Interview with shortlisted author Siddik Hadj Ahmed
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was preoccupied with my farm, checking on my crops, tillers, and sheep. I won’t claim, like some novelists in question do, that I felt indifferent. In fact, I was anticipating the announcement and was a little stressed. I kept myself distracted with the goat’s mischief with the sheep: his courage in the face of the sheep’s coldness and dullness often caught my attention. Then I heard my Messenger ring. I opened it up and saw that a friend was letting me know that Drought had been shortlisted. I thanked God for this triumph.
When did you begin writing Drought and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I began writing Drought in 2017. The idea of the novel may have been present in my creative sub-conscious when I finished writing Comrade: Companion in Injustice and Loss, in 2016. However, I usually have a period of rest after finishing any fiction writing, since it is always tiring to write and revise a text, before sending it off for publication.
The idea and theme of the writing essentially goes back two and half decades, to when I was preparing my doctoral thesis in the Central Algerian University. I chose to study a literary character from the Azawad Sahara. I made a journey to those desert places and tents in the north of Mali, moving from one tent to another, on the trail of that literary figure which I had set out to study. I was struck by the anguish of the tribal heads and pain of the old people when they spoke about the tragedy of the drought which hit their pasturelands in 1973, and the resulting calamities, which changed life in the greater Sahara. Most of those who survived fled towards the neighbouring countries, after their livestock perished. But what drew my attention most about those journeys into exile, was the exile of the Tuareg and Libyan Al-Hassan Arabs, and their gamble with Gaddafi, who made a pact with them, offering them the lost homeland of Azawan. He sent them to military training camps, using them in proxy wars in the south of Lebanon and in Chad. They returned, disappointed and nostalgic, and mounted a revolution in the city of Manuka in the north of Mali, in 1990. The war of Azawan then began, which continues to this day.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
The novel took four years to write, between journeys I made, research in the archives, and interviews with people who experienced the events at the time of the drought, or in Libya, southern Lebanon or Chad. Finally, I broke all that down and re-shaped and reconstructed it imaginatively, based on a solid narrative plan, and using my experience of Tuareg and Al-Hassan culture, both of which I know intimately. I spent the fifth year revising the text.
The novel raises questions about the relationship between history and fiction. How do you see this relationship?
Historical fiction is a trap. If we start from the assumption that all fiction has a realistic equivalent, then the historical novel must be specific and sensitive when tackling it. Turning history into fiction is linked to what is called narrative logic, which a novelist must be aware of. Also, there is another, more critical, matter in historical fiction, which is the historical time of events in their original history and in their narrative time in the text. One mistake could destroy the text and render it worthless.
You mentioned in a previous interview that the desert is a philosophy, a vision, and inspiration. Why does the desert occupy such a place for you?
Yes, many do not know that narrating the desert’s emptiness, silence and void is arduous. In order to successfully narrate the desert, you have to be aware, meditative and philosophical in writing about this space. What would you do if the narrative logic requires you to take the main character 1,000 km across its void and distance. What would you say?
To overcome this dilemma, you have to speak to the stones and interrogate the sands. This is the issue in desert narratives, which are different from the noisy city, brimming with the movement of objects. In the city, moving the main characters and describing scenes are much easier than in the desert which you can only narrate from an existential, philosophical perspective.
Do you have writing rituals?
Of course, every writer has his rituals to which he has become accustomed and which have become like friends to him. Perhaps one of mine is to write in the calm of my farm. I own some agricultural land, where I spend most of my reading and writing time. Stillness and concentration are two vital things for creating a text, and one can add to them silent music, too.
What are you reading now?
I am reading Coexistence of Civilisations: An Antidote to Huntington by Harald Müller, translated by Dr. Ibrahim Abu HashHash, published by Dar Alkotob Algadid and Fischer Publishing in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2005.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I am working on a narrative project, which has been taking shape since my first novel, The Kingdom of Ziwan (2013), and continued in the novel Comrade (2016) and in my final novel Drought (2021). In each novel, you find a different atmosphere, although they are all part of one narrative endeavour, all taking place in the greater Sahara and neighbouring African countries. Each one has their own distinct characteristics and flavour. The Kingdom of Ziwan talks about the castles of Touat, while Comrade deals with the black Africans and the problem of their migration towards the European paradise. Drought describes the life of the Tuareg and the Al-Hassan Arabs in Azawad.
At the moment, I am planning my fourth novel, which is also part of the same fictional project, but has a different setting and location from the books preceding it.