KHALED MATTAWA: What’s ringing in my ear now is the adverb “originally,” and I want to discuss with Hanan and Fadhil the issue of origins. My question for them is about their early readings, their exposure to literature, and what led them to writing. There is a moment, an original moment, when one moves from being a reader to being a writer, and I want to see if our authors can tell us about when they discovered their literary impulse.

HANAN AL-SHAYKH: I used to read everything, especially inscriptions found with medicines, and I thought they were amazing. I used to love the words that  I didn’t understand. I used to also read the names of the shops, at a very early age, when I was walking in Beirut. There was one called Nâr Wa Nûr—“Fire and Light”—and these two words used to fascinate me. I would go every day just to look at the two big words.

At that time I was reading, like any young girl or boy, books for children taken from The Thousand and One Nights. But I never thought I would be a writer, except for one time when I was visiting my mother—she left my father and divorced him when I was five and a half or six. We weren’t allowed to see her the first months after the divorce, but once she took my sister and me to the mountains. I was about eight years old and I heard my mother singing while I was in the bathroom, and all of a sudden I was so happy. I thought, I want to capture this moment, because I wasn’t seeing her a lot. So I got a pen and paper and started jotting down these feelings—I didn’t want the feelings to disappear. I remember putting the paper in my pocket, and every time my mother was sitting in front of me and talking to me, I’d get the paper and read what I wrote. I knew that the next day or the next I was going to leave her, so I was so happy that I had this letter with me.

Since then, whenever I was moved, either by something very nice or very sad or unknown, I would write it down. When I was fourteen years old, I started writing to our newspaper, which had a special page for the students. So whenever my brother wouldn’t let me go out, for example, I would write something and send it to the newspaper, and this is how I started writing.

FADHIL AL-AZZAWI: I discovered literature very early when I was still in school, and I wrote my first poem when I was nine years old. I read Arab literature, Arab poetry, and I learned a lot of poems by heart. After reading and learning all these poems, I tried to imitate some poems in my schoolbook—which is how I wrote my first poem. Some of my schoolmates told my mother, “Your son is a poet.” She called me, “Come, Fadhil. What a shame. Are you going to be a poet?” I said, “Yes, what is the problem?” She told me, “That is impossible because poets in the Arab tradition praise the government. Are you going to praise the king or the governors?” That was my first lesson: The poet must be not with these people but against them.

MATTAWA: Hanan, you seem to have begun as a poet by writing your feelings down. Another idea is that writers begin by trying to fill a gap, something they feel is missing in the world. Was there something missing in the world that hadn’t been told?

AL-SHAYKH: No, I didn’t feel that at all. I started writing my first novel, Suicide of a Dead Man, when I was nineteen years old, when I was a student in Cairo. It was after a big love affair. I was interested in words, not only as an expression of my feelings. I could have expressed my feelings in other forms. But I was really interested in literature, especially when I was in Cairo. The atmosphere in Cairo then was captivating. I didn’t want to write to teach anything or anybody. I just felt I wanted to write about this episode at that time in my life, but from a man’s point of view. The narrator was a man because I said, “I’m not going to be like all the other female writers in the Arab world.” They were known—this is what the critics thought—to have one story, their life story. They’re going to write it and that’s it; they’re not going to write again. I thought, No, I should be the man. My character was a man talking about existentialism, of course, and about his love for the woman, his sickness, and this girl who is young. I was talking about, in a way, how to get old, how you feel when you get old. And I was nineteen.

MATTAWA: Fadhil, you started out with experimental writing after your homage to classical poetry when you were nine. Was that your sense of the gap? Can we still approach this idea, this need? Was there something that you wanted to say when you were young?

AL-AZZAWI: Literature for me depends on the point of view. My first book was avant-garde and experimental. Why did this happen? Because at that time, I saw Arabic literature as very traditional. It spoke about old things and old emotions. I wanted to do something to attempt to renew the language. It was very important for me. I have read the old Arab literature, but I have also read Western writers—from T. S. Eliot to Ezra Pound to the Beat Generation.

AL-SHAYKH: Do you read them in translation?

AL-AZZAWI: I read some in translation, but also in English. Another source for my writing was Turkish literature. I’m from Kirkuk, which is very multicultural. In this city, we speak four or five languages as children. I speak Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, English—English because the famous British oil company IPC is in Kirkuk, where many people worked, including my father.

I wrote once about the drunks in Kirkuk, the men who sing. There is in Kirkuk a kind of Turkish poem, only four lines but very, very beautiful. When the drunk people return late at night, they sing in the street—not old songs but new ones. They create in the moment. They sing very loud and everybody hears it. Another drunk in another city maybe hears it, then answers. And then another one, and there you have a dialogue of people with the people they hear, and this becomes part of literature and heritage without knowing who created the poem.

MATTAWA: You both seem to address and be concerned with issues of trauma. You are both interested in what happens after major events, in the aftermath. Why is fiction a better way, or the way you’ve chosen, to tell the truth about trauma, whether it’s the postwar period or the period after a dictatorship or even the end of the world? Why is fiction the way to tell the truth about trauma, rather than documenting trauma itself?

AL-SHAYKH: I think I chose the written word to express certain things in the world—the violence in the world and the violence inside me. I cannot ask myself why I chose this form of expression; I feel that I always wanted to express myself by writing.

Before The Story of Zahra, I wrote a book called The Praying Mantis. It was the first time I lived in Saudi Arabia. I became a bride and my husband had work in Saudi Arabia, so we went there for one year. For the first time I felt that I was an Arab, a Muslim, and that this country was an Arabic country. I’m from Beirut, and Beirut was very cosmopolitan. So I wrote The Praying Mantis about being in Saudi Arabia. It made me go back to my childhood, to my early days and what I felt about religion—how my father wanted me to become religious. He was never a fanatic, but he was a very pious man. Because religion was strong in Saudi Arabia, it made me go back, and I felt that I wanted to express certain things about the status of women in Saudi Arabia and religion vis-à-vis myself and my upbringing.

From my second novel until now, I express things so I can feel that I have a solution. When I wrote about the war in The Story of Zahra, I was like a wounded mare; I couldn’t believe that this is what the Lebanese were doing to the country. I couldn’t believe that all the streets I loved one day became different streets—streets of violence and despair and crime. I thought, I have to sit and write a book because I want to be stronger than the warlords or I want to be at their same level so I can understand why they are doing this. I wanted to understand the war. I wanted to express how upset I was in a violent way. I wanted to write about a sniper because I was terrified of sniping and snipers. I couldn’t believe that there could really be a man like me, from flesh and blood, who would perch on a roof with a pistol or a Kalashnikov and snipe people he doesn’t know. So I chose to talk about all these traumas by writing.

MATTAWA: Did you go back to Beirut after you left?

AL-SHAYKH: Yes, I left in 1976 because I was so frightened of the snipers, and I wrote The Story of Zahra while I was living in London. Nobody wrote anything at the beginning of the war. We had only one question: life or death. You had to save and protect yourself. I kept going back to visit, and the second book I wrote, in 1994, was also about Lebanon. The war took another shape altogether in my novel Beirut Blues.

MATTAWA: Fadhil, I think your work responds to two historical events: One is the 1958 revolution, which had a great deal of violence and the other the 1963 coup, which toppled that leadership and also incurred a great deal of violence in Iraq, after which you spent some time in jail. This is where I position some of the sources of trauma in your work. How much did both of these experiences direct your vision, your material, or where you were going as a writer?

AL-AZZAWI: The whole history of modern Iraq is a history of trauma. It was 1958, I was very young, and I saw the destruction of the country, of the people. I knew a lot of writers in the world and I wanted to be one of them. It was impossible for me to be with the executioners. I was arrested many times and spent more than two years in prison. I was still a student in the university. I saw the hell in Iraq; in prison I met victims, young people destroyed, families. Of course I wanted to stand against that, to write, to do something. That was my challenge.

There are three levels for trauma. One is personal: the trauma I experience with violence. Then there’s the national trauma. And there is also a trauma for the whole world. I have tried to write about that in The Comedy of Ghosts. I tried to rewrite Dante’s Divine Comedy in a very modern way, to write a human comedy, an earthly or worldly comedy. Adam tries to reach the Paradise but he has to go through the hell, and this hell was the hell of Iraq, my hell, and the world’s hell.

AL-SHAYKH: The trauma you’re talking about is also living in an oppressive society. You feel it, as you said, on a personal level. If you write about it, you want to express certain feelings and if you write about it, you are somehow taking revenge—you understand that and you have to write about it as if you’re fighting it or taking revenge.

AL-AZZAWI: I wrote about my prison experience in The Fifth Fortress—that was our prison, the Fifth Fortress—and about how innocent people are captured and destroyed. They didn’t accept the book for publication in Iraq so I published it outside of Iraq.

MATTAWA: In shaping these experiences, both of you also experiment with the shapes of the novel. Hanan, you have the epistolary form in Beirut Blues and the multiple points of view and characters in The Women of Sand and Myrrh. Then you have a fast, almost cinematic pace in Only in London. These are markedly different undertakings. Did you set out to make sure your novels are all shaped differently? Is this a conscious decision? How do you go about choosing which form will fit and why? Can you take an example and tell us why one form was appropriate?

AL-SHAYKH: It depends on the novel and what I want to say in it. In The Story of Zahra, because of the sniper and the trauma of the beginning of the war, the first sentence made me carry on. I knew what I wanted to do because of the first sentence. When I decided to write this book, I was walking in London and I said, “What is the most traumatic experience I can visualize or think about?” And I thought about a girl not understanding what’s going on. This was a parallel to my world because I still didn’t understand what was going on in Beirut. So from that sentence, “We stood trembling behind the door—,” I knew the novel about a mother and daughter, and I knew it should have a first-person narration.

With Women of Sand and Myrrh, I chose four women to talk about their experiences in the desert, and how they interact with each other. At the beginning, in the first version, it was about God talking, or in the third person, and somehow it wasn’t immediate; it was a bit artificial. So I thought that these four characters of mine should talk. It should be very immediate, because they are all in an oppressive society— I didn’t name the place, but because I lived in Saudi Arabia, I based it on Saudi Arabia. The Lebanese girl, the American woman, and the two Saudi Arabian women—one of the Saudi Arabian women is still very naïve, very kind, but determined to change her life for the better, and one is decadent. I wanted to really hear their voices.

With Beirut Blues, because I was in London and the war was still going on in Lebanon, I thought, I can’t talk as if I’m still in Lebanon; it has to be in letters because something should stand between me and what’s happening there. I can be cunning when I’m writing, but deep down I’m a very honest person, even in writing. I thought, I don’t deserve to write about the war in Lebanon while I’m away. Lebanese writers who are still living in Lebanon can write about what’s going on from day to day while I’m in London, sitting facing the trees in a calm atmosphere.

In the last novel, Only in London, I started to reveal my hidden personality, the comic one, or the lighthearted one. That’s why it’s rapid and the tempo is hurrying; this is how I saw the Arabs in London—hurrying and trying to live another life and trying to change themselves. They all meet on a plane; their lives interact as well. It’s culture. It’s East and West, and this is the way I thought it should be.

MATTAWA: Fadhil, you mentioned The Comedy of Ghosts, and I see that even in your poems, the earth seems to shift under people’s feet. The time and place are unfixed. It seems everything is linked to Iraq in one way or another, but time and place keep changing.

AL-AZZAWI: I read The One Thousand and One Nights maybe twenty times before I was twenty. It is a fantastic book, and I have learned to mix reality, adventure, imagination, and different worlds. Picasso says that reality is not only this material reality—it’s in our heads, in how we think about the reality. When I go to my head, I see the times and places mixed with each other.

We talked about trauma, but there is also humor in my works. Nietzsche says that inside every artist is a child playing. For me it is important to enjoy my work, to play in my work. But it is also important politically and culturally to create a new form and a new language. I wrote my first book when I was between twenty-five and twenty-seven years old. It’s a mixture of novel, short story, poetry, essays, imagination, reality, and super-reality.

MATTAWA: Both of you have been living away from your countries. Almost half of your lives have been spent abroad. I don’t know if you’re post-national or not—you keep writing about your native places in one way or another—but you are living abroad and being translated and so forth. What is your sense of being a post-national or international writer, or this notion of being a writer of “world culture”?
AL-SHAYKH: When I sit to write, I don’t think, except about what my characters are going to say and where I’m going to lead them. I face the empty page and I don’t think about being the Arab who is living in London and still writing in Arabic. I just write—as simple as that. I continue to write.

MATTAWA: In Berlin, there isn’t a big Arab presence—

AL-AZZAWI: There is, but they have no interest in the literature. The important thing for me is that I have lost my country. For nearly twenty-eight years, I didn’t visit Iraq. I live outside Iraq. My readers are not only in Iraq but also in the whole Arab world. I consider myself an Arab writer—I write in the Arabic language—but I want to reach everybody. I want to write for all the people, but I write about what I know.