Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas has won the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, administered by the Booker Prize Foundation, for his novel Notebooks of the Bookseller. The prize is regarded as one of the most prestigious in the Arab world.
Barjas is an aeronautical engineer, poet and novelist. Born in 1970, he has adapted the skills he learnt during his degree to let his writing take off. Besides winning the "Arabic Booker", he has received the Katara Prize for a Novel, the Refkah Dudin Prize for Narrative Creativity, and the Rokus Bin Zaid Al-Azizi Prize for Creativity.
The main purpose of the "Arabic Booker" is to encourage the translation of Arabic literature into other languages. It is worth $50,000 to the winner, plus the translation and publication of the work into English so that it gets global exposure. "I always say that the reader is my biggest prize," Barjas told me, "and the more readers I have, the further my ideas go."
The long list for the prize contained sixteen novels. The winner was eventually chosen from a short list of six.
One of the judges was Safa Jubran, a translator and professor at the University of São Paulo. She pointed out that the novel covers issues such as losing one's means of making a living, homelessness and schizophrenia, as well as criminality. "The winning novel managed to deal with all of these themes through a rich, refined language and cohesive and exciting plot, bringing a new style, applying different narrative resources and without neglecting traditional techniques," she explained.
With this in mind, I asked Barjas to explain the book to me.
Ahmad Alzoubi: Who is the main character in Notebooks of the Bookseller?
Jalal Barjas: Ibrahim Al-Warraq, who has within himself two personalities: he has a voice trapped within him; he is a scared and trembling character unable to raise his own voice, so this voice comes out at a crucial moment in his life when his bookstore, which guaranteed his survival, is demolished. He becomes a political prisoner, and is thrown out of his house for not being able to pay the rent. In the same period, his mother dies and his brother emigrates to Europe in search of his dreams. Al-Warraq is left alone, and it is from that position that the novel emerges.
He begins to suffer from schizophrenia and his other inner voice pushes him to extremism, criminality and abnormal behaviour. The conflict of the novel is between these two sides of Ibrahim's personality; the negative impulse resulting from schizophrenia and, at the same time, his identity as a bookseller, politician and intellectual.
Ibrahim is the son of Jadallah, who went to the Soviet Union to study medicine. Jadallah was arrested for his political activity and came out of prison shocked to discover that he has been denounced by the people of his village. He then decides to live in the city, leaving behind his political and partisan work.
Ibrahim Al-Warraq has been influenced by his father's trauma, acquiring this personality of extreme fear and caution. He loves his father, but hates these characteristics that make him a lonely, silent person afflicted by all the psychological setbacks and moral decline.
Today, the situation of the Arab man is very bad; the level of poverty has increased a lot and the level of freedom and democracy has decreased. So the Arab man is no longer experiencing the stability that he desires; the Arab world is going backwards. And Ibrahim Al-Warraq is an example of this Arab man.
AA: The narrative is set in Amman and Moscow, in the period between 1947 and 2019. Why?
JB: The first sections of the novel are set in two places in Jordan, Maadaba and Amman, and later the setting is Moscow. The novel is set between 1947-2019, and through it I went back to the roots of the crisis that is embedded in Ibrahim Al-Warraq's personality; the roots of that Bedouin family which lived in the eastern part of Maadaba in extreme poverty due to what was left of feudalism. One of the characters, Jadallah, moves from Bedouin society to the village and then to Maadaba itself, where he is educated and acquires political and cultural awareness through the library and the relationships that developed between him and his classmates, becoming a leftist politician.
The work talks about 1947 to 1948, the phase of the Nakba in Palestine, in which this Bedouin family had sons who were martyred in the 1948 war as well as the 1967 war. Moscow is used because Jadallah received a scholarship in the Soviet Union to study medicine, but he changed to become an active and critical politician. This was a shock for the village community, which was counting on this young man's return as a doctor.
AA: Is the family you mentioned a peasant family or an aristocratic Jordanian family?
JB: It is a Jordanian Bedouin family, through which I monitored the movement of the Bedouin community in search of land and water until it settled in a village and benefited from stability with study and knowledge.
AA: Is the novel in any way autobiographical?
JB: Personally, I have not suffered from tyranny, but I follow the changes in society and reveal the suffering of people. If we look at the changes in the Arab region, and in the world in general, we see that humanity is in decline; unemployment rates are rising, and poverty and crime are increasing. The middle class, unfortunately, is disappearing as we move towards a gap between obscene wealth and extreme poverty. This inequality will certainly increase the rates of violence, crime, extremism and all the negative issues in society.
AA: Is institutional tyranny and lack of democracy a path to crime in an educated and cultured society?
JB: Al-Warraq was subjected to this tyranny, transforming Ibrahim from a learned and conscientious man to a bandit. We see the emergence of some negative tendencies in Ibrahim generated by the tyranny, violence and oppression to which he was subjected.
AA: Today, is the psychological factor of the Arab citizen advancing or declining?
JB: Unfortunately, it is in sharp decline. When we talk about the psychological factor, we talk about the schizophrenia suffered by Ibrahim, and I am referring here to a collective schizophrenia, not the individual schizophrenia.
We talk about life, but, as human beings, we kill. We talk about love, but we hate. So what has brought humanity to such contradictions? This is a form of collective schizophrenia.
AA: The head of the prize jury, Shawki Bazie, said that the novel took off its masks. What was he referring to?
JB: He means that it exposed the masks of Arab societies, revealing corruption, unemployment, poverty, nepotism, favouritism and the decline of culture in the Arab world. It revealed issues that show the decline in Arab progress.
AA: Why does Ibrahim Al-Warraq impersonate fictional characters from the books he reads and commit robberies and crimes with their identities?
JB: The reason for the presence of these characters is the secret and heart of the novel. Al-Warraq impersonates many of the fictional characters from different eras. The result that the novel wants to convey is that the Arab era, unfortunately, has not changed, or perhaps has changed, but very superficially. I wanted to say that the crisis of these characters from the past is the same as Ibrahim Al-Warraq's crisis in 2019. The crisis is the same one, it has not developed or changed over time.
AA: Why did you adopt a plurality of voices in the novel?
JB: The novel is narrated through a series of notebooks; each one tells a specific story, and they all interconnect and serve the main story. The reason for the multiplicity of voices is to give these characters the freedom to narrate and reveal things. As an author, I wanted to be a democrat in my novels and not a dictator; I didn't want to impose on my characters things that would make them follow a specific path.
AA: What is the role of the characters of unknown ancestry, specifically Laila?
JB: If we look at the character of Laila, she has no lineage and wants to belong to a family; she wants to have a civil identity document like the rest of the population. While Ibrahim Al-Warraq seeks a house that will shelter him, both seek to obtain the simpler meanings of life.
All the characters in the novel seek stability; its main value is about home. And in it there is an abandoned house, the shelter, where Ibrahim goes to live with Laila after becoming homeless and meeting her. In this shelter there are people who have no families and who are looking for a family or community that will help them and not reject them. Home is important and necessary to protect them from all the circumstances that surround them.
The novel has a revealing vision and shows the expectations for the future. If these negative elements remain around us, such as corruption, nepotism, poverty, ignorance, high unemployment, decreasing intellectual awareness and increasing insignificance at all levels, society will go into decline and, metaphorically, the home will be demolished. We must look to the future by demanding more public freedoms, establishing the principle of democracy and social justice.