Interview with Longlisted Author Raja Alem


When did you begin writing Bahbel: Mekkah Multiverse 1945-2009 and where did the inspiration for it come from?

It was born of a statement a close friend greeted me with. The friend was a mix of Abbas and the jinns who possessed him as they exchanged inspiration with my own jinn.

The statement was: “I was preoccupied with burying my aunt. Dear God, if it were up to me, I would have thrown her into the sea and wouldn’t have allowed her to be buried.”

A bridge of inspiration extended from that sigh of heartbreak and anguish in Abbas’s chest.

That was in 2009, before I won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The statement was buried in my chest, gnawing at me. From there began my journey in the worlds of Makkah that are now extinct, the worlds of its great women and the latent wounds at the core of that greatness. These worlds are unlike any other, yet at the same time, they are the same human pain and passion everywhere, with the desperate attempt to face the infinite unknown that is life – vast life with its complications and rare opportunities, with its arrival and getting lost, all this reduced to a single sip.

The women of Makkah suggest weakness, but in their resilience lies a powerful force. They are creatures made of nothing, of art and literature and a heartbeat; they remind me of the strokes of Van Gogh who received direct inspiration from the infinite unknown. The receiving of revelation imparts meaning to that which is nothing and meaningless. Behind the pain are transformations and glimpses of dispatches that are never-ending.

Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?

Since 2009, it’s as if I have been receiving a download from Nouria who has been providing me with events, images, and, particularly, with voices in the Makkan dialect which was not part of my culture. The download went on until the novel was nearly ready in 2012. I kept it in my files, awaiting what seemed to be Nouria’s permission to publish. I did not wish to embarrass those who might be exposed by

the novel. Perhaps I can claim that I forgot it existed. But suddenly, in 2020, it was as if I received a signal which made me open the forgotten file and review it in light of the newly resumed download.

Eight years of inactivity and silence before coming out. So, I was no longer controlling the fate of this narrative, or this life. The novel took on a life of its own and began moving the strings of its fate without my interference.

Six years of download and eight years of silence is the gestation period of Bahbel.

Do you have writing rituals?

I always like to say that writing for me is like living. It is an act of being which enriches all my daily practices.

I have my preferred morning cafe and another cafe for the evening, those cafes are at the center of Paris and play like windows on the heart of the world, I sit with my computer and watch life happening around me while I feel writing in turn watching me, spying on me, taking notes which won’t necessarily mean anything to anyone, or they may sometimes become memoirs or a novel.

On trains, I write on my mobile phone. The act of writing is like the act of spying on life, this life which intoxicates me every moment and imbues each moment with eternal meaning.

What is your next literary project after this novel?

My project is life, or the living, always and forever.

There is a drastic transformation in my vision. From Makkah to Paris, the Pyrenees, or Northern Scotland where I like to enjoy seclusion, places have shed their names and the roads that lead to them. A place is no longer on the outside or on a specific map, but rather on the inside.

I quote Jean-Yves Leloup, “From my chest a bird came out, and from the bird flight came out, and from flight space came out, and from space presence came out.”

This presence is me and everything that is embodied or perishes in the form of writing, or otherwise.

Sometimes I wonder if anything remains to be said in the face of the incredible mystery of life and beyond. Or if silence is more telling?