Bishtawi: “I have constructed a love story on the ruins of another”. 



Highlights from an interview conducted by Syrian Poet Nouri (Al) Jarrah with novelist and historian Ade; S. Bishtawi Published in the Cultural Supplement of Oman Newspaper (Sultante of Oman)

● “I have constructed a love story on the ruins of another”.
● “Literature is the embodiment of the human conscience”.
● “Most chapters in Traces of a Tattoo are short stories”.
● “The middle class in most of the Middle East is being annihilated”.
● “Most differences between East and West are invented”.
● “I lived in East and West but never felt a stranger”.
● “The illiteracy of Arab women is intentionally imposed by men”.
● “I can not understand how oppressed males can justify oppressing the female”.

Adel Bishtawi is a Palestinian author, novelist and researcher known since the late 1960s. He is one of the rare Arab writers who wrote science fiction stories. From the late 1970s he has published numerous anthologies of short stories and research work. These include the following collections of short stories: Don’t Kill the Canary (Damascus,1982), Visitor from a Strange World (Beirut, 1985), Rebellion of the People of the Sea (Damascus, 1986), The Lover (Damascus, 1987). A novella, We’ll Scream Till Dawn ,was published in 1984. The first edition of History of the Moriscos was published in Cairo in 1983 followed by a 2nd edition in Damascus (1984). A third updated and enlarged edition is due for publication in early April 1999. His most recent works are two novels published by The Arab Institute for Publication and Studies (Beirut, Lebanon). The first is Traces of a Tattoo, (March 1998); the second Times of Death and Roses is due in early 1999.

I met the novelist in London where he has taken residence, and works for Al Hayat Newspaper. I began by noting that Traces of a Tattoo brings to mind novels that do not conform to rules set by literary critics at a given time and imposed on writers and readers. I wanted to know why does it have something of everything: romance, realism, imagination, and whether he shares my belief that it provides an exemplary simple characterisation of the otherwise complex existence of the characters. What, above all, is the message, or messages, he wanted to convey?

Adel: I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I were to suggest I sat at my computer and said to myself: I want to convey a certain message or messages, and I shall use the novel as my vehicle. The message, or messages, of the novel are probably implied. They are of different levels, reflecting, in a way or another, the diverse levels of the novel itself. They took shape as the novel evolved, first in my mind, and, later, on paper. In general, I wanted to say that one can be the servant of one’s destiny or his master. By way of illustration, I put a character like Hisham or Alia in the position of a person who had surrendered to his or her destiny without argument or a fight. Both lived to regret not having done things that could have changed the course of their lives. As a contrast, I wanted a character like Aroub to be in a completely different position – a girl whose destiny wanted her life to take a different course but stood firm in the face of everybody, thus contributed to shaping up the destiny she wanted for herself and her future husband. In my personal experience, I have never regretted things I have done. Things I should have done but didn’t for one reason or another are the ones that gave me pain afterwards. Success or failure is not important; not always. What is important is for one to bounce like a tiger and grab the opportunity that fate puts in one’s way. As to the literary rules and aesthetical values of Traces of a Tattoo, what you find in the novel is what I’d found in real life. If they happen to be different from the ones commonly bestowed on us, it is a formality that does not concern me a bit, nor it should be of concern to any writer or poet. Literature is the embodiment the human conscience, and a reflection of the human evolution, both past and future. Consequently, literature should remain unfettered by the literary diktat of critics as it would be futile and unjust to restrict its movement to any particular mould. All literary moulds are invented. Moreover, I wasn’t prepared to spend three years of my life to write a traditional novel. Had that been my ambition, I would have written such a novel ten years ago in one tenth of the time. I wanted to write something new using new techniques. I wanted my novel to be as close as possible to the ultimate destination of any novel today- the cinema or the television. I wanted to talk about all the ordinary things in life but also to write about globalisation and the Internet. I wanted to stress that awareness, knowledge, reading and the modern technology may, combined, help us, as Arabs, to break away from the vicious circle of backwardness. That this can be done is beyond doubt, as attested to by the many examples that I see daily in my work as a journalist.

Nouri: Of the main things raised by Traces of a Tattoo are: the literary concept, the position of the (literary) forms within the literary theory, and the potential of a literary form — be it the short story, the novel, or the play — for establishing new aesthetic values that are not strange to the reader. What is your view of literary work and the role of the novel as a literary form?

Adel: The novel is a living entity that breathes, moves and develops with the human being. If we were to impose excessive limitations on the novel, the effects would automatically apply to the human being who would thus be forced to live within the confines of the literary form breathing through a hole no bigger than that of a needle. In short, the rules of the 19th century are not, to my thinking, suitable for the 20th century, let alone the approaching 21st. The cinema and the television have had an impact on the theatre and are, in a way, extending their influence to the novel. It is true that the novelist, and any writer for that purpose, has to be universal in his presentations, but he, I presume, also has to reflect his own time and age – and our age is one of fast tempo, of panting. It is the contents which has to dictate the nature of the literary form, not the other way round. But this doesn’t mean that I am inventing literary forms: all I have done is that, relying on my academic studies and a good reading hobby, I dissected the techniques of the novel and the short story and made a choice as to which form suites me best. Giving a new look at the gamut of old-new issues is what reinvigorates a soul that has sagged under the weight of everyday problems. I wanted to scrutinise everything and write in the way the people talk, wanting the characters to use their own language. That is why, in most cases, I allowed myself to drift along with a certain character in what it wanted to say. In a work like Traces of a Tattoo, I mixed the spirit of the novel with the short story and the play. That is most chapters are short stories on their own, having unity of place, time and, sometimes, action. I viewed the novel as a television serial and limited the narrative element to the very basic, making heavy use of dialogue because it is,, the principal medium of human interaction. There are many side issues but they come within the course of action and flow into the mainstream of the novel and its theme. I’d like to say here that I find the narrative element easy compared to dialogue, especially as I substituted the latter for the former. As to why you find everything realistic in Traces of a Tattoo, the reason is that I tried to make the novel a true mirror of life. Life has everything, but I tried to be selective. In a novel that is relatively long (555 pages) boredom and distraction should be guarded against. That is just the reason for the novel’s relatively fast tempo, diverse levels of presentation, and the sudden switch from narration to dialogue. I’ve read and heard a lot of things being said about the novel, boredom is not (so far) one of them. At the same time, I think that the natural objective of the novel today is not to be read, as in the past, to a silent audience around the fireplace, but rather to be presented on the large or small screen, preferably both. You may view Traces of a Tattoo as having a great potential as a television serial. Partly to save the reader from boredom, I have limited each chapter to a supportable number of pages. Your remark about the novel’s diversity and multiple levels of presentation is correct. I guess I wanted it to be a cultural horizon which extends from the pre-Islamic poetry to the Internet of today and mixes the Arab heritage (such as Majnun and Lila) with the Greek heritage and cartoons. All these cultural elements are readily available to everybody, the problem was how to combine them and put them in one work without giving the impression of wanting to impose your ideas and readings on the reader. I also do not want to write regardless of what happens to the book. I want the people to read it, and if this does not necessarily mean giving the reader everything he wanted, there is always the possibility of a compromise. Thus I chose for the novel a light story (a love relationship between two youths built on the ruins of their parents’ sad love story). But the light skeleton enabled me to built a structure that is six to seven levels deep. I think that in order to include deep thoughts into any work you need either a cushion of suspense and, sometimes, soft eroticism, or a fast tempo. I was at times a little lavish in aesthetics and eloquence such as poetry and folklore ballads, but I used these in the same way a surgeon would use chloroform. I sought to have the reader sit in a comfortable seat and started feeding a stream of beautiful words into his/her ear: once the reader was completely relaxed, I put the characters one by one on something similar to an operating theatre and started the analysing-dissecting business, all the while anticipating the reader’s deepest involvement so that he or her would find out in the end that human fears, passions and reactions are not completely different from one person to another.

Nouri: I am under the impression that Traces of a Tattoo is the first in a trilogy. Would you elaborate on the relationship between this novel and the remaining two volumes. And could any be read separately?

Adel: I’ve entertained the idea of a trilogy for sometime, but I later found it a little ”cheap” these days and decided to drop it. There are other reasons. First, writing a trilogy would mean that the writer would fill an already defined mould with contents that are undefined. The reader is consequently served an injustice and an unjustified rigidity. My second novel, Times of Death and Roses, is in the hands of our common friend, Maher Kayyali, the Director General of the Arab Institute for Studies and publications. It is in the final stages for publication and will be in the market on the first day of the new year. This is also a relatively long novel (550 pages) but it has no relationships with Traces of a Tattoo. The only similarity between the two is that the principal character in Times of Death and Roses is a Palestinian Moslem and his female opposite number is a Christian from a Palestinian father and a Maronite mother. Both of these characters fell victim to the Civil War in Lebanon and the political repercussions of the Palestinian cause. I assume that being an Arab Palestinian myself justified choosing a Palestinian as the principal character. Still, my main concern was not the Palestinian cause in its own right but the calamitous effects it has had on ordinary Palestinians everywhere. The third novel is a follow up if you wish to Times of Death and Roses but deals with a completely different human situation. It will be published next April and can be read separately, although it would be preferable if one could find time to read Times of Death and Roses first. I did not want to push the third novel to the printing press so soon. For that I hold you responsible, having encouraged me to do so. Nonetheless, I think it is a good idea at this stage of my life because people want to see more than one novel before passing a judgment on my works.

Nouri: Traces of a Tattoo deals in part with the generational conflict. What is your personal view in this regard and do you consider a generation to be better than its predecessor?

Adel: I have the wicked desire of contradicting you completely, but I can’t. There is a generational conflict of some sort. But I think that the conflict is not necessarily between two generations or more. The real conflict is between a certain generation on the one hand and life and the world outside ourselves on the other. Each generation thinks that its experience qualifies it to advise the younger generation and even impose its opinion by force, but this in reality a reaction towards life itself. A generation is not necessarily better than its predecessor, nor is it worse. The solutions of a certain generation are different from those of the other’s. The reason is that the problems are different. I see in my son and yours and the sons and daughters of most of those I know, a new, universal generation which has different tools, human situations and problems. I expressed my opinion in this regard through Wissam in the following passage in Traces of a Tattoo: He looked at his watch: its hands have never crawled so slowly in a long time – since the St. Stevens Hospital days. Aroub was still asleep. He will wait. He will think about it once again. But why? Are the things that traditionally attract one person to another really important? Not anymore. A global gate has opened. It does not matter any who is to be wed to whom — A Qatari to a Japanese, a Mexican to a Russian, a black to a white, a half-Arab to a half French. What was so important about the place they came from or their colour, age or cultural background? There is a new global generation taking over the known civilisations and erecting bridges that did not exist in the past. He is a citizen of this new world; Aroub is another, Nadia of Cairo is a third, and Ras Al-Khaimah’s Buthaina is a fourth. It is a generation straddling two civilisations, sometimes more. It collects from here and there and adds to its population. It, sometimes, makes mistakes in what it selects, but there are, at least, other times when it does it right and presents something new.”


Nouri: What is the difference between the two characters of Aroub and Arlene? Is it simply cultural, or is it a reflection of the divide between East and West? What message or messages did you want to convey by confronting the two girls?

Adel: I think there are multiple levels of differences between characters like Aroub and Arlene. As humans, there is absolutely no difference between the two. Both want a descent life, a husband, children, love, happiness and all the other things that are woman’s right if she wants them regardless of nationality, social background or creed. They both cry when they are sad and laugh when happy and experience whatever is experienced by women like them. Aroub did not emerge victorious from her confrontation with Arlene (Chapter 8): nor was Arlene defeated. This is not a war. The whole issue is that Wissam just happened in the end to love Aroub more than he did Arlene, and went on to propose to her. There are cultural differences between the Arab and the European. But although obvious, these differences aren’t, to my thinking, so big as to prevent the sides from meeting each other. There are always human levels through which one party can cross over to the other, if it so wished. Highlighting differences or similarities is not my job, it is the job of the specialists. All I wanted to do was to put Aroub on one side and Arlene on the other and compare between them, capitalising on my experience and understanding of the two. That is what I have done in almost everything in the novel: I put face to face many elements: death and life, love and hate, daughter and mother, son and father, East and West and dream and reality. In all that I tried to answer the question: who am I, who is the other, and what happens when we exchange positions? I recorded my conclusions, but the one thing I did not try to do was to suggest that Arlene was better than Aroub, or vice versa. While writing the novel, I was concerned that one day a girl like fictional Arlene would complain for having unjustly depicted her as frivolous and ready to jump into Wissam’s bed any time he wished. But I may assure you that if non-fictional Arlene were to read the novel she would find nothing to complain about. And I think that, no matter how narrow the perspective, either Aroub or Arlene can be found more virtuous than the other just because they look at and treat the male (Wissam) differently. To say that the woman is not virtuous unless she wore the Shadour is nonsense. All there is to it is that they come from different societies each of which looks differently at many things and has its own virtues and values.

Nouri: Do you consider your novel an introduction to the characterisation of new relationships and awareness embodied in new generations that build their unique experience from the frustrations of the previous generation?

Adel: I’d say yes and no at one and the same time. Characterisation is an attempt whose aim is to underscore the nature of the characters’ actions and reactions. Unfortunately, however, the confrontation allowed in the novel is limited, despite my best efforts to stretch it as long as was technically and aesthetically possible. Still, characterisation carries an opinion. Here, I may have been right in things and wrong in others, but I find it extremely hard to take things — especially those commonly taken for granted, facts, forms and theories — at their face value. I read whatever I get, I listen to hundreds of people around me, I travel as much as I can, but, in the end, I am responsible for what I say. I want to sit and think about everything around me and look at things from a new angle. I think that is what the reader wants, as well, to focus on things already known to him, but to see them from a new angle. The important things in our lives are not too many. We have life and death and between them: love, hate, faithfulness, unfaithfulness, jealousy, trust, pain that can be done without and oppression that can easily be dispensed with. There are antitheses and similarities and there is unity, discord and controversy in our minds at all times, but their presence means absolutely nothing until somebody comes along to highlight the points where we meet and where we depart in all of that. On this front in particular, I find the new generation as having a larger degree of awareness but only in certain matters, not everything. We are overstocked with frustrating issues. Our handling of the national issues was frustrating and still is. Our fears are numerous, although most are unjustified. Even our love is deformed. But I cannot blame myself too much. I am the product of a certain society and a certain time, so it was natural that I would take their many shortcomings plus a few scattered positives. The new generation is different: unlike our generation, it did not inherit the shortcomings — although it is a little impatient and needs some profundity. My son, just like your son and the sons of the others, may come into my room wanting to know about certain things, but he will not ask me about how to love. If he does I’ll show him the door. My experiences are completely different. The girl in my old (well, oldish, if you insist) mind is different from the girl I see or meet now. Was the girl of my time better or worse? I have no answer and probably I don’t know.

Nouri: Clearly, the woman and its social status takes the larger and most important part of the novel. Furthermore, the levels of presentation make the feminine the pivot, ultimate goal and objective of everything. They turn the novel into new grounds where the woman is given a presence not customary in Arabic novels. In Traces of a Tattoo, the woman is an oppressed soul who finds itself in a position where it has no alternative but to assert itself and, ultimately, change. Tell me about this side of your novel?

Adel: I may have to apologise to you and all the male community if I were to confess that I do not find men, me included, as interesting, enchanting and charming as that of women. How could something like a man compare favourably with something like a woman? I do not think I have an answer to that. Sometimes I ring up an old friend at home. The son picks up the receiver and answers in a coarse unfriendly voice that his father is not in. As I put the receiver I just wish I had not called. I call again. This time the daughter answers. What a difference! What I have on the other phone is somebody who is welcoming and kind enough not to deny me the little social gestures that make me wish the call would last for two hours. These are natural differences. All the differences between man and woman are natural and this should not be taken against him but more importantly against her. The other social differences are not so and should be obliterated as soon as possible, first from the mind, and then from practice and behaviour. The educated Arab woman who comes from a family of culture has better chances and more opportunities than do her counterparts in Europe and America. The women who do not belong to this small, social category suffer from situations that are not very much unlike those which existed in the Middle Ages, or still exist in some societies in India. But the girls who belong to social categories that have better chances than others, is shrinking in number.The Middle classes in most Arab countries are being annihilated. The new class emerging on top of the wreckage will not be the store of education, knowledge and all the wealth of human thought. In Traces of a Tattoo, I wanted to say that the Arab woman can easily compete with her counterparts in the West if she were to be given the proper chance. I have many women colleagues in jobs at a very high level of technological skills. What this means is that the level of illiteracy among the Arab women is intentionally made high–to whose benefit, hard to say. It is in fact a by-product of the oppression suffered by the man in societies built on oppression. This I can understand, what I cannot comprehend is how an oppressed man could persecute another person like the woman for no reason other than being persecuted himself. The way some men look at the woman today goes deep in time, as if it were lodged in the sub conscience, or even in the literary heritage. If one were to have a profound look at Scheherazade and Shahrayar of the Arabian Nights, one would come upon a real tragedy. Here you have a sweet, faithful woman who spent three years telling stories so that her husband, Shahrayar — the biggest butcher of women in history — would not cut her throat. That is one side of the picture, there are many more. As an Arab, how can I achieve development if half the society is intentionally forced into illiteracy. The illiterate woman produces illiterate children who aggravate society’s backwardness and increase its deformity. I am a man but also a son, a father, and a husband: I will not apologise for having discovered this fact. That is what I believe in and I shall say it to everybody, using my tongue and mind, as I have done through many characters, such as Alia who, in Traces of a Tattoo, says: ‘Sometimes I hear about the Third World’s problems and recall what happened to me and Aroub and I say to myself: You know: The Third World’s largest debt is not owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Paris Club, the London Club, or all the banks of the world combined. The largest debt is owed to the woman living in these unjust societies that increase their injustice by persecuting their women. When I hear about miserable, male-dominated governments preventing the woman from going to school just to keep her under the shoes of their ministers, when I hear about female circumcision, when I hear about buses allocating only their back benches for women, when I see husbands dragging their wives from taxis in the public street and beating them in front of everybody, I despair from the world and feel an urge to resist in any way. What has, is still and will befall the women is debt on the men of the Third World and will remain as such until they awake to the crimes they are committing against us and apologise before it is too late.” The injustice befalling the Arab women has to stop. Aroub does not want to be like Arlene, even if she could. She and all the other Arab girls do not want the freedom of the European woman, nor do they want to hold demonstrations in the street to press for their demands. What they want is respect, appreciation and compassion. They want moral and legal guarantees that ensure they lived decently in their own society. In the West, the woman arrives at the age of menopause two to three years before reaching the age of fifty while many of her Arab counterparts are already there by the age of forty, at least in the opinion of their husbands and their society. Many an Arab girl is considered a spinster a few days past the age of 26. This is not fair. There should be guarantees that the woman will not find herself in her father’s house when she is kicked out by her husband as she approaches the age of forty. In my opinion, Aroub (the heroin in Traces of a Tattoo) is one of the representatives of the Arab female society. I dedicated the novel to her because I wanted to dedicate it to the Arab woman.

Nouri: Your novel intersects, in a way, with other novels in Arabic and English such as A Bird from the East, by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, The Season of Migration to the North, by Al-Taib Saleh, In the Eye of the Sun, by Ahdaf Suweif etc. What is new or different in your novel regarding East and the West?

Adel: Literature does intersect at all levels. Human thought is universal. The essential issues faced by man everywhere are the same now and hundreds of years ago. The difference is, basically, one of perspective vis a vis a certain question or a certain character facing a certain problem at a certain time. Because experiences differ from one person to another there is bound to be a difference of perspective, depending on the writer’s personal experience and social environment. I read the first two novels in my youth and have had a peek at the third one.There are points of intersection in those two novels with Traces of a Tattoo, but they are just that – points. Hooves falling on the same spot along one road, as Al-Mutanabi had put it. Frankly, I am not interested in numbering the differences between East or West. What is an Eastern? A Turk, an Arab, an Indian and somebody from Seoul? They are too different from each other. On the other hand who is a Westerner? Now, if you give me a particular human case, say concerning a certain Abdul Samii or a John Smith, I may be able then to give an opinion after a thorough study. Attempting a comparison of East and the West is beyond my capacity. Nonetheless, we need to recognise that most differences are inventions; artificially inflated by subversive elements on both sides. One of most important literary work in the West even today is the Arabian Nights. The West got its numbers through us. In their languages you will find thousands of Arabic words. Were we a bad East or a good one?. Quality, sometimes, eliminates borders, just like globalisation does. All my neighbours are British. My sons study at a British school, and I have never heard either of them complaining that his school-mates treated him differently. I have lived in the East and am living now in the West. I move constantly between the two but I do not find myself a stranger in London, Dubai or Beirut. I did not talk about the alienation of the human souls or emigration in Traces of a Tattoo. The word “ghorba” is not in the novel, but I am told by one critic that it is implied! Home from home is another home. Even strangeness has degrees.What I find from observing the two sides are vast opportunities for one society to learn from another. In the East, we have ideas that I do not know where we got them from. We have come to justify injustice, rigidity and sluggishness of all kinds. It is hard to see a benefit in any of that. Aroub’s visit to London and the United States, and her exposure, in a condensed fictional time frame, to all that I know about those two societies, helped her rediscover her potential and become aware of her importance. These experiences provided her with the tools for this awareness, and helped her in ending the nightmare her father had put her through when he was blinded by his jealousy. Aroub had strength dormant within her. She needed help and some eye opening to use it. To sum up, my main objective was not to compare East and West. This is too complex a matter for which a satisfactory conclusion cannot be reached in a novel or a couple of thousand. The objective was to present selected cases which I am not aware of their existence in other works in such a condensed way. Thinking about it now, I would say I never had a certain book, or books, in mind when I began knitting Traces of a Tattoo, together. The same applies to Times of Death and Roses.

*Translated by Mohammad Khaled.NJ-19-98-05
Image caption: Nouri Al Jarrah

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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