Meeting Wajdi al-Ahdal at an Ethiopian restaurant in Sana’a, my first impression was that he was quiet and gentle as opposed to his controversial, satirical writing.
The Yemeni novelist, who was nominated for the Arab Booker Prize in 2008, was forced into exile between 2002-2003 due to threats from radical conservatives as a result of his book Mountain Boats. He is now working at the cinema and drama department in the Yemeni Ministry of Culture.
Reading his most recent novel that has been translated into English, The Land without Jasmine, as a resident of Sana’a I could identify with the “masculine violence” described in the book. I was curious about how he represents the Yemeni identity in his writing.
“I realized when I was in the US last year as a participant in a writing group in Chicago I missed my country very much…I started to think of the stories that my grandmother told me and other stories about where I came from,” he said.
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Wajdi is from a prominent Sufi family in Hodeida and has incorporated both non-Islamic and Sufi elements in his writings, including the practicing of black magic and site worshipping.
Are there any reasons behind incorporating pagan elements in your stories?
“Herodotus, the father of history, said that the mentalities of Yemen have not been changed over time.”
You mean Yemen has stopped in a particular time and space?
“Something like that.”
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Yemen hosts varied sects of Islam. To an extent, Yemenis still seek magicians to solve problems. In the novel, the family of the protagonist asks for help from the magicians to locate their daughter.
“I want to joke about the stupidity of the society,” Wadji said.
What inspires your writings?
“Yemeni society is already creative and I would like to document the lifestyle and culture. Basically I am inspired by many things, just ordinary life…My novel Mountain Boats is taking place in the neighborhood where I have lived for fourteen years. Most of my writings are inspired by that neighborhood.”
Gender-interaction seems impossible outside of your family setting. How do you get inside the mind of the women to depict your female protagonist?
“In the public area such as bus and workplace…I observe the situation,” Wadji replied.
He is working on a new book that is inspired by the political situation in Yemen.
“It is about a dictator who feels the society is going against him and he takes action to respond to the society,” Wajdi said smiling.
Jacquelaine Wong is a resident and traveler based in Yemen. She is still in the journey of discovering the people and culture of Yemen.
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