Writing with the Ink of Geography and History in Yemen

Wajdi al-Ahdal is a Yemeni intellectual who from the start chose the path of narration, working as a novelist, story writer, playwright and scriptwriter. From his early publications, he has looked at themes of monetary disposition, with a sense of irony and a simplicity in his storytelling. Al-Ahdal takes his writing seriously. For him, writing is not a pastime, but a daily effort that takes thought and emotion. Most of his stories are reflections on urban and rural realities of daily life in Yemen. As a writer, al-Ahdal approaches his subjects as an anthropologist who travels to study a new culture. He ‘goes native’, and returns to his writing table filled with visions, emotions and thoughts. By ‘going home’ he oscillates between the subjective and objective, the realistic and imagined, the possible and impossible, and the existing and desired. In al-Ahdal’s work, narratives are not reveries existing in a void, but a dialogue with history and an interpretation of reality. In other words, his characters are in the center of the narrative and are the crux that grounds the story. From here, it is not surprising that his last collection of stories is titled The People of Restaurant Street (2017).

Al-Ahdal opened the doors of narrative writing to his generation of Yemeni writers. As a distinguished author, he uncovered the possibilities of narration and its capacity to resist authority and escape the whip of judge, jury and executioner. With the publication of his first novel Mountain Vessels (2002), he was forced to leave the country after authorities confiscated the work and accused the author of religious blasphemy and insulting the public. He was later able to return after the late German Nobel literature prize winner Günter Grass acted as an intermediary on his behalf.

 Photo Courtney of Thiyazen al-Alawi Photo Courtney of Thiyazen al-Alawi

In his latest novel, The Land of Happy Plots, which is expected to be released at the beginning of 2018, the story is set between a village in Tihama, in the region of Bajil, and Sana’a. The plot follows the life of a journalist who sells out to the authorities, who use him for their political maneuvering against the opposition. Al-Ahdal offers a stinging critique of the life of a class that struggled to access education and then betrayed its impoverished rural society in pursuit of personal ambitions.

Wajdi al-Ahdal was born in 1973 in the Tihama plain of Bajil, a region rich in folk and agricultural heritage where he himself belongs to a family with a history of intellectual production and spiritual, jurisprudential and literary adventures. In Tihama, which includes the cities of Zabid and al-Marawiah, the Tihamians witnessed a long history of intellectual and literary output as well as philosophical, religious and spiritual debates. The region’s unique history is the result of a complex intersection of various cultural, intellectual and political developments that unfolded over decades: beginning with great Sufi thinkers such as Ismail al-Jabarti, Ibn al-Raddad, Ali al-Ahdal, Ibn Jameel and Ibn Ajil, to the great poets of popular Tihamian songs, to the political and pedagogical work of influential contemporary intellectuals. The work of contemporary leading figures, such as Yousef al-Shahari, Abu al-Qasab al-Shalal, Abdullah Attia, Abdul Bari Taher, Ahmad Jaber Afif and others, continues to influence the Yemeni national civil movement. It is more than likely that this background, along with other readings and travels, had an effect in stimulating the creative imagination of the writer. Altogether they granted him the ability to move swiftly between reality and expectation and transcend the existing and the possible.

Al-Madaniya presents this brief account on and interview with Wajdi al-Ahdal with the hope that it will mark the beginning of a series that sheds light on the contributions of contemporary Yemeni writers. Today they are more important than ever, as they play a crucial role in the country’s attempts to break free from the forces of ignorance and regression and work towards a democratic and civil life in which human dignity is preserved and citizens are able to enjoy a life of happiness and prosperity.

1.  Let’s start with the purpose of writing: why do you write stories and novels? In other words, who do you write for? What do you expect from the reader once he or she puts down your book?

● Writing seems to be an attempt to understand who we are, where we come from, and where we will go. We are blind, writing is a way to perceive our existence. The reader also has this curiosity for knowledge, and his or her participation means that the blindness we experience will not be an obstacle to understanding. We should recognize that our knowledge of ‘humans’ is scarce. Writing is a contribution to the interpretation of this very mysterious being.

2.  What are the sources of your writing, the words of people or the words of books and newspapers or popular novels?

● All I write is a summary of what I read from books, what I heard from people and experiences that left an imprint on me.

3.  I noticed in your piece, recently published in al-Madaniya, a hint of the Hakawatis narrative style in the Mamluk era and a nod to the language of Maqamat. What is the secret behind this turn towards these traditional forms, which are almost extinct today?

● Have you noticed my friend that the stories and novels written today are similar? The reason behind that is the overuse of media language, easy language that lacks renewal and vitality… Even an entire novel may be structured as a ‘template’ and every sentence it contains has been used before. I also suffer from this impasse, that is, to walk on paved roads and follow readymade formulas. In the end I started to think about creating different sentences… It is an adventure that may succeed and may fail, and may even be counterproductive. In any case, the final judgment remains with the readers and the great Sheikh called ‘Time’.

 Photo Courtney of Thiyazen al-Alawi Photo Courtney of Thiyazen al-Alawi

4.   Looking at literature today, we can say that there are two types of narrative literature in Yemen; the first takes the history and geography of Yemen as the backdrop of its imagination, and the second tends towards self-transcendence and fantasia set against specific times and places. Despite the fact that some of your work leans towards magical realism, it is clear that the first type is where you belong, along with other writers in your generation. What is the reason behind the tendency to write about Yemen and contemporary Yemeni history?

● It’s normal that I write about my country and its contemporary history. As for magical realism, yes, I admire this school of writing and I am honored to be one of its students. In fact, he who knows Yemen well, will realize that the nature of life is very close to being a magical reality. One does not need to stretch his imagination too much!

5. The introduction mentions your upcoming novel, The Land of Happy Plots. What prompted you to write it?  Do the major changes that have been taking place in the country since 2011 have something to do with it?

● I was compelled to write this novel to expose the tactics of the authorities in fabricating facts, and misleading journalists who are morally compromised. In short, the novel follows the story of an eight-year-old girl who is raped, and the authorities mobilize all their police force and media power in defense of the rapist. All the powers fight to protect him from punishment, and in the end they win when the court sentences the child to imprisonment and acquits the rapist, stating that she had raped him and not vice versa!! This story reveals why people were prompted to revolt in 2011, and that the regime created all the conditions for the rebellion against it.

6. In the literary scene, especially in narrative literature, have new writers emerged in Yemen? What do you think of what is being produced in general? What is your advice to young writers? Are there general principles when writing in this field?

● In my opinion, writers today present a more promising literary generation than the generations before. Although I fear that the war may consume this generation and drive them away from their literary path. I find the word ‘advice’ heavy on my ears, but I will whisper this: “Do not mingle with politicians, do not be lured by politics, do not waste your energy talking about politics. Mingle with your peers and engage in serious and in-depth conversations about literature. Show your devotion and passion for literature.” The most important principle of writing is to think about it constantly and obsessively, as a person who lives in this world only with his body, but his mind and spirit are elsewhere.

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