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Taleb al-Refai

Taleb al-Refai, a civil engineer by trade and a fiction writer since 1978, was born in Kuwait City. He has published seven collections of short stories, a play, a number of critical works, and four novels, including the controversial The Shadow of the Sun in 1998. His 2002 The Scent of the Sea won the Kuwait National Award for Arts & Literature. Al-Refai has joined the staff of the National Council for Culture, Art and Literature in 1996, where he manages the Culture and Arts Department. His articles appear regularly in the Al-Hayat and Al-Jarida Kuwaiti newspapers; in 2009 he chaired the Arabic Booker Prize for Fiction jury.

During his stay in Iowa City as a participant in the 2012 International Writing Program fall residency, al-Refai agreed to a special interview with the Iowa Writing University.

Al-Refai came to Iowa City courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. By his own admission, when he got the invitation by the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, he struggled whether to come and join the program. He was concerned with the program’s length. He has never been away from his family for more than two weeks, he said. But he decided to challenge himself and try to live for almost three months here. He was rewarded for his courage, he said, by having the unique opportunity to get a close idea about American writers, the American literature and art.  He was particularly pleased an honored to have met with Marilynn Robinson and Deborah Eisenberg.

Al-Refai also acknowledged the chance to have a first-hand experience with the American style of life. People are so welcoming here, he said, as I have not seen in other country in the world. To his great surprise, they even have opened their homes to the foreign writers.

The third great benefit from the IWP residency, according to al-Refai, was the opportunity to be in contact with writers from all over the world.

The Iowa Writing University thanks Mr. al-Refai for the biographical piece he wrote for our site:

 

Life of writing about life

I was born in 1958 into a small religious family of a mother, father, a sister and three brothers.  I remember that the “Holy Quran” and a religious book titled by the great Sheikh, Ahmad Al-Derbi ,were the only books my father, God bless his soul, ever read. He and my blind aunt, each used to take me into a life full of magic and mystery by telling me tales and stories. That might be what planted in my heart the seeds of passion for writing.

I lived trying to fulfill my heartfelt dreams in one of the old quarters of Kuwait,“Freej Al-Qudaibi” and "Freej Borousli” in the “Sharq” area. It embraced the kind sea, the main source of livelihood of my people in Kuwait before the discovery and exportation of oil. As I sat on the beach meditating at the sight of the burning sun sinking into the depth of the sea, a question perplexed me: what was the secret of the sun choosing the sea to be its home? How does it endure the chilliness of its waters during cold-piercing nights?

The first encounter between me and literary reading was in 1971, when I was thirteen. I read the novel “Mother” by the Russian author Maxim Gorky in Arabic. This became a turning point in my life. I marveled at the writing, at the overwhelming world of story-telling. I marveled even more at the book’s ability to capture me, away from my family, my school, the joy of playing, to take me to colorful worlds for fleeting moments of time. Suddenly, a new world opened up in front of me, much different than the one I was living in. At that moment, my world stopped revolving around my family and our small neighborhood only.

Between 1971 and 1978, I became obsessed with reading and spent hours and hours engulfed by the books. I was taken care of and guided in this endeavor by a group of friends who were older than me. They were believers in enlightened thought, freedom, human rights, and peace. I remember my first “teacher” who whispered to me: “The three most important things in the universe are poetry, music, and friendship.”

In 1978, I published my first short story (1). Publishing that first story was the bait that dragged me in and which I keep pursuing. I imagined at the time, being a 20 year-old university student, that literature and art are able to change the world through transforming the readers’ consciousness.

Fourteen years separated the publication of my first short story and the printing of my first collection of short stories in 1992(2). During those years, I was haunted by the dream of writing a short story whose words would be able to touch and portray the complex moments of human endeavor and, at the same time, bring memorable joy to the reader.

I grew up in a cosmopolitan social environment that was both religious and tolerant, where the Kuwaiti, the Arabs, and the foreigners lived together. Having finished my studies as a civil engineer at Kuwait University in 1982, my work in construction projects brought me in contact with a large number of impoverished foreign workers. My social class and the ideas that I absorbed in my youth as well as my work with poor workers later ignited my desire to write compassionately about the life of the marginalized.

The year 1990 marked a painful and horrendous turning point in the existence of my country, Kuwait. When Saddam’s regime invaded Kuwait, in an oppressive and barbaric manner, it mapped out a new history, not only dangerous for the people of Kuwait and Iraq and the Gulf countries, but for the entire Arab region. My short stories published in 1995(3) became mainly concerned with this national struggle. They addressed the complex relationship between man and woman, and especially the conflicts that arise between them in a marriage. The stories in my third collection, published in 1997(4), were more concerned with the local environment.

My first novel was published in 1998(5), and it was a major turning point in my life and my passion for writing, especially since I started exploring the field of “Auto Fiction”: writing about real aspects of my own life using my real name for the protagonist. Since then, reading and writing novels became my sole artistic, humanistic, and daily life concern. The short story became a mistress I cannot bear to live without, enjoying her privately every now and then.

I see an important basis for the literary work. It is a fascinating humanistic phantasy that cannot be matched even with the most intricately written artistic works. Besides, I believe in pairing reality with imagination, because art is simply a colorful imitation of reality. Therefore, my fourth collection of stories published in 1999(6), merges reality with phantasy not only on the surface but also deep at heart; it is about the public life in the Kuwaiti society. My second novel(7) was written in first person to carry an image of the daily realities of Kuwaiti society, revealing the brutality of women oppression endured at different periods of their lives.

After writing became my daily activity, I published my fifth collection of short stories(8), my third(9) and fourth novels(10), and my sixth(11) and seventh collection of short stories(12). My challenge became to write a novel which I can live, through my daily life, and assign characters to people I know, which allows me to live a new adventure with them. I currently am having two lives: one in reality and another between the pages of my novels.

I write my short stories and novels believing in the effects they will have on my readers’ lives. I was and still am present in what I write explicitly or implicitly, in every letter, word, coma, and full stop. I write carried away by the loves, tears, sufferings & sorrows of my mother; I am very much affected by my surroundings that include family, work, friends & society. I write my stories and novels while peaking at the faces, whispers, and steps of those who crossed my path in life, and staring at the walls, doors, sounds, smells, towns, and beaches of my country.

I am writing my stories and novels based on reality as much as on artistic creativity, and always wondering: “What do I want from writing? And what does writing want from me?”

After three decades of writing, the answer that comes to mind is: I want from writing everything.

And I hear it responding back to me in a loud, piercing voice, “I want all of you until your last breath. I want you for myself alone, and I cannot bear to share you with another person and interest.”

I expect writing to help me tolerate and change the painful reality. I expect it to be able to transform a world full of violence, and injustice into one that is peaceful.

I want writing to become a warm sun that smiles every morning with love, peace, and justice.

Every night before I go to sleep, I say to myself: “Writing is my only way to live life with the least damages. I write to be able to live a desired literary life: the life of writing about life.” 

References:

1-     “Ensh Alla Salema”, Alwatan news paper, January 17th,1978

2-    “Abu Ajaj”, Short stories collection. Dar Al-Adab, Beirut, 1992.

3-    “I Fold My Soul into You”, Short stories collection. Dar Al-Adab, Beirut, 1995.

4-    “The Dawn Mirror”, Short stories collection. Dar Al Mada, Damascus, 1997.

5-    “Shadow of the Sun”, Novel. Sharqiyat, Cairo, 1998.

6-    “Tales of Sand”, Short stories collection. Dar Al Mada, Damascus, 1999.

7-    “The Scent of the Sea”, Novel. Dar Al Mada, Damascus, 2002.

8-    “Sun”, Short stories collection. Afaaq Arabic Series, Cairo 2005.

9-    “Samar’s Words” Novel. Dar Al Mada, Damascus, 2006.

10-                      “The Garment” Novel. Dar Al Mada, Damascus, 2009.

11-                      “Minor Thefts” Short stories collection. Dar Al-Shorook, Cairo, 2011.

12-                      “The Chair” Short stories collection. Dar Al-Shorook, Cairo, 2012.