By Dennis Abrams
Yemeni author Ali al-Muqri has never been afraid to speak his mind. In his novels, he writes about topics typically avoided by Arab writers: sex, war, religion, the story of Jews in Yemen, women’s rights, and much more. In interviews, he’s gone on the record defending the rights of minorities in the Middle East, called for an end to sexism in the Arab world, denounced Islamic groups who “do not rule via democracy,” and even said that “wine is not forbidden in Islam.”
Perhaps best known for his novels Hurma (which received the French prize for Arabic literature) and The Handsome Jew, (long listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), al-Muqri sat down with Amida Sholan for a wide-ranging interview at Quantara.de.
What are you saying about Yemeni women in Hurma? And what made you write the novel?
Ali al-Muqri: In Yemen, women are oppressed and invisible. But in this novel, I write about existential problems that don′t just affect Yemeni women – they affect other Arab and Muslim women, as well as women in other religions and cultures.
But the book is about the suffering of women in a traditional society like Yemen′s and you write about shocking subjects, without any regard for taboos.
Ali al-Muqri: I don′t believe that the subjects are shocking, or that I′m breaking taboos. It′s just that some people think you shouldn′t talk about this or that for cultural or psychological reasons. But that doesn′t mean an author has no right to write about these things. When you write, first and foremost you have to be free.
Where do the challenges lie in writing about taboo subjects in a society like Yemen′s? Do you believe you have overcome these challenges in Hurma?
Ali al-Muqri: “Women play a central role in all my novels – they don′t just stand on the sidelines, as people expect them to. In our world today, humanity as a whole is standing on the sidelines”
Why have you published your recent novels in Beirut? Was it not possible in Yemen, or were you afraid of being banned?
Ali al-Muqri: The main reason is that none of the publishing houses in Yemen have a modern distribution structure. In Beirut you can publish everything freely and they have the most modern publishing industry in the Arab world.
What reaction have you had from foreign readers to the translations of your recent novels?
Ali al-Muqri: I don′t really like to talk about foreign and domestic readers. In reading, everyone is equal. Of course, there are differing sensibilities in different societies, according to levels of education. But in general I can say that the translations of my novels have been well-received in various different cultures.