Why Alia Mamdouh's latest novel is her most personal to date: 'Some characters infect us like scarlet fever’

The Iraqi novelist, who was shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, felt as if she was being 'led on' by her main character in 'The Tank'
Alia Mamdouh was working on her next novel, Without Clothes, when she heard the news of the port explosion in Beirut last month.
The Iraqi novelist, who lives in Paris, says she was unable to concentrate after the calamity, finding that it had affected her "like a concussion".
“It hit me personally,” she tells The National.
Mamdouh has lived in a number of countries since she left Iraq in 1982, including the UK, Morocco and Lebanon. She said all offered her “great adventures, as well as heavy losses". Most of all, though, she says, they forced her to restrain her desires. However, Lebanon has a special place in her life.
Lebanon is not only the country of the Lebanese, it is also my country. I lived in it and learnt most of my acquaintances from it
“Lebanon is not only the country of the Lebanese, it is also my country. I lived in it and learnt most of my acquaintances from it, got married and gave birth to my only son there,” she says.
In the past month, Mamdouh has started preparing a book on Beirut. “It is a biography of the city and its various personalities. It is a humble bow in front of its martyrs, its dead and the hungry, who have become mere numbers in a great record of victims,” she says.
Many novelists speak of their characters as if they were real human beings, and while the same is true about Mamdouh, she takes it one step further.
Her characters are afflictions. She is stricken by them, troubled by them. They turn her life around “by 180 degrees” and not always for the better. In most cases, she begins to take on their obsessions. Their troubles and anxieties become her own.
Mamdouh began her literary career in 1973 with the publication of her short story collection Overture for Laughter. Since then, she has written eight novels, some of which – such as Mothballs and Naphtalene – have been published in English, French, Italian and Spanish. In 2004, she won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her novel The Loved Ones.

But her latest work, The Tank, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction this year, is perhaps her most personal. And that is largely owing to its main character, Afaf Ayoub, who Mamdouh credits with writing the novel. “Some characters infect us as if they were scarlet fever,” she says. “They fill our hands with blood, sweat and tears. This is what happened with me and Afaf. She keeps talking to herself and the author, hoping that someone can hear her. She was singing an incomparable tune and her voice was like gold. All I had to do was hurry to catch those rays of light, catch her ghosts and her frenzy. In fact, sometimes I felt like I was the character being led on and written.”
Having graduated with a degree in psychology from Baghdad’s Al Mustansiriyah University in 1971, Mamdouh says the scientific field had a lot of influence on the foundation of her latest work. “I am very passionate about psychological and neurological studies,” she says. “Schizophrenia, mania, delirium, obsessive-compulsive disorder and hysteria interest me greatly. But perhaps most of all, I am interested in megalomania and its symptoms, which I continue to see in many literary, intellectual and political figures around the world. It is a field of study, observation and endless humour.”
Afaf, who in the novel travels from Baghdad to Paris to study painting, possesses “a type of megalomania that is rare because it comes with the humility” of someone who realises they are a megalomaniac.
“She also has obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Mamdouh says. “The disorder’s tendencies have grave consequences on a person’s physical, medical and neurological state. Afaf went through that experience, and I, as her author, did too.”
Mamdouh also uses the novel’s landscape to investigate the concept of beauty. For her, beauty is a process that is shrouded in mystery, mainly because of its varying cultural, intellectual, historical and religious interpretations.
“We cannot document beauty with one painting, or a piece of music or theatre, or a novel,” she says. “It is a substantiated expression of great value that has an influence on every aspect of one’s life. It leads to freedom, justice and tolerance.”
Named after a neighbourhood in Baghdad, The Tank is a novel about a lost Iraq, as much as it is an exploration of art, beauty and madness. In a way, the work is also an imaginary passageway for Mamdouh to return to her native Iraq, a country she has been away from for almost 40 years.
It is a literary homecoming with a sorrowful lucidity as Mamdouh observes the changes that have swept across the country since she left it about three decades ago.
“For Afaf, the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but rather pain,” Mamdouh says. Afaf’s compatriots may perceive that her (and perhaps the writer's own) decision to flee Iraq “due to the absence of beauty is an act of a person touched by madness", Mamdouh says.
Shortly before Afaf decides to travel to France, she says: “I will disappear because beauty is scarce and because those around me are polluting my senses.” The pollution she refers to, Mamdouh says, is the turbulence that has overtaken Iraq since the second half of the 20th century.
“From its successive military coups, genocides, betrayed revolutions, to the foreign occupations,” she says.
“Iraq did not help me from the various horrors I was exposed to. It did not protect me from being ignored and hurt. Because of all this and more, it is the last and only truth.”