Interview with Shortlisted Author Eissa Nasiri


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

I was at work. I was happy to hear the news, and realised that I had an added responsibility, now that The Mosaicist had earned a place in the final stage of this edition of the Prize, honouring me and my country.

Tell us about the historical research you did prior to writing The Mosaicist.

The first thing I researched was the art of the mosaic. I read studies about this ancient art, most notably The Art of Roman Mosaic by Dr. Abeer Qasim. After that, I came across an important study by Dr. Abubakr Serhan, entitled The National Moorish Resistance to the Roman Occupation. Then I looked at the history of the Roman Empire, reading two books, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Political and Cultural History of the Roman Empire, as well as numerous historical studies and articles which helped me understand what the Romans were like and how life was lived in Roman colonies. These sources did not give me everything, so I also watched films which portrayed the Roman era, such as Spartacus and Ben Hur, both mentioned in the novel.      

The Mosaicist is made up of three manuscripts, forming a mosaic-like novel, which is read by the policeman Murad al-Sharadi. Tell us about planning the novel and its structure.

The idea was to explore the art of the mosaic, through both structure and subject matter. Initially, I planned to write three manuscripts and divide them up, dealing with each piece (pieces) in turn, like a plait of hair, observing linear time in each manuscript. I began working according to this plan, writing “The Young Moor”, a historical novel and the seed from which the other two manuscripts - “Oualili Nights” and “Memoirs of Bacchus in the Clinic” - would grow. Later, I decided to add an epilogue written by the mosaicist (Tihami al-Ismaili), a meta-textual epilogue which helped me to shine light on the actual circumstances of how the novel (The Mosaicist) was formed. I was careful to make each novel emerge organically from another one, making its protagonists write about each other. Nawal al-Hinnawi writes about Tihami al-Ismaili; Tihami writes about Ariadna Noel; Ariadna writes about Jawad al-Atlasi; and Jawad writes “The Young Moor”. When the mosaic picture was finally complete, it had to be placed inside a frame. It was only then that I thought about the frame of the crime thriller, and this was the last thing I wrote, in the form of an “introduction” and an “ending”.   

Why is one of the main protagonists a female, foreign writer and what is the significance of ‘the Other’ in the novel?

The theme of writing, which occupies a significant portion of the novel, made the existence of cultured protagonists, who read and write, essential to the work. I decided that one of these should be a foreigner, for several reasons. Firstly, to enhance the universal dimension of my novel, showing an openness to a foreigner’s experiences in life, literature and art. The second reason was to serve the plurality upon which the novel is anchored: plurality of culture, and variety in language, identity, belonging and geography. There’s another reason as well: it’s an attempt to correct that stereotypical, weak picture offered by the Western media in its coverage, films and literature about Morocco. I made this foreign woman writer see another Morocco: a cultured Morocco which reads, the Morocco of intellectuals, artists and those who appreciate art; a country of talents and accomplished writers; a country open to other languages and cultures.     

What is the significance of Jawad’s dreams?

I employed dreams as a tool to build the worlds of the text of “Oualili Nights”. I used them to add a fantastical aspect to this novel manuscript within a novel. One of the meanings of dreams in the novel is that they reflect our world, with its doubt, chance, contradiction, difference, possibility and impossibility. These dreams seen by Jawad lay the ground for the absence of certainty, instead of certainty; plurality, difference and things outside the norm, instead of oneness and solidity; strangeness rather than familiarity. They also highlight and reveal darkened, secret areas in the life, mind and emotions of the writer Jawad. These enigmatic dreams will be reflected in his creative writing, even inspiring him as he writes his novel, “The Young Moor”.         

In The Mosaicist, we travel in time, but remain in one place. Tell us more about the importance of place and the local area in the novel.

The main fictional space is divided between places geographically near to each other: Oualili, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun and Meknes. As well as their closeness to each other, I chose them because of their historical and cultural richness. The city of Oualili, with its renowned archaeological site, ruins, mosaics and remnants of its buildings, stands witness to the history of the Roman occupation of Mauritania Tingitana. Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, just three kilometres from Oualili, was the capital of the first Islamic state in a Morocco independent of the Middle East, the state of the Idrisid Dynasty founded by Idris I in the eighth century AD. This town was the stage for the characters of the two novels “Nights of Oualili” and “Memoirs of Bacchus in the Clinic”, a rich arena which served the text very well, providing an appropriate aesthetic background to its events. As for Meknes, it was the capital of the Kingdom during the rule of Moulay Ismail. It is a city bursting with events of historical significance, the most important of which I mentioned in the novel.  

What does The Mosaicist say about writing in general and literary plagiarism in particular?

Writing – according to The Mosaicist – is in essence simply an unrealistic assembling of realistic elements. Writing a story, for example, is no different from laying out coloured cubes to form an exquisite mosaic. Writing is an act which involves a great deal of freedom. There must not be anything restricting the creative artist, whether it be a political or religious authority, or financial enticement (as happened with the character of Jawad). It is an existential act of resistance to darkness, ugliness and death. It is the light which keeps us hopeful that at the end of the tunnel there is life, beauty, happiness, salvation and immortality. Writing, like art in general, is an act of resistance.    

In terms of literary plagiarism, The Mosaicist touches on the topic of direct literary theft, defined as someone copying an entire work (after making tiny changes) and passing it off as the work of the plagiarist, without making any reference to the true author. As we see in the novel, these thefts are driven essentially by psychological factors, especially when committed by those who pin their narcissistic salvation upon writing (Tihami al-Ismaili being an example). These kinds of people harbour within themselves an unusual, if not pathological, desire to display their “talents” and present “high-level” literary work. I believe that the most common acts of plagiarism occurring now are those confused with intertextuality. Every new piece of writing is an extension of what has come before. Texts influence other texts and are influenced, and this is inevitable in literature, which makes it difficult to detect plagiarism. Even though intertextuality will surely happen, the previous texts must be completely absorbed by the new writing, structurally and in their meaning, so that the writer will not end up being accused of plagiarism.