The Muslim person, the Muslim experience is a diverse one. It’s something to be celebrated, explored and discussed. When the Middle East and Islam are viewed as one mentality, one idea or one thing, it’s hard to find a way to break those divisive preconceived notions in a manner that truly makes a profound difference.
Yes, there are immediate and even sensational ways in which we can break those archaic stereotypes of the Muslim man and woman. Through pop culture for example. Slowly we are seeing more diversity, representations and stories on the small and large screen. But to truly inhabit the diversity of the Muslims and Islam, the novel remains the only manner in which to truly understand the experience of the other.
Bibliophiles and lovers of words know that by simply turning the page of a book and reading you are already connecting with people, situations and experiences so far removed from your own that it’s almost impossible not to empathise, understand and learn about the nuances of the human experience. This is the power of the novel. This is the power of reading.
During the 9th edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature we managed to talk to internationally renowned novelisists Yasmina Khadra and Leila Aboulela who have described the Muslim experience in a number of different contexts.
We discussed their experiences on how the West and East have reacted to the Muslim experience, where and in what form can feminism from their point of view exist in the same space as Islam and whether the power of the book can build bridges over prejudice and stereotypes.
Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of the Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul. He is the author of popular novels The Swallows of Kabul, The Attack, and What the Day Owes the Night. His books have been translated into 33 languages.
The Islamic world is grossly misunderstood in a lot of ways by the West. Do you think that the novel can help change this?
The novel doesn’t have a role in this. It’s the writer who has a role. One can place any situation or problem within a novel and resolve it within the novel. But it’s the writer who has his ideals and thoughts and his personal philosophy. It’s the writer who can bring in beautiful ideas from his life and what he believes into the public forum. For example, I’m a Muslim. I have gone to pilgrimage in Makkah and I have been praying since my childhood. My experience in Islam has been beautiful, peaceful, and because of that in my writing I can deliver that message. Being a writer allows me to discuss Islam and show people that Islam is not the enemy of the world. People who attack things and ideas that are strange and different to them are the real enemies of this world.
Do you feel pressure to show what Muslims are really like to the West?
This responsibility is an obligation to me. What has happened in the world of Islam and the Arab world has of course forced me to take this obligation and with that comes some good things as well as dangerous things. Despite this, my Western readers understand the difference, I believe, between me a Muslim writer who tells them stories and a terrorist who is hateful and aggressive.
Do you see yourself as a novelist or a Muslim novelist or an Algerian novelist?
I see myself as a novelist full stop. Of course I’m also proud that I’m an Arab, that I’m Berber, that I’m from Algeria. This is something beautiful. Did you know that I have the most readers in Bangladesh? More than in Libya and Egypt and the UAE and Sudan. It’s strange.
Do you think that the media gives you the same importance and exposure as they do to non-Muslim writers?
No they don’t (laughs). I went through a very tough time especially since the beginning of this hate towards Muslims. Before this I was a best selling novelist in the US, in Italy, Germany in a lot of countries. Today this isn’t so. There is a drawback. And it feels intentional. All of a sudden there was a group of people who needed to support this bad idea of Islam as the enemies of the world, I don’t conform to this type of narrative.
Do you think that reading novels can help Muslims understand each other and the West?
The true and loyal friend to humanity is the book. It’s not the soldier, not the dog or the gun. The true and loyal friend to humanity is the book, it’s reading. The West is more advanced than us because they study, because they read. We have disabled ourselves because some of us consider books as something that isn’t important.
How do you see feminism fitting into the world of Islam?
I personally am a feminist and the biggest example of this is because my pseudonym is my wife’s name. Humanity won’t be free until women are free.
Sudanese author Leila Aboulela’s novels include Lyrics Alley, which was the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards, The Translator and Minaret all of which were long-listed for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. Her latest novel The Kindness of Enemies is now on sale.
Do you think that the arts and particularly literature can help build understanding between Islam and the West?
I think it’s important, very important, literature especially – reading promotes empathy. When you read about a character you understand how they feel. You understand their specific situation it brings people closer and it bridges the gaps between people. I’ve got a lot of good feedback on my books from the West. People read them and have told me “this gives us a different idea about Islam,” because all they see is what is in the media. They don’t see the human side of it and that’s what happens when you read novels.
Do you adhere to this idea that there is a “clash of civilisations” between the East and the West?
I don’t think it’s a clash, because we have a shared history. I think it’s prejudice, it’s lazy thinking, it’s people not coming into enough contact with people who are different to them. But people have always interacted over time, through trade, through exchange of ideas. Western civilisation is built on the discoveries that Arab astronomers and scientists have made. And also we in the East are dependant on the West for technology. We really need to stop being arrogant and always think that we are right and they are wrong or we are better than them, because you know there’s a lot of that going on and it’s just not right.
Do you see yourself as a novelist or a Sudanese novelist or a Muslim novelist?
I’m not going to say that I’m not Sudanese, I’m not a novelist or not a Muslim novelist. All these things are just adjectives that describe me. I don’t mind that but I think it’s the intention behind it and whether somebody instead of just using it as an adjective, are actually trying to reduce me or trying to put me in a box. I wouldn’t like that.
Do you think that the media gives Muslim/Arab writers the same importance and exposure as they do to non-Muslim writers?
I think this has improved. You can tell from the previous generation of writers who wrote in English or those who had an international standing. If I think of someone like Tayeb Salih the Sudanese writer for example, he didn’t get as much attention as he deserved. My generation finds itself getting more attention and the younger generation are getting even more attention then we did when we first started out. I think we are heading in the right direction that way. We also need to promote ourselves and our own writers. We can’t just be passive and wait for the West to promote us, we now have our own media outlets, we have our own festivals so that helps as well.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
I think I wouldn’t really describe myself as a British feminist or a Western feminist because I think feminism in the West is too extreme now for me. It’s sort of going against my values to some extent. But within the context of the Arab world I do support feminist issues. I support women driving in Saudi Arabia, I support education for girls everywhere, I’m against forced marriages, I’m against child marriages, so I’m totally in support of all these things that you would call feminist values.
I think feminism is different in different cultures of the world and it cannot just be one thing for all women of the world.
Do you think there is a lack of reading literature in the East and within Muslim communities?
Definitely there is a lack of reading. It’s coinciding with the drop of reading everywhere in the world and that’s because people are spending a lot of time watching television or spending time on Facebook. This is a kind of reading as well. Social media is a kind of reading but it’s not literature. Literature is an acquired taste and you do enjoy it when you understand it and appreciate that it’s the role of educators to help these young people to aquire this taste and understand it.