The General Culture Authority of Saudi Arabia (GCA) successfully organised the Saudi Cultural Days, a three-day extensive programme presenting Saudi art and culture. This year the event took place recently in London, New York and Paris. Beyond showing several contemporary art exhibitions, films were presented, discussions were held with artists and musicians, and insight could be gained into a variety of cultural and creative genres. It became obvious that Saudi culture is changing rapidly.
This year I attended the Saudi Cultural Days in Paris with great pleasure and took part in their “whole-istic” and all-encompassing cultural and creative programme. It happens to me every time that I am mesmerised by the breadth of stories my country and culture have to tell. Art, music, and film give such a rare insight into a culture often overlooked outside the Arab world. Hearing about cultural exchange, experiencing historical areas through virtual reality, and watching films by and with people of my heritage truly reminded me of the importance of looking beyond your own borders while not forgetting where you come from.
However, one thing was missing. It occurred to me after the second person asked me about my own background and I kept answering that I am specialised in contemporary literature. I started to wonder – where are all the Saudi writers? Surely in a festival revolving around the culture of my beloved country at least one contemporary writer would be featured? In a world dominated by digitalisation and technological advances, reading printed words on paper becomes a rare treat. Thankfully my background allows me to engage in this pleasure regularly. When someone asked, I told them about my background but I also reminded them that what they see in this three-day event about Saudi Arabia may only be the tip of the iceberg. Beyond art on screen comes art on paper.
I would like to introduce readers to one of my favourite authors left his mark in Saudi literature and culture – and continues to do so. Mohammed Hasan Alwan is a novelist who at the tender age of 22 published his first pest-selling novel, Saqf Elkefaya. In the years that followed, his works Sophia, Touq AltaharaandAl-Qunduswere partly translated into English, presented in The Guardian, and appeared in international papers. His book Al-Qundus, published in 2013, won the Arab World Institute’s Prix de la Littérature Arabe. In 2017, his novel A Small Deathwon the International Prize for Arabic fiction, the Arab world’s most prestigious literary award. Beyond fiction, Alwan also released Migration: Theories and Key Factorsin 2014.
Surely one would have heard about one of the best Arab authors under the age of 40, whom the Beirut39 project named as someone to keep an eye on. A Small Deathis a fictionalised account of Ibn Arabi – the Islamic scholar and poet, Sufi mystic and adventurer – and his travels across the world. A polarising figure among Muslims, Alwan took his protagonist to be human, stripped of religious sheen and simply a man capable of sadness, loneliness, and joy alike. Not only does the book allow sceptics and heretics to jointly indulge in wonderful prose, it also allows Alwan himself to reconnect with himself through writing. In an interview with The Guardian he stated “I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well with my heritage and culture.”
Literature has a unique power to reunite history and fiction, experience and interpretation. One of the main reasons for my own specialisation in contemporary literature is that words have no borders and that they can provide refuge and freedom in a world constrained by meaning, and “rights” and “wrongs”. When I first read Alwan’s 2013 novel The Beaver, about a man who travels from Riyadh to Portland, Oregon, I was reminded of my own experience of studying abroad and trying to find meaning and belonging in a place so far from home without forgetting my roots. Alwan’s stories, despite focusing around a character in a plotline, hold different meaning to every reader. What they share in common is a sensitivity for what we hold dear in Saudi Arabia: belonging to a country with culture, history and religion vaster than a three-day event on culture can capture. Building on this, Alwan still manages to capture contested stories, controversial figures and affairs, and to highlight the vast spectrum that makes up what Saudi Arabia has to offer.
I explained about some contemporary Saudi authors to participants of the event and my recounting of Alwan’s deep connection to back home left them in awe. Although films, images, and sounds can capture unique sensations, words still and always have had the power to tell entire stories and to allow for world to open in one’s mind. Alwan, himself holding a PhD from Carleton University, is not tainted by his foreign education or his exposure to the world of international literature. On the contrary: his outside position let him cast a loving eye back home, which he captures in his beautifully recounted narratives and underpins with detailed descriptions of thoughts and surroundings.
Sometimes it disappoints me not to find literature represented in cultural events, particularly in those that claim to encompass “culture” as a whole. Of course, showing interactive material has the power to woe audiences immediately. However, books hold the power to change worlds and to open new interpretations on every read. Therefore, they never get old, and the stories authors can tell will always remain real. Mohammed Hasan Alwan is one of the best examples for why literature deserves a place in the spotlight too. Upon winning an international prize, his works have gained well-deserved attention worldwide. Now his stories and the messages they convey deserve the same attention within the world of culture, heritage, and tradition.
The Saudi Cultural Days speak of “art having always worked behind the scenes as a cultural diplomat, a force that can transcend borders and create bonds between people of different cultural backgrounds”. Alwan’s writings fit this description perfectly and help both native Saudi readers and non-natives reconnect with their sense of meaning not once, but multiple times and differently each time.
SAUDI ACADEMIC & WRITER*