The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Karim Alrawi


This week I’m in conversation with Canadian playwright and novelist Karim Alrawi, whose recent novel, Book of Sands, won the HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize and was a CBC best book of the year in 2015. The novel tells the story of Tarek, a young father watching the city he lives in become mired in protests and inundated by great flocks of birds. Fleeing the threat of police arrest, he flees to the mountains with his nine-year-old daughter, Neda.

The Toronto Star describes Karim Alrawi’s writing as “lyrical and intricate” and calls the novel “intensely political.” The Globe and Mail calls the book “a social novel exploring shades between realism and myth, present and past, agnosticism and devotion.”

Karim Alrawi HR

Karim Alrawi has written plays for stage, radio, and television. He is the author of two children’s books. He was resident writer at the Royal Court Theatre in central London, England, and later at Meadow Brook Theatre in the US. His international honors include the John Whiting Award for his stage plays, and the Samuel Beckett Award for the Performing Arts. He has taught creative writing at the University of Victoria, the American University in Cairo and the University of Iowa.



Trevor Corkum: How was Book of Sands born?

Karim Alrawi: I was a resident playwright at Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan when 9/11 happened. I found it shocking. The atrocity induced in me a feeling that everything I had written up until then was of little worth. Searching for relevance as a writer, I became convinced by Hannah Arendt’s view that a writer’s experience is the evidence of the narrative. I decided I needed to deepen and broaden my store of experiences if I was to write more meaningful narratives.

Consequently, I spent the next several years supervising aid and development projects in the Middle East and South Asia, funded by USAID and the Canadian aid agency (CIDA). During those years, I never stopped thinking of myself as a writer, and I did try to keep up my writing, but was unable to. I was probably overwhelmed by the newness of my material and too preoccupied with the daily pressures of managing aid projects in difficult environments. Eventually, I decided the only way to get the necessary distance and clarity of mind to write was to quit what I was doing and return to Canada.

Once I had settled back home I felt the nature of my material more suited to a novel than a stage play. So, I started writing a novel having never attempted to do so before.

TC: Book of Sands is set in both a dense urban city and the far-flung desert villages of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Thinking about the setting/s of your book, how did you go about building your fictional world? Was it important to you to replicate the specific details and energy of a particular city or location? Or did you begin with a location in mind and then fictionalize or alter it as you wrote?

KA: The original plan was to write a novel based on my experiences supervising aid and development projects in the Middle East. One of the things that struck me then was the stark contrast of what could be called uneven development—where you find the modern coexisting next to the archaic. You could meet an accomplished scientist from a family who still believed in magical thinking. In remote villages that seemingly in most ways hadn’t changed in 300 years you would find people using cell phones or watching satellite TV. Somehow this cultural muddle was held together by a patriarchal social system that at times could be benevolent and other times cruel. Describing that world was my initial idea for the novel. I worked on it for a couple of years until the Arab uprisings erupted and I had to rethink the story to take into account what was happening.

In remote villages that seemingly in most ways hadn’t changed in 300 years you would find people using cell phones or watching satellite TV.

So to answer the question, I would say that the clash of fictional worlds was very much the initial starting point for the novel. Though the locations are all real, I avoided naming places because I thought the fictional world of the novel applied, to some measure or other, to the whole Middle East and not just specifically to one city or location.

TC: Book of Sands is set against the backdrop of massive political unrest and social upheaval and is subtitled “a novel of the Arab uprising.” I understand you were in the Middle East during the 2011 uprisings. What type of research was involved in constructing the events and political context of the novel?

KA: The Arab uprising started in Tunisia in December 2010 and took everybody by surprise. I was in Vancouver at the time. In January 2011 young people in Egypt started calling for an uprising there. When it started on January 25th, I realized that I could not sit it out in Canada given what I was writing about. So I booked a flight and went over. I had friends in Cairo to stay with. I also knew people at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and so volunteered with them. We spent time gathering data on casualties and what was happening across the country in terms of repression and resistance.

I spent time in Tahrir Square. I was arrested, but then released and continued my work for the human rights organization. After the fall of the dictator I stayed on for a while doing various tasks, such as helped with collecting blood for the uprising in Libya as well as compiling reports on corruption of members of the previous regime. At the time I didn’t think of it as research, but, effectively, that is what it was.

TC: One of the defining features of the book is the gorgeous and deft use of magical realism. Animals, mythical creatures, landscapes, the desert itself—all become to some extent characters in the novel, playing important roles in the lives of Tarek, Neda, Mona, Reham, and others. Magic realism—as in the work of Garcia Marquez and many others—is often used transgressively in literature, to undermine authority or indirectly challenge hegemonic structures of power. Can you talk more about why you chose to employ elements of magic realism in Book of Sands?

You have correctly identified an important aspect of the use of magic realism in the novel, but also I believe with Hannah Arendt that autocratic, authoritarian and theocratic regimes are fundamentally anti-rational. Being anti-rational they encourage magical thinking and often become delusional. You only have to listen to the current military dictator in Egypt, Field Marshal Sisi. He talks about God speaking to him and angels appearing to him in dreams. To call him a clown on one level may be correct, but it should not disguise the savagery of the man and his regime whose first act in power was the murder of at least fifteen hundred protesters and the incarceration of an unprecedented 40,000 political prisoners. So, magical realism can be subversive, but it can also be a very accurate reflection of the way a totalitarian regime thinks and functions.

So, magical realism can be subversive, but it can also be a very accurate reflection of the way a totalitarian regime thinks and functions.

TC: While you’re accomplished playwright, having worked and taught in England, Egypt, and now Canada, Book of Sands is your first novel. How difficult was it to make the transition from the stage to the more insular world of a novel? What projects are you working on currently?

KA: I found the transition very difficult to make from playwright to novelist. Issues of point of view, voice, focus, as well as exposition and description were all very challenging at first. Gradually, I began to see my way through to completing a draft of the novel. Writing this novel was probably the hardest job I have ever had to do, but having done so I can’t imagine wanting to make the transition back to being a playwright, as much as I enjoyed writing for the theatre.

I am partway through a second novel also set in the Middle East. This, too, draws on my experiences of working in the region. I am not sure I can say very much about it as I have only just started pulling the threads together.   


Excerpt from Book of Sands

On the morning babies decide not to be born, and mothers cease to give birth, Neda, seven weeks and four days to being ten, late for school, skelters through a flurry of starlings that scatter from the sidewalk, take flight to gather on balconies and rooftops. At the corner of the alley she stops. A wall of concrete slabs, four meters tall, seals off the street. Its pitted surface spray-painted with slogans for an end to the rule of soldiers.

She leans forward. Her satchel slides over her shoulders like a shell on a turtle's back. She gazes through a crack between two slabs at a deserted road strewn with rocks and gutted car wrecks, flotsam on a beach of broken asphalt. Soldiers lounge by sandbags and coils of razor wire. She hears her father call, hurries to him, follows down a side street, takes his hand to cross snarled traffic at a junction with lights that flash all three colours in festive unison. Above her flights of starlings sweep over minarets and cathedral cupolas past skyscrapers as sheer as the crystal turrets of a picture book palace, soar to chase tendrils of cloud, swoop to cut through streets like shards of glass. Lines of traffic knot in gridlock to the river.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

March 9, 2016
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