This post is also available in: العربية
Interviewed by Jafar Al Oqaili
Shakir Noori, an Iraqi novelist, journalist and translator, was born in Jalawla, a town in the Diyala Governorate, Iraq. He was awarded a BA degree in English Literature from Baghdad University in 1970, after which he taught at a high school for four years before moving to France in 1977.
Noori stayed in France until 2004, having received a Master’s degree in ‘Science of Information and Communication: Picture and Sound’ from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. He obtained a Diploma in Photography and Filmmaking from École Nationale Supérieure Louis-Lumière in 1979 and later received a PhD in Communication: Cinematographic and Theatre Studies from the Sorbonne-Paris in1983.
Noori worked as a professor at the Sorbonne-Paris for two years before joining Radio Monte Carlo, working as a cultural correspondent for a number of Arabic language newspapers and magazines. He is currently working in media and teaching at university in Dubai, UAE, where he lives.
Noori wrote several novels including ‘The Spider’s Window’ (2002), ‘Death’s Caprice’ (2004), ‘The Dogs of Gilgamesh’ (2008), ‘The Green Zone’ (2009), ‘Shaman’ (2011), ‘The Madmen of Boca’ (2012), ‘The Monk’s Hell’ (2014), and ‘Khatoon Baghdad’, for which he won the Katara Prize for Arabic Novels in 2017.
Noori also authored two story collections, including ‘Tigris Gardens’ and a number of books, research studies and intellectual contributions to literature, as well as translations from and into English and French, such as ‘Resistance in Literature’, ‘Don’t Shoot, ‘It’s Auer Castle’, ‘The Exile of Language – Conversations with Francophone Writers’ and ‘The Zionist Lobby in France’.
Other translated works include ‘The Residence Card in the Tower of Babel – Paris Diary’ for which he won the Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Literature (2013). He also translated the book ‘Brodsky’s Trial’ by author Farida Vigdorova, and ‘Admonition about the Fall of Rome’ by Jerome Ferrari.
Nasher interviewed Shakir Noori who spoke about his experience in fictional narrative, his views about the Arab cultural scene, issues of writing and his contributions to translation.
- Iraq is best known as the land of legends due to its cultural treasures and you have used these in many of your novels. Do you think novels will be considered as reliable sources of information, documentation and history despite their format as an art form?
No Iraqi writer can overlook their country’s uniquely rich heritage. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh is regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature and poetry to echo man’s cognitive and aesthetic development. That was the source of inspiration for me in writing my novel ‘The Dogs of Gilgamesh’.
Literature creates legends and vice versa – it is a relationship where one cannot be separated from the other.
In fact, a great deal of early literature began as legends told and retold in epic verses that were relayed from generation to generation by word of mouth, then at some point written down. The heritage of Arab literature comes from the most famous ancient folklore such as ‘Kalila Wa Dimna’ by Ibn Al Muqaffa, and ‘The Epistle of Forgiveness’ by Abu l-‘Alaa Al Ma’arri. There is a natural progression from legend to literature, where legend has always been the first source of a story – without the legend, the writer can neither live nor breathe.
- In your novels, you ask existential, spiritual and philosophical questions, where your heroes are eager to learn about the essence of life and do not hesitate to engage in the relationship between themselves and the creator, examining questions about war. To what extent do novels meet your need to raise such questions and what do they add to the work?
I can say I am a novelist in the heart of a storm. Readers can clearly see that all my novels are Iraqi and that they revolve around Iraq, to the extent that most of them are about my home in Jalawla – a symbolic city for me that will remain forever in my memory.
My novels ‘The Spider’s Window’, ‘The Green Zone’ and ‘‘The Madmen of Boca’ are all, in one way or another, about the Iraq-Iran war or the US war on Iraq. The real author is always influenced by his own environment. Some may say that the time has not yet come to write about the American invasion of Iraq but I believe after the passing of 15 years, we can write about it. We will continue to write about the invasion for several generations to come.
This is simply because history is the present and the present is history, there is no separation between them as each casts a shadow over the other. However, my novels lean toward existentialist philosophy, because the narrative alone is not enough. It is imperative for readers to reach a philosophical idea after finishing the novel, as it gives us the freedom to consider fiction and philosophy simultaneously.
- Your style of writing is often described by critics as soft and narrative. Do you think that creativity in writing a novel can be achieved without creativity in language?
As French novelist Louis-Fernando Celine says, there is no such thing as creativity in the novel without creativity in the language. This is the primary force that unleashes the reader’s thinking.
Superficial language which doesn’t strike a chord with the reader is a dead language, so the novel must invent its own. I believe that creativity is the essence of language in literature, because mainstream writing leads to mental laziness, especially when repeating the same words and phrases used so much in Arabic!
Readers look for pleasure, and if that is missing the novel lacks its most important element. Language is key in attracting readers to a writer’s world, especially in Arabic, which is declining due to the dominance of technology and social media.
A novelist must think of the language of the novel he plans to write before writing it. For instance, it took me 10 years to write my first novel ‘The Spider’s Window’. During those 10 years, I was looking for an answer to the question of which language I should use; Hemingway’s short approach or Proust’s extended paragraphs?
- You are now reviewing your manuscript ‘Sonata Baghdad’, and ‘Paris Lives’ after releasing your novel ‘Diyalas in His Hands’, the first part of the trilogy. Are these works your biography as a novelist or are your novels themselves memoirs?
These novels talk about three cities; Jalawla, Baghdad and Paris, which have contributed to shaping my life and literary experiences. I lived for 27 years in Iraq and 27 years in Paris and I have been living in Dubai since 2004. Yes, they are partly autobiographical but at the same time there are many elements which are created and imagined.
- Your narrative is linked to cinema, theatre and pictures. Is this characteristic a reflection of your culture, especially during your stay in Paris?
I spent more than a quarter of a century in Paris, which enabled me to connect with all forms of art in the city. I cannot be a writer if I do not give attention to a Picasso or Van Gogh exhibition, or a play by Peter Brook, or a new movie. All forms of art are connected to each other and the novelist must harness all these forms in his creative work.
Paris ignites the author’s appetite and passion to write, much like other cities such as Athens, Rome, Baghdad and Istanbul, which were home to the great ancient civilizations in history.
Paris for me is the Tower of Babel where all races, religions, sciences and philosophies meet. Inspired by all these cities, I wrote a book about Paris, and this how I write my novels, in the presence of all arts and the connections they share with each other.
- You have been working in journalism for decades, how has media influenced your literary work or impacted your position as an intellectual?
Journalism is a career but culture is not. An educated and cultured person must be at the heart of events and should not bargain the values in which he believes. Intellectuals are the soul of a nation and the evidence of its vitality and progress. Without intellectuals, no nation can rise. However, the concept of intellectuals is often misunderstood. A real intellectual should maintain a distance between himself and the establishment because it is his responsibility to correct its course.
Yes, journalism has placed me into the heart of the events, but I was always keen that it did not affect the process of creativity. The journalistic language also poses a threat to the novel, because it might weaken its language.
So when I immerse myself in writing a novel, I forget journalism, shifting towards creativity. The progressive pleasure that we find in a novel is almost absent from journalism, which must strive to be straight, smooth and understandable.
- Do you pre-plan a novel before working on it, including events, twists and endings, or do you begin writing and then let your heroes and characters take you to their destiny?
Very often, while I am reviewing a manuscript, an idea for writing a new novel comes to mind. This makes me leave the first one and embark on writing the next. But I may not complete it because yet another new idea insists I start writing that instead. This means I end up with the narrative structures for several novels at the same time. Then I return to the novel that fascinates me the most.
What is available to one novelist in Iraq may not be available for another from elsewhere due to the circumstances and experiences of the country, in addition to the accumulation of its cultural legacy and heritage over the centuries. Iraq is a universe which contains all the elements of drama. If you are looking for any subject in the world you will find it in Iraq.
What are you looking for? Kidnapping? Iraq is now ranked the country for the highest number of kidnappings. If you are looking for stories about corruption, we are at the forefront of many countries by corruption. What else, killing, as another example? We have mastered killing each other. Prisons? We have many people locked up in secrete militia prisons. You want to write about drugs, we have become the masters of drugs. You want to write about explosions? we are the masters of creating the new art of explosions.
What else, writing about widows? We have millions of widows, or street children? We have millions of them. What more? Displaced people? We also have millions. Writing about ruined cities? There is no country whose cities have been demolished like Iraq: Mosul, Anbar – more and more demolished cities. What more could you want? The corruption of parliament? We have the most corrupt parliament in the world. Thefts? We have billions of dollars that were looted. You want more? Intellectuals who betrayed their people? Hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals wrote letters to former US president George W. Bush, congratulating him on victory. These intellectuals term occupation as ‘change’, meanwhile the Americans themselves call it ‘occupation’. There are endless ironies in Iraq. But where are the Iraqi novelists? The published novels about this painful reality are weak and do not answer the questions that need asking.
- You have translated a number of literary works into Arabic. How do you evaluate the movement of translation, and what is the difference between translation and Arabisation – and what do you prefer in light of your own experience?
I am not a professional translator but I love to translate the books that impress me. Translation is a very difficult job, especially with literal translation now prevailing, leading to the loss of meanings in many cases. I prefer to say ‘the Arabic text’ rather than ‘translation’, which creates a subjective equivalent of the original text away from the literal translation.
For example, when I read the translated version of a book by Jacques Derrida, I found the word ‘hole’ that I didn’t understand within the context. When I looked at the original text I discovered that Derrida was referring to a teleprompter’s room, which is used to instruct actors when they forget a line or phrase in a script. In this example, the word ‘hole’ has no sense or meaning, and there are many cases like this in translated work.
Regretfully, Arabic translations are full of mistakes and misunderstandings because translators mostly learn the language from books rather than practice, and some of them translate from an intermediate language, as is the case in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, which was translated from French into Arabic, not from the original Italian. This text cannot be viewed purely in terms of language, it embodies the customs, traditions and spirit of an entire people.
- You are well-known for finishing a novel and then immediately starting a new one. Would you please tell us what your latest project is?
There are three novels to be released soon, ‘The Company’s Lantern’, ‘The Souls of Paris’, and ‘Al Qashla Bird’, which talks about the assassination of theatre actor Kara Nosh in Baghdad. Of course, they will not be released at the same time, but sequentially. I have a permanent writing workshop at home.
- Your novel ‘Khatoon Baghdad’ won the Katara Prize in 2017, what’s it about?
The release of ‘Khatoon Baghdad’ coincided with the passing of 100 years since the British occupation of Iraq, which took place in 1917. The novel revolves around the controversial character of Gertrude Bell, who came to Iraq with British troops as an archaeologist and then became the Oriental Secretary of Percy Cox, the first High Commissioner in Baghdad under the British Mandate of Iraq. She died in 1926 and was buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad.
The novel is based on documents but is not a documentary. It draws inspiration from a struggle filled with the emotions of a living legend and the woman who lived and died in Baghdad. It relies on characters who were obsessed with this woman, the driving force behind the rise of the kings in the East. It looks at the relationships she made with top British leaders and politicians such as Sir Percy Cox, Henry Dobbs, Sir John Philby, Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia.
In this novel, I tried to refrain from the monotonous historical narrative and presented a plot revolving around the British and American colonisation of Iraq through this woman’s personality and six other characters who were fascinated by her.
Khatoon Baghdad may be the first novel written about the Iraqi Kingdom, Iraqi constitution, Iraqi Museum and the national library. There are only a few critical and historical works, but no novels.
Khatoon Baghdad restores the honour of Gertrude Bell who wrote 16 books about Iraq and became part of the history of modern Iraq. The novel blends the past with passion and imagination, creating a mixture of the elements of narrative, theatre, film, script and correspondence.