France has made the Yemeni writer Ali Al-Muqri a knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
Al-Muqri recently received a letter from Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the French minister of culture, telling him that he was among the honorees chosen as members of the order this year.
Al-Muqri has been living in France at the invitation of the Arab World Institute since 2015, after fleeing the war in his home country. He had lived in Sana’a, the capital, which is now controlled by the Houthi rebel movement. People close to Al-Muqri have warned him he risked being pursued by the Houthis if he returned to Yemen.
The Order of Arts and Letters, one of four “ministerial orders” in France, is awarded to people who have distinguished themselves through artistic or literary creation or by contributing to the influence of arts and letters in France and the world. It has three ranks: commander, officer, and knight (chevalier).
Al-Muqri said in a telephone interview with Al-Fanar Media that he had not been aware of his candidacy for this order and was surprised by the letter.
“I live in double exile, and I miss every detail of my life in Yemen. Where is the corner dedicated to writing in my house in Sana’a, where I used to write my literary works, my books piled around me?”Ali Al-Muqri
He believes that his being named for the prestigious French order is “a tribute to Arabic literature, and a reward for writing a literary work that has its own narrative and cultural characteristics.”
He said Arabic literature was marginalized because it was rarely translated and he hoped his award would shed more light on it.
Novels and Prize Nominations
Ali Al-Muqri began his literary career as a cultural editor for several Yemeni publications before beginning to write prose, poetry and novels himself. His works have been translated into French, English, Italian, Kurdish and Persian.
He has published more than ten books, among them the novels “Black Taste, Black Odour” (2008), “The Handsome Jew” ( 2009), and “Hurma” ( 2012), “Adani Incense” (2014), and “The Leader’s Country” (2019).
“Black Taste, Black Odour” and “The Handsome Jew” were longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and 2011, and “Hurma”, in its French translation, won an honourable mention from the Arab World Institute Prize for Fiction and the French prize for Arabic literature. “Adani Incense” was shortlisted for the 2015 Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
Between Home and Exile
Despite his years in self-imposed exile in Paris and his freedom to write, “far from the guilt feelings that affected his literary works,” Al-Muqri said he still “experiences the hardships of alienation far from his homeland.”
“I live in double exile, and I miss every detail of my life in Yemen,” he said. “Where is the writing corner in my house in Sana’a, where I used to write my literary works, my books piled around me? I miss my habits and my rituals that were the primary motivator and the inspiration for my writing.”
Al-Muqri said that particular places in Yemen and the way of eating and drinking there gave a feeling of continuity that he misses.
“The majority of writers residing in Yemen are no longer able to obtain the basic requirements of life, such as electricity, clean water, or a regular salary.”Ali Al-Muqri
The issues of Yemeni life inspired more than one of his novels, which he attributes to his constant endeavor to “explore the human self and evoke the causes of its anxiety through exposure to the problems facing people, whether they are in freedom of expression or because of discrimination against a person because of his colour, his sexual identity or because he was marginalized by a dictatorial authority.”
Al-Muqri said that he could write more in Yemen than he can in France. The war took him forcefully from his country and made him feel alienated and unable to get hold of the things that inspired and motivated him to write.
But that feeling has not prevented his ability to integrate with French society, he said. Thanks to his personal experience and knowledge of European culture, he has been able to adapt and engage in his new life in the host country.
Yemeni Literature in Wartime
Al-Muqri said most Yemeni writers and authors had lost their jobs because of the war and many of them had resorted to other types of work so they could continue to live.
Most were no longer able to obtain the basic requirements of life, such as electricity, clean water, or a regular salary. Al-Muqri said the absence of these things “makes any writer or author unable to write and think.”
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The war has greatly hindered literary life in his country, Al-Muqri said, but it remains active despite the restrictions and censorship imposed by the authorities.
Al-Muqri said he was working on a new novel. He hopes to continue writing “in freedom and safety” and to return to Yemen after the situation stabilizes.