Mohsine Loukili credits a Bedouin storyteller he met on the streets of the Moroccan city of Essaouira with inspiring The Prisoner of the Portuguese, his historical fiction novel that has been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Moroccan author was visiting the port city in 2019 when he crossed paths with the bard. The man was sitting on the curb, playing the ney, a traditional flute. An emaciated monkey was at his side.
The image of the Bedouin performer against the backdrop of Essaouira’s colonial architecture dating back to Portuguese rule stayed with Loukili. The award-winning author had been in the thick of working on another novel, he says, but he still could not shake the storyteller from his mind.
It would take Loukili a full year before he shaped a protagonist out of the encounter — a man who travels from Fez to the countryside looking for work only to be imprisoned by the Portuguese.
“The storyteller was narrating his story. He was a skilled ney player,” Loukili says. “I took him from this reality and threw him in another time, a world out of this, and made him a hero in a thorny novel. The character grew and developed along.”
The Prisoner of the Portuguese took a year of intense daily writing to complete. During this time, travel restrictions and a curfew were imposed in Morocco to stop the spread of the coronavirus. During these extended bouts of writing in isolation, Loukili says the protagonist, whom he affectionately calls Al-Naji, or The Survivor, became a part of him.
“In a way, we were both facing death,” he says. “By the end of the novel, there were two survivors: the protagonist and the writer.”
Set during the tumultuous period of Portuguese rule in Morocco, which lasted from the 15th to 18th century, the novel cuts through plague, famine, murder and misery as it depicts the realities of Portuguese imperialism. But Loukili says he was adamant on finding the thin silver lining in the horror, and presenting unbearable circumstances with beauty.
The novel, Loukili says, begins with the shocking scene of a father slaughtering his seven children — with the narrator being the sole survivor of the massacre.
“In the midst of all this violence and ugliness, language comes with its flexibility to ensure a smooth crossing to the end of the text," he says.
“The novel is charged by multiple dichotomies; the solidity of the scenes and the flexibility of language; Pedro’s hatred and Sophie’s love; the misery of reality and the beauty of the cities.
“Thus, the novel continues this game of narration, taking the reader to the last line. He may grieve, and this is a part of the experience, but he will also rejoice.”
Loukili wrote the final chapters of The Prisoner of the Portuguese in Agadir on a piece of land on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where there was once another fortress belonging to the Portuguese.
“Santa Cruz, which rises up between the waters of the sea and the Atlas Mountains, was my favourite spot for writing,” Loukili said in an interview with IPAF after the longlist announcement.
“From the windows of its houses, Sophie, the lover of Pedro the prisoner, would watch the ships of the Portuguese. There, The Prisoner of the Portuguese was completed, with the return of Al-Naji to the arms of his beloved Ghita.”
Loukili’s shelves are already decorated with some of the most sought-after awards in the Arabic literary world. These include the Ghassan Kanafani Award for Narration, which he won in 2016, and the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity, which he won in 2013 for his novel Riaah Ab.
However, the Moroccan author says he has long coveted the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as the award helps authors reach audiences beyond language and region.
"Being nominated for an international prize the size of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is the dream of every Arab writer. It's a dream I've had for years,” he says.
“It has always been in my sights. On my way to it, I received awards that encouraged me to continue and give more. All these were milestones on the path towards the greater dream. It was a dream to make a serious contribution to building the edifice of Arabic literature. The prize transcends the boundaries of geography and elevates works from a single language.”
The award ceremony is scheduled to take place in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, May 22.
Loukili is in the running to receive the $50,000 cash prize and a guaranteed English translation of the novel from Arabic. All six shortlisted authors will also receive $10,000 each.