We Write Our Own Past: 10 Questions with Elias Farkouh

Elias Farkouh’s short story “A Man I Don’t Know” was among the most viscerally engaging pieces in The Common’s Issue 15 portfolio of Arabic fiction from Jordan. A prize-winning writer and translator who has earned accolades for short fiction collections and novels, Farkouh is interviewed by The Common interns Whitney Bruno, Avery Farmer, and Isabel Meyers, who discuss fear, translation, and formal construction with Farkouh. This is the second of two interviews conducted by the summer interns; the first was with Haifa’ Abul-Nadi.

Elias Farkouh

The Common interns (TC): What writers and work are you most excited about at the moment?

Elias Farkouh (EF): I have not followed a predetermined ‘scheme’ in my readings lately; they have been quite diverse. What I read next has been guided by the last thing I read. I either keep reading the same author or chase a theme or a thought from one book into another book or another author. I find myself moving from topic to topic as new themes and interests emerge. It might seem odd, but I take pleasure in not abiding by a set reading plan. That may be a reflection of my changing mood! I also have to fulfill my commitments to writers who seek my opinion on new work, which interrupts what I would be reading otherwise. Anyway, in the last few weeks, I finished reading Paul Auster’s novel Man in the Dark and a translated manuscript of the Japanese novelist Kobo Abe’s The Box Man. I also finished reading a collection of articles by the Iraqi short story writer Mohammed Khudayyir called “What Can be Held and What Cannot.” Yesterday I read a debut novella by a young Jordanian woman.

TC: Is there any important context for your work that readers should know?

EF: Yes, the reader of my short stories and novels needs to have at least some familiarity with the sociopolitical environment in which my characters operate. Without this knowledge, they will miss parts of my work. Many of my stories deal with general human abstracts that are not specific to one society, but even these have their own historical, social, political and cultural contexts.

TC: Who are your favorite writers in Arabic? In English?

There is a group of writers who particularly align with my taste. Among Arab writers, my favorites include Yusuf Idris, Edwar al-Kharrat, and Mohammed Khudayyir. Among non-Arabs are Virginia Woolf, especially her novel The Waves, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Paul Auster, and Borges. I say these writers because reading their work inspires me to write and makes me wonder how long I will need to write all that I want to write.

TC: What is it like to have your work translated?

EF: As a writer, I am always happy to have my works translated into a different language, because a writer always needs a reader. The more the writer’s readership expands beyond the geography of their own language, the more meaningful their work will be. For me, translation is not synonymous with fame; instead it is a tool to emphasize the necessity of communication between different peoples, leading to more awareness and more understanding of the other.

What worries me when my works are translated is the fact that they are rendered in a language peculiar to me. Translations might not be able to accurately transfer the implicit meanings that live in the nuances of the words I use. I think my works require a lot of effort to translate.

TC: In “A Man I Don’t Know” and “Creation,” an undercurrent of fear and anxiety ultimately plagues the protagonists, albeit under extremely different circumstances. What makes fear fascinating to write about?

EF: Fear is a deeply internal and hidden side of the human being. It is often most noticeable in moments when one’s capacity for resistance falls apart in the face of social, political or oppressive perils. In these moments, a person can either get weaker and weaker until they collapse, or withstand and defy fear. These moments awaken the energy to write within me and motivate me to try to delve deeper into the human psyche. I expressed this in a literary way in “A Man I Don’t Know.” The victim here was an everyday ordinary man who was subjected to torture by an oppressive government. This is why I emphasize the importance of having some knowledge of the sociopolitical environment of my stories, in order to understand my condemnation of such oppression and of the authorities that exercise it.

In “Creation,” I am addressing the natural and instinctive fear that children feel when they are surrounded by darkness, all by themselves in their homes. This is the moment when all the ghosts from the stories they have listened to become real. They then commit the sin of peeing in their sleep as a natural consequence. Some of my childhood memories might have inspired this story. Parts of it are based on true stories and parts are fictional. To summarize, fear is a dark zone that invites me to investigate its depths and explore its unexpected layers.

TC: How do the places you’ve lived and the people you live with influence your work?

EF: The places I’ve lived in and the people I’ve lived with—in all their different characteristics, their professions that became part of who they are and their familiar or odd ways of life—are all carved in my memory forever. It is a rich repertoire, a fertile panorama inviting me to write. We often write our own past.

There is always a complex and interactive relation between the characters and the place they live in. Places can attract people to them or drive them away. I define place as a “social incubator” or “a human community defined by certain spatial boundaries.” As such, the histories of people and the places they lived in are intertwined – one will change if the other does. Place is part of the history that fictional characters will have in a novel or short story. This is also true in our everyday life. The existence of a place, too, is contingent upon the characters that will shape it, in how they construct, change, or tear it down.

For this reason, most of the characters in my novels and stories came from places I actually lived in for part of my life or from those places that I came to know more about through a relation with someone who lived there or through an unforgettable incident I was part of in that place.

TC: How does translating for other people impact the way you write?

EF: Practicing translation has taught me to think more about the words I use, to check all possible Arabic synonyms and carefully choose the translation equivalent that is closest to the target language. This process has informed the way I deal with my own text, making me careful to avoid writing even a single unnecessary sentence. The scale that goes for the single sentence also goes for coherence and transition between paragraphs – when one would end and the next would start. One crucial aspect of this is using accurate punctuation marks, which helps communicate the intended meaning. Translating a text is definitely different from reading it. Those who know me know I am a slow reader. I almost do a ‘half’ translation of the text when I read it: total consciousness first, then each and every detail. This process has been transposed to my writing.

TC: Instantly noticeable in your stories is how you handle details: You withhold important context that impacts the protagonists, and let the reader draw their own conclusions from the narrative. How does this emphasize the emotions of the characters? What does it accomplish for you to keep things from your readers?

EF: The novel and the short story, as I think of them, are elusive, with only enough detail to create a state of mind that invites reflection, careful consideration and sometimes interpretation. Since my early years of writing, I have believed that the story is not the same as the anecdote and that the modern novel is not the same as a contemporary short epic. Because of this, I write stories that have certain opaque areas to engage the reader to try to explore possible interpretations. This is one way that I show respect to my reader and invite them to be an active agent with me in the act of writing! What I conceal between the lines of my stories encourages the reader to picture the story according to a combination of their personal life experience and their cultural and accumulated reading experience.

TC: How do you handle the beginning and ending of stories? Yours are very tidy, and often finish very near to where they begin; for example, “Dolls and Angels” begins and ends in the same house. How do you accomplish this, and what are your motivations for employing this technique?

EF: Often the way the story begins dictates how it would end, especially if the beginning is a scene or incident that introduces the mood that will gradually unfold in the story. When I go back, at the end of the story, to the opening scene, it is as if I am saying that the circle is still closed! The mood has not changed a bit. Because most of my stories reject the principle of chronological order in telling the story, and because I delve deep to explore the mood or the state of mind of my stories, going back to square one is actually a statement that says “nothing happened”! I adopt this technique in some stories because this technique is the most appropriate for the theme that I am writing about. Most of my stories, like life itself, take me by surprise and I handle that situation on an incidental basis, trying to deal with each story according to its own individual nature.

TC: In both “A Man I Don’t Know” and “Dolls and Angels” there’s a deep sense of violence that’s either unspoken or overt. Clearly, you aren’t afraid to make your readers uneasy. What advice would you give to writers who want to include physical conflict but are afraid of it feeling gratuitous?

EF: I am not among those who give advice to other writers, regardless of their age. Each writer has their own unique life and writing experiences. The way we receive life depends on the sum of our personal history, a fact that is also reflected in the way we transfer this experience through our writing. This experience is the only authentic guide for a writer and how they should handle confrontations or physical or emotional conflicts, including excessive violence. As long as the writer believes in the need to expose this violence, without unwarranted exaggeration, it will be convincing.


Born in Amman in 1948, Elias Farkouh is a novelist and short-story writer. He has published eight short story collections and four novels, one of which, The Land of Purgatory, was nominated for the first Arabic Booker prize (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, IPAF). He is also a translator from English into Arabic of a number of Western works, and has won several prizes for his literary output. 

We Write Our Own Past: 10 Questions with Elias Farkouh

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