Mahmoud Saeed

Mahmoud Saeed

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Iraqi novelist and short-story writer Mahmoud Saeed (Saddam City, Through the Eyes of Angels) has seen two of his short stories — both translated from Arabic into English by William Hutchins — nominated for the Pushcart prize. The first was Lizards’ Colony,” which ran on World Literature Today, and the second was “Love and the Demonstration“, which ran on Brooklyn Rail. In an interview with Arabic Literature (in English), Saeed answered a few questions about his relationship with the form.

Mahmoud Saeed: The short story and the novel are two types of storytelling. When, at the dawn of history, storytellers appeared, they were the narrators of entertainment. That was what the people needed, especially during the long winter nights, when there was no television, books, radio.

Entertainment is still, in my view, the first goal. After that, other things come through. Storytelling grew and then evolved into the present short-story form. If there are complicated events, it becomes a novel. The ancient Iraqis, Sumerians and Babylonians, recorded stories like this, and, in the Abbasid era, storytelling reached a summit, which can be seen in collections such as Maqamat. Also, there appeared the proto-novel: A Thousand and One Nights.

Until now, the target remains that readers enjoy hearing the story. However, storytelling now changes with the degree of awareness in the writer, of course.

AL: Why write short stories? Why not just focus on novels?

MS: I do not think that the writer has a choice about this. For a novel, it’s like falling from a helicopter into the sea: You will have to swim for a long time to maintain your life and your strength until you see the rescue ship. Here, you must survive for several days. But if you plunge into a river, then you can swim until you reach the beach, after a shorter time. The nature of the writer pushes him to interact with events. If he see a simple event, then he will write a short story. But if he see a complex series of events, he will write a novel. For example, the occupation of Iraq is a huge event, so I wrote The Truck Novel. When I was last in prison, I wrote Saddam City, because the events were as great as falling into the sea. But if the events are small, like swimming in the river, I express it as a short story, such as “Lizards Colony.”

You know that the Iraqi people have not lived in a stable era for of long — there have been military coups, arrests, and murders from 1980 until now. The situation before 1980, under the Baath party, was also very bad. This is pushes the writer to write.

I can’t write poetry or articles, so I chose the novel and the short story. The first short story I wrote was “The Ominous Gun.” I was 18 years old, and it won the first prize in a competition in a local newspaper in Mosul. Two years later, I wrote my first novel. After another two years, I wrote anoter novel, but because of the military coup in 1963, many of the manuscripts deposited with the Iraqi Writers Union were lost. In my opinion, both the short story and the novel express what I feel personally and exactly.

Continue reading on Arabic Literature (in English).