Interview with shortlisted author Zahran Alqasmi
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
It was announced at the time of the Muscat book fair. I returned late from the book fair and went to my house in the village. I was with my family, far from the phone when messages began flooding in from people congratulating me. When I found several messages which had arrived from friends, I was able to grasp what had happened.
When I looked at the longlist and the important names on it, who are well known in the Arab world, I truly wasn’t expecting my novel to be on the shortlist. I said that to some people, although its being longlisted in itself was a huge gain. It was all I aspired to. I told my wife and children what the novel had achieved, and we went out to celebrate in the town.
Tell us about some of the symbolic connotations of water in The Exile of the Water Diviner.
Human beings throughout history have had a strong connection with water. For this reason, we find that great civilisations grew up on river banks, and anthropologists affirm that the beginning of life on the face of the earth commenced with water. But what happens when this substance which gives life to creatures also becomes the cause of their death through scarcity or flooding? How does water become a killer?
The other symbolic connotation is that water is a natural resource and that frittering it away and not using it in the best way possible will lead to it drying up. This is a very important message, to look at natural resources upon which life is based, and upon which the stability of many countries depends, and to consider how they are used.
Also, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, water is more than a substance to quench thirst. It is the first mirror which enticed Narcissus and made him look at himself. It is the questioning self and the deep inner self with which he fell deeply in love. We strive to possess this self, and destruction can be the result. Yet we will go far to achieve this.
I left many symbolic connotations for readers searching for the deep meanings in the text, which would widen their perspectives of it.
- How did your background and the fact that you live in an Omani village affect the writing of the novel?
Anyone looking at life in the Sultanate of Oman will find that it largely depends upon an old system for providing water for drinking and agriculture, the system of the aflaj (water channels). They are a complicated social system, linked to social and class strata. Water is divided in equal shares throughout the year so that the owners of gardens can take what is due to them. Since I am a son of one of these villages, since my early childhood I have known a lot about the system of aflaj and heard many astonishing stories and legends connected with this system. This enriched me as I wrote the novel.
I imagined the environment of the book as an Omani village. I visualised its paths, gardens, alleyways. It was easy at that time to write the chapters fluidly.
When and how did you move from writing poetry to prose? How has poetry influenced your writing of prose?
In 2008, as far as I remember, I began writing a column in the Ashri’a cultural supplement of the Al-Watan newspaper. It was entitled ‘Biography of the Stone’. At first, the writing was poetic, but I found myself compelled to force my way into the environment of narrative, because I began to remember stories about the villages. That project continued until I was able to write around a hundred texts, all stories set in the villages, and mostly ones I had heard from people.
When I finished that project, which proved popular with readers at the time, I decided to try writing a novel, in 2011. That year, I wrote my first novel and published it. I am sure that it was the door which opened up to the novel.
I used to try very hard to avoid falling into the trap of using poetic language, but because I was previously entrenched in poetry, poetic expression was there between the lines in the scenes described. That was important in crafting a text with well-expressed, solid language, without being drawn into linguistic follies, on the one hand, and benefiting from poetry, on the other.
Tell us about the female characters in the novel. They seem to play an important role in the life of the main protagonist.
Historically, women gave life to humanity; they initiated change in civilisations and agriculture; they caused many important historical transformations. So, I tried to focus on that in the book, on how women also caused changes in the life of the main protagonist. The water diviner only saw the light of day [at his birth] because of the boldness of one woman, Kadhia, and also because of the woman who cared for him and breastfed him. Then there was the woman he was drawn to by love, and who became his great homeland. All these characters have a big role in directing the course of the text and shaping the character.
In a previous interview, you said that “a village person lives under the microscope”, fearing what people will say. Is this part of the harshness of the local environment?
Looking at it from above, or from the point of view of a visitor who doesn’t know it intimately, the village seems to be very calm and perfect for recreation and rest. But as soon as someone gets involved in the life of people living there, they will find that villagers live on stories about each other.
A village person cannot have his own private life because he lives according to prevalent social values and that ancient social system, which forms an eternal system of customs, traditions and norms produced by village life. Therefore, we find that each person in the village is observed and known. This is what makes it a harsh environment for various characters who are trying to forge a different path from everyone else.
In your opinion, what do the village stories and legends add to the text of The Exile of the Water Diviner?
When I began to write the book, I imagined the narrator, the voice telling the story inside the text, as a voice from the village endowed with all the village characteristics needed by the novel, including his way of telling his stories. It is known that when a village person begins telling a story, he will embroider his speech and digress in various parts, which all enriches the tale.
So, I thought that the ideal way to write the text would be to emulate the narration of a village story. I began to weave the story, using symbols, since the stories and legends in the book have a strong relationship to the main idea. The novel is about water and the connection of village people to it, and to its legends, stories and symbolic meaning.
The water diviner says to his wife: “if the same thing had happened in the home of one their sheikhs and rulers, they wouldn’t have uttered a word. There, bad behaviour turns into wisdom and madness is insight and superiority”. Can you comment on this?
However insightful a person might be in village society, which is distinguished by its hierarchical structure, this means nothing. A village person is obliged to submit to this hierarchy which makes of him someone who sees, respects and holds things sacred, or simply forgets.
When we go back to history, we find that most stories told about villages fought everything which was different and were only concerned with the opinion of the ruler. Everything done by that person is considered ideal behaviour. An example of this is what happened to many prophets who are mentioned in holy books.
Does the water diviner, the hero, dig deep into himself, just as he digs into the rocks, trying to free the water within from its prison?
This is what he tries hard to do. The voice he hears may not be water, and he has reached that conviction at the end of the book, sensing that it is connected to the headache his mother suffered from. He has been searching for water to free it and extract it from its prison in the depths, but he falls victim to that process, finding himself trapped and face to face with his inner self, bloated with inner struggles. For this reason, his one concern at the end is to break through that prison which he has fallen into.