Interview with shortlisted author Azher Jirjees
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was in Baghdad, on the Martyrs’ Bridge to be exact, where Kamal used to stand, contemplating the Tigris River. My phone wasn’t working because it was out of battery. After leaving the bridge, I went into a café and recharged it. As soon as the phone came back to life, a flood of messages of congratulations reached me from friends, my publisher and readers. They were moments full of happiness and delight.
The Stone of Happiness follows the life of the main protagonist, Kamal, from childhood to the beginning of old age. Kamal suffers from poverty, oppression and fear at different stages of his life and endures everything in silence, submissively. What is the significance of the stone to which he resorts in times of trouble, chewing upon it?
The stone is the inherited beliefs which people rely upon, believing in their metaphysical ability to save them. The result is always the opposite. In the end, they are shocked by the fact that what they trusted in only brings them disappointment. At first, Kamal thinks that his problems are at an end, and that happiness, all happiness, is contained in this silent rock, but time reveals the truth.
Why did you make Kamal a photographer?
I am captivated by the idea of immortalizing place and time through photos. A photograph achieves this equation. It is the art of halting a moment of time and capturing it so that it remains a witness of a past life. This is what I wanted for Kamal; for him to be an impartial witness, recording with his camera what happened, without adding or taking away anything.
Is Baghdad another main character in The Stone of Happiness?
Baghdad is the proof of an old proverb which says that people appear similar on the surface when times are always good, but affliction reveals what they are really made of. In my opinion, the city is not just walls and stone, but a creature of flesh and blood. All the hardships of the universe have fallen upon it, and it has shown nothing but mercy and kindness. So, it is not strange that Baghdad should be a parallel character to the hero, especially as they strongly resemble each other. Both of them forget their misfortune and long for peace.
The sufferings of Kamal as a child in ‘the Khan of Mercy’ remind us of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Did world literature influence you as you wrote the novel?
The human tragedy is of course similar, universally. The injustice and harm suffered by street children happens in all times and places. However, literature is a craft which develops with time, never separated from what has gone before. Even the texts which we produce today will one day be an inherited body of work influencing future generations.
What did you wish to say through “the girl at the bridge”?
The girl at the bridge is an individual from a generation which [the poet] Al-Jawahiri once foresaw when he said: “From the core of despair will be born a strong, courageous and stubborn generation, which will trade what is for what it hopes for, and turn people’s desires into what it wants”. This girl of unbridled passion and dreams is an individual from a generation which refuses slavery in all its forms. A generation like this will be an insurmountable obstacle in the face of “al-Hanash” and his gang.
Are you one of those writers who know the end of the novel before they begin writing? Do you consider the ending of The Stone of Happiness to be a happy one?
I’m preoccupied by the destinies of the characters as I am writing. I don’t assume anything about the endings until the story has come to fullness and its secrets are unlocked. As for The Stone of Happiness, I think that its ending, whether described as happy or sad, stops the struggle of the self [within Kamal], and love wins out.
How did the longlisting of Sleeping in the Cherry Field in 2020 affect its success and reach?
Every prize, or nomination to a prize, benefits the writer. It is oil to the fuel of his success, since it can help the distribution of the book, enabling it to reach readers in distant places. If this is true of prizes in general, then how much more when one is talking about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, with its gravitas and impact?!