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Laila al-Atrash: A Carnival of Sparks – Setting Fires and Breaking Taboos - Al-Sijill

When you enter the world of novelist Laila al-Atrash, whose collected works were issued in two volumes at the beginning of 2008, you should wear protective clothing to shield you from the fire of words ignited in such works as Sunrise from the West, A Day Like Any Other, A Woman of Five Seasons, Two Nights and a Woman's Shadow, The Neighing of Distances, and Illusive Anchors.

 

The usual caution is unwise in the dance of fire, depths of turmoil, and carnival of sparks. As soon as you touch her fire, you become, like her, a fire-setter, sweeping through the ugliness, treachery and inequity in life.

 

Her secret lies in her simplicity and sincerity, and in her craftsmanship. Her origins lie in the volcanoes she set off early on. In this interview she discusses her career, ambitions and techniques, and the messages she wants to convey, along with her views on publishers and critics of her work. We brave the fire to present Laila al-Atrash as she is.

 

Let's start with Illusive Anchors. What has your television experience added to your work?

 

I would say that presenting Illusive Anchors in the form of a TV program was an unprecedented development for the Arab novel. Throughout the program, the camera and crew follow the host, Shaden, the producer, Sulaf, the director, Saif, and their guest, Kifah Abu Ghalyoun. While in London, the host and producer confront and reflect on their past back home. This novel has been well-received by a number of prominent critics and added to the curricula of some universities.

 

Some critics place you in the category of feminist literature. They argue that most of your work focuses on women's issues, and that no female writer can escape this parameter.

 

Novels about women should not be confused with feminist novels, which originated in the West and have been adopted by some Arab women writers. The latter focuses on the woman's self, body, and attempts to explore and enjoy it. And on the man who helps her discover the release of emotions through the body. In Arab novels, the man is usually a foreigner, someone who respects the woman’s body, which is to Eastern eyes only a sex object. It's interesting to note that heroines in these novels are under the age of forty, when notions of femininity and physical beauty are at their peak. This is a predicament for the woman writer. The heroine can’t be in her sixties, for instance, with a body that needs a lot of cosmetic upkeep, while her enjoyment takes different forms and expressions.

 

This does not necessarily mean that I'm against this literary genre or the views of the woman writer, as long as she has mastered the creative instruments. No one has the right to impose themes or literary forms on writers. The novel comes first, and then comes the critique. It does not follow its preconditions and specifications. As I’ve always said, I refuse to have my novels pigeonholed as feminist or women's literature. I write a non-gendered Arab novel, and what I write is either literature or it’s not. If modern critical theory emphasizes the "death of the author", that is to say, engages directly with the text regardless of the beliefs, sex, or career of the writer, I want my work to be treated within this school of thought.

 

It isn’t the case that my writing revolves around women's issues. The woman in Sunrise from the West is a lead character and heroine. There are a lot of men around her, but they are all defeated individuals incapable of being heroes. In A Woman of Five Seasons, the man and woman move in two dramatic parallel lines. In The Neighing of Distances, the narrator and main character is an intellectual whose dreams of change through knowledge and culture are thwarted by the tribal mindset. So he is sent into exile as an ambassador in an attempt to protect him from traditional, fundamentalist militants. In Illusive Anchors, both men and women make up the lead characters, with no one taking precedence over the other. The only work in which all the main characters are women is Two Nights and A Woman's Shadow – a stream of consciousness novel in which two sisters realize after a long time apart that they’ve become entirely different people.

 

In your literature, you've managed to break taboos and sacred barriers. Has this been your intention?

 

No, my work has always been centered on writing a different type of novel and sustaining my career in fiction. Because I began publishing late I resolved to write a different type of text, not giving in to any deterrent, even my internal censor. I push the boundaries with everything I write, and go up against religious, political and social barriers. And I’ve paid a high price for what I’ve put down in writing and presented in my television programs. I've reached a stage where I care for nothing so much as a publisher who's not afraid to publish what I write.

 

In one of your recent columns, you argued that the state of religious discourse is responsible for our suffering. Could you elaborate?

 

The religious discourse that has prevailed over the last few decades has propelled Arab societies into regression and backwardness. It is also responsible for distorting the image of Islam and bringing about the world's condemnation of Muslims. It is a fundamentalist, fanatical and violent discourse that rejects ‘the other’. This is a vicious attitude that monopolizes the truth and regards itself as God's hand on earth, laying blame on everyone else. Some Arab governments have exploited and even encouraged this discourse for their own purposes, targeting enlightened liberal thinking which has, in turn, failed to put forth a convincing pan-national project. It is the sort of ideology that calls for rejection of ‘the other’ and promotes suicidal acts with the promise of a better life in heaven to compensate for failure in this life. This trend has bolstered Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which, with government support, has hijacked religion to the caves of Tora Bora and led children in religious schools – even some of the educated elite – to become suicidal murderers on the road to an elusive paradise.

 

Could this be one reason why you launched PEN Jordan?

 

Perhaps so. In July 2007, Jordan formally became an active member of the International PEN Organization, which includes writers from 146 countries. PEN is an international cultural organization that provides a platform for writers, journalists and artists to defend freedom of opinion, promote women's advocacy and the protection of prisoners under persecution, and encourage dialogue. It is a window to the world that we cannot afford to turn away from.

 

*****

 

(Translated and edited by: Fayiz Suyyagh and Rebecca Dupree)