The Arab world has a lot of very good writers, but it doesn’t seem to have all that many readers. What can be done to redress this? Actually, people in the Arab world devour novels, in much the same way as they do in Europe. There is a massive reading public in this region, but the main obstacle for most authors is marketing their book. In Europe and America, novels are widely available. Sadly, the marketing of Arabic books is not quite like this. A book that is published in Baghdad is often not available in Marrakech or Cairo. A book published in Beirut can only be bought in Beirut. This is what we must overcome if we are to create a modern Arabic canon.
A lot of the novels on the recently announced Arabian Booker shortlist explore the conflict between Islamic values and the West. Does this reflect the prevailing theme of Arabic thought right now?
Yes, because this is the most important issue of our time and the most important issue in the world right now. There is a perceived difference in Western and Islamic values and literature is a hugely important cultural tool with which to explore this issue. This is why literature is so important: to enable people to understand what is happening in society and to see things from other people’s perspective.
Several decades ago, most of the best-known Arabic authors resided in Europe or America. In the shortlist, all but two of the novelists live in their country of birth. Is this a sign that the Arab world is finally retaining its creative ambassadors?
As happened with me 30 years ago, I found it difficult to stay in Iraq and to be a writer and to write what I wanted to write. It was only possible to do that outside the country, and many writers had that experience. But now it is easier, and even those writers who have been abroad for many years are finding it easier to visit their countries and to stay for a couple of months. But it is important to be in contact with the world’s major writers, who tend to be outside this region.
Is it important that Arabic novels are read outside the Arab world? It is important. We have shortlisted these novels because they are good novels, but also because they are dealing with the real problems of our society, and when they are translated, [people outside this region] will be able to understand us better, to know how we think, how we deal with problems. The best way to understand any society is to read its literature.
The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will be announced on Monday 14 March in Abu Dhabi, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. For more information about the prize, visit www.arabicfiction.org