Liberation and Enlightenment Narratives: Reading into the Literary Thought of Wajdi al-Ahdal
In the Arab world in general and in Yemen in particular, narrative writers are fighting a battle to liberate and enlighten people. The first part of the task, in the words of German sociologist Max Weber, is to liberate man from the system of social symbols that he himself has woven. He created a limiting structure armed with material powers only to fall victim to it. The second part is to enlighten people to new ways of living, with conditions that bring happiness and prosperity and help them achieve maximum human potential.
In Yemen, after more than 1,500 years of poetry’s literary domination, narrative art flourished in the past few years. Although the beginning of novel writing in Yemen dates back to 1927, when Ahmad al-Saqqaf published his novel The Girl of Karout, since the middle of the last decade the genre has witnessed an unprecedented boom. Some believe this surge in published novels comes in response to the major transformations and collective traumas that the Arab region has collectively witnessed.
At a regional level, the many recent wars have had a deep impact: the 1990 Gulf War, the Second Palestinian Intifada, the 2000 Al Quds Intifada, the occupation of Iraq in 2003, and continuing today with the ongoing counter-revolutionary wars that followed the 2011 Arab Spring. During the last two decades, the Arab region has witnessed political and social traumas that have affected the consciousness of the region’s inhabitants. In the aftermath of these traumas, they have come to question the reality of their perceptions of religion, politics, history and their relationship to the other. According to some, the events of 11 September 2001 were a catalyst for Arab novelists to write about the duality of the self and the other, and to question notions of identity and concepts related to the position of Arabs in the world [Magda Hammoud (2013) The Problem of the Self and the Other: Examples of Arabic Novels, p7].
In Yemen, these events and internal civil wars (such as the 1994 war and the six-year Houthi war with the government between 2004 and 2010) alongside continuous local crises – or as Sheila Carapico calls it in her essay, No Exit: Yemen’s Existential Crisis – have had a deep impact on writers and novelists. In fact, inspired by the possibilities novels offer, some poets and journalists have turned to this type of narrative writing. Among other things, it allows for the various voices in the country to be heard, and provides space to easily recall the past. Most importantly, it is a genre that can evade authorities on the basis that it is purely fiction, even as it is relevant to the situation in Yemen. Many novelists in Yemen belong to the intellectual class. Owing to this background, consciously or subconsciously, they aspire to enlighten their general readers through their literary experiences.
Born in 1973, Wajdi al-Ahdal is one of the most prominent and widely recognized narrative writers in Yemen. He is a novelist, writer and playwright who has significantly contributed to highlighting some of the most urgent problems of the situation in Yemen.
Al-Ahdal has published novels and short story collections that tackle social hypocrisy, false religiosity, the situation of women and the disastrous political failure of successive governments in Yemen since unification in 1990. In his writings, as in the writings of other contemporary Yemeni writers, the effects of great psychological trauma are apparent in recurring characters who are similar to Aristotle’s tragic hero.
The novels of Wajdi al-Ahdal
As a means to delve into the intellectual literary vision behind the work of al-Ahdal, it is important to give an overview of some of his novels, as they offer a broader expression of his vision and how it manifests stylistically through dialogue and plot.
1. Mountain Boats (2002) is a story about marginalized groups, portrayed through characters that are found in the center of the city’s community, who are crushed by Yemeni society. Sarcasm and cynicism pervade the novel, and a sense of bitterness about the fate of its protagonists runs through the plot. It is the story of Saaeda, a fifteen-year-old who is forced into begging and is as miserable as the rest of the broken characters in the novel. Her escape from home, after one brother kills the other, does not save her after she finds herself in a cave with Sayf, who is also killed. Saaeda eventually leaves and ends up at a mosque, where she marries Imam, who establishes her moral soundness and appropriateness for marriage. Later, she magically moves to a labyrinth and the story finally ends in a puzzling and confusing twist of events. Based on the historically significant names of the characters, such as Saeeda, Belkis, Sayf and Imam, as well as the names of locations, including Bab Al Yemen, one could say that the novel is about the ‘Happy Land’ (Yemen), lost since the time of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan until post-republic and unification.
2. The Philosopher of Karantina (2007) is a novel about an oil-rich Arabian Gulf society which suffers from an existential crisis. The novel evolves from a great metaphor, where the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, or some parts of it, appear as worms in a graveyard ruled by al-Qahtani. Meshal al-Hijazi, the philosopher, tries to help these cemetery inhabitants, to no avail. The novel condemns false Bedouin religious thought and makes a clear reference to the wretched state of Arab societies, in an era during which modern civilizations have made a quantum leap in all fields.
3. A Land Without Sky (2008). The heroine of this novel is called Sama Nasher al-Naam. She is a university student and is being harassed and bullied like thousands of other Yemeni women, who are afraid to come forward out of fear of tarnishing their honor. Sama disappears from the University of Sana’a under mysterious circumstances, and the story ends with the impression that one of the professors was involved. The tragic story of Sama, or Jasmine (as translated in the English edition), is the story of Yemeni women in a country where many people have lost all the moral values that descend from heaven through religion, or emanate from earth through a certain worldly philosophy. Sama reminds us of the women who disappeared from the University of Sana’a in 2000. Their bodies were later discovered at the morgue of the Faculty of Medicine in the same university. The women were killed after being raped by gangs that have ties to the university and to the ruling class. Sama is the Yemeni woman – every woman in Yemen – buried today in the dust of customs and obsolete traditions.
4. The Land of Happy Plots (2018) is the story of a girl who is raped and found guilty by court while her rapist is set free. The novel strongly condemns the ruling regime in Yemen, and denounces its false press, unjust political-military religious system and the false political opposition. Events unfold between Tihama and Sana’a, home to harsh daily realities that destroy the humanity and dignity of its people. Here is where the revolution of 2011 erupted. Here is where people are angry and feel that Yemen has become a miserable land, and not ‘happy’, as it was once known.
The literary vision behind the work of al-Ahdal
Through this brief overview of his novels, one can say that the most important social background of al-Ahdal’s work is modern Yemen, in the geographical, political and cultural sense of the word. If we delve into the details of these novels, along with his statements in various interviews, we can draw the most important aspects of his literary vision through the following points:
1. Literature as an understanding of existence. In response to a question we addressed to Wajdi al-Ahdal about the meaning of writing, al-Ahdal responded, “Writing seems to be an attempt to understand who we are, where we come from, and where we will go. We are blind; writing is a way to perceive our existence. The reader also has this curiosity for knowledge, and his or her participation means that the blindness we experience will not be an obstacle to understanding. We should recognize that our knowledge of ‘humans’ is scarce. Writing is a contribution of varying degrees to the interpretation of this very mysterious being.” Here, literary writing appears to have a philosophical mission of ‘I write to understand’. Writing is an act of self-discovery. The self here is understood in the general human sense of the question: the question of the truth of a person, her/his principles and destiny, and the quest for purpose and happiness in life.
2. Literature to awaken the reader. In response to the confiscation of his novel Mountain Boats, al-Ahdal said, “The first impression that remains in the novel is a realization of the tremendous power of literature. In the sense that Yemeni society seems to be indifferent to culture, literature and arts, or, as I call it, a culturally sleeper society; sometimes it needs artistic and literary work to awaken it from this hibernation. Of course, reactions vary. There are those who will thank you for being awakened from sleep because they have a date with the future, and there are those who will curse you because they are lazy and idle and have nothing to do in the present or the future.”
3. Literature for speakers of the language and not for translation and fame. Al-Ahdal believes that “the real appreciation of any writer starts from his community, he should only take into consideration those who speak the language in which he writes. In terms of my translated work, it feels foreign to me. It belongs to the translator in the sense that the style no longer belongs to me, but belongs to the translator.” This stance towards the translation of Arab literature was expressed by the late Arab novelist Abdul Rahman Muneef. He believed that the eagerness of some Arab writers to have their work translated, and their longing for fame, drove them to represent their own people in a disturbing and grotesque manner.
4. Literature as an interpretation of life. In a recent article, ‘The Interpretation of Life’, al-Ahdal wrote, “Literature is not a predictive tool, but an instrument of interpretation. If we understand it as such, it is imperative that it be a saving factor for millions of lives, provided we take literature seriously; that we consider it a warning call, an ultimatum, a word of truth uttered right on time, before it is too late, and before the catastrophe that could have been avoided or, at the least, minimized.” This statement is a departure from the status quo expressed by other literary writers, which carries a predictive and mystical nature. It is the same vision expressed by Mahmoud Darwish when he attributed poetry to “talent when you strive”. Al-Ahdal's narrative is similar to the work of a hard-working anthropologist; in terms of approaching people, returning to the writing table, and working on interpreting what he is able to discern from the existential actions of man. However, his literature does not stop at that. Al-Ahdal has a moral message, namely, averting humanitarian catastrophes and the selfish recklessness of the world.
In his latest novel, Breaking Dualities, as often in his narratives, al-Ahdal offers different views on the right to live. In this narrative, a simplistic duality is absent and the complexity of the situation in the land of happy plots takes over. This departure, reflected in the title of the novel, reveals the narrator’s miserable awareness of Yemen’s existential crisis to which everyone has contributed. The most important contributors to the crisis are the intellectuals and the opinion shapers who betrayed their people and despised them instead of defending them and their right to decent lives.
From these insights, we come to understand that literature in the eyes of al-Ahdal is an important existential preoccupation. His decision to pursue a literary life, or the ‘craft of literature’ as it was traditionally called, with all the likelihood of difficulty and poverty it entails, is a conscious choice. It is not motivated by career opportunities, nor is it an indulgence. Writing literature here is a philosophical task that is expected to liberate people and enlighten them. In Yemen, a country plagued by war, hunger, disease and illiteracy, al-Ahdal and his fellow novelists, journalists and poets, write for salvation. As long as it is about salvation, there is no escape from writing.