Most of us don’t know what we would be like if forced to flee our homes in the face of death threats, but all of us would like to imagine we’d be like Ali al-Muqri. The mustachioed Yemeni author, now exiled with his family in Paris, has a quick grin and a stylish jacket, and while he says his French isn’t good enough to answer questions about his work — he spoke to OZY through a translator — it’s more than good enough to order a glass of wine.
Al-Muqri, 52, has only had one of his books translated into English. But the rest of his oeuvre, which tackles war, sex and religion, has long ruffled feathers and inspired accolades across the Arab world. He’s twice been longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was the runner-up for France’s Arab Literature Prize in 2015. Insisting that none of his subjects are shocking or that he’s breaking taboos, he has returned time and again to explore the lives of marginalized people in Yemeni society, humanizing those who are often dismissed while charging headlong into cultural minefields.
Throughout al-Muqri’s youth in a small town near Taiz, where he was educated at a small country school to which he had to travel on foot, he devoured not just literature of the Arab world but also translated works from Miguel Cervantes and William Faulkner. At 21, he moved to Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and began working as a journalist, then published a collection of poems that was immediately banned for eroticism. Yemen’s minister of culture made him write a testimonial promising not to distribute the book. “But I did anyway; I distributed it secretly,” he says. There was no shame, for him, in being censored, given the restrictive literary climate in Yemen. “If it hadn’t been censored, I would have been surprised, shocked,” he says. “I would have said, ’Why not? Maybe it’s not any good.’ ”
Al-Muqri and his wife and children were subject to so many death threats that they eventually had to leave Yemen, relocating to Paris in 2015.
It wouldn’t be his first dance with the censors. Throughout his writing career, al-Muqri, who quickly abandoned poetry to focus on novels, has inspired outrage around the Arab world. His first two books — Black Taste, Black Smell and The Handsome Jew — focused on Yemen’s marginalized Black and Jewish communities, respectively, while Hurma, his only novel to find a publisher in an English translation, deals frankly with female sexual desire and is still censored in Arab countries. After Hurma, whose protagonist is a young Yemeni woman trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a jihadist, al-Muqri and his wife and children were subject to so many death threats that they eventually had to leave Yemen, relocating to Paris in 2015.
“I suspect that Hurma was the first of Muqri’s books in English because it tackles a subject which is talked about a lot in the Western press,” explains Sarah Irving, an author and translator focused on Arabic literature. “You could argue that [his earlier books] deal with themes — Muslim-Jewish relations, racism — which are very broadly relevant, but they are less headline-grabbing right now.”
When London-based Darf Publishers translated Hurma, drawn to its humor and originality, they weren’t actively courting controversy. But they got it: Darf’s Sherif Dhaimish says al-Muqri’s work was among the most contentious novels they’ve ever produced. “We don’t tend to chase best sellers,” he says. “We choose books that we think are different, often that are taking a risk.” Standards for Middle Eastern literature are often different, he explains, with some of Hurma’s English-language critics concerned by elements like a male author taking on a female voice — a relatively common feature in general fiction.
While he’s developed a reputation as an issue writer, al-Muqri contends that he’s just diving into the lives of characters that he finds fascinating. He’s now working on a new novel — he won’t divulge details except to say it will be published in Arabic by a French company — following an extensive break from writing after fleeing his home country. News about the civil war in Yemen, he says, took up all the space in his brain; eventually, he hopes to be able to find a glancing angle through which to view it and to write about the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
As for returning to Sanaa: War, famine and violent threats against his family have made that impossible. “Yemen is where I write best, or at least the best things I have written have been made in Yemen,” he says, finishing the last of his wine. But “if I went back today, they would kill me.”
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