Interview with shortlisted author Raja Alem


Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?

I received the news when I was in Luz-Saint-Sauveur city, Luz means light and it is a city that lies in between the Pyrenees, radiating a special light described by the French writer Victor Hugo as the splitting light that guides those coming from the darkness of the valleys between the towering mountains.

I imagine that the shortlist is another chapter of the novel, where Bahbel, who failed to get the story of his aunts screened at the Venice Film Festival, has now succeeded in bringing it to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s nominations. I imagined Nouri embracing his aunts and congratulating them on their ability to take their charming world beyond a specific city or country.

I responded to Bahbel’s and his aunts’ childish joy and sent a message on his Facebook page jokingly, “Your madness has been heard.”

I don’t know if he needed to receive a Facebook message, when he could have received one from the world beyond where he is now. But I needed to send him a tangible message to confirm to myself and to whoever is experiencing the same craziness: “Nothing dies. When a word is unleashed, nothing can hold it back.”

One of the novel’s main characters has more than one name: Abbas/Nouri/Bahbel. What is the significance of the multiple names in shaping his character and his role in the novel?

Bahbel’s existence in the novel, and in life, is primarily a challenge to the dominant narrative, and that is through his championing his truth and the instincts of his soul. He surprised me, as a writer, with his need to fluctuate between identities to get through the dead ends of patriarchal fanaticism. He is similar to a flashlight that penetrates to the metaphysical to discover the aesthetic and magical depths of his soul and those which his aunts reached by appearing to subscribe to traditional beliefs. Bahbel is the bridge between the external which seems to be negative and the interior ripened by isolation. Bahbel’s eye searches for the flame of the soul once it is incarnated in this world. We discover through Bahbel’s scouting eye that the compelling circumstances that his aunts experienced failed to extinguish the flame, and perhaps even fanned it. Bahbel restores belief in the magic lost in our life. He is like someone who brings back magic to the world.

I often contemplate the multiple personalities of Bahbel, Nouri and Abbas. It makes me aware of the psychological and spiritual fragmentation a person experiences when they are incarnated in our earthly world. This three-way test that the soul chooses to activate its existential message. These fronts or currents that fight with us humans once we are born: the current of our deep innate tendencies or the plastic unconscious; the current of the

conditioned unconscious which is imprinted with the norms of family and society; and consequently, the current driven by the interaction between them, which is the price or sacrifice required for daring to stand out.

The novel’s main character is the embodiment of these currents. Nouri is the raw tendency that exudes from the soul’s longing, whereas Abbas is the mask with which we seek society’s acceptance, and Bahbel embodies confusion in the face of those who stand out, the confusion that leads to people attaching belittling labels to him and accusing him of madness. A crazy idiot is he who dares to activate his life from a differing perspective, who sees life through his own perspective, not that of others, in order to win their approval and acceptance. These three names represent man in his struggle to exist by a formula that is different from the prevailing one, this tension between surrendering to static molds or departing from them.

Bahbel does not expose a personal problem, rather the problem of our world today. We are terrified by wars and genocides, we protest against threats of our planet’s destruction: these are but symptoms of a disease lurking within the individual. This schizophrenia is created through assimilating with the persona imposed upon us by others; a mask that suffocates our soul’s instincts and accordingly leads to the destruction of our outer selves.

In the novel, Abbas is an artist trying to make a film about the lives of his aunts, an endeavor to which they object and even consider scandalous. In your opinion as a novelist, where should we draw the line between absolute freedom in creativity and respecting the privacy of individuals?

It wasn’t so much a refusal as it was a complicity between Abbas and his aunts to make the film. Considering it scandalous came from an authoritarian patriarchal perspective that seeks to silence and maintain secrecy. The recording and documentation were done with the aunts’ consent although they were embarrassed by their audacity, but it can be said that it was a slight embarrassment that didn’t prevent them from surrendering to the excitement of being the main characters of a film, characters that represent their life alone, with life being the magic and them being the witches. The reader of the novel realizes that Bahbel’s camera is drawing this out of them. The Sirdar daughters, especially Nouriya and Sukkariya, came to the fore and were innovative in front of the camera that tickled their egos and perhaps also healed some of their wounds.

Contrasting worlds intersect in the novel, as it skillfully moves from the world of reality to the world of imagination, from the world of the living to the world of the dead, to the extent that sometimes the reader is not sure which world is real. Why did you choose this style of narration?

Really, which is real? That is the eternal question.

When the reader can’t be sure which world is real, that only confirms that we are in the realm of doubt, where nothing is certain. Who can say which of these worlds is real? Plato reached the truth of the cave and the shadows on the walls which are believed to be the absolute truth.

Usually, I do not choose. Rather, the characters lead the novel as they will, but especially with Bahbel, I find it difficult to categorize it as a novel where there is a professional narrator. Here I can say that Bahbel is not a narrative that I chose, but rather a life that sprang from my fingers, a life in the depths of life where no line exists between the world of the seen and the world of the unseen.

Death occupies a prominent place in the novel, between characters who die and remain present, and others who are buried without dying. Tell us about how you approach the idea of death.

What is this death? Who can approach death as an idea?

I don’t have answers, merely questions.

Death is still a chapter in a novel that our brains fail to comprehend, where it starts and where it ends.

I like to imagine man as the infinite ocean that begins with a view and expands into invisibility. We are the moment of our death and the moment of our birth, just as we are this present moment. However, the limited mechanism of the mind cannot grasp this, and this is what always preoccupies me and my writings. I have always believed that a dream is an extension, just as death is an extension, and that through silence, contemplation, and diving into life, we can move and travel between what we call life and death. This is a conviction I was born with, and it lures me further and further.

Among my questions: is the disappearance of the incarnate the ending?

We do not die, not in the sense of disappearing. I discovered this through my experience with death; the deaths of my mother and of my brother Nabil.

We imagine barriers between the two worlds, we imagine barriers between us and those we know who died, while everyone is in one world.

The dead accompany us. We find them in the saliva of the foods they accustomed us to and in the heat of the touches of their hands and their embraces that continue to shine in our subconscious and give us strength when we are about to collapse. They meet us in our

sleep with a fragment of concern and a touch there. Their scents also return in our scents and in our habits as we unconsciously copy them.

Death is life's most faithful companion. We die a minor death every night and are resurrected in the morning. In minor deaths (sleep), events and plots exceed the wildest fictional imaginations.

The questions are endless and we may not want an answer to them, so we walk in a state of unknowing until it meets us without any planning on our part. Then there is no need to guess, as we will become that reality, the reality of death in which there is no death.

Which authors influenced you as a novelist?

It is difficult to list the influences that contributed to my foundation as a human being, not just a novelist. My cognitive core comprises all the intellectual output I could get my hands on, from books on art, philosophy, and natural sciences. I was influenced and inspired by everything around me, starting with popular magazines, road advertisements, and nature’s manifestations, and ending with conversations with those I meet, a source whose fertility is not to be underestimated.

For starters, I can say that I was influenced by the music and stories of the Qur’an, and then the pioneers of Sufism such as Al-Nafri, Al-Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi, Farid Al-Din Al-Attar, and Ibn Al-Rumi. Then, I am fascinated by ancient fables such as those of Al-Qazwini and some modern-day narrators in Asia such as Gorky and Dostoevsky and the Japanese Kawabata. Of course, there is the most important influence of European, specifically English, literature, through my study of English literature, and my immersion in—for example, but not limited to—the novels of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, Dante's Inferno, the German Rilke, the windmills of the Spanish Cervantes, the flowers of evil of the Frenchman Baudelaire, the lost time of Proust, the poems of Mallarmé and others. Also, my early openness to Latin American literature through the work of Borges and Asturias.

Ultimately, every moment of life is a story that inspires us.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently interested in books that have nothing to do with literature, though they are inspired by myths and their impact on the psychological constitution. For example, I am reading these two books: Trauma and the Soul by psychologist Donald Kalsched and The Soul Speaks by astrologist and spiritual researcher Mark Jones.