Successfully tracing the footsteps of history

Mohammad Hassan Alwan, who won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel A Small Death, aims to provide his readers with an immersive experience

Image Credit: AFP
“I’m currently enjoying writing historical fiction but I also enjoy writing about life in the present,” says Mohammad Hasan Alwan
Gulf News

Mohammad Hassan Alwan’s phone has been ringing nonstop ever since his novel, A Small Death, won the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) on April 25 at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

A Small Death

By Mohammed Hasan

Alwan, Dar Al Saqi, 592 pages. Dh66

“I’ve been surrounded by the media since then so I never had the chance to let it sink in until a few days later,” he says. “I’m all right now. The shock has worn off.”

For the 38-year-old novelist, there are a lot of people to thank for his success. “I’m full of gratitude for a lot of people who helped make this possible, from the people whose writing, studies and theses I relied on to gather information — most of whom don’t know me — to my friends who read my novel and helped me refine it until its publication.”

And then there are the committee members and judges at Ipaf who turned the award into a vital platform for Middle Eastern writers, allowing them to showcase their works and reach a wider audience.

Ipaf turned 10 this year and the annual prose award is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). Along with a $50,000 (Dh183,000) cash prize, winning novels are offered additional funding to encourage their translation into English.

“I always look at any literary event to promote my book and gain access to readers that I wouldn’t able to reach without the attention from these platforms,” the Saudi national tells Weekend Review. “I always look for new readers — they are one of my main sources of inspiration — that’s one of the greatest rewards that any literary award gives me.”

A Small Death is a fictionalised account of the life of a Sufi saint, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, from his birth in Muslim Spain in the 12th century to his death in Damascus. It follows his mystic Sufi experience and heroic travels from Andalusia to Azerbaijan through Morocco, Egypt, the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Of a sensitive and anxious nature, Muhyiddin struggles with inner turmoil throughout the course of his travels. Witnessing fictitious events including savage military conflicts, he attempts to fulfil his mission against a backdrop of states and several cities and the numerous people he comes in contact with. “Ironically, many people assume that I wrote about him because he was a Sufi saint but actually, what appealed to me in writing this novel was all the travelling he did,” Alwan says. “Ibn ‘Arabi travelled for over 50 years, he lived in about 40 cities, never staying in each place for more than a few years,” Alwan explains.

“These places were all under the rule of three or four empires at the time so I began to wonder what did he see during his travels? Norms, sights, sounds — these were more interesting for me than the Sufi aspect of his life.”

Alwan also muses that his personal interest in travelling may have reinforced his interest in writing this particular story. The Riyadh native currently lives in Toronto.

“I’ve always been interested in travelling. My only nonfiction book, Migration: Theories and Key Factors, deals with this topic on a wider scale,” he says.

Did he think of retracing Ibn ‘Arabi’s footsteps? “I tried to go to some of the places he travelled to,” Alwan says. “However, there are cities that are currently inaccessible, such as Damascus, where his tomb is located, due to the political situation and conflict in Syria.”

While the novel’s central character is a polarising figure among Muslims — Sufis regard him as their greatest practitioner and hard-line conservatives label him a heretic — Alwan is firm about his intentions in writing A Small Death.

“Ibn ‘Arabi is both a popular and controversial figure but we know little about his personal life, compared to his philosophies,” Alwan says. “That was one of my greatest frustrations when I tried to learn more about him. Then I realised that this was an opportunity to write his story in novel form and fill the gaps through fiction, while also humanising him.”

A Small Death is Alwan’s fifth novel.

“There will always be those who criticise it for various reasons but I’m happy that generally, the reaction has been positive as people seem to be appreciating the way I went about it,” he says.

Alwan’s previous works, The Ceiling of Sufficiency (2002), Sophia (2004), The Collar of Purity (2007), and The Beaver (2011), were similarly well-received. In 2013, The Beaver was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and in 2015, its French edition won the Prix de la Litterature Arabe, awarded in Paris for the best Arabic novel translated into French for that year.

“I always find it fascinating when readers come up to me and say they’ve found common threads among my works because I don’t think there’s anything that links them beyond the fact that they’re written in the first person and deal with the connection between people,” he says.

Alwan also participated in several events at the Abu Dhabi book fair, and he also managed to squeeze in some time to explore the fair’s offerings and meet fellow writers.

“I was only there for a couple of days but I had a wonderful time, as usual,” Alwan says. “I’m always impressed how the organisers are committed to constantly improving the fair and raising its profile, both regionally and internationally.”

But he also enjoys meeting fellow writers from around the world. And as an added bonus, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi was also celebrated as the book fair’s personality of the year, with panel discussions about his life and works.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I found out,” Alwan says. “It seems that he’s rather insistent on being ‘present’ in Abu Dhabi.”

So what books did Alwan pick up there?

“Currently, I am mostly reading questions by journalists,” he notes wryly. “I’m actually reading some of the novels shortlisted for this year’s award, such as In the Spider’s Chamber by Mohammad Abdel Nabi.”

Mostly though, Alwan was busy acquiring historical books about the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries for his next novel

“I’ve already bought 60 and I can’t wait to start reading them,” he says, quickly adding that writing historical fiction isn’t a genre he’ll focus on in all his future novels.

“I’m currently enjoying writing historical fiction but it’s not something that I’m fully drawn to or see it as a style that I’ll stick to, given that I also enjoy writing about life in the present,” he says. “My main aim is to provide readers with an immersive experience that doesn’t bore them halfway through the story,” he said.

Alwan, who has a doctorate in international marketing, acknowledges that even though his passion for writing extends back to his childhood, his path took a detour before he found his way back to writing full-time.

“I started out by composing poetry when I was 14,” he says. “I actually wanted to be a poet. It was when I published my first novel (The Ceiling of Sufficiency) while at university in Saudi Arabia, majoring in computer studies, that I found my way back to writing,” he says.

“In fact, the skills I picked up, such as researching methodologies from working on my PhD thesis, have helped me when working on my novels, especially A Small Death which needed intensive work throughout the writing process.”

The acclaimed writer, who is also a mentor in Ipaf’s nadwa (writers’ workshop), offers words of advice for aspiring writers.

“Writing isn’t just about the expectation of being inspired all the time,” he says. “There’s a lot of effort involved, from research to banging your head against the wall in frustration, to feeling lost when writing or editing your book. But that’s a normal part of the process. Everyone’s full of energy when they start out. The key is maintaining that energy when you’re on your hundredth page and possibly starting to doubt yourself or the story.”

Moreover, Alwan notes, it’s important to find a balance between writing and other aspects in your life.

“Personally, I live alone and I’m a rather homey person but even so, I don’t seclude myself when writing,” he says. “I try to keep my social life as normal as possible. If I’ve changed, my friends haven’t noticed or said anything — yet. Maybe in a few years, I’ll become one of those eccentric writers.”

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

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