Interview with longlisted author Aisha Ibrahim
When did you start writing The War of the Gazelle and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I wrote the first pages in June 2018. I had been collecting information about rock art in Libya for a manuscript I am preparing about the history of art in Libya when the wondrous wall paintings in the caves of Acacus in southern Libya caught my attention. The 10,000-year-old paintings show a people enamoured of beauty and elegance, combing their hair in innovative ways, dressing in carefully sewn clothes, familiar with music, and dancing with their arms up in a state of supplication and pleading. They believed in resurrection and mummified their deceased in preparation for the afterlife. I was contemplating the painting of a curvy woman, putting on a dress with the help of two tailors (I used this scene for the book cover). The image of that woman with the same dress and physical structure re-ocurred in another painting where she sat in an elevated royal setting with a man kneeling at her feet. So did images of a graceful deer, cattle herds, battles, and rings of worship and dance.
I read the chronological history of the Libyan Sahara and learned that at the time of the novel it witnessed a rainy era prior to major climate changes. What I read in the history of religions and anthropology corresponded to this. I also read French researcher Henri Lhote’s book The Search for the Tassili Frescoes: the story of the prehistoric rock-paintings of the Sahara, then Fabrizio Mori’s book Tadrart Acacus. The latter had published the findings of his research on the inscriptions of the Acacus and his discovery of a mummy of a boy belonging to the Muhijiaj people (picture on the last page of the novel). They were an unknown people, who came before man knew how to write, but they wanted to say something, to send us messages through thousands of scenes.
Something drew me to these paintings, they seemed to me like stories talking about themselves, as if calling upon me to dust them off. From these paintings an imaginary world came to life for me, whose characters speak of their past. I knew then that I would not finish the manuscript, as the idea for this novel had persistently taken control of me. The dancing gazelle revelled in these unknown worlds entrenched in history. The queens, tailors, soldiers, cow herder, and all the illustrated characters were liberated from their rocks, and appeared on the pages to speak of the things that the unknown ancestors wanted to tell. It was as if the time had come for the secrets of this unknown civilization to be revealed.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
It took only five months, from June to November 2018. While I was writing it, war broke out in Tripoli and lasted for a month and a half. I used to write to the sounds of the shells, then we were forced into exile in another suburb in the capital. It was the atmosphere of war that inspired the title of the book: The War of the Gazelle; a kind of verbal symbiosis between the gazelle of the novel and the ongoing war in Tripoli which some Libyans refer to as “gazelle” in reference to the famed gazelle statue which stood at the center of Gazelle Square before disappearing in 2014 to an unknown fate.
I wrote all the chapters in Tripoli under difficult conditions because of the shelling and power cuts. I spent the time writing it to forget about the surrounding horror. When the novel came out, some of the first interpretations from readers were that it was about the Tripoli war and Tripoli’s gazelle.
How did readers and critics receive it?
Before sending the novel to the publisher I shared it with some critic friends whose objective opinion I trust. They welcomed it very much and introduced it to the public at seminars on the margins of the Cairo International Book Fair in 2019 which included critical reviews and discussions. I also found reviews and specialized critical studies on websites, newspapers and magazines, as well as dissertations for Masters and PhD degrees which I consider to be a great celebration of the novel. The most important and beautiful reactions are the messages and posts of readers who said they couldn’t stop reading until they reached the end. Some even said they wished they would never reach the end.
What is your next project after this novel?
I have finished the manuscript for a collection of short stories called The World Ends in Tripoli. It is currently in print and will be released at the 51st edition of the Cairo International Book Fair. In addition, I am starting to write a new novel that I prefer not to talk about yet because it’s still in its early stages.