Ahmed Al-Shweikhat: I write to deal with the fragility of life and the fear of mortality

Ahmed Al-Shweikhat: I write to deal with the fragility of life and the fear of mortality

He called for the “World Arab Encyclopedia” project to be transformed into interactive digital publication


Sunday – 13 Dhu al-Qi’dah 1443 AH – 12 June 2022 AD Issue no. [
15902]


Dr. Ahmed Al-Shweikhat Cover of “The American Who Read Gilgamesh” – Encyclopedia Cover

Mirza Khuwaildi

In his novel “The American Who Read Gilgamesh”, the mother of the main character, Sophia Boccaccio, warns: “Do not sometimes believe what historians say and write.” This novel came as its author d. Ahmed Al-Shweikhat for “questions related to art and its role in consciousness and life in exchange for the problems of reality and the alienation of the intellectual as a person with his own uniqueness.”
But it was also loaded with a desire to express what is in the soul, as it is closer to a biography, of which the author and characters have a love of art, translation, adventure and work for Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia -Arabia combines. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first protagonist of the novel worked as a translator, and his second hero, Simon, was a lover of translation! This is what the author shares with them.
The novel “The American Who Read Gilgamesh” is the second by Al-Shuwaikhat, and it comes more than two decades after the publication of his first work of fiction, entitled “The Pomegranate Spring.” The novel delves into Iraqi mythology to be inspired by the spirit of Gilgamesh, his father, and his deep sadness that stretches into the public imagination of the people of Mesopotamia. It also draws inspiration from the worlds of the “Gilgamesh Epic”, to present the experiences of people from different cultures, whether those who came from the United States, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, to share some of the common characteristics and human highlight values ​​that unite people and unite them.
Dr. Ahmed Al-Shweikhat holds a PhD in Education, Sociolinguistics and English Language Teaching from Stanford University, California. He worked as a university professor, translator and director of cultural projects in Saudi Arabia, especially when he was Director-General of the Project (The International Arab Encyclopedia), during the period 1990-2012, and editor-in-chief of The first paper-based founding edition of the encyclopedia 1990 – 1996, and the electronic version of the encyclopedia 2000 – 2005, and worked as a knowledge content consultant at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, in Saudi Aramco 2011, and a member of the Saudi Shura Council during the period 2013 – 2020. Here is an interview with him:

> Why does the author turn to narration, a story or a novel …? What does this space offer him?
There are many reasons that drive the author to the narrative. Among these reasons: to face the difficulties and fragility of life, to deal with the fear of extinction as in the Epic of Gilgamesh himself, as well as the desire for creativity, the attainment of surprise and the presentation of the joyful and beautiful in a cultural dialogue as in Bakhtin and Goldmer, in addition to cognitive meditation and the revelation of the dimensions and noble human meanings, including spiritual affirmation.For man as James Joyce puts it. Among the other reasons, the social and historical dialogue was presented in a literary form, as in the social novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Abdo Khal, or the aesthetic and intellectual exploration of historical figures, as in Amin Maalouf and Muhammad Alwan, or “the search for lost time and its restoration in a certain sense, as in Marcel Proust, or The desire for existential self-realization, as in Sartre. Turki Al-Hamad and Colin Wilson, or behind them are social, psychological, epistemological and moral reasons, as with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the presentation of knowledge and wisdom in a sarcastic way, as with Cervantes and Kazantzakis.
> Some of them talk about a “message” that leads them to narration?
The moral and preaching principle is an old motif that the novel was proud of for centuries before the advent of the so-called “new novel.” In the 1960s, this message faded into the hands of the critic Alan Grobier in France, where the era of sermons and individual heroism in the novel ended, and was replaced by the expression On the strangeness of life, events and the predicament of the individual and society, as for example in Kafka’s novels. This is not to say that narrative in today’s world has given up on providing knowledge and emphasizing moral values.
> Is it possible to generate a novel outside its temporal and spatial context?
– We can say that the circumstances and contexts are what surround the work, interact with it and contribute to its formation from factors of time and place, experience and culture, and motives for writing, ie what can be summarized under the title: Individual, social and artistic influences of writing.
The concept of conditions or contexts is therefore very broad. The author may be aware of some and not aware of others. A deep analysis of the circumstances and contexts of writing a work in this fragmented, multiple and overlapping concept is the work of critics and researchers, and not the responsibility of the author.
> What about this novel “The American Who Read Gilgamesh”, when did you start getting interested in this email?
– Perhaps the appropriate start would be to talk about my early interest in the Gilgamesh epic during my university studies when I first read it in Arabic in the late seventies, translated by Taha Baqir. Then I read it several times in Arabic (translated by Firas Al-Sayyah and translated by Abdullah Saleh Juma’a), and in English (translated by Samuel Kramer, published in the sixties, then George Andrew’s work, published in the eighties of the twentieth century).
> Why did you choose the Epic of Gilgamesh as the theme for your novel?
For me, I wrote the novel “The American Who Reads Gilgamesh” which was motivated by the urgency to express feelings and visions related to the place and dialogue with Gilgamesh in parallel with the war, and to raise questions related to with art and its role in consciousness and life in contrast to the difficulties of reality and the alienation of the intellectual as a human being with his own uniqueness, regardless of the country in which he grew up. In addition, the novel was a space to raise questions related to the location of translation and its ontological (existential) nature. Through work, the novel made its own logic, and it was a pleasure for me. This was followed by the rise and presence of marginalized and forgotten Arab and American personalities who are victims of the war, with an expert celebration, I hope, of arts such as poetry, plastic arts and music.
> How could the American read the Epistle of Gilgamesh?
The novel presents the story of a sixty-year-old American of Italian descent named David Boccaccio, an eccentric intellectual who has loved world art and the Arabic language, the Gilgamesh epic, world cultures and the history of Arabs since his youth. and Muslims. His constant travels, cognitive anxiety and curiosity led him to join the US Army in Iraq in 2005 to work as a translator. There the ghost of Gilgamesh wanders, as person and text, for David is suspicious of his colleagues, who doubted his loyalty because of his sympathy with the Iraqis. After about a year in Iraq, he asks to return to his hometown of San Francisco for his overworked wife (Laura), and his sick mother (Sofia), who was paralyzed, and she became silent after his stories about the Boccaccio dynasty told it. . “David” remains stuck in Iraq, his return is constantly delayed due to the delay in the final signing of his evacuation and because he was assigned to field missions amid growing doubts about his loyalty and amid the scourge of war. During the suffering, aspects of Gilgamesh’s Epic unfold for him, as if talking about what he is experiencing now, as if he were reading it for the first time. The novel recalls in this context the similarity between “David” and his Arab friend “Rajab Samaan”, who also loves art and translation. They met at Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia decades ago when they were enthusiastic young men. Now in Iraq, David will be assigned one last mission before his expected return, which is to accompany a combat reconnaissance patrol along the Euphrates River …
> When did you start writing this novel?
I have been writing concepts of scenes and events from the novel over a period of years since 2003, but my obsession with the project of the International Arab Encyclopedia for more than a decade and then as a member of the Shura Council for eight years did not give me enough time and mood to complete the work, so the project was always postponed.
And when my membership in the Shura Council expired in 2020, I decided to go back to some concepts and rewrite, this time freely and in isolation to complete the work. She freed herself for two years (2020 and 2021) to work, which was helped by the quarantine period due to “Corona”.
> Tell us about your ambitious project “The International Arab Encyclopedia” … Do not have a vision to present it via electronic publication to make it more accessible …?
In fact, I’m waiting for the fate of this project, which I’ve been working on for about twenty years. The Arab World Encyclopedia project has stored its material digitally, and the time has come for social and cultural use of it, waiting for its content to be developed and updated in the era of interactive digital publishing, artificial intelligence and knowledge enrichment. I have made specific suggestions to more than one party in our country about the benefit of the content of the crippled encyclopedia, and I do not think any of the suggestions have reached the actual decision maker.Maybe the ideas and suggestions put forward remain in the laaities of bureaucrats and technicians who do not consider the development of knowledge content as development priorities A community that means millions of our youth in their dialogue and interaction with their heritage and culture and with the sciences, arts and cultures of the world.


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