The novelist in Adel Bishtawi does not hate the journalist that he is but he does not love him either



An interview with novelist and historian A. S. Bishtawi By Hussam-ul-Deen Mohamed, Literary Editor of Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper (London).

■ Q (Hussam) You’ve been in journalism for many years, is the journalist competing with the novelist in you? Do they hate each other, or are they working hand in hand?

● I think that the novelist in Adel Bishtawi does not hate the journalist that he is but he does not love him either. Sometime I get the feeling they want a divorce but, like couples who are still attached to each other, they don’t want to separate until they’re pretty sure this is what they want. The novelist (or let say the writer) has served the journalist for a long time. I may find that literature (at least, as a language) does serve journalism in the hundreds of articles, analysis and interviews I published. The journalist, on the other hand, has served the novelist with an endless experience. Working as a journalist has allowed me to build experiences I presume to be very rich. I’ve been hosted in Palaces and I’ve accompanied billionaires in their private jets. I’ve also worked very close to numerous heads of states: I know how they live and how they think. But in the end the issue comes down to a question of time that is only available in a certain quantity and can neither be prolong, extended or topped up. At my present age I know that the most precious thing in life is not diamonds, jewellry or money but time. A minute once passed simply cannot be restored. As you know, journalism is an ungrateful and time-consuming profession. In your work, you keep on filling spaces that, once published, you do not want to see- let alone file and archive (unless as backup material for future use) – lest it reminds you of the time you’ve spent writing it. But the poor mind is like a bus: it has to take on this and that, regardless, of if you prefer this to that for economic, psychological or other reason. I’ve no doubt that this bus wants to carry literature only. When would that happen, so far, I don’t know. I believe, however, that a certain number of circumstances might push me to take that decision. The publishing of “Traces of a Tattoo,” and later “Times of Death and Roses,” has offered me a chance to get acquainted with a new group of excellent friends. But the publishing of the latter has angered a number of friends and colleagues who, I think, did not understand the reason for choosing the massacre of Sabra and Chatilla and the Lebanese civil war as a backdrop for “Times of Death and Roses” as well as the next novel which will be entitled “Gardens of Despair.” I’ve been very careful in selecting my background information. I selected the most credible reports, talked to numerous eyewitnesses and added all that to my own information. I do not care to lose all those who want me to lose if otherwise I would be prevented from saying what I believe is true. They can go to hell, for all I care. They can boycott me whenever they wish, although I believe that engaging in futile battles with futile endings is no less futile. I guess that time will tell.

■ Q In a one-on-one with an Arab critic, he told me that he doesn’t feel that he is a cultured intellectual because the cultured intellectual is a person who possesses ideas and strives to communicate them to others by writings and speeches. The critic believes that the cultured intellectual is a person who one day met with the intellectual of his/her dreams and imitated him/her. Are you of the type of cultured intellectual who possesses ideas and strives to communicate them to other? And do you have mentors?

● Sometimes I read what a critic has written ten times but end where I had started- not having understood a thing. I don’t know the exact meaning of “cultured” and I don’t know the exact meaning of “intellectual.” An individual who lives for 70 years spends on average 43 years of his life thinking. As for culture, I believe it is a totally relative thing and subject to many factors: awareness is mixed with reading, social condition; the ability to comprehend all that is around us. To solve a not so complex problem like moving by bus or train from point A to point B, we may need a million bits of information which the mind has to analyse with super speed. So what about an extremely complex and private matter like culture? I’m fond of collecting quotations and citations that I find funny or profound. I write them down all time, day and nights, on anything I could lay my hand on. But then I spend hours trying to find a place for them in a novel or short story. Sometimes I simply don’t find a place. Why? Because such citations and quotations are “intellectual capsules” most of which are deductive, but the time to deduce, in my novel, comes very late, when the tempo of action accelerates, leaving no place for beautification. As to communicating ideas, I’ve never and will never use my writings as a medium thereby to propagate my thoughts. All I’m trying to do is introduce known human cases from my own perspective. The maltreated, the grieved, the lover, the sick and the dying must know that they is not alone in what he experiences. His sufferings and emotions are very old and will stay for time immemorial. The problem with all these cases I’ve mentioned, and others, is that they do not lend themselves readily to timely analysis. What I’ve done is that I’ve analyse them in as much as my knowledge allowed me and introduced to him in a literary work, and it is up to him to come to his own conclusions so that it might become easier for him to comprehend his own problem by seeing the problems of others. When you read something which makes you open your eyes wide, it is not, in most respects, because you have read something new, something you’ve never heard of before, but because you have read something you already knew very well although you haven’t been able to pinpoint its exact nature, and now you have found someone who has classified it for you and introduced it to you in three dimensions, clear and well illuminated and said to you: here is the thing you have felt or known; may be. As to who are my mentors? They are all the people I’ve met or am living with, all the books I’ve read, and all the human cases I’ve witnessed. Can I put a few names to all that? I don’t think so.

■ Q There are female novelists who specialize in expressing the emotions of the male. Your novel commands a great ability in expressing the emotions of the female. How did you gain this ability?

● I’ve never been asked this question in my literary life. You may permit me to feel somewhat surprised. Thinking about, I can’t find a convincing answer, so I’m as curious as you are. Nevertheless, I would suggest a few reasons. I guess I’m a very good observer. This said, it might have been natural for me to observe the woman more than I do the man. I’m a male, after all, and I consider a polite, discreet and non-intrusive exercise of observation to be a sort of a right. If, for example, you observe the way men sit down you’d find out that the protocols are the same for all men, almost mechanical. But I’ve never, in my whole life, seen two women sit down alike. Each has her own, unique protocols. Another example, give a man and a woman a banana each and ask them to eat it on a train and you will find a huge difference in eating protocols. This applies to most other things. I also think that the woman is far more transparent than man is and so you can see emotions on her face, in her movements, in the way she speaks and even in the words she utters. It may be that, compared to man, the woman is much more easier to infiltrate, observe and describe. In my life, I’ve – like most men – loved numerous women and I believe I know many things about the woman. Of course things are different when it comes to tackling a fictional character like Aroub of “Traces of a Tattoo.” Here, observation is not enough. The memory is inadequate and what you want to write about and describe changes fast. It may change several times before arriving at a satisfactory ending. I got no character to invent and I haven’t learned, even now, to write about something I don’t know or haven’t experienced, myself or somebody else who is ready to give me all the time I want to write about it. Time and again I re-edited whole chapters. Speaking at the psychologically level, there is a female in each male and a male in each female. Let’s listen together to what Rana said as she addressed Ali but to herself, “You know, dear, that’s man’s problem when it comes to woman -she makes him soften because he wouldn’t be able to reach her unless he is soft. Do you want know when you soften? It is when the female in you comes closer to the female in her, has the same diction and does the same thing that she loves to do. Strange, isn’t it? You’d tease me as usual and say: ‘Rana has said it right, let’s laugh a little before it becomes time to laugh much.’ Well, it may be! But remember that before we become a male and a female in the womb we were male and female together inside the womb and now, for an hour or so, we’ve become male and female outside the womb. Separation is no longer easy because we have remembered how we were at the beginning of our lives.”

■ Q The events in the novel virtually belong to Aroub and Wissam. The story of Hisham and Alia was not completed, or that the narrator accepted the emerging relationship between Wissam and Aroub as a compensation for the failure of Hisham and Alia. Here the present has marginalized and alienated the past. We know that Hisham is a central character but we do not find a presence for him as if his is a complementary, decorative role, or simply a pretext for getting the young lovers together. Why?

● I agree with most of what you have said. The story of (Wissam’s father) Hisham and (Aroub’s mother) Alia is compressed in Traces of a Tattoo but decompressing it was not a difficult task because I know the “prototypes” of Alia and Hisham very well. The problem I faced was three in one. First, the lighting power in the novel is limited so that if more of it were to be focused on Hisham and Alia, the share of Aroub and Wissam would have to be less, and instead of having one novel, I’d have ended up with two. And this was not the intention. The second problem is one of volume. In Arabic literature standards, Traces of a Tattoo is big (554 pages). Adding 200 more pages would have made it too big not just for the average reader but also for the publisher. Thirdly, I simply didn’t want to write about the past. I wanted the past to be a background for the present, and to offer itself for comparison purposes for free. The character of Hisham may appear central to some but this was not my intention. Aroub is the heroine, but the hero is neither Wissam nor Hisham. The novel’s hero is Khalil because he is the only one who changed. He was a victim like Aroub, but he didn’t know that he is a victim until it was too late. For that reason I sympathize with him a great deal. By the way, I think that Traces of a Tattoo allows for a follow up in the future. Hisham and Alia would then have the larger share of the lighting and Wissam and Aroub the rest of it. I have over 800 pages which are the remnants of Traces of a Tattoo. If I found time in the future I might do a follow up.


■ Q Had I been a critic fond of literary conventions and forms to frame the literary text I’d be confused. Traces of a Tattoo, as I remarked in an interview with you, introduces a cultural horizon stretching from pre-Islamic poetry, the Arabic literary heritage, and the Greek heritage to the internet and the cartoons.” If we added the influence of the theatre, the television and the big screen, the novel would present a model recipe for the articulators of a “post- modernism” in literature. By contrast, the novel is based on the traditional theme of lovers facing difficult circumstances that prevent their marriage. Additionally, it is based on traditional narrative techniques (which – ordinarily – intersect with elements of suspense and entertainment). How is it possible to mix the two supposed models: the traditional and the post-modern without causing digestion problems for the novel or the reader?

● First, I want to thank god you are not fond of literary conventions and forms because I wouldn’t know why should people busy their mind in such a thing. I’d also like to thank all the critics who have reviewed the novel as none of them has raised the issue of form. You and I and others, if we were to write a traditional narrative, we would have to choose a frame. That is what we do when we write a letter or a report. But if I want to write about life, how would I be able to subject life to a frame of any kind? Life has no frame. The good frame is not a guarantee for good content. It is the content which, in the end, creates the frame because the final judgment is on the picture not the frame. I do believe that the novel is an art which should reflect the movement of life. And because I can’t restrict the movement of life, likewise, I can’t restrict the movement of the narrative. The novel is a living entity. It deals with living people like you and me and it should be given the right amount of freedom to act and interact and be able to breathe like people do in reality. My academic background has included the study of literature and literary criticism. I know very well the literary forms, their models exist in the hundreds of thousands. But what benefit can be drawn from using a form suitable for the 19th century when I’m on the doorstep of the 21st century? Who would want to read such a thing? Most writers tend to use prose while I prefer to use dialogue. If the former achieved their purpose and I mine, then we both were right, regardless of the literary form.The human mind doesn’t like prose. Its medium of thinking is not prose but dialogue. People converse in dialogue not in prose. And as concentrating is exhausting for the mind, I think that literary writing should be compatible with the stream-like flow of thinking. When I needed to resort to prose (which I find easier than dialogue), I tried to present it with humorous or mythical tones or otherwise floating on a thin layer of eroticism. I also might agitate it and kindle its dramatic flames to retain the reader’s attention and prevent boredom from seeping into the reader’s mind. Is this post-modernism? I don’t know. I’ve not thought of it that way, nor do I think I’ve the slightest desire to think of it in those terms. I know that the form I’ve used for “Traces of a Tattoo” is a mixture of all the known literary forms: the short story, the novel, the play, and the poetry. Is this a conventional form? I don’t know. I know that the difference between good food and bad food doesn’t lie in the cooking pot or the ingredients because they’re the same in both: it is in the way the food is cooked, in the use of ingredients in known amounts, in avoiding rushing and in trying to think in a new and different way and hope for the best.

■ Q The novelist resorts to laborious editing to clean away personal preferences, but we find your passion for pre-Islamic poetry so strong that the editing did not succeed. What do you think?

● I’ve a novel in English most of which I wrote twelve years ago but did not complete so I left it on my computer in the hope of returning to it some day. I’ve studied English, French, Russian and German, at the university and afterwards. But my mind has been able to retain nothing but Arabic and English. One of the differences between Arabic and other languages is the fact that Arabic is heavily loaded with meanings. Its vocabulary appears like the tip of an iceberg whose mass is immersed in water. Think with me of words like “Hanan (compassion/tenderness/warmth),” “Ra’afah (mercy), or an ordinary verb like “thab” (as in this) (melted). Put the latter verb in a simple sentence like “she melted in his arms” and try to ponder its immense effect and lets try to find similarities in other languages. In short, I want from my writing to repay a huge indebtedness to the Arabic language which reminds me of a Maronite friend who always says: “Give me Arabic and take away the Arabs”. Mind you, there’s hardly any financial benefit from the practice of literary writing, neither to the writer, nor to the publisher or the distributor. Most Arabs don’t even read books. With the exception of the heritage books, the number of books published by the literary giants of the Arab region is nothing compared to very specialized book-publishing in Belgium or France. I was lately with some colleagues and when the Eid (Feast) was mentioned, an Iraqi colleague turned his neck and lamented the lack of change in the traditional Iraqi way, using a famous quotation from the Arabic heritage. Before the meeting ended a second colleague quoting from the same Arabic literary heritage to illustrate that the worst of plights are the ones that raise laughter, and a third reminded us of a famous “beware” proverb. I don’t know a people so attached to its literary heritage.The Chinese are like us in some respects cases but not in all. Somebody might say that a verse of poetry purportedly composed by (the Arab poet) Al-Mutanabi sounds similar to one by Abi Tammam, but most of the pre-Islamic poetry is pure because it is the original that we know. So when I return to the pre-Islamic poetry I only return to the original of the original. And for one wanting to escape a polluted reality, it is natural that he would return to the purity of the original. Khalil found himself wrong in the eyes of his daughter, son and wife. His daughter decided to leave him and his wife wanted divorce. He found himself in the garden of despair and tried to get away through pre-Islamic poetry. I thought this to be natural in “Traces of a Tattoo.” If this is fetching far, so be it. Who amongst us does not need to reach far once or twice when life’s doors close on him?

■ Q I heard some of those who read “Traces of a Tattoo” say that the first chapter is a little ambiguous, that it cannot be understood until much later in the novel. Should the opening chapter be complex and ambiguous, or should it spread its arms to invite the reader and show him the way in?

● I intended the first chapter a passage from death to life. If it is a little complicated, the reason may lie in the fact that we are used the passing from life to death, not the other way round. The world would not fall apart if the reader were to skip the first chapter as the information contained therein is little (a man is grieving for his deceased wife and so is his son). Still, I think that the first chapter is important for understanding what happens to Hisham and his son when they learn that Aroub came to the verge of death, and when each introduces to the other his concept of destiny following a visit to the cemetery (chapter 19). I also intended the first chapter to draw the reader’s attention to the diversified levels of reality in the novel so that if a reader wanted to view it as a novel of a simple plot telling the story of a young man and a girl whose father stands in the way of their marriage, so be it, and if he wanted to explore the novel’s various levels he’d then have the key to assist him in doing so.

■ Q I found a contradiction between the reaction of Aroub when she knew that she would be alone with (Hisham’s son) Wissam at the restaurant and when she says to her mother: “How can I go to the house of a young man, do you think I’m crazy?” and her behaviour when she went with Wissam to his house where she even took a bath and wore the dirty pyjama of a man. Why is the reason for this contradiction?

● Poor Aroub faced a hard experience that threw her off balance but she became aware at the restaurant scene that she could trust Wissam because he had showed sympathy and concern for her suffering. Aroub also moved from a place where social and psychological strings are numerous (Damascus) to a place where the same restrictions do not largely exist. This encouraged her to behave without the restrictions she was used to back home. It happens most of the time. I personally have hosted many female colleagues and relatives in my apartment because they found it more secure than the hotel and they were like my sisters. Aroub got a bath at Wissam’s house to abate her suffering and she wore his pyjama because she had lost her luggage and she had nothing suitable to wear.

■ Q Khalil (Aroub’s father) undergoes a fundamental change: he starts out an oppressor of his daughter and wife but ends forgiving and sorry, how do you explain this radical change?

● I guess I “explained” jealousy fully in “Traces of a Tattoo.” Aroub is faultless. It is true that she opened up to the West with a desire and found in herself the ability to co-exist with it but she remained in the end a hundred percent Eastern girl and went back to her father as she had left him. What happened is that Khalil had doubts about his wife’s faithfulness, contrary to all available proofs, but when he found he could not punish his wife, he turned to his daughter instead. And when he found he could not take vengeance on his enemy (Hisham), he turned to the latter’s son (Wissam). He had chosen his wife as a target but pointed the gun at his daughter because he knew it hurt his wife more.The change in Khalil was not quick, as some of the critics have suggested. There’s a whole chapter (22) dedicated to explaining the reasons for the change. What did Khalil discover at the end? He found out that his daughter whom he loved had fallen in love with a suitable young man so why should he stand in the way?He found out that he could not regain his wife unless he changed. Consequently, he forced himself to endure many psychological sessions and, in the end he changed because he loved his wife and wanted her back. Was the ending for Khalil realistic or fictional? It was realistic. If I had wanted for him a fictional ending I’d have returned Alia to Hisham and joined all of us in taking revenge from Khalil. Snatching Alia from Khalil was not difficult. What was difficult was, in my opinion, to snatch Aroub from her father. I’m not a social reformer, so it is not of interest to me to destroy a father’s relationship with his daughter because he had tried to destroy her life. I’m a father and I want to be a good one, but I’m not always that, so it is necessary to keep a little additional margin that people recognise as mercy.

Hussam Uddin Mohammad

■ Q The novel is realistic as is attested by the dialogue and events that are all derived from the Arab society. How was it possible for you to depict events with such realism and precision while you have been an immigrant for a long time?

● I live and work in London but I’m not an immigrant. In the lean years I visit four to five Arab countries. May be I know more about the conditions in a given country than some of those living there. For me London is not a substitute to the Arab countries but an extension to them. I’m not a stranger in London- I know it very well. And I’m not a stranger in Beirut, either- I also know it very well and so is Amman, Rabat, Abu Dhabi, and all the capitals that I visit and meet some of its people. What I find strange is that the walls existing between a country like Britain and many Arab countries are shorter than those built between Arab countries; that an air fare between London and a given Arab country is cheaper than an air fare between that same Arab country and another Arab state much closer in distance. Furthermore, I’ve lived and worked in Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. I’ve friends and relatives in all of them.

■ Q In the novel there is a piece of dialogue on “hair-removal” but it is far somewhat from what we’re used to in our Eastern society, namely to talk about something so private to women in front of men. How do you explain this dialogue?

● It seems that talking about hair removal came by chance. Wissam and Aroub were talking about sugar. They moved on to talk about the traditional ingredients of hair removal (sugar and citron). Of course I didn’t intend it to as such. The biggest problem in Traces of a Tattoo is not the change in Aroub but in Khalil. The biggest problem I faced was how to ripen the relationship between Wissam and Aroub in (a short period of) three days. For that end I employed a number of devices I wanted to be realistic. Wearing the pyjama was one of those devices so that she may feel closer to Wissam even subconsciously. If I were to convince the reader that Aroub was ready to die for her love and that Wissam was ready to die for his love, then I’d to make sure that Aroub didn’t leave London until she had convinced herself that she’d be a wife to Wissam no matter what happened. The same applies to him. The innocent conversation on hair removal, although non-deliberate, is a clear admission (even at the subconscious level) that they saw themselves as wife and husband. What could come after the hair removal than a bed? It may be true that talking about something like hair removal (I think you refer to chapter 27) is not familiar in the Damascene society which is more conservative than the Palestinian society, but the events of that chapter take place in a Palestinian society, and it, at any rate comes in a humorous note with which I found it suitable to conclude the chapter before the last.

■ Q You used the “Hoor bird” in “Traces of a Tattoo” as a radar focused only on the emotions of the lovers. Where did this bird come from?

● I’ll reveal to you the secret of this bird, which I haven’t talked about in any previous interview. If you read the word “Hoor” backwards, it will become “rooh (soul)”. What happened to Aroub is a tragedy by any measure. Coming to the conclusion that even the highest degree of realism would not be sufficient to portray this tragedy, I resorted to what is beyond realism. On page 502 Aroub says to Wissam: ” I’ve not told you on the phone that you brought back my life after the last minute and I’ll not be for another man no matter what.” The phrase “after the last minute” seems inadvertent but actually it is the key to what happened at the end of chapter 18. If Aroub had not actually died at the end of it, then she began at a life without a soul and continued until her sufferings stopped. When she returned to Wissam, her soul returned to her and the Hoor-bird, no longer having a role to play, returns to whatever place it came from. Is this realistic? Why not? What is reality?

Translated by Mohammad Khaled
Image: Hussam Uddin Mohammad

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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