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Saudi Arabian Writer Mohammed Hasan Alwan in Burlington


Published October 4, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 9, 2018 at 11:14 p.m.

English speakers will have to wait to find out exactly why Mohammed Hasan Alwan won the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Raised in Saudi Arabia and currently dividing his time between Toronto and Riyadh, the 38-year-old author has had only a few short works translated into English — not including his prize-winning novel, A Small Death.

But the $50,000 award gives Alwan the status of one of the most prominent literary voices in the Arab world. And, given the daily news stories on both migration — one of Alwan's favorite subjects — and changing mores in Saudi Arabia, it may be a voice Americans shouldn't ignore.

On Friday, Vermonters will have a chance to hear that voice when Alwan comes to the Queen City to discuss A Small Death. Co-organized with the Burlington Book Festival, the event is part of a program called Bridges Talks, which is administered by the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute on behalf of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia.

A multitasker with varied interests, Alwan wrote his debut novel while at college in Riyadh and worked on A Small Death, his fifth, in his spare time during his PhD studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. In the intervening years, Alwan, who has a bachelor's degree in computer information systems, earned an MBA and published a nonfiction book on migration. He has also worked as a columnist at newspapers in Saudi Arabia.

"Any kind of knowledge I have obtained, whether from a classroom, textbook, case study or research paper, [is] not different [from] life experiences and everyday observations that make writers who they are," wrote Alwan in an email.

Indeed, his academic interest in migration was the inspiration for A Small Death. It's a fictionalized story of Sufi philosopher and traveler Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, who was born in Muslim Spain in 1165 and died in Damascus in 1240.

When Alwan received his award in April, one of the judges described A Small Death as a novel that uses "striking artistry" and "captivating language" to "shed light on Ibn Arabi's view of spiritual and temporal love in their most refined forms."

Ibn Arabi is a controversial figure, regarded as a saint by Sufi practitioners and as a heretic by some Muslim scholars. His travels across the Levant, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey intrigued Alwan, the writer said. "The history book did not bring me a satisfying answer, as historians omitted this side of his life," Alwan explained. "I decided to turn my frustration into an opportunity and let fiction complete the job that history didn't."

The Arab literary world has long recognized Alwan's talent. In 2009, his work was included in Beirut 39, a collection of 39 stories, novel extracts and poems by Arab writers under 40. In 2013, he was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel The Beaver, the story of a man who travels from Riyadh to Portland, Ore., to explore his family's past.

Two years later, a French translation of the same novel won the Arab World Institute's Prix de la Littérature Arabe. In a 2015 review, preeminent French newspaper Le Monde called The Beaver a "melancholy and hilarious" work that "casts a critical, often ferocious, eye on Saudi society" and compared the author's humor to that of Woody Allen.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction was instituted a decade ago. One of its aims is to encourage the translation of Arabic literature into other languages. A spokesperson from the Middle East Institute said Alwan is in the process of getting his latest novel translated.

In a recent interview with Abu Dhabi-based news service the National, Alwan suggested, "the West knows more about Ibn Arabi than us," given the number of books published about the philosopher "in English and other languages. We need to have discussions about him here in this part of the world," he added. "At the same time, if any work of mine can act as bridge between West and East, I will be more than pleased."

The Saudi writer's peripatetic life mirrors that of Ibn Arabi. He lives part-time on two continents, and, since winning the international prize, Alwan has attended cultural events and book festivals in Europe and the U.S. as well as the Middle East.

In an interview with the prize organizers months after winning the award, Alwan said, "I am more certain now that I should be a full-time writer and stop doing other things, unless they are temporary or are directly connected to literature and culture."

Winning the Arab world's top literary prize hasn't put pressure on Alwan to replicate his success as he writes his latest novel, he said in the email to Seven Days. "I have accumulated an experience that should shield me from such pressure or at least reduce it," he said.

Comprising a reading, conversation, multimedia presentation and reception, the Burlington event is the last of a three-stop tour organized by the Middle East Institute to introduce Americans to a modern Saudi author, said a spokesperson. Tina Escaja, a professor of Spanish at the University of Vermont, will moderate the discussion.

Also in the email interview with Seven Days, Alwan noted that his native country is one of the fastest-changing societies in the world, a situation that has torn "many gaps in the social fabric in the forms of existential questions, philosophical queries, and other debates about values, traditions and identity." Those gaps are best filled by art, he continued: "Fiction, in particular, might be the biggest winner in such an environment."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Saudi Writer to Discuss His Prize-Winning Novel in Burlington"