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The International Writers Magazine: Interview

The Ali Tal interview
Dr Marwan Asmar

'If I am not honest about my feelings, I don’t think I’ll be honest about my writings. When I sit most of the day in my study in Portsmouth, it’s not Portsmouth I see, I see the Golan Heights, and the hills of northern Jordan'.

Ali Tal weaves a good read. All his novels are set in Irbid, northern Jordan and the Golan Heights, they are written and published in the UK where he lives. Al Tal, born in 1945, describes himself as a realist with his books based on real life characters. So far he has three novels and the fourth coming out next year. His topics are historical dealing with taboos, like sadism, adultery and homosexuality, subjects many prefer to sweep under the carpet. He talks about his books, the unfair treatment of women and provides an insight on what it is like to be a writer and how plots are developed.

MA: This is your third book in English is there a theme emerging in your writing?
AT: The theme that emerges in all my writings is the place and situation of Arab women and their relationship to Arab males, who is actually in charge of whom, is it the women who sets the agenda unknowingly, or is it the male who is in charge and herding the female.
MA: But there are so many other problems in the Arab world…
AT: Yes, but you can’t actually talk about any of these problems without talking about the main participants—males and females, and if you can’t discuss the relationship between them which is interchangeable and interchanging you can’t really go very far
MA: You talk about others like homosexuals…
AT: This is the latest theme in my new novel The Burning Peacock, all the events and characters are taking from life. The main partners were actually our next door neighbors in Irbid, but I kept the situation under cover until these partners were no longer with us. It was a big scandal when it came out, 30 years ago. The novel should be out next summer….
MA: As a Jordanian writer writing in English how do you feel about being accepted in the literary community in the UK?
AT: I am not really interested in that, as a writer and a novelist you live your own world, your world is your mind, and the more interaction you have with other people the less chances you can interact with your own ideas, I am not interested in meetings, conferences and gatherings because when you are writing especially about characters, you become all these characters, each individual character in your novel or short story is you for the duration of that character’s lifetime on paper, once you move from this character to that character all your personality changes with it and sometimes that character becomes so strong they overtake you and over come you like with Umm Um Abdo in the Sheikh of Lovers, she really destroyed me for 3 or 4 months after I finished writing the book
MA: The last 10-15 pages of the book were tremendous, I didn’t know how you got the energy?
AT: Indeed, I didn’t want to kill her, but I had to kill her, killing somebody so alive, full of life and determination, and will to live, to kill somebody like that at the end of the day, even if it’s on paper, is a crime in its own right.
MA: What are the things that matter in your writings?
AT: The things that matter in my writings is we as Arabs should know ourselves as Arabs, accept the realities of who we are, were we are going, and were we come from…that is essential, if we do not accept our facts as they are I think we are going to be lost for a long time…a few of the girls have gone through what you might call liberalism, now it has gone the other way, is it fashion, is it something deeper, I can’t really work it out because you talk to women and ask them why do you wear this Hijab and fold yourself in such a way that on a hot day it must be like murder, most of them do not have a really defined answer that is convincing, they talk about religion, they talk about the rights of men, it always comes out at the end of the day that an Arab woman is about what good she is to the male, she dresses herself so as not to seduce the male so that he would not commit a sin by looking at her…that doesn’t make sense to me, why should she cover herself up so that the male would not commit a sin.
MA: What about the religion….
AT: Religion is alright, it is part of our heritage, part-and-parcel of who we are, but how much of religion is important and how much of it is fable? Theologians who come up with these ideas and define everything, we had the Khomeini example and his revolution for example, has it changed much? It didn’t because at the end of the day, the Shiites (population of Iranian) still do the same thing they did at the time of the Shah, nothing really changed….
MA: Do you think people will accuse you of looking at Islam from western eyes?
AT: I am sure this is the first thing they will accuse me of and I have been accused of it many times. Am I westernized I don’t know? How much of being westernized am I?
MA: You are not a religious man then?
AT: I am not a religious man, but I do understand religion and I have read lots of books about religion and the history of the Arabs, the Caliphate and I appreciate all that, but that is the past, we are in a different time, our challenges are very, very grave.
MA: What are the new things that happened to you from a literary point of view since we last talked in 1999?
AT: I think as a writer, and this shows it in my last book, Every Day is the Last Day, I have become deeper, I have become more and more involved with my characters, and the characters I am writing about are really much deeper than they used to be—Umm Abdu is a unique case in my writing, but coming to the last book I wrote—only two characters in the book, they became so much part of me for the last three years. The novel is simply about an idealist young man who defied revolution and shouting in the streets, and going on marches which he felt didn’t solve problems and change the situation in our Arab lands in the 1930s, and so he felt the best thing he can do is to go and teach in a remote village in the Golan Heights and there he opens a school, and the falaheen [peasants] become very fond of him and he becomes a celebrity. Then he meets this lowly woman whom everybody despises….
MA: I read your novels, their style of writing tends to be different than today’s novel, your style resembles those of the 19th century….
AT: I think that reflects the stage we [Arab world] are in. I think most of our ideas are a century behind than what’s going on in Europe…that is why I write that way, I write to reflect what I think the Arab world is…
MA: When you sit and write do you feel you are developing your own style or are you "locked’ into that 19th century?
AT: In the book I am currently writing The Burning Peacock, I think I have jumped to modern times and I talk openly about everything…
MA: When you take your first book, On the Walls of my Being, and the Sheikh of Lovers which was set in distinct periods, 19th and 20th centuries, it seemed to me that there was much research involved, what did you do for instance, did you study the topography of the area?
AT: On the Walls of my Being I had just two themes to write my novel about that I was informed of by my parents and the people and clan and close family, and around that I decided to write a novel; a lot of it was my own work, but these two themes had to be in it to give it authenticity and I think I have succeeded in that especially in the story of Maha who was murdered for no crime at all, just because everybody was angry…
MA: It seems that history repeats itself with honor crimes rife in the 1990s, but going back to research you went there to Irbid and northern Syria to find out how it was like…
AT: Yes I had to go, I did a lot of traveling in north Jordan and southern Syria, especially Dera to get the feel of the place, and of course Irbid came to me during that time through the description of my parents.
MA: And what about the Sheikh of Lovers, how did you do that, did it require a lot of research, is Um Abdo a real life character?
AT: Yes, she was based on a real life character, The Sheikh of Lovers was set in the 1950s and at that time there was a woman who had many lovers, who eventually was murdered by her children. She probably enjoyed the flirtation, her husband traveled a lot, and in fact maybe her children were not from her husband.
MA: Who told you that story, was it your parents?
AT: It was a memory from my childhood, but I also reaffirmed the details from some of the people that were around at the time.
MA: As a writer do you see yourself as building bridges with the country you are living in, or again it doesn’t matter?
AT: It does matter, I think basically, I do hope I am doing something, but if I am not it does not really matter.
MA: You are living in Portsmouth, in the UK, maybe you should appreciate, and do this small offering…
AT: If I am not honest about my feelings, I don’t think I’ll be honest about my writings. When I sit most of the day in my study in Portsmouth, it’s not Portsmouth I see, I see the Golan Heights, and the hills of northern Jordan
MA: But that means your are still locked up in Arab history, and culture, so why don’t you go back?
AT: If I go back to Jordan, I don’t think I’ll be able to do the same job again which is writing.
MA: Are you an Arab nationalist?
AT: No.
MA: So why do you sit in your study and see the Golan Heights?
AT: It is the tragedy of it all isn’t it, it’s the uselessness of most things we do.
MA: Do you miss Irbid?
AT: Not really know. When I am in Irbid, I am in Irbid, I don’t have to change personalities to be in Irbid and I understand it, when I am in Portsmouth, I am in Portsmouth and I understand it. I don’t have a split personality at all, I am what I am, Ali.
MA: Do you have a lot of relations with British people?
AT: Yes, I have lots of friends.
MA: You have a distinct English accent…
AT: Well, I have been here for 40 years.
MA: But from the accent I discern that there is custom and tradition developing that is so English
AT: When I am there, the first thing I tell everybody, ‘I am a Jordanian’ or I say ‘I am a wog’ just to annoy them, I am not ashamed of what I am, if they do let them.
MA: Are you writing for the English market or the Arab market?
AT: I am not writing for either, I am writing for everybody who would really like to read.
MA: But who reads your books?
AT: I don’t know, lots, I get feedback from people all the time, Jordanians, Arabs, English, and they ask questions, why is this and why is that.
MA: How do you choose the topics?
AT: The topics have been chosen a long time ago in my head. Very rarely do I start new topic unless it has been in my head for a while, for example writing the Burning Peacock has been in my head for the last 10 years, and it has matured in my head, and if I write it now, I know what is going to be on the first page and I know what’s going to be on the last page.
MA: Why is it only English you write in?
AT: When I started writing, I started writing first to the Arab market, I wrote short stories in Arabic
MA: So what happened, they didn’t sell?
AT: Never mind sell, they were not published, so I had the English language in my file and started writing in English and I had no difficulty in publishing, there are lots and lots of publishers in Europe, and they specialize so you just pick your own publisher.
MA: In the Sheikh of Lovers, you mention the 1956 Suez Crisis and its effects, but you cut it short, and I felt I wanted more narrative….
AT: I don’t think there was anything that mattered at the time, people did go out in the streets and shout Arab freedom and Arab unity and all that but I don’t think it really went beyond the surface…and Abdel Nasser did what he did—he didn’t do it for the Arab people—he did it for Egypt, and I think the two are not the same thing, so when I was writing about characters from the Middle East, about Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Iraqis, they were not Egyptians, I wrote about their own experiences and their own lives.
MA: Is there a ‘hidden’ agenda in your writings, are you trying to get back at people from Irbid, Jordan, and so on, to get at their patriarchy?
AT: Maybe that, but mostly to know who they are really, to understand themselves, and who they are, and the situation they find themselves into particularly from the woman point of view; In England I had been described as a feminist writer
MA: Are you a feminist writer?
AT: I don’t think I could be because I am not a woman, but I do feel for the woman more so than for the man, because I think the man who takes the woman to be his Kingdom, his free to deal with and control his empire as he wishes without any understanding of the women’s point of view as I see it around me, she doesn’t matter, its him, him, him all the time, and she has to go with that.
AT: Can we actually change in the Arab world, can your books change…
MA: I don’t know whether my books can change but we have to change
AT: Become more feminist?
MA: Not necessarily, feminism should not necessarily mean permissiveness. I don’t think I would want that here!
Islam called for equality, it is not practiced….?
AT: Do you think Islam called for equality?
MA: Well, be kind to women….
AT: Be kind but not treat her as you would treat another man, as another individual, no she remains a woman, she remains the weak partner, she is identified as such, she is only half of a man?
MA: But do you think the problem is in the religion, or in the culture?
AT: There is no distinction between religion and culture in the Middle East, our culture is religion, our tradition is religion, religion is our culture and religion.
MA: Do you believe there should be a distinction?
AT: In the long run, there should come a time when there should be a distinction between the two, because the world is getting much, much larger and tribal society will die out by force of modernity…
MA: Do you think if your books were translated into Arabic they would have greater impact, or would you like your books to be translated into Arabic?
AT: I would like that, I think it would be good, I would enjoy that if they were translated because of the experience and contribution it might have on society. Most of our Arab writers are limited in their scope I think, and they write to an audience that is Arab and set in its ways so its very rarely you find somebody who comes up with new ideas fighting the current ideas and current situations, so we want to move on.
MA: So you think writers do have a role?
AT: Yes,
MA: Do they have a special role in the Arab world?
AT: They should do, and they must have, if they don’t then they failed as writers

© Marwan Asmar December 2007
Order his book 'Every Day is the Last Day' here

You can order The Walls of My Being here

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