Meet Muhammad Alnaas, the first Libyan to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction

Dubai: Hailing from a Libyan village, 31-year-old novelist Muhammad Alnaas, whose novel “Bread at Uncle Milad’s Table” won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker Prize , is committed to addressing the most complex issues concerning men and women, and the relationship between masculinity and femininity.

He is the youngest writer to win the prize and the first Libyan to do so – Al Naas was declared the winner at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi in May.

Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tripoli in 2014, he published a collection of short stories called ‘Blue Blood’ 2020. In an exclusive interview, he spoke to Gulf News, through this novel, about the relationship of men and women in Libyan society.

In the closed society of his village, Milad strives to live up to the definition of ideal masculinity as his society sees it. However, after all his efforts, he fails to be a “man”, and after meeting his sweetheart and future wife, Zeinab, decides to forget that definition and just be himself.

Living at home, he performs the tasks that his society reserves for women, while Zeinab works and supports the family. Milad doesn’t know how he is made fun of in the village until his nephew tells him. Pain sur la table by Uncle Milad challenges the static ideas of gender and defends the individual against the ideas adopted by the majority.

Mohammed Alnaas answers questions related to all of this in this interview:

Q. What is the impact of oral culture on your writing of the novel “Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table”?

A. Popular proverbs in general in the country are considered as a kind of constitution or norm invoked in daily life, answering questions that always seek reference, and many of these grandparents do not know who pronounced these words. It relied on a number of proverbs, and the novel itself evoked the proverb. You have to understand Libyan society to understand the essence of the novel, as well as the format from which the proverb comes.

The main character of the novel, Milad, is a negative symbol because women liberate themselves in his shadow, so I called him “the man opposite”. While the ideal men are, as they say in the proverb, “the Tris died in Chad”, and the Tris in Libya means the tough men, i.e. they died in the war of Chad in the 1980s, and men are still dying in war. And in other proverbs, we say “the horse is on its rider”, that is to say that he takes him for his cause and raises him. Popular proverbs are present in the novel, and even each chapter of the novel is based on a specific proverb.

Q. Did you grow up in a family that reads and writes, or did you find yourself guided in this world?

A. I come from a family in which there are two parts. The first is a family of sciences and Sharia. Most of my ancestors were upholders of the Holy Quran, and the second part is about people who struggle in life. My father is originally a government employee. From the 1990s, he became a farmer. I see in my father only the image of a peasant.

Q. You mean you haven’t opened your eyes to a family library?

A. Yes, we had books at home on agricultural sciences and in the English language, and they are coded books for me. We only had one book, which was by the late well-known poet and historian Khalifa Al-Tbilisi, which are excerpts from modern poetry. I mean, I only knew Al-Sayyab through this book, as well as Nazik Al-Malaika and Al-Mutanabbi outside of the classroom. This book includes a group of Arab writers, which opened up my love for books. So far, I don’t know who owns this book – my father, my mother or my sister. I stole the book and continued to read it, the first book I had in my library.

Q. What first attracted you to short stories, since you published a collection of short stories before your novel?

A. In general, I am a person who likes stories, even the stories of everyday life which I enjoy. I consider myself a storyteller, not a novelist. But I digressed from the little story. The last one I wrote was two or three years ago. The beauty of the short story is that it encapsulates the moment or situation in our daily lives. I started as a storyteller, although my stories are rather long, ie they are 12,000 words long, which means that I wrote the short story in a long format. It was from them that I took to the novel.

Q. Did you leave the short story because the subject of your novel was too big for the short story to understand?

A. My novel was originally a short story. It wasn’t a novel at first. And I can say that my novel is a collection of stories; short, interconnected.

Q. Your novel is written with flowing narration, which was praised by the jury. Was it your choice?

A .Maybe because the character calls it and the birth of a simple character who works as a baker, and has not finished high school, and his language expresses his depth. The novel is told through Milad. He was talking about his wife. It is true that he speaks in a formal language, but he addresses the reader, and tells him the events of the novel.

Q. Who are the writers and novelists who have influenced you?

A. It is natural for a writer to be affected by every book he reads. I can say that the writers who have been a milestone in my life are: Al-Tayeb Salih and the Season of Migration to the North, whose novel art I loved as well as the character of Mustafa, and this what attracted me was the narration outside the framework of the Arabic novel. at this moment. The second teacher, who doesn’t know he taught me, is the great Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni. I have read most of his books, and the most beautiful novel he wrote is “The Doll” about the story of a leader. He made me know the voice of Libya and opened the way for me, and thanks to him I got to know the Libyan writers. Naguib Mahfouz is the master of all of us. Nikos Kazandzaki and the novel “Zorba” and “Report to Grigio”. And I don’t forget George Orwell, and his 1984 novel, which I read five times. American literature includes Hunters Thomsen, his mastery of journalistic storytelling and the kind of bizarre journalism he writes. And if you ask me ten years from now about that, I can give you a different answer.

Q. What is the Libyan novel scene for young people today?

A. Of course, there are better writers than me. Libyan youth have now emerged from state domination over literature and culture, and Libyan youth are beginning to discover themselves. One of the dominant writers for me is a young writer a year my senior, Muhammad al-Misrati, who lives in London. He has yet to publish any literary works, but I predict he will be one of the smartest young literary voices.

Q. Libya, as we know, lacks local publishing houses. Doesn’t that prevent the publication of young people’s products?

A. There are Libyan publishing houses, but they are few, such as the Salem Al-Serghani publishing house, one of the largest Arab publishers, and the problem of Libyan publishing houses has been suffering for decades of state restrictions because it monopolizes the publishing field. publishing, and did not allow the private sector to appear and work. There are Libyan publishing houses now waking up from the slumber of the last 40 years and the hell of the last ten years. Hope for the future, like Dar Al-Kitab Al-Jadid, Dar Al-Ferjani and Dar Al-Kun. Some of them are outside the Libyan borders.

Q. Why did you choose Maskeliani Publishing, which published your Arabic Booker Prize-winning novel?

AI didn’t choose Meskliani’s house, but she chose me. When I was writing my novel, I was not thinking of a particular publishing house. I was just hoping to publish my novel. I have a poet friend, Salem Al-Alam, an excellent reader and poet. I sent him the novel and he agreed to communicate with the Tunisian publisher. The novel was published by Dari Resham in Saudi Arabia and Dar Meskliani in Tunisia, i.e. a joint publication.

Q. Do you rewrite your novel several times before settling on its final form?

A. Of course. The novel began in 2018. At the time, I did not know how to knead and bake. So I was adamant that the hero was a baker. I abandoned the first manuscript. I rewrote the novel later.

Q. Why?

A. Because I didn’t like the writing, so I rewrote it in early 2020 in a different way, and decided to learn breadmaking in order to express the depth of this baker, the hero of my novel. I started to make bread and I sowed several kilos of flour to learn. Since I learned to bake bread, the horizons of writing a novel have opened up for me because Milad was waiting for me to learn how to do it to write a novel.

Q. Did you try to discover the woman in the novel? Have you studied the condition of women in Libyan society?

A. Yes, the idea for the novel came from reading Libyan society and its heritage, through sociology, and from my personal reading of the society in which I live. We have to know the characters we meet. The writer collects his notes in the subconscious mind, and then the stories come out.

Alnaas (L) with Shakir Noori, who interviewed him

Q. The problem of masculinity and femininity is very strong in Libyan society, isn’t it?

A. That is correct. The character of women in the city can be stronger than in the countryside. She works, she goes to the cafe. In tribal areas, women are seen as weak, due to traditions that control their movement and relationships.

Q. As for the female character in your novel, how did you portray her?

A. She was a city woman who went to the clan areas and became a different character. Milad knew her because he was her childhood friend.

Q. Do you have a new novel project?

A.Yes. It is inspired by a character mentioned in my novel “Bread at the table of Uncle Milad”, whose name is Lotfi Al-Manawi, who is a Libyan fiction director.

-Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based writer and journalist.