Interview with longlisted author Khalil Alrez
When did you begin writing The Russian Quarter and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I began writing The Russian Quarter four years ago. I was living in the Jeramana district, in the countryside of Damascus. This area has witnessed difficult security situations for years, because of its extreme proximity to the battle front between the army of the regime and groups of the armed opposition in the eastern Ghouta. The distance between the front and the first buildings of the populated district on the Ghouta side (among them the building I was living in), was effectively no more than 500 metres. But the area was relatively more secure than those districts targeted by planes and helicopters, despite the mortars which used to fall on it most days, fired by armed elements in the Ghouta. Tens of thousands of people from different Syrian regions which have been destroyed have fled to Jeramana over the years. But its inhabitants, the original or the new ones, despite their religious and sectarian differences, lived together in genuine peace, as though their sons were not fighting each other on battle fronts far and near. From this came the first idea to write a novel about a neighbourhood still managing to stay safe despite great odds, one which had existed for many years on the edge of a war front, while refusing to join in the fighting.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
The novel took nearly three years to write. I was not able to work on it in one place in a continuous fashion. I began it in Jeramana and completed a part of it in Turkey and Greece, after I had left Syria. I finished it in Brussels where I now live.
How have readers and critics received it?
Judging from what has been written about it so far in the cultural pages of newspapers, and from online messages and social media, it seems to have found favour with readers who know about literature and literary criticism, and also from general readers.
What is your next project after this novel?
There is more than one project. Perhaps the one nearest to me at the moment is work I am doing on details I have learned about Syrians leaving and going to other countries. Of course, it won’t just be an exposition of the hardships facing them. What always concerns me, at the end of the day, is writing a beautiful novel, one which gives pleasure to readers without seeking to artificially gain their sympathy for characters facing horrors. These horrors are still fresh, and there is no need to repeat their real and frightening images in the novel. The novel, before anything else, is an elegant, skilfully crafted game.