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Contemporary Arab Writers Offer a Fresh Take on the Historical Novel

History, according to British novelist Hilary Mantel, helps us place our small lives in a context. But what sort of context? And whose stories are to be told? At the Shubbak Festival in London late last month, four acclaimed Arab novelists talked about the contexts for their historical fiction, how they write to shift official narratives, to affect the future—and also to have fun.

The four novelists all said that they worked against the grain of official history. Iraqi-Welsh novelist Ruqaya Izzidien talked about writing about lives that had been erased from British accounts of World War I; Palestinian novelist Rabai al-Madhoun spoke about confronting Israeli narratives; Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi talked about passing on stories about Iraqi art and culture; and Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziada talked about writing about white people in Sudan.

The panel opened with a reading from Izzidien’s debut novel The Watermelon Boys (shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, awarded by the U.K. organization, the Society of Authors), which is set in Iraq between World War I and the 1920 uprising against the British. For Izzidien, the only one on the panel who writes in English, it was important to place Iraqi stories into English-language literature set during this period.

English-language writing on this subject, she said, usually “centers around European narratives and European protagonists and sets the Arabs as antagonists or, at the very least, background characters who serve as a menacing, perilous, exoticized background for the European adventure.”

Ziada, the author of three novels and two short-story collections, read from The Longing of the Dervish (winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, given annually by the American University in Cairo Press to the best contemporary Arabic novel not yet available in English translation), translated to English by Jonathan Wright, the British journalist and literary translator. Ziada’s novel is set in Sudan during the Mahdist revolt near the end of the nineteenth century.

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Ziada said he did not focus only on the stories of Sudanese characters. “Unlike Ruqaya, I want to write about the white man in our country with my point of view,” he said. “They wrote about us… but how do we see them? I have the right to write about this white man, or white woman.”

The Sunday evening panel, held at the British Library, was moderated by political scientist Laleh Khalili, who teaches at SOAS University of London. She asked the writers what they thought about their novels being used in classrooms, as teaching tools. Izzidien said it could be problematic if writers were to be pressed into service as representatives of a whole culture, but also empowering if it was part of a writer’s own project. Izzidien, Kachachi, and al-Madhoun all talked about the ways in which they purposefully intervened in the way history is written.

Ziada, by contrast, emphasized that he didn’t have a “good reason” for writing historical novels. He was raised largely by his grandmother and, because of this, “I played with stories from the past.” His grandmother’s tightly plotted tales ensured that “my imagination lives in that period.” Rather than representing Sudan, Ziada said, “I am still a kid playing with history.”

For al-Madhoun, there was no way to avoid representation, politics or the past. “There is no time like Palestinian time,” he said. “You live this life in the present time while the past is dominating your life and trying to force the definition of your future. So what time are you living in? You don’t know.”

Al-Madhoun emphasized that the question of Palestine’s past was central to resolving the conflicts of the present. We can forget the past, he said, only when injustices are resolved. Palestinians and Israelis “need to forget the past to live in peace and to share everything: the air, the sky, the shit, the rubbish, the love, everything,” he said. “But we couldn’t do that under occupation.”

Al-Madhoun’s novel Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba won the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and has been translated to English by Paul Starkey, now an emeritus professor at Durham University and the editor of a survey of contemporary Arabic literature. Al-Madhoun said that part of his novel’s project was to “confront the Holocaust with the Nakba”—that is, the Palestinians’ expulsion from their homes and villages in 1948. He emphasized that it’s important, when telling the history of the Holocaust, to “make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the problem with the Nakba is that it’s continuing, with no end.”

For Kachachi, who lives in France, it is important that her novels are translated and available as new Iraqi stories. She wanted to confront the misconceptions about Iraqi migrants, she said, who are often depicted as a people without deep cultural history or artistic longings.

Double exposure on a postcard from Baalbek, Lebanon, 1960, by photographer Ibrahim Chamas (Photo: FAI Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation).

For Kachachi, who lives in France, it is important that her novels are translated and available as new Iraqi stories. She wanted to confront the misconceptions about Iraqi migrants, she said, who are often depicted as a people without deep cultural history or artistic longings.

One focus of the evening was the research the authors did to support and inform their novels. Kachachi, whose most recent novel was The Outcast shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, said she relied in part on letters and other documents that she had obtained from her characters—or rather, the real people on whom her characters were based.

“And of course,” Kachachi added in English, “I have to say a big thanks to Santa Google.”

Izzidien said she used family stories in addition to official archives, as she felt “it was important to know what the other side was saying about us.” In order to do that, “I needed to consult British accounts in newspapers or autobiographies.”

Yet she was surprised by the extent to which British suppression of the Iraqi uprising was absent from English-language newspapers in Iraq. Izzidien said she “went to the archives in Istanbul expecting to see at least a sentence about it” in an English-language newspaper called The Baghdad Times, “but it was just articles about what was happening at the YMCA.”

Al-Madhoun said that much of his research involved walking the streets in historic Palestine where his novel was set. He wasn’t concerned about public figures, he said, but rather about the lives of ordinary people. “I go to the history which wasn’t written, the history that’s not taught to children in schools, that’s not in the media. I go to the ordinary people, and I take the stories from the lips of ordinary people.”

It was important to Kachachi to reorient historical fiction around people who don’t usually make the history books. “The official history has always been falsified and rewritten with each new ruler,” Kachachi said. “So as my fellow panelist said, I think we have a duty to write about real people living this life, rather than official history.”

For Kachachi, it was important to de-emphasize narratives of war, which have dominated so much of twenty-first-century discussion of Iraq. After working for many years as a journalist, Kachachi started writing fiction in her 50’s, when she decided that she wanted to show the next generation that Iraq was a country rich with art, music and literature. “I wanted to tell the stories of this culture, and this people. “

Ziada—who wore a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the Twitter hashtag #blueforSudan—was interested in social justice and contemporary political reform. Yet he was also the panelist who most often shifted the conversation to the pleasures of reading and writing.

“Yes,” he said of doing research, “we need the archive. Yes, we use the archive. No, we don’t write the archive.”

All four novelists approach history in different ways, shedding light on lesser-known stories. But Ziada also sounded an important note: Novelists are not historians, and there is no reason for historical fiction that does not tell a good story.


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