Interview with longlisted author Ismail Fahd Ismail
When did you begin writing Al-Sabiliat and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I began writing in Autumn 1989, but became busy with other things and stopped. Two years ago I went to Iraq, to Basra and the village of Al-Sabiliat, to revive memories and emotional connection with the place and its people, who have lived through tumultuous times.
About the inspiration - at the very beginning of the novel, in the writer's foreward to the book, I mentioned that in Autumn 1988 I had a phone call from a journalist friend who works for a Kuwaiti newspaper. He told me that at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, his paper received an invitation from the Iraqi media to survey the effects of the war which had lasted 8 years. He said: "We got into a helicopter which circled over an area covering nearly two hundred kilometres, above the decrepit date palm farms, a sad and painful sight. Suddenly we saw a strip of mature green. I asked my companions how this was possible, and his answer was that this was the village of Al-Sabiliat." At that point my friend told them that my birthplace (I, the writer) was Al-Sabiliat, Basra, Iraq. He continued: "It intrigued me and I wanted to know why your village alone was spared." He hoped I could find out why. The novel is the result of that investigation.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
Writing, revision and listening to the views of a limited number of friends before publishing it, all took nearly a year. It was written in Kuwait and I also made a brief visit to my birthplace for two reasons. Firstly to revive an emotional connection with the place, so that I could write about it truthfully. And secondly, to check on the local vocabulary, to avoid making any unintended mistakes. At the same time, I was aware of the existence of eye-witnesses of what had taken place, who are basically friends from my childhood.
How have readers and critics received it?
Dozens of Iraqi families from Basra living abroad have celebrated it, especially those from the south of Basra.
It's not yet clear what stance critics are taking towards it. There have been some comments about it being shorter than my previous narrative works. Others have questioned the point of writing about a regional war which ended nearly three decades ago.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I'll go back to a point in time three decades ago, continuing my work on a short novel dealing with the assassination of the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali on a London street.
(Read this article in Arabic here)