Interview with shortlisted author Rima Bali


Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?

I was alone in my house in Madrid, following the shortlist announcement event being broadcast live on the Prize’s Facebook page.

Although I had carefully prepared myself for the moment of the announcement of the shortlist, which might not contain Suleima’s Ring, so that I’d receive the news in the spirit of any competition, content and accepting of the result, yet my disturbed heartbeat was thumping so loudly in my chest that its noise could be heard by the neighbours in the street opposite. And when the awaited announcement began, that heartbeat stopped entirely, along with my breath. All I could hear was the voice of Mr. Nabil Suleiman naming the novels which the panel of judges had chosen to make up the list. The first title, the second, the third, and then came Suleima’s Ring, fourth, making me leap from my place, shouting out loud, and I danced like a little girl with joy. Yes, it had happened, I was in the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Through the story of Solomon’s wife’s ring, does the novel create a new, female myth which dialogues with and interrogates the well-known story of the prophet Solomon?

In the novel, there is a reformulation of the myth, so it will fly with the ‘ocean winds which do not always blow in the direction desired by ships’ [as the proverb says]. It is as if we invent new winds to take our ships where we want them to go (through making another copy of the ring). Solomon’s wife (according to Selma) fashioned a new copy of the ring, her very own ring, and a new version of the prophecy, which she believes will be fulfilled.

Since the main theme of the novel is truth and its different aspects, and the oscillation between doubt and certainty, this subsequent or additional myth is a call to discover our uniqueness and convictions, and to accept and hold onto them; a call to choose a bold certainty without fear of possible compromises or deviation from prevailing beliefs. This certainty actually seeks to add to these beliefs. It isn’t troubled by doubt about how right, religiously correct, or complete it may be. A question is left unanswered in the book: does our choice of new beliefs and destinies cancel our attachment to our roots, origins and belonging?

Shams al-Din “knows everything” while Lucas “knows nothing”. Tell us more about the subject of knowledge in the novel and what it symbolises?

In my previous answer, I mentioned that the novel is based upon the search for truth and the oscillation between doubt and certainty.

In his wisdom, Shams al-Din knows that he “doesn’t know everything”, and he is reconciled to that idea, which doesn’t impede him as he continues on his life’s journey. Rather, it becomes his “certainty”, allowing him to live in a state of peace and to choose his destiny and realign every detail of his life (his profession, religion, name, the city he lives in), even the details of how his corpse will be treated after his death. He appears like Solomon the all-knowing, worthy of Selma’s heart and of the ring of knowledge (in the novel, I merged the two things into one symbol). As for Lucas, he is haunted by the notion that he “doesn’t know anything” and this idea tortures him and stops him from making firm decisions or taking initiative. This “doubt” clouds all the days of his life, in contrast with the “certainty” of Shams al-Din and Selma, who loves to follow in Shams’s footsteps. It’s worth mentioning that in the narrative context and character development, we find that the roles are reversed between Shams al-Din, whose certainty is undermined by doubt, and Lucas, who conquers his doubt and finally fastens onto a thread of certainty. But then everything is turned around once more in the last scene.

The main characters are from different cultures and backgrounds: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Were you inspired to create them by the Spanish city of Toledo, where you wrote the novel? Does the subject of co-existence and knowledge of the Other interest you in general?

Toledo, known as ‘the city of the three cultures’ Las tres culturas, was an ideal arena for the subject which always interests me. I have dealt with it in all my novels, even though it appears in Suleima’s Ring as a somewhat minor theme. In my most recent novel, Flute in a Western Orchestra, it is the main theme of the work.

Deadly identities (as Amin Maalouf put it), broadly speaking as I see it, are the main reason for all the tragedies which are pushing this planet to the abyss. Of course, identities are not deadly unless some party or faction uses them as a weapon in filthy battles. This is what is happening now in so many parts of the world. In Suleima’s Ring, I presented the co-existence of a variety of identities, and how in its natural, smooth condition, this co-existence is an important, essential pillar of progress, development, creativity and the building of human civilization. The novel also shows how, in the blink of an eye, it can turn into a destructive weapon which annihilates human beings and the objects around them, shoving human values into a deep, bottomless pit.

In Suleima’s Ring, we can see that some characters repeat the sins of their parents, or they try hard to avoid doing so. Is the novel attempting to highlight this issue?

Through this novel, I highlighted the effect of the sins of parents on the lives of their children: how they shape their destinies and convictions and lead their steps in certain paths. Also how – because of these mistakes and their attempts not to repeat them – the children stumble and fall into traps which may lead them to repeat the same mistakes their parents did, in other ways.

The story of the love between Selma and Shams al-Din and between Selma and Lucas develops against the backdrop of the war in Aleppo, but the war does not dominate the narrative. Was this on purpose?

I intended the war to appear in the background and not at the centre of the story, since Suleima’s Ring, as I have mentioned, is not a novel about war, nor is it a novel about love. It may be a half novel, needing the imagination of a reader to be completed.

I have dealt with the subject of war as a main theme in a previous novel. I pushed it into the background a bit in Suleima’s Ring, not because it was unimportant, but so that I could concentrate on other subjects. In the end, I believe that war, in some way or other, is not a cause, but a result. The reasons for it are numerous and complicated. I have begun to wish that novels (or my novels, at any rate) would stop showing the horrors and calamities of war and move on to dissecting their causes and results.

What is the narrative function of Lucas’s dreams, as he lies on Selma’s magic carpet?

Selma’s carpet is not just any carpet. It is a piece woven and knitted with the stories, arts, sweat and blood of our ancestors. It symbolises the land, belonging, old traditions, and our true and original selves. Relaxing into its warmth without resisting it; respecting it, believing and becoming one with it, may give us the gift of visions and a clear view of a different future, a new and special interpretation of the complicated events in our lives. Here, it is fitting to recall the well-known saying: reading the past correctly enables us to anticipate the future. Technically, I used this style so that we could hear the inner voice of Lucas and gain a glimpse of his hidden interior worlds.

What is the reason behind the narrative reversal in the last chapter of the novel? Would it have been possible for the novel to end before this chapter?

In its first draft, the novel ended before the final chapter. When I re-read it, it did not convince me, not just because the ending was modest artistically, but I also felt that the idea which I had striven to convey was not complete. So I wrote the last chapter, which captures the essence of the novel and the burning question which appears in its pages and between the lines: is the truth

which we possess the whole truth, or is there half of it which is still unknown? And which of the two halves is more right? The oscillation between doubt and certainty reappeared, to bring the novel to its conclusion; the intersection between dream and reality and the question of which of them is more logical in this mad world; and the final question…where did Suleima’s ring finally end up?