Ipaf winner Mohammed Hasan Alwan’s A Small Death set to be a life-changer

A Small Death is a fictionalised account of the Islamic scholar and poet Ibn Arabi’s 12th-century travels across the region, from Egypt and Syria to Spain.

And the winner is: Saudi Arabian writer Mohammed Hasan Alwan won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book A Small Death. AFP
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Mohammed Hasan Alwan looks slightly worried as he holds a buzzing mobile phone.

“I think it is going to explode,” he says. Such is the concern when you have just been announced as the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The Saudi Arabian author triumphed at the landmark 10th edition of the awards, held in the capital on Tuesday evening.

The success – for his dazzling and meditative novel A Small Death – firmly positions the 38-year-old as one of the leading lights of Arabic literature.

It comes after years of being on the cusp of greatness. This was his second time on the Ipaf shortlist; his novel The Beaver made it to the last six in 2015, and was named the best Arabic novel translated into French that year.

Alwan was also selected as one of the 39 best Arabic writers by the Hay Festival and Beirut World Book Capital, with his work published in the long-running Beirut39 anthology series.

A Small Death is a fictionalised account of the Islamic scholar and poet Ibn Arabi's 12th-century travels across the region, from Egypt and Syria to Spain.

Alwan says he wanted to humanise the writer, who remains a polarising figure among Muslims. Adherents of Islam’s mystical tradition of Sufism regard him as its greatest practitioner, while hardline conservatives label him a heretic.

Alwan says he set out to portray Ibn Arabi stripped of the spiritual sheen. “I wanted it to be about the man, not the symbol, not the sheikh or...source of debate among sceptics and supporters,” he says.

“Ibn Arabi also felt sadness and loneliness as well as joy.”

These are feelings Alwan is keenly aware off, having recently spent time in Canada to complete a doctorate in international marketing. “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn Arabi, with all those extreme eastern concepts, while residing in a distant and cold part of the world like Canada,” he says.

“I often think about this and at first I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic. Then 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.”

Alwan says the book rests on a bed of intensive research carried out before he started writing. “This is the best thing that my doctorate taught me – research methods,” he says. “I would have these ideas and I would research them in various ways and get different perspectives.”

However, it was a lack of information that drove Alwan to write A Small Death. "It was frustration that was the driving force behind the novel," he says. "When I read a biography of Ibn Arabi it felt like a beautiful dress that's riddled with holes. Historians write on the influence of Ibn Arabi's school of thought on society but never on the source of his ideology."

These are touchy subjects that put Alwan at risk of criticism by zealots. “I was concerned about that from both sides, actually,” he says. “I was worried that people who were against Ibn Arabi would hate it because I was not that critical of him. And I was also thinking that supporters of Ibn Arabi would hate it because I was not kind enough. The fact is you just can’t write a novel that way – it can’t be full of compliments and criticism.”

As well as the US$50,000 (Dh183,000) cash prize, Alwan will be offered additional funding to encourage translation into English. While grateful, Alwan says he is not too concerned at the prospect of gaining a wider, western audience.

“I would say that the West knows more about Ibn Arabi than us,” he says. “There are plenty of interesting books about him published in English and other languages.

“We need to have discussions about him here in this part of the world. At the same time, if any work of mine can act as bridge between West and East I will be more than pleased.”

Alwan’s win coincided with the start of Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs until Tuesday at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Ibn Arabi is being honoured as Personality of the Year, with panel discussions about his life and works.