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'Books are freedom and hope': Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah on life and literature Open in fullscreen

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'Books are freedom and hope': Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah on life and literature

Ibrahim Nasrallah at the International prize for Arabic fiction award ceremony in Abu Dhabi [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 November, 2018

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Book Club: Author and poet Ibrahim Nasrallah, winner of the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, talks more in-depth about his life and his writing.
Earlier this year The Second War of the Dog, a novel by Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah, won the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for 2018. Nasrallah was awarded a $50,000 cheque as well as funds for an English translation of the novel.

The story itself revolves around Rashid, who changes from being an opponent of the 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 while the latter being ignored.

When asked to explain who Ibrahim Nasrallah is, he replied: "No human being can summarise himself in 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."

He starts to narrate how it all began "right from my family's tale of how they were 'thrown out' of their homeland in the year of the Nakba" to then "writing about my nation in my literary project," (seven novels covering 250 years of modern Palestinian history) as well as numerous poetry volumes.

"I won't end it with just my life story," he says. 

Every book I have ever written was an attempt to say something about my surroundings and the people around me

Nasrallah was born in the Wihdat refugee camp in Amman, Jordan where he spent his entire life. He wrote about it in his three novel project Al-Shrfat (The Balconies... of Delirium, of Snow Man, and of Disgrace.)

He began his writing journey during the final year of middle school, at the mere age of 13. Talking about what motivated him to start, he replies: "Maybe it's a mixture of feelings that one endures and goes through that leads him to express them via writing, only then to find out that writing is the best form of expression.

"I honestly don't know if we choose writing to become its vocal voice, or if we choose it to become our voice," the renowned author adds.  

Nasrallah took a journey to Kilimanjaro mountain with a group of Palestinian children who were injured during the Intifada. He wrote a novel about his trip, describing it as a "unique experience."

"It carried, in its essence, a humane message that portrays defiance at the highest level," he adds.  

He then attempted to put this "unique experience" into his 380 page novel.

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"Through the novel I tried to describe the rich and touching experience. I learnt that inside every human, there is a peak that is to be reached, otherwise he will remain he will remain at the bottom. I also learnt how to find that artistic equation which I would say is almost a mixture of simplicity, complexity and madness – this is what enabled me to write this novel. I was not exaggerating when I said that this is the novel I have always wished to write." 

Winning the booker prize was a complete surprise to Nasrallah, he says, adding that he had read all the work that had progressed to the shortlist. "They were all novels I fell in love with as a reader, and I feared as a rival."

Nasrallah continues: "Literature is the most transparent image of the human soul and the ambitions of an entire nation. It is also the most daring and the most able at conveying ideas, despite the political shadow that controls our lives. Literature is freedom, beauty, dignity and hope."

According to a recent Western study, people in the Arab region are the least read, but Nasrallah casts great doubts about the validity or accuracy of such a study, stating that the last decade has witnessed a significant return to reading among young men and women. He believes that the role of publishers is also expanding and it has become a lucrative business. But he did admit that he longs for a wider proportion of reading.

"Also, we can't forget or ignore the fact that there are many Arab countries that do not have access to books due to internal wars, sanctions, censorship or regime guidelines prohibit them. The mentioned study is an isolated research carried out by someone living in the West, where there is wider freedom, more civil rights and a better economic situation. Therefore you cannot compare that situation to readers in the Arab region or even in developing countries."

Literature is the most transparent image of the human soul and the ambitions of an entire nation. It is also the most daring and the most able at conveying ideas, despite the political shadow that controls our lives. Literature is freedom, beauty, dignity and hope

When asked about the role of literature in enlightening generations on issues that concern the entire region, such as the Arab Spring, Nasrallah asserted that there was no doubt that literature, writers and artists from the Arab world played a brave and courageous role in singing, painting, performing on stage and cinema.

"They all portray a realistic image of our souls and we can't imagine our daily Arab life without their presence. However, there is no denying that some Arab writers have been monitored and constrained by oppressive regimes, a poor education system and controlled and misleading media, but despite all this, Arab writers did not give up."

So, what can more can we expect from this renowned writer? A trilogy that will cover the entire twentieth century, as part of his Palestinian comedy project, the novelist tells The New Arab. 

"This will deal primarily with Palestinian civil life and will rely on stories of love, music, singing, and photography. It will also look at the reality of Palestinians through the journey of various generations and the way life has evolved."

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors:
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