I don't know exactly what their influence has been and the extent of it. Many people confuse the writers they like with those who have had a real effect on them. Some have given pleasure but not had an influence, and the other way around. An unknown writer I read as a child may have left a permanent mark on me and my writing, of which even I am not aware.
What was the main motivation behind the writing of A Small Death? Was it an interest in Sufism or something else?
Sufi thought in itself was not the motivation for writing the novel, but rather the character of Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi with his inclination for travel in both senses: moral and geographical. Ibn 'Arabi went on a spiritual journey, to live a life different from the one marked out for him and which he could have lived. He also travelled immense geographical distances despite not having to do so, driven by tumultuous existential anxiety. This aspect of his character drew me to write about him, more than his being a Sufi.
You have said in a previous interview that "the hero almost becomes travelling itself". And Ibn 'Arabi says in the novel, "One must travel to learn lessons. The believer is on a permanent journey and the whole of existence is a journey within a journey." What do you/does he mean?
Travelling in the novel is not merely an event but it is integral to the main narrative structure. Everything which happens in the novel is linked to this structure in one way or another. This was my artistic intention as I was writing. This intention crystallised as I became inspired by the character of Ibn 'Arabi and his life circumstances. Let's look at his life as he affirmed that existence is a journey and that standing still means non-existence. Ibn 'Arabi became one with existence as he imagined it. And I became one with him as I imagined him.
How does your relationship with the hero of this novel differ from your relationships with the heroes of your previous works and how did you feel when you finished writing the book? What aspect of Ibn 'Arabi do you like the most?
This is the first time that the hero of my novel is a real-life figure. This made me more careful when writing, as I tried to complete the unknown parts of his life in my imagination without making mistakes or distorting them. For this reason I was forced to read everything he wrote and that has been written about him to create a very detailed mental historical picture of him, before beginning to form it into a narrative. This was a big mental effort which made me feel empty when the novel finished. What shall I think about after today, when Ibn 'Arabi has changed from being an idea always with me to a printed book?
When it comes to what I liked, I have to make clear that I read about Ibn 'Arabi and wrote about him with a critical eye, trying to discover his weakness and strength, his doubt and certainty, and all his states of being as a human. I did not focus just on what I liked, and I didn't make him a saintly legend in my mind as his disciples do, because I think I would have lost a lot of writing credibility if I had done. But anyway, I admit that I was impressed by his rebellion against the social framework that was prepared for him, for the sake of a dream which was still vague. Ibn 'Arabi really did follow his heart, so it occurred to me to invent this expression which re-occurs in the novel: purify your heart, then follow it.
What is the significance of the four "pillars" for Ibn 'Arabi and the novel?
It is not documented historically that Ibn 'Arabi travelled in search of his pillars and there is no such idea in Sufi heritage. Sufis say that there are four pillars on the earth, that's true. But they are not linked to any particular person. So they were an idea which came to me as I wrote, to achieve artistic and narrative goals, and justify the constant travelling of Ibn 'Arabi.
Is writing about history writing about the present, in another form?
I cannot imagine writing which has no relationship to the present. Historical and futuristic writing is all an attempt to frame the present and understand it in the context of what has passed and what will come. Any work which does not touch our present in one way or another will not be read. It will seem like something written in a language which no-one understands.
Read this interview in Arabic here