The Palestinian-Jordanian author recently won the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel The Second War of the Dog
Ibrahim Nasrallah on his life, work and philosophy
Ibrahim Nasrallah is one of the most prominent writers in the Arab world today. The Palestinian-Jordanian author recently won the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel The Second War of the Dog.
The book revolves around Rashid, who changes from being an opponent of an unnamed regime into a materialistic extremist. Set in a futuristic and unknown country, the novel focuses on the struggle between greed, human values and ethics, with the latter largely ignored.
The Ipaf award comprises of a cheque for $50,000 (Dh183,000) and funding to translate the novel into English. In the wake of this win, we met with Nasrallah to find out more about his work, life and philosophy.
In your own words, who is Ibrahim Nasrallah?
ANo human being can summarise himself in a few lines or even his thoughts and ideas. Every book I have ever written was an attempt to say something about my surroundings and the people around me, starting right from my family’s tale of how they were “thrown out” of their homeland in the year of the Nakba, as well as writing about my nation [Palestine] in my literary project – the seven novels of Palestinian comedy covering 250 years of modern Palestinian history – and numerous poetry volumes, and I won’t end it with just my life story. I was born in Amman, Jordan, where I spent my entire life, living in all its details as it matures and grows. I wrote about it in my three-novels project Al-Shrfat – Balcony of Delirium, Balcony of Snow Man, and Balcony of Disgrace.
When did you start writing, and what motivated you to become a writer?
I began writing in my final year of middle school, I was merely 13 years old. I don’t think a person can recognise the main motivating factor in his or her decision but maybe it’s a mixture of feelings that one endures and goes through that leads him to express them via writing, then only to find out later on that writing is the best form of expression. Therefore I honestly don’t know if we choose writing to become its vocal voice, or do we choose it to become our voice.
Who has made an impact on you or influenced your work?
I have been influenced by every author or poet who has produced a good piece of work, and as you know our Arab region is quite open to all the different cultures worldwide, and writers from across the globe have become an integral aspect of our daily cultural and literary life.
with a group of Palestinian children who You wrote a novel about your journey to Mount Kilimanjaro were injured during the intifada. Can you tell us more about it?
It was a unique experience, as it carried in its essence a humane message that portrays defiance at the highest level. What I learnt from this experience I tried to express in my 380-page novel [The Second War of the Dog]. It was not just lessons that I have learnt. It was way bigger than that. It was a rich and very touching experience and maybe the opening of the novel tried to demonstrate one of these lessons: “Inside every human there is a peak that is to be reached otherwise he will remain at the bottom”. But I also learnt how to find that artistic equation – I would say it is almost a mixture of simplicity, complexity and madness that enabled me to write this novel. Therefore I was not exaggerating when I said: “This novel is the novel that I have always wished to write.”
Were you surprised at The Second War of the Dog winning the Ipaf award? What did you think of the other contenders?
No one can predict a single thing, and most probably the results were a surprise to everyone; to the critics, readers and the work’s author – for sure, prediction in this instant is an impossibility. I read all of the works that had progressed to the shortlist, and as I said in my winning speech “these are novels I fell in love with as a reader and that I feared as rivals”.
Do you think the Arabic literary field is reflective of the region’s reality and its various issues?
The best reflection of Arab life with all its complications is Arabic literature. It is the most transparent image of the human soul and the ambitions of an entire nation. Literature is also the most daring and most able at conveying ideas despite the political shadow that controls our lives. Therefore, literature is freedom, beauty, dignity and hope.
A recent western study claimed that people in the Arab region are the least well read. Do you think that is true?
I don’t believe this entirely, especially in the past decade, as there is a significant return to reading in particular among young men and women. I am also witnessing the role of publishers in expanding, as publishing has become a lucrative business that has made some people millionaires. If you are asking if I long for a wider proportion of reading, then yes I do. But we can’t forget or ignore the fact that there are many Arab countries where books can’t be accessed due to internal wars sometimes or sanctions or because of censorship and the regime’s guidelines. Therefore I have my doubts about the accuracy of this study as it is isolated research carried out by someone living in the West, which has wider freedom, more civil rights and a better economic situation. So you can’t compare that to readers in the Arab region or even in developing countries.
Is there any new book for you on the horizon?
There is a trilogy which covers nearly the entire 20th century, which is part of my Palestinian comedy project; it will deal primarily with Palestine civil life and will rely on stories of love, music, singing, and photography. It will also contemplate the reality of Palestinians through the journey of various generations and the way life has evolved.
What is the the role of literature in enlightening people on issues that concern the entire region, such as the Arab uprisings and political situations?
There is no doubt that literature, writers and artists from the Arab world played a brave and courageous role in singing, painting, performing on stage and in cinemas – all of these portrayed a realistic image of our souls, and we can’t imagine the daily Arab life without their presence. Yet Arab writers were also always monitored and constrained by oppressive regimes, poor education systems, a controlled and misleading media but, despite all this, the Arab writers did not give up.