Muhammad Alnaas is the youngest winner of the prize, whose latest edition was announced in Abu Dhabi in May Image Credit: Supplied

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Dubai: From a Libyan village, 31-year-old novelist Muhammad Alnaas, whose novel ‘Bread at Uncle Milad’s Table’ won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker Prize, is set out to deal with the most complex issues concerning men and women, and the relationship of masculinity and femininity.

He is the youngest writer to win the prize and the first Libyan to do so - Al Naas was declared winner at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi in May.

A Bachelor of Electrical Engineering graduate from the University of Tripoli in 2014, he published a collection of short stories entitled ‘Blue Blood’ 2020. In an exclusive interview, he told Gulf News about, through this novel, the relationship of men and women in Libyan society.

In the closed society in his village, Milad strives to live up to the definition of ideal masculinity, as his society views it. However, after all his best efforts, he fails to be a ‘Man’, and after meeting his sweetheart and wife-to-be, Zeinab, decides to forget about this definition and just be himself.

Living at home, he performs the tasks which his society reserves for women, while Zeinab works and supports the family. Milad is unware of how he is mocked in the village until his nephew breaks it to him. Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table questions static ideas of gender and champions the individual in the face of ideas adopted by the majority.

Mohammed Alnaas answers questions related to all these in this interview:

Q. What is the impact of oral culture on your writing of the novel ‘Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table’?

A. Folk proverbs in general within the country are considered as a kind of constitution or standard that is invoked in daily life, answering questions that are always looking for reference, and many of these grandparents do not know who said these words. It relied on a number of proverbs, and the novel itself evoked the proverb. We have to understand the Libyan society in order to understand the essence of the novel, as well as the format from which the proverb came.

The main character of the novel, Milad, is a negative symbol because women are liberated in his shadow, so I called him the ‘opposite man’. While the ideal men are, as we say in the proverb, “the Tris died in Chad,” and the Tris in Libya means the tough men, meaning they died in the Chad war in the 1980s, and men always die in the war. And in other proverbs, we say “the horse is on its rider,” meaning he takes it for its cause and raises it. Popular proverbs are present in the novel, and even each chapter of the novel is based on a specific proverb.

Q. Did you grow up in a family that reads and writes, or did you find yourself guided into this world?

A. I am from a family in which there are two parts. The first is a family of sciences and Sharia. Most of my ancestors were conservatives of the Holy Quran, and the second part is the people who struggle in life. My father is originally a government employee. From the 1990s he became a farmer. I only see in my father the image of a peasant.

Q. You mean, you didn’t open your eyes to a family library?

A. Yes, we had books at home on agricultural sciences and in the English language, and they are coded books for me. We had only one book, which was by the late poet and well-known historian Khalifa Al-Tbilisi, which are excerpts from modern poetry. I mean, I only got to know Al-Sayyab through this book, as well as Nazik Al-Malaika and Al-Mutanabbi outside the classrooms. This book includes a group of Arab writers, which opened my love for books. Until now, I do not know to whom this book belongs - to my father, my mother, or my sister. I stole the book and kept reading it, the first book I had in my library.

Q. What attracts you to the short story first, because you published a collection of short stories before your novel?

A. In general, I am a person who loves stories, even stories of everyday life I enjoy. I see myself as a storyteller, not a novelist. But I moved away from the short story. The last one I wrote was two or three years ago. The beauty of the short story is that it summarises the moment or situation in our daily lives. I started as a storyteller, even though my stories are rather long, that is, they consist of 12,000 words, meaning that I wrote the short story in a long format. It is from them that I took myself to the novel.

Q. Did you leave the short story because the topic of your novel was too big for the short story to comprehend?

A. My novel was originally a short story. It was not a novel at first. And I can say that my novel is a collection of stories; short, interconnected.

Q. Your novel is written with a smooth narrative, which was praised by the jury. Was that your choice?

A .Perhaps because the character calls for that and the birth of a simple character who works as a baker, and did not complete his high school stage of study, and his language expresses his depths. The novel is narrated through Milad. He was talking about his wife. It is true that he speaks in a formal language, but he addresses the reader, and tells him the events of the novel.

Q. Who are the writers and novelists who have influenced you?

A. It is natural for a writer to be affected by all the books he reads. I can say that the writers who constituted an important stage in my life are: Al-Tayeb Salih and the Season of Migration to the North, from which I loved the art of the novel as well as the character of Mustafa, and what attracted me in it was the narration outside the frameworks of the Arab novel. at that time. The second teacher, who does not know that he taught me, is the great Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni. I read most of his books, and the most beautiful novel he wrote is “The Doll” about the story of a leader. He introduced me to the voice of Libya and opened the way for me, and through him I got to know the Libyan writers. Naguib Mahfouz is the teacher of all of us. Nikos Kazandzaki and the novel “Zorba” and “Report to Grigio”. And I don’t forget George Orwell, and his 1984 novel, which I read five times. Among American literature, we can mention Hunters Thomsen, his mastery of journalistic narration, and the kind of bizarre journalism he writes. And if you ask me in ten years about that, I can give you a different answer.

Q. What is the Libyan novelist scene for youth now?

A. Of course, there are better writers than me. The Libyan youth have now emerged from the state’s domination of literature and culture, and the Libyan youth are beginning to discover themselves. One of the dominant writers for me is a young writer a year older than me, Muhammad al-Misrati, who is based in London. He has not released literary works yet, but I predict that he will be one of the most intelligent young literary voices.

Q. Libya, as it is known, lacks local publishing houses. Doesn’t that hinder the publication of young people’s products?

A. There are Libyan publishing houses, but they are few, such as Salem Al-Serghani Publishing House, one of the greatest Arab publishers, and the problem of Libyan publishing houses has suffered for decades from the state’s restrictions because it monopolised the field of publishing, and did not allow the private sector to appear and work. There are Libyan publishing houses that are now awakening from the slumber of the past 40 years and the hell of the past ten years. Hope for good in the future, such as Dar Al-Kitab Al-Jadid, Dar Al-Ferjani, and Dar Al-Kun. Some of them are outside the Libyan borders.

Q. Why did you choose Maskeliani Publishing which published your Arabic Booker Prize-winning novel?

A.I did not choose the house of Meskliani, but it chose me. When I was writing my novel, I did not think of a particular publishing house. I was just hoping to publish my novel. I have a poet friend, Salem Al-Alam, an excellent reader and poet. I sent him the novel and he pledged that he would communicate with the Tunisian publisher. The novel was published by Dari Resham in Saudi Arabia and Dar Meskliani in Tunisia, meaning a joint publication.

Q. Do you rewrite your novel many times before settling on its final form?

A. Of course. The novel began in 2018. Back then I didn’t know how to knead and bake. So I was adamant that the hero be a baker. I gave up the first manuscript. I wrote the novel again later.

Q. Why?

A. Because I did not like the writing, so I rewrote it at the beginning of 2020 in a different way, and decided to learn bread making in order to express the depths of this baker, the hero of my novel. I started making bread and sowed many kilograms of flour in order to learn. Since I learned how to make bread, the horizons of writing a novel have opened up for me because Milad was waiting for me to learn how to make it in order to write a novel.

Q. Did you try to discover the woman in the novel? Have you studied the conditions of women in Libyan society?

A. Yes, the idea of the novel came from reading the Libyan society and its heritage, through sociology, and from my personal reading of the society in which I live. We must know the characters we meet. The writer collects his notes in the subconscious mind and then the stories come out.

Alnaas (L) with Shakir Noori, who interviewed him

Q. The problem of masculinity and femininity is very strong in Libyan society, isn’t it?

A. That is right. Women’s haracter in the city can be stronger than in the countryside. She works, she goes to the coffee shop. In the tribal areas, women are found weak, because of the traditions that control their movement and relations.

Q. As for the female character in your novel, how did you portray her?

A. She was a woman from the city who went to the clan areas, and became a different character. Milad knew her because he was her childhood friend.

Q. Do you have a new novel project?

A.Yes. It is inspired by a character mentioned in my novel ‘Bread at Uncle Milad’s Table’, whose name is Lotfi Al-Manawi, who is a fictional Libyan director.

-Shakir Noori is a writer and journalist based in Dubai.