Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
The censorship of publications in the Gulf region is always a hot topic. In Kuwait, discussions on intellectual freedom are elevated with each annual book fair and its list of banned books. Yet, despite greater state control over publications, the popularity of literary books, especially novels, is increasing. The emergence of new khaleeji youth writers each year is one of the signs of this renaissance. Abdullah Al-Busais is a Kuwaiti poet and novelist whose public profile has grown alongside critical accolades, specifically as he won an award in fiction writing at the 2017 Sharjah Book Fair. In his work, he combines his interest in literature and philosophy with folk stories that he grew up listening to. AGSIW spoke with Abdullah about the growing interest in literature among Gulf youth, publishing and censorship issues, and the recent book fair in Kuwait.
AGSIW: How did you become passionate about literary writing? Have you specialized in literature study?
Abdullah: I received a diploma in technological sciences, which has nothing to do with literature. I started literary writing through Nabataean poetry as I was highly influenced by my upbringing in my father’s salon hearing his friends reciting Nabataean poetry and narrating populist stories about heroes and lovers. I memorized these poems and recited them. Over time, I developed more interest in this form of poetry and I read more about it until I composed poetry that had my own voice. I participated in the famous television competition the “Poet of the Million” in 2009 and I published a collection of poems, or diwan, titled “The Ideas Collection.”
Later, I found myself tending to read literature and philosophy, which highly influenced my poetry to the extent that when I write Nabataean poetry in colloquial language I think first in classic Arabic language. To me this meant that poetic ways of expression were unable to handle my ideas and thoughts. I needed a larger field in which to plant the seeds of my thoughts. Hence, I decided to express them through stories. I wrote two collections of short stories. However, still I was unable to fully express myself in these stories.
At this stage I decided to write novels. My first novel was “Stray Memories,” published in 2014. Vice magazine included it among its list of the “Six Banned Middle Eastern Books You Should Read.” After writing my second novel “The Taste of the Wolf” in 2016, I decided to dig deeper into the fiction world and explore its theories. Now I am pursuing my major in English literature. However, I believe fiction and literary writing do not need academic study in the first place. Many novelists can successfully follow specific narrative theories without knowing their names or studying them in academia. Having a talent in writing is the most important factor. This was also the case when I was writing Nabataean poetry; I knew the poetic meters without knowing their names.
AGSIW: How did you learn literary writing prior to your current studies?
Abdullah: By reading. I think the best way to learn literary writing is to read literature. But it must be serious reading and not for pleasure. I read the novel several times to understand the writing techniques, the author’s style, and why it succeeded.
AGSIW: Recently, fiction writing has become very trendy among the youth in Kuwait and the Gulf. What is the reason in your opinion for this popularity over other types of writing?
Abdullah: The knowledge of novel writing among the khaleejis is recent and our discovery of this style of writing came late. Egyptians and Lebanese, for example, preceded us in this field. Until the 1990s, there were some fiction works from the Gulf region, but these writings rarely met the conditions and elements of the novel. But by the 1990s and the beginning of the second millennium, numerous khaleejis wrote great novels. Since then, the Gulf readers’ appreciation of novels as an art has increased.
Censorship of novels is another reason for their delayed acceptance. For example, the great Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif’s books were banned in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and when this ban was lifted at the beginning of the early 2000s, the reader in the Gulf began to favor this type of writing and love it. Later, and after the spread of social media around 2010, the novel genre swept over the rest of the literary genres since it is easier to read. Readers published their reviews and recommended specific titles. Passing reading experiences became easy and fast. The popularity of fiction influenced many youths who got motivated to write their own novels. Moreover, fiction writing fits with the modern time we are living in and is able to absorb and express our ideas.
AGSIW: Your philosophical novel “The Taste of the Wolf” won the Best Arabic Novel Award at the 2017 Sharjah Book Fair. Tell us more about it.
Abdullah: The novel is the story of a bedouin poet living in the desert – a lover of life but oppressed by his community. I have tried in this novel to show how man senses his environment and his life and the effect of rational thinking on this sense. Our awareness of the universe around us is through our five senses, but what if these senses were disrupted? What if they did not exist? Will our surroundings be the same to us? How can we define our environment and our consciousness of it? This is the general idea of the novel.
In the novel, a relationship arises between the poet and a wolf and I address these existential questions through this relationship. I chose the wolf in this book for its place in Arab folk heritage, where the wolf is usually used as a metaphor for pride and courage. Many of the popular novels that I grew up reading talk about wolves and many poems praise the wolf and man’s resemblance to it.
AGSIW: Your first publication was a collection of short stories “The Diwaniya” published by a Gulf publishing house, while your novels are published by a Lebanese publisher. Why do most Gulf authors prefer publishing houses in other Arab countries rather than Gulf ones, particularly as the number of Gulf publishers has increased significantly in the last 10 years?
Abdullah: When I wrote “The Diwaniya” I had very limited knowledge of the Arab publishing market. At that time, the number of Gulf publishers was very limited. I happened to find Dar al-Dosari for Culture and Creativity and chose it to publish my first book. When I wrote “Stray Memories” in 2014, the Gulf publishing houses were more widespread, but unfortunately, they published everything regardless of quality. I wanted to publish my novel with a professional publisher with high standards and I chose a publishing house in Beirut called the Arab Cultural Center. I found that choosing a famous publisher was better for my novels in terms of marketing.
Today, Gulf publishing houses have improved and become more selective in their work. They even surpassed the Lebanese publishing houses. Nonetheless, when I published my second novel “The Taste of Wolf” in 2016 I chose the same Lebanese publisher not because I prefer it to Gulf publishers, but because for me, as a writer, it is better to stick to one publisher so that my readers know where to find my novels. If the quality of Gulf publishing houses back in 2014 was as it is now, I would have published both my novels at khaleeji publishing houses.
AGSIW: Censorship in Kuwait has always been a problem. Both your novels have been banned in Kuwait since their release. Would you tell us more about this issue?
Abdullah: Yes, both novels were banned in the last book fair, and they are banned only in Kuwait. Publishing laws in Kuwait are very advanced, but the problem is in the mechanisms of applying these laws. When content censorship employees read a text they believe could be misinterpreted with offensive or obscene meanings they ban the book immediately to avoid suspicion. If they pass it, a member of the National Assembly may object to it and the employee may be held accountable and the minister of information may also be questioned at the assembly. This has happened several times in Kuwait and members of the National Assembly often use this method to blackmail the minister. It is therefore easier to ban books in Kuwait.
Every year in Kuwait before the book fair, the Ministry of Information releases a list of banned books. The number of titles is always large but this year it exceeded 4,000. Thus, a group of Kuwaiti writers decided to escalate the matter after they read leaked censorship reports with the banned titles and the reasons for their prevention. We were struck by these reasons. For example, the famous novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley was banned because “it contains horror scenes,” knowing that the novel is classified as a horror novel. Therefore, as Kuwaiti authors, we wanted to make a serious statement demanding to stop the ban and we sat in Sahat al-Eradah, a square in front of the National Assembly. We also decided to escalate this issue in international media to raise our objections.
AGSIW: Literary writing in the Gulf has been confined to elite circles for many years. As a young novelist, was it easy for you to enter these circles and get support and recognition for your work?
Abdullah: I think that the field of writing and literature at the moment is no longer elitist as it was, thanks to social media, which defeated elitism. Now a young novelist can write a novel that spreads widely and outperforms veteran novelists. For example, the Kuwaiti novelists Saud al-Sanusi and Buthaina al-Issa entered the fiction writing domain about nine years ago and today they are among the most prominent novelists in the Arab world. Part of their success is utilizing social networks to communicate with their readers. On the other hand, we have in Kuwait “elite” novelists who write for 40 years and almost no one knows their work. Therefore, I believe that social media has built new tools and standards for writing, reading, and communicating.
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