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Author of the novel Divine Names, Luay Abdul-Ilah
is interviewed by Valentina Viene
The Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi has a theory about the possibilities of human becoming: before coming into being, any element of creation existed in an abstract pure form and longed to be manifested in creation. In his book The Meccan Revelations, Ibn Arabi illustrates the different forms that the divine names acquire in their manifestation. Iraqi author Luay Abdul-Ilah was fascinated by this theory and wrote Divine Names, a novel translated into English by Judith Cumberbatch. Each character displays a possible realization of their own name: Abdel Wahhab is stripped of the second part of his name, Wahhab (giving), when at the age of five he stole some buttons from his father’s customers. Abdel grows up exactly as his father predicted, a heartless schemer, unable to give, inclined to taking advantage of people and oppressing the weak. One of his children has Down’s Syndrome and is called Selim (sound, intact). Abdel despises his submissive wife Baida (pure) on account of their son’s defect. Another son Saleh (good, righteous) has always been obedient, but now regrets many things about his past, including allowing his parents to choose his wife. A self-reflective novelist, his past visions of death haunt him and prevent him from living his present. Haya (alive) was, like Saleh, a member of a revolutionary group in Iraq. She was humiliated and tortured in the “fortress” and she becomes the artist’s protégée. After her move to safety in London, a man named Salam Salman (peace deliverer) appears at her front door with a package for her. She then realizes this man was in the “fortress” and was known by the name of Abu Harb (the warmonger). Toing and froing in time and space, in the lives of every character, the author depicts a picture that resembles very much an Impressionist painting where perspective is anything but linear and certainly not final, as each story, the author seems to suggest, could have come to exist in multiple alternative ways.
First of all, one can’t help but notice that your last name is a divine name, meaning Servant of God. How personal to you is the question of divine names?
My father’s first name was Abdul-Ilah, which I decided to take once I sent my first short story to Al-Adaab magazine in 1984. It was published in 1985. The title of that story was “Swallow Birds”.
In the introduction to Divine Names you said that reading Ibn Arabi’s The Meccan Revelations compelled you to put your ideas on paper and allow them to come in the world of existence. How does your novel relate to Ibn Arabi’s book? Is the final chapter an answer to that?
The idea of “Mumkinat Al-Wujud” (Possibilities of Being) is one of Ibn Arabi’s main pillars on which he has based his interpretation of the universe. Ibn Arabi strongly believed that God didn’t create the components of the universe; instead there was a transformation from a Possibility of Being (Mumkin al-Wujud) to Being in Reality (becoming real or Wajib al-Wujud). According to the narrator, the characters emerged from his imagination in the same way – from being Possibilities of Being to being Real. The difference between the two processes is that the first one is in the material world and the second one is on paper. Nonetheless, Ibn Arabi believed that the whole universe was itself an illusion; the only real being was the Real (Al-Haqq), the Divine Entity.
You are right, once the reader finishes Part 12 and looks back on their journey with divine names they would discover, or feel, how the three themes of Ibn Arabi – Divine Love, Divine Names and Possibilities of Being – flow gently through the whole architecture of the novel. Your novel has a conspicuous number of characters and they are all very well-developed. Who is your inspiration?
It is very difficult to tell. The characters in the head of the novelist appear in the same way as the Divine or spirits appear to the Sufi. In my case, most likely they were born out of real characters I met throughout my life or in some novels that had an influence on me at an early age, as well as reading Ibn Arabi, Carl Jung, Freud and others. I have to add that these characters would not have been born had I followed a different track in my life. So they were, like me, born out of coincidence!
You seem to understand female psychology very deeply. Was this something you acquired through research or something instinctive?
It could be the mixture of both. In my childhood, I was surrounded by women of different ages: my mother, my sisters, my maternal aunts and my widowed grandmother, along with my great-aunts. I must have heard many stories about the latter and seen them struggling in their lives to bring up their children in a patriarchal society like Iraq. So, I was brought up in a matriarchal clan, inside a bigger, patriarchal clan. How this exceptional environment helped to understand the world of women, I can’t tell.
You often reiterate the idea that writing a novel is like painting with the eyes of an Impressionist. You seem to prefer Cezanne out of all the Impressionists. Why Impressionism and why Cezanne?
Despite the fact that Cezanne was in the beginning an Impressionist painter and kept painting landscapes along with portraits, he received the outside world not through his visual sense and emotions, as was the case with the great Impressionists of his time, but through his mind. Contrary to the Impressionists, who wanted to grasp the fleeting moment at which this or that landscape appeared to them, Cezanne wanted to give weight to his shapes, to make them solid and capable of engaging future generations. Cezanne was the inspiration for Saleh, one of the main characters in Divine Names.
In terms of structure, the novel is rather fragmented and so is each character’s story. What were you trying to achieve with that?
It took me quite a long time to conceive the plot of Divine Names. From the beginning I was convinced that a classical structure, beginning with A and ending at Z, would be impossible due to the multi-layered framework involving the events and characters in and between three cities, London, Baghdad and Damascus, over a period of nearly eight centuries. Within this wide space and time, London and Baghdad were portrayed specifically in the 1960s and 1970s through the memories of some of the characters, along with the history of modern Iraq, founded in 1921 by the British. If I had followed the ordinary path in writing the novel I would have needed 2,000 pages instead of 360. Besides, the novel would have lost its internal energy. Even so, the novel is divided into twelve parts, and the story is told through the voices of the narrator and the characters, with the perspective of the picture changing continuously.
Abdel, is he a victim or a monster?
According to the novel, the change of his name from Abdel Wahhab (Servant of the Giving) to Abdel Nahhab (the servant of the Looter) had an effect on him. According to Ibn Arabi, the divine names were to blame for any good or bad human deeds so Abdel is neither monster nor victim; maybe he is both. In general, the novel should never judge its characters.
In your opinion, could the characters’ lives have taken an altogether different direction? Where do you stand on the idea of pre-destination?
I think the characters’ lives would have taken different directions if certain tiny coincidences hadn’t occurred, such as the delayed departure of King Faisal for two days which led to his murder and to the change of destiny of several Iraqi generations; or, if Saleh had not been delayed by his younger sister, helping her with her maths homework, he would have been captured by the secret police in Baghdad. The same thing with Shehrezade: if she hadn’t substituted her colleague in the hospital she would not have met Stephen. Her destiny would have been completely different.
I don’t believe in pre-destination as such. The novel borrowed a philosophical esoteric framework to portray a glimpse of our contemporary reality in an artistic way.
Is your investigation of the divine names an attempt to explain Creation, the way you have come to know it?
Although I am fascinated by some of Ibn Arabi’s writings, including his poetry, I see them only as poetic representation of the ultimate reality, as reality itself keeps deluding us.
Have you come to some answers?
Personally, I keep searching to understand and discover the secrets behind this unlimited and mysterious universe through different channels like astronomy, quantum physics, etc, and as a novelist and short story writer my task is to follow my worries, my failures, my discoveries and my enquiries, and transform them into fiction. Whenever I finish a short story or novel I find myself to be a totally different person, maybe just like the Sufi after each mystical revelation!
Are you writing anything else at the moment?
Yes, I am working on a new novel. I am halfway through. It will take, if I am lucky, another year to finish its first draft and another six months at least to edit it myself. A new collection of my short stories was published a year ago, its title is The Game of Masks.
Divine Names by Luay Abdul-Ilah
published by Mira Publishing, UK, 2017. ISBN: 9781908509116. Pbk, 260pp, £9.75.
Selected from Banipal 61 – A Journey in Iraqi Fiction (Spring 2018)