One of Yemeni’s most famous novelists talks exclusively to Al-Yemeni about sex, politics and religion and his award-winning, controversial novel, Hurma.
Al-Muqri believes the failure of the authoritarian state is responsible for the current status of clerics and that sex, war and religion are the triple taboo in the Arab world.
Few Arab novelists have dared tackle such topics in conservative Arab societies. Ali Al-Muqri’s latest novel Hurma, published by Al-Saqi Publishers in 2012, deals with all three.
Hurma has readers divided. Senior Islamists in Yemen have labeled Al-Muqri an apostate and the author has received several death threats for his latest work, including a fatwa. Controversy at home has been matched by acclaim abroad: the French translation of Hurma (published under the same title – it literally means ‘sanctity/femininity’), published by Editions Liana Levi, was awarded the €5,000 Special Mention Award for an Arabic Novel in 2015.
What does winning the special mention award mean to you and why did Hurma win?
I do not know why it won. I believe the best award for someone busy writing a novel is to finish it. In our Arab societies that do not appreciate writers and also prohibit and confiscate their output, such an award represents an important recognition of achievement. To me, this cross-border award with no ideological agenda means the integration of humanitarian concerns.
What other title would you choose for Hurma?
I cannot think of another title; it just came in the context.
In Hurma, you discuss sex, religion and politics. Hurma, which can mean ‘sanctity’ but also ‘feminine’, is also the name of the protagonist. Is she mere fiction or a person that exists in Arab societies but that nobody dares speak of?
Fiction or real, the issue is that I worked on the human ordeal that sometimes goes beyond quick judgments as well as space limits, to gain the literary status to be read.
In your novels, you deliberately break the taboos in conservative Yemeni society. Hurma focused on sex, war and religion. How do you respond to those who say you are a controversial novelist?
Contrary to what some people think, I do not find myself in what I write. I try to write freely and that’s all. Through writing, I try to examine human lives that are marginalized or have their own existential problems. Consequently, I do not feel any limitations in writing anything.
To what extent does your personal experience inform your literary production?
I may certainly benefit from my most intimate personal experience but other experiences also converge with mine to create the writing space.
Some believe that writers approach women’s issues just to become famous. How do you respond to this?
This argument may be true for certain writers since women in Arab and Islamic societies beget a lot of controversy. I think that writing, as a controversial action, goes beyond seeking fame or expressing an ideological or moral element.
Unexpectedly, Yemeni novels flourished in 2014 with 20 novels published compared to 8 in 2013. This is a great achievement considering the situation in the country. How do you view the current cultural landscape, especially after many Yemeni publishers ceased their activities?
The Yemeni cultural landscape is trying to survive the difficult conditions of the devastating war. That is why I think literary production will decline in the face of artillery shells, bombs and the lack of water, food and electricity.
How would you evaluate the experience of your generation of Yemeni novelists?
This needs careful research that I do not think I am qualified for.
How do you view the ongoing war in Yemen?
It is the outcome of authoritarian political tyranny that has continued for several centuries, leading to the current explosive situation.
In Adenite Incense and The Handsome Jew, you focused on history. Does this mean you are running away from the present?
No. I did not run away from the present, the past or the future. I did not to write history novels, though I made several references to history. I am testing history as an ordeal linked to human changes.
How dangerous is religious extremism in the cultural landscape?
Clergymen are defining our lives’ paths and schedules. Their current status is, I believe, the product of the failure of the authoritarian state that used patriotic slogans as a tool of domination: on the one hand encouraging dogmatic religious discourse in informational and educational programs, while, on the other hand, obliterating and marginalizing progressive projects.
Ali Al-Muqri is a Yemeni novelist born in Taiz in 1966. He began writing at the age of eight. His works include Black Taste, Black Odour, The Handsome Jew, Adenite Incense and Hurma.
Al-Muqri was a journalist and poet before devoting himself entirely to novel writing. His books have been translated into several languages.