Kuwait literary scene a little complex New generation creating own path in creative writing

KUWAIT was the pioneer of a literary renaissance in the region with an open and free society that was inclusive and moderate. However, today the scene has changed. Taleb Alrefai, award-winning writer muses about the changes that have occurred in the recent years. Themes he wrote about and published in the 70’s 80’s with élan are taboos today, and may not pass through the authority’s cultural filters. But he has not lost hope. The new generation of writers, despite the influence of the Islamist hegemonic rhetoric, are fording through bravely creating their own paths in creative writing.

Question: What is the literary scene in Kuwait?
Answer: This is a big question. In Kuwait, we have the NCCAL, and also we have the association of the Kuwaiti Writers. Besides these, we have many other institutions like Al Babtain, Dar Al Athar Islamiyya, Suad Al Sabah.

Then there is the Cultural Circle which I founded in 2011. So, the literary scene is a little complex. But speaking generally, I am very optimistic, because now we have a new generation of Kuwaiti writers coming up, especially in novels and short stories.

They come with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Most of them have published at least one or two books. It’s very interesting to read them, their ideas and thoughts.

In general, we are in a good position compared to the Gulf or the Middle East in general. Nowadays, because of the Internet and other modern communication facilities, it’s not very difficult to access Arabic literature from around the region.

Of course every country has its own nuances. If you take Egypt, the country has been going through a tumultuous period for the last one year. So, the circumstances in Egypt are different and that will reflect in the writings. Similarly, the Kuwaiti scene is different from the Saudi Arabian scene.

Kuwaiti literary scene has always enjoyed a good position probably because of the freedom that has always existed here, and the spirit of democracy that has informed all segments of the society. It may also be because there is no policing of writers, or may be because we are an open society or may be because our youth have received their education in Europe and the US. 

More importantly, Kuwait witnessed the blossoming of a beautiful culture in the beginning of the last century. In 1911, Kuwait had its first school, Al Mubarakiya. In 1928, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Rushaid started the first magazine, Al Kuwait. Abdul Aziz Al Hussein published Al Bu’sa in Cairo in 1946. In 1973, the NCCAL was established in Kuwait.

It’s accumulative. The people in the region look upon Kuwait as the fountainhead of the cultural renaissance in this area. A magazine, Al Arabi, was published in 1958 in Kuwait. It was the most popular magazine in the Arab world. It came out it in all the Arabic countries, and about a quarter million copies were published every month.

So, I am optimistic about Kuwait’s literary scene, because of the rich history we have and because of the enthusiasm and energy of the young generation to continue those traditions, but in their own ways.

Q: You just sketchily referred to some stages in the evolution of Kuwait’s cultural and literary scene. If it can be looked at as an evolution, at what stage of the evolution are we right now?
A: Short stories in Kuwait began in 1928-29, while novels began in 1948. Therefore, we are far ahead in these two literary categories. Talking of novels, names like Ismail Fahad Ismail, Laila Al Othman, Walid Al Orjaib, Fausiya Shuwaish, and a new generation of writers like Buthain Al Esa, Maqis Al Othman and Sa’ada Al Da’as feature prominently.

Q: Wouldn’t your name also feature in the list of prominent short story writers?
A: Well, I have been writing short stories since the mid 70’s. I diverged to novels in the mid 90’s. As of today, I have 7 short-story collections and 5 novels.
The name of Ismail Fahad would once again take a top position in this category. Then there are Dr Suleiman Al Shatti, Suleiman Al Khulaifi, Laila Al Othman, Hamad Al Hamad, Muna Shaf’i… and as you said Taleb Al Refai somewhere.
These are widely read writers and they have been able to publish their works outside Kuwait. Many Kuwaiti books have been published in Syria, Beirut or Cairo. I don’t think a publisher would take the chance of publishing an outside writer unless he is confident that the readers will appreciate the work.

Q: I was actually asking about the evolution in the themes. May be it was more family oriented in the earlier years, and then moved to social issues, politics or as is seen across the world, writers may be questioning long-established values… something on that.

A: Writing, no matter where or when, always happens as a means of revolution. When you are writing, you are screaming for change. If you analyze the writings of any of the writers I mentioned above, including myself, there is always a yearning for change, a tendency to spotlight the downsides, the pitfalls in the society. There is a cry for greater freedom, more democracy, more human rights and so forth.
In these writings, there is a constant reflection on how we can transfer the society for the better. One more notable factor is the centrality of women in their works. All the writers take the side of women, and strongly support women’s rights. These values percolated throughout Kuwaiti literature, and of course, now women have won all their rights, including political rights.
But that has not stopped writers from continuing to engage in women’s issues and look at ways of greater liberation. This is an oft-visited theme in my own writings.
The creative writing in most cases is not too interested in everyday politics. This is because the political side of things is very clear to the people. There’s not much you can add to it. Moreover, a writer has to be careful to disengage himself from the everyday political narratives, because these are written more out of frustration or despair, and there’s little creativity in them. Whereas a creative writer is supposed to ruminate on the happenings around him, process the information in his mind, and bring them out in his works in a fashion that inspires new ideas or explores new angles commingled with his own perspectives and experiences.

Q: What drives the evolution in themes? Do writers move on to a new theme when the change they were crying for is achieved, or is it just a pursuit for novelty… when the possibilities in one theme get exhausted writers migrate to another theme, is that how it works?
A: Writing is the result of a conflict that goes on in the human mind. There is always an ideal that the human mind looks out for, and then there is the reality surrounding the writer. The conflict between the ideal and the real pushes the process of writing. Therefore, as reality changes, the dynamics of this conflict also change, opening the venue for new themes.  I was born in 1958. When I was a young boy my reality was different and so my conflicts were also different. It changed when I was in my 30s, and again in my 40s and it has been going on till today. A writer changes with the change.

Q: Have you any time had to court change because of a realization that what you had believed until then was wrong? Does change also happen as a result of correcting mistakes?
A: To me it’s not about right or wrong. I see it more as a natural growth process. We all grow, and grow out of ideas, beliefs, assumptions and dreams. That’s not to say that the things we grow out of are wrong. However, what I find really strange is the change the Kuwaiti society is undergoing. In the 70’s when I was in the Kuwait University, the society was more open, and university students were mixed. That’s gone now. The society has changed.
Many of my writings of the 70’s and 80’s would look too radical in today’s Kuwait. Every book needs a license from the Ministry of Information to be published in Kuwait. I think that some of the books I published in the 70’s and 80’s would not get passed today.

Q: You are essentially saying that the Kuwaiti society has gone backwards…
A: I am not saying the society has gone backwards. Islamist ideas are taking root in the society and that is influencing the way the society is thinking and acting in all walks of life. Not just politics, but also the family, human relationships. When families change, family is the basic unit of society, and thus the society changes.
I am not afraid of the Ministry of Information and their censorships, but of the society, which has become way too aggressive and intolerant to ideas that don’t agree with it.

Q: Why and how did this rigidity set in?
A: Well, this change is not the monopoly of Kuwait. As a nation and culture, Kuwait has always been susceptible to influences from around. The current change is taking place because of influences from the inside and outside.
The region is generally seeing a shift towards Islamism, and the change is also affecting Kuwait. This trend is affecting all areas of life including politics, markets, family, diwaniyas and also writing.
So, we see Islamic influences in the literature now. I am not saying nobody should write like that, because I believe every writer has the right to express what he likes.  In the same vein, there are liberal writers, who are also exercising their rights to express their streams of thought. So, there’s actually a conflict of two streams of ideas clashing in the literary milieu.
But this is not only now. Historically, Kuwait has always experienced such healthy differences in the society.

Q: However, you told me that some of your books in the 70’s would not get the license for publication today. Does that indicate that the Islamic rhetoric in this conflict is actually oppressing the liberal rhetoric?
A: Yes, of course. It’s very clear.

Q: How did Kuwait become this exclusivist society from being liberal, free and open until the 80’s?
A: That’s not wholly true. There’s still a lot of room for openness and freedom in Kuwait. However, Islamism has become the dominant rhetoric.

Q: You were the chairman of the Arabic Man Booker Prize. Tell us something about that.
A: I was the chairman of the Booker Prize in 2009. Man Booker Prize is originally a British prize and has been established for more than 80 years now. Abu Dhabi established the Arabic Booker Prize, and according to the rules of this prize, every year a special judging committee gets formed to select a winner. In 2009, I was the chairman of the committee. There were four judges in the committee from various countries.
There were about 120 Arabic novels that were running for the prize in 2009. We had to make a long list of 16 novels from all those entries. And then we had to make a short list of 6 novels. The winner receives a prize of US$ 50,000. And his work gets translated into many languages. Winning the Man Booker Prize opens huge opportunities for the writer for international exposure and gets widely read. In 2009, a Saudi writer, Abdu Khal was the winner. The novel was titled: “Tarmi Bi Sharah.”

Q: How do you judge a work of creativity like a book, which is so subjective? If it were another judge in your place in 2009, another book might have won the prize, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely. Once the judging committee was formed, we discussed among ourselves as to what rules we should apply for judging the books.  After we read the books, and we met and discussed among ourselves. Reading is also a very personal experience. No two people take out the same impression from reading the year same book. And so we sat and discuss for hours on end the books we read. We gave marks for the books based on the rules that we had framed. Through this process, we filter out 60 books from the 120. We continue and further filtered out 30 from the 60. And we sat to discuss to choose the long list, the 16 books by voting. We further cull out the 6 finalists, which is the short list. This is the juncture when the committee was announced to the world, and the people were eagerly waiting for the final winner. We took another month to re-read these 6 books, and met again for a final round of discussion and voting.
But as you said, if the committee had a different set of judges, may be their choice would have been different. That’s the case everywhere. That’s the only way you can judge works of art. It’s a very subjective process, both the creation and the internalization of the subject.

Q: What are the rules you framed to judge the books?

A: Firstly, we look at the language, as to how creatively the language has been used. We look at the vision of the writer. We look for humanitarian ideas in the book. We look for originality of ideas. We also assess how gripping the book is, in terms of creating interest in the reader.

Q: Coming to your writing, what is the highlight of your writing?
A: I would say my writing deals with the human aspect of Kuwaiti sociality. I bring this out by looking at the society in Kuwait as being made of Kuwaitis and expatriates. Approximately half of the society comprises expatriates, which is a huge number. A major part of my writing explores the life of foreigners in Kuwait.
I being an engineer, I am in constant contact with the expatriate workers, the laborers especially. Most of these people are very poor coming from countries like Pakistan, India, China, many Arab countries and so on. I have a very good relationship with them. I know their stories. Many come here dreaming of making money and earning a better life, not just for themselves but also for their families back home.
I also write about man-woman relationships, women’s rights, freedom etc.

Q: What is your take on the society in general from all your insights?
A: Well, I think as Kuwaitis we are all very fortunate. We get a lot of social benefits, free education, free health services, free insurance, free housing, no taxes etc. There is also a lot of democracy in Kuwait in the sense that we can say whatever we like. We have freedom of expression. This is according to the constitution established in 1962.
However, talking about expatriates, I think a part of them enjoys full rights. But then there is also a section of them that is heavily exploited. They are over-worked, paid less, and not provided decent boarding and lodging.
I have written a great deal about their miseries, trying to awaken the conscience of the society to their plights and to grant them more rights.

Q: Have you anytime had to make compromises in your writing because of the way the society has been changing? May be you thought that expressing a certain view might be overly criticized or censured or something like that.

A: I don’t impose any restrictions on myself when I am writing. I just let my thoughts flow. I just focus on my readers, and not what certain currents in the society think or feel. I try to be honest to my thoughts, beliefs and imagination while writing.
I am the sort of writer who is never satisfied with the first draft. I write and rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite. It goes on. I keep chiseling my writing, shaping it, adding, trimming and so on. I am only scared of imperfection. I want each of my books to add value to my repertoire.

Q: Tell us something about your creative process? Do you have a long incubation period, when the idea is forming in your mind, or do you let the idea develop as you write… how is it with you?
A: Writing for me starts with a specific idea. Sometimes, this idea would have been in my mind for a few days only, sometimes for a month, sometimes for a year. I type a paragraph, read it, think on it, and change it until I feel satisfied to move on to the next paragraph.

Q: So, you must be taking a very long time to write a book?
A: Yes. I take about 3 years to write a novel, and my novels are not very long. I have been writing for 35 years, and I only have 5 novels to my credit.
There are also instances when I have worked on a novel for a year or two, and felt it’s not good and shelved it off.  I am not in a hurry to publish. My writing’s best friend is my reading. I spend a lot of time reading great works.

By Valiya S. Sajjad - Arab Times Staff


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