Khaleej Newspaper Interview
Highlights from an interview with
A. S. Bishtawi Published in the Cultural Supplement of
Al-Khaleej Newspaper of Sharjah, UAE
Introduction: A. S. Bishtawi is known as a short story writer but has recently published his first novel Traces of a Tattoo. Al-Khaleej met the novelist to talk about this new course in his literary career. Following are some excerpts:
Al-Khaleej: From your published works, we’ve known you to be a writer of short stories. How did this transition to the novel come about?
Bishtawi: Probably this was a natural development in my case. I started Traces of a Tattoo as a short story, but I soon felt I needed a framework far greater than the short story could offer. There are also other factors. Living in a place like London may have played an important part in opting for the freer form of the novel. In Britain there are a large number of short story writers. They constitute a substantial percentage of a community of over half a million writers. But publishing a short story is no longer an easy task.
The majority of publishers maintain that the short story has no readers at present. The argument is that the western reader, like his Arab counterpart to a certain extent but maybe broadly classified as mortgage payers and mortgage collectors, is besieged on more than one front. In a large number of cases, and unless one is of the lucky few, one is almost totally consumed by daily issues and hence the reader’s wish (and sometimes need) to escape to another reality of the literary kind, a reality he can control simply by shutting the book, or his mind.
On another level, social circumstances in the west are different from ours. A large number of people have to spend two and sometimes three hours daily commuting to work, usually by train or underground. Staring at fellow commuters is a recognised taboo. You simply don’t it if you want to avoid antagonising other passengers. Besides staring at your shoes or others’, the best way to pass the time is to read. Most of books I see people reading are novels. I am, in the end, a writer. I want to publish my works and I want them to be read. If novels are more popular than anthologies of short stories – fine. I can write novels. I have my experiences and I travel a great deal. The short story, which I love, can wait.
The literary form that suits me now is much larger. I am happy to say the responses I received from the publishers that saw my work prove I was right. But there are other reasons for my choice of the novel. A considerable number of writers I know are writing novels. If the reader wants novels then the writers ought to think about write novels. Publishers don’t want short stories so what’s the point of writing them? The short story is in a dilemma. I am not saying its days are over. It still enjoys the loyalty of millions. A good literary or artistic work will flourish on its own merits regardless of the nature of its form. It is simply the case of novels being more popular and easier to make into TV series and films.
Al-Khaleej: But isn’t it so that the style of the short story is completely different
from that of the novel?
Bishtawi: Of course it is. As far as Traces of a Tattoo is concerned, style and treatment were not foregone conclusions. These and other elements were given due consideration before I started building the characters and events. Now, judging by its popularity, the novel is a mature literary form which retains its full strength. But I think one of the main objectives of a modern novel is to be seen on the screen, small or big. With this objective in mind, I tried to ensure that the reader’s enjoyment is not limited to reading and imagining but also to feel, smell and interact with the characters as well. That is why the descriptive process is very detailed whether it concerns the simplest nod or the most complex expression of pain and pleasure. I have used dialogue very extensively. In some cases it replaced narration altogether, in others it was complementary.
One chapter is made entirely of dialogue. This partly explains the relatively large size of the novel (555 pages) in Arabic terms. Still, Traces of a Tattoo is not a play. There are chapters that are mostly, if not completely, narrative. Additionally, I made use of the experience I gained in writing over 100 short stories. Most of the chapters are short. The tempo is either fast or very fast. Sometimes it is breathless. Again, there is a big difference of style between the novel and the short story so one must be very careful. The short story is about human concerns. You may imagine it as a station where the writer is invited to witness a certain event. By contrast, the novel might be described as a long journey in a train with numerous brief stopovers at different stations, but continuing afterwards to the final destination. The result, I think, was a melange of the classical literary form of the novel, the play and the short story.
Al-Khaleej: What influenced your writings?
Bishtawi: I read English Language and Literatures at Damascus University where we were taught by English and American Professors. When in London I took a course in Linguistics, and was particularly intrigued by Code Switching, or the mechanisms that influence multi-lingual people to switch from one language to another while talking to themselves or other people. Aside from textbooks, the first book I clearly remember reading was the Arabian Nights. Later I was reading only plays for some reason. This may explain why I started writing short plays at a very early stage of my life (probably 12 or 13). After than I was reading any books available from classical Arabic poetry to Japanese modern literature.
I travel a great deal and meet many people. On top of that I have my own experiences, and I think I am a very keen observer of people. Sometimes my two little sons give me ideas, sometimes things I read or see. I could go on and on but the thing I want to say is that I have been influenced by everything, and the process is both ongoing and varied. If you ask what works influenced me most I would probably say The Mua’alaqat or the pre-Islamic poems or ballads. The anthology of those poems is one of the books that you are likely to find next to my bed. There are always opened books in the house. At any given time I would probably be reading 7 or 8 books. The only time when I stop reading is when I am writing. The writer’s subconscious is a strange being. If hard pressed for an idea it will try to find it anywhere, so has to be careful.
There are thousands of books that I have enjoyed reading, and thousands more I’ve read out of a sense of duty. So, it is not possible for me to pinpoint an exact source of influence. Nor do I think that my style, either in the short story or in the novel, is influenced by a certain novelist or novelists. Nonetheless, my style is usually marked by a fast tempo- a mark of some contemporary western literature. No doubt my work as a journalist moulded at least part of my style. It is a profession that keeps its soldiers always on the run and always panting. This is not a complaint. I enjoy my job. It has taken me to most parts of the world.
Al-Khaleej: This leads us to another question: How do you balance the writing of novels, short stories, business and IT in Hayat newspaper?
Bishtawi: Journalism is my profession and source of income but my literary writing is a basic part of what I am as a human being. I would confess it is not as simple as it sounds. In the West, writers who make a living from their literary writings are a few. They are vastly fewer in the Arab World. Literary writing in Arabic is not financially viable. I don’t know many writers who make a living out of publishing novels or short stories. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future, not in my lifetime anyway. What is the alternative though? To leave writing to the princes, the wealthy and the high-salaried government officials and diplomats? Isn’t it enough that they have the entire business market to roam as they please? But to return to your question,
I can tell you that my experience in business and computer journalism has not stood in the way of my literary writing. On the contrary, it enriched my knowledge and style. In everyday life, each of us has to take hundreds of decisions, most of which are economic in nature. Even the relationship between man and woman, unless ideal, is governed by numerous economic factors. Traditionally, Arabic literature depicts the businessman as a miniature of Shylock. This is not so nor it is true that businessmen only read bills and bank statements. I know businessmen who are excellent readers with good taste for literature and the arts. One of the main characters of Traces of a Tattoo is a businessman. They have a human dimension just like anybody else, and without my experience as a Business Editor my views would probably have been not different from other Arab writers.
A professional writer has to cover a large number of subjects but he uses a single medium – the word. Likewise, you find that most people are multi-tasking. The man is the lover, husband, father, son, carpenter etc. Women, likewise, have functions as varied as man. Personally, I do feel at my age that I need to restore my internal balance. I have taken my fill from economics and technology, and I am returning gradually to my original foundations. If journalism stands in the way of my non-literary writing, it will go.
Al-Khaleej: Who are the characters of Traces of a Tattoo?
Bishtawi: Most of them are people I’ve known. But the novel’s characters are not mere literary copies of those people. The ultimate aim is to present a novel that is realistic in the sense that its events are fictionally probable and are likely to have happened or happen. But this is not always the case in Traces of a Tattoo. I want to be realistic, but I also want to throw some doubt on reality because it can afford some doubt. The issues in the novel are not new. They are the type that have confronted and afflicted human beings since time immemorial such as death, life, birth, love, jealousy, injustice etc. The differences are in the treatment of such issues and the angle of view that I wanted to be as panoramic as possible. I wanted to talk about al-Mua’alaqat, the Internet, the globalisation and competition. But life is not all of these alone. There are other things that we know only in our sub conscience. That is why there is this strange bird which I called “hoor” in the novel. Read in reverse it becomes “rooh” which means soul in Arabic. This also was treated as a character.
Al-Khaleej: As a Palestinian, where is the Palestinian side in your work?
Bishtawi: In my short stories, the Palestinian sides are numerous, and direct. But the Oslo accord has deprived the Palestinian of even the chance to brag about the struggle. The Oslo accord and the ensuing agreements have changed many things that are not in the time frame of the novel. The novel attempts to explain the destructive effects left by the Palestinian problem on Palestinians and those close to them all over the world. I do not mean death only. This private human haemorrhage will continue even after the Palestinian state has been established. The Nakba has had tremendous effects on Palestinians’ daily life. Its after effects will continue to haunt the next two or three generations. As you have notice in Traces of a Tattoo, one of the main characters (Hisham) ends up in prison because of his nationalist activities. When he is finally released he finds his girlfriend the wife of another man.
Al-Khaleej: Was it easy to find the title?
Bishtawi: The title is a slight variation of the second part of a line of verse from a famous poem by Tarfah Ibn Al-Abd AlBakri. Most poets have one muse (the equivalent of “Shaitan” or Satan for Arab poets) and very few have two muses. Tarfah, I think, must have had three when he wrote his poem. In describing the ruins of the house of his childhood from a distance, he likens them to a fading tattoo on the back of his hand, and hence Baqaia Al Washm, or Traces of a Tattoo. The novel, however, is not about emotional ruins as some critics implied. The ruins are a just a backdrop. Arabs are accused of living in the past but only partly. The new generation is different in many ways from the older one because their problems and aspirations are different, and consequently their solutions to these problems. I wanted to talk about the past and the mistakes of the past because if you forget them your are more likely to relive them. Nonetheless, it is the present and the future that concern me most.
Al-Khaleej: Why does a writer write?
Bishtawi: I don’t think there is one single reason. Maybe it is a need of sorts, and probably selfish. Maybe writing is pure self-gratification. Sometimes I think as parents seek to immortalise their natural genes through their children, writers also attempt to immortalise their intellectual genes through their books. Maybe so, I don’t know. What I know is that we are surrounded by problems of old; poverty, persecution, injustice and destitution of kinds that are mostly avoidable. I have opinions on these and other matters that are of importance to us as human beings everywhere, and I want a chance to be heard. Let the reader decide.
* Published on 28 March 1998 and translated by Mohammad Khaled.