Riyqdh - Arabstoday
Raja Alem is a writer of many genres with a rich way with words. When reading her thoughts, whether through her stories, published letters or prose, we receive vivid imagery of the scenes she imagines and remembers. Most of these come from her home city of Makkah, a place that retains great global spiritual significance and which has drastically changed since her childhood.
Alem now lives in Paris. Her book “The Doves’ Necklace” recently won the International Prize for Arabic Literature. She describes her own writing by comparing it to the “wild desert,” warning me that if I try to read it in Arabic I may get lost in the dense poetics that play such a big part in her literary style.
She writes about characters inspired by her family and childhood memories of the hordes of people dressed in the same humble clothes of those that swarmed her city during last year’s busy holy season of Haj. The family home of her upbringing used to be on a mountain that no longer exists today. The Doves’ Necklace is dedicated to this.
At the beginning of July Alem came to London to read from her newly awarded novel during the Southbank’s annual London Literature Festival. Arab News had the great pleasure of being able to speak with her and in front of big windows overlooking the London Eye and Westminster, we talked about her home city and her thoughts on the changing landscape.
How do you explain your attachment to your home city?
You can’t help it; it is inside you. You first see the world through your own city. Wherever I go, I carry Makkah with me. When I first went to New York, everything reminded me of Makkah. People would say, how could New York remind you of Makkah? But it has the same cosmopolitan nature; people from all over the world come to live in New York. Just like Makkah, there are visitors from all over the world. We lived in a very cosmopolitan atmosphere; it opened us up. We can cope anywhere in the world because we had a world in our city. I feel I have a responsibility toward it. Not because I am passionate about it, but because it is there, we can’t escape it.
What do you mean when you speak of “old” Makkah as opposed to the “new” Makkah?
I mean Makkah of the 50s. It changed a lot after the 60s. In the last two or three years, it changed drastically. At the same time, it’s natural for cities to change in this way. For example, Hausmann’s Paris changed the whole city. People rejected the change. Victor Hugo expelled himself from Paris because of it. Makkah, though, is such a holy city. I question if it is right to make so many changes to such a holy place. But I do think cities should reflect its people, and we are no longer really the people of old Makkah. We are people of the world now. We have the Internet, communications, we travel, we are more global. So we are reflecting our own personalities, including that of Makkah.
What was it about the change in Paris that was so devastating?
It was about the beauty of the city. It was original, beautiful and shouldn’t be destroyed. It’s like time against drastic modernity, but we are moving toward this glass and steel. It’s like a space ship. Look at the London Eye; it is alien to London. But it is surrounded by these authentic rooftops. That is my concern. We need to preserve our old city, the heart of it. Especially our holy mosque. We have our huge clock, the giant glass and steel skyscrapers and now the mosque is sinking in the middle of it. It is sad.
Alem is clearly concerned with the loss of what is valuable in Makkah. Her books attempt to document her memories, share the history and grasp the poetics of a place that is now transforming its 1,200-year-old history into a 21st century city. With continuous announcements of giant urban developments, such as this week’s plan to build the world’s tallest building in Jeddah that will further modernize the gateway to Makkah, Alem’s recording of her personal history through the artistic imagery and description that is her signature style is a valuable addition to a small archive on the little known, generally restricted and drastically shifting city.