The Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner speaks about his acclaimed career and growing up in rural Syria
Syrian author Khalil Sweileh’s prize-scooping novel is filled with tragedy and nostalgia
Sitting in a quiet corner of Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat, Khalil Sweileh is pensive.
The Syrian author is minutes away from receiving the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which comes complete with Dh750,000 cash prize, for his fourth and most recent novel Ikhtibar Al-Nadam (Remorse Test).
While humbled at the award, he says that it poses a new set of challenges as an author.
“This is amazing and I am so honoured to be here. You have hope, but to win this prize is a different feeling,” he says. “But you know, as a writer sometimes these things make you worry as well. You wonder whether you have anything more to say or have I reached the top, so to speak.”
Sweileh is in fine literary form
Judging by his previous work, the 58-year-old is in rude health. Ikhtibar Al-Nadam is the follow-up to Writing Love, which as well as winning the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2009, was recently given an English translation.
Where that work confounded readers and critics with its almost hybrid mix of poetry and prose, Ikhtibar Al-Nadam is a more straight forward and powerful affair, with a plot based in war-torn Syria.
Split into two parts; the novel begins with a series of Facebook exchanges between journalist Narinj and actress Hamida. While the private messages begin with formal pleasantries, it develops from there, with both offering their reflections on the war and ultimately an unrequited romance.
The second half takes the reader into Damascus, as Narinj wanders the streets in an attempt to capture the mood of a city living on edge.
“What I was trying to show how was not just how war can destroy cities physically, but it how it also rips the communities as well,” Sweileh says.
“Any sense of mercy, good will or anything with feeling is put aside in such a situation.”
Sweileh achieves that through the wide assortment of hopeless souls that Narinj meets along the way, from new refugees and orphans to small-business owners using innovative methods to make end meets.
Ikhtibar Al-Nadam will be especially resonant and heartbreakingly nostalgic for some Syrian residents because Sweileh incorporates real locations and street names into the story.
“It’s one of the things about writing, I guess,” he says. “It gives you a chance to rebuild things that have been destroyed, through your imagination.”
With his novel praised by critics, but selling in relatively small numbers, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award should go a long way in spreading the word to the masses. In the meantime, Sweileh is also appreciating the interest shown by western audiences for Writing Love.
A denser and philosophical tale, yet equally steeped in memories, the book follows another writer in search of inspiration – this time there are visits to the book stores and cafes of Damascus and narration of the everyday hustle of the city.
Writing about love
Whereas in Ikhtibar Al-Nadam Narinj is tracing the destruction of the city, the novelist in Writing Love is more concerned with matters of the heart. Sweileh’s book, alongside last year’s poetry collection Al Hob Shareer (Love Is the Enemy) by Palestinian author’s Ibrahim Nasrallah, is one of the rare modern literary releases that discusses love and all of its manifestation.
Sweileh agrees with Nasrallah’s commentsthat today’s crop of Arab authors have shied away from tackling issues such as love because it’s viewed as a not serious literary pursuit.
“And there is also the aspect that it is still viewed as a sensitive topic,” he says.
“Centuries ago, many of our great Arabic scholars spoke about love openly, both the emotional and physical side, but now if you get close to this topic, it can be quite problematic.
“Also, we are living in a very tense time in the region, so that subject has been put aside for the time being by a lot of writers.”
Sweileh also credits his broader outlook to growing up in Al Hasakah district in north-eastern Syria. “It was full of desert and different than the main cities,” he recalls.
“I think it was that transition of growing up there and then studying in Damascus really helped me as writer. I try to blend different styles in my work and a lot of that came from these beginnings. It makes you see things differently, and that is always useful when you are writing.”