“No one talks about love anymore,” says Ibrahim Nasrallah with a sigh. “It is as if we eradicated those feelings out of all our writing because we deem it no longer important. It is a fallacy, of course, because love is everything.”
The Palestinian poet and novelist is commenting on the state of modern Arabic literature, which he describes as more concerned with the timely than the timeless.
“In a way, the Arab writer and the Arab reader have become the same,” he says.
“A lot of what is being written focuses on current issues, whether social or political. There is a feeling that if there is any deviation from that path and reading about other topics then they are not taking their time seriously. A sense of guilt creeps and this is totally wrong.”
Nasrallah has challenged that view with his latest work, Al Hob Shareer (Love is the Enemy) that focuses solely on matters of the heart.
With more than 80 poems and one libretto, the 63-year explores all facets of love from the emotional, primal, how it revitalises and how it can control.
Speaking before his session tonight at the Sharjah International Book Fair on the creative process plus a book signing on Saturday, Nasrallah says the book was born out of a challenge to himself.
“It began when I first started observing the dearth of current literature surrounding love. There is not a modern poetry collection, as far as I can see, that dealt with this matter exclusively,” he says.
“The last person to have done that was the great and classic writer Nizzar Qabani, and since that there has been no major body of work. So, I wanted to test myself and see if I can do it and then test the reader once it was published.”
Nasrallah, whose acclaimed works include 2009's International Prize for Arabic Fiction nominated The Time of White Horses and 1985's Prairies of Fever (both translated to English), explains the near one-year writing process had its fair share of challenges.
The topic was not the issue, he says, but it was more about finding the fibre within to undertake the task.
“It was an interesting experience for me because it really showed me how important it is for a writer to give all of himself to the work they are doing,” he says. “Especially when you are writing about emotions. You need to go all the way. If you only give half of yourself then the reader will get only half the message that you are trying to convey.”
Born in a refugee camp in Jordan, Nasrallah studied under the auspices of the United Nations before going for a two-year teaching post in Saudi Arabia in 1976 before returning to Jordan to work as a journalist and begin his writing career.
Since his debut work, 1980's Horses Are Overlooking the City, Nasrallah's mostly Palestinian set novels have gained a local and international following.
His 2004 novel, A'ras Gaza, will be the sixth English translated work to be out next month. Titled Gaza Weddings, the novel is set in the Gaza Strip and follows the lives of sisters Randa and Lamis as the latter prepares to get married amidst the carnage of war.
With the original Arabic version in its 12th edition, it is arguably Nasrallah’s most popular work and should find a receptive western audience.
"With any translation of the novel, I feel like it is now getting a new life," he says. "I wanted to provide a picture of life in Gaza and show that amongst the violence that Palestinians experience, there are still the normal experiences of love, family and relationships."
Gaza Weddings is a fine example of the strong female characters that has the hallmark of Nasrallah's works such as in 2010's Shurfat Al A'ar and 2002's Zaytoun Al Shware'h.
“It’s important to me in that a society can only be truly judged by the way it treats its women.
When it comes to the region, we are still long way away from that. It will take a long time until we treat women with the dignity they deserve. This is also where the arts and education comes in. Without both, you won’t know how to treat people in general.”
The Sharjah International Book Fair runs at Sharjah Expo Centre from today until November 11. Ibrahim Nasrallah will take part in the panel session Creative Uniqueness Positions at the Literature Forum, today at 7.15pm. He will sign copies of his Al Hob Shareer on Saturday with timings to be announced at tonight’s discussion.