Saudi writer Ahmed al-Duwaihi optimistic about prospects for modernity at home despite resistance

“I’m convinced that we can’t escape being part of this modern world and that we will give to it and take from it.”- Saudi novelist Ahmed al-Duwaihi
Sunday 23/09/2018
Saudi novelist Ahmed al-Duwaihi (Al Arab)
Hopeful realism. Saudi novelist Ahmed al-Duwaihi.(Al Arab)

Saudi novelist Ahmed al-Duwaihi began his writing career in the early 1970s. He worked as a writer and copy editor at several Saudi newspapers, including Okaz and al-Riyadh, and al Yamamah magazine. He published several novels and recently finished writing his latest novel in Arabic “The Lost Female.” He has gathered material for a collection of stories to appear under the title of “Tiny Details in an Enormous Space.”

Duwaihi said writing is an expression of civilisation requiring the sincere writer to be always on top of his art, technically and in terms of contemporary knowledge. This allows him to decipher and give meaning to reality.

He said art has a guiding mission. It points out shortcomings but it is an integral part of the civilisation projects of forward-looking countries.

Duwaihi said that during the last couple of decades, writing novels in Saudi Arabia surpassed all expectations in terms of volume. “Every year, we witness the publication of more than 100 novels written by people of both sexes and this is really unprecedented,” he said. “We used to be happy with the publication of just one novel each year.

“Of course, this sudden opening of the floodgates is both a literary release and a social one. Our country is like a wide continent with a variety of cultures. Such a flood of creativity received attention from the outside because literature is the art of revealing the hidden. Saudi novels depicted a society shrouded in secrecy.

“Besides, every creative movement must be followed by a critical evaluation. I believe that this could have happened here in Saudi Arabia if we have had the relevant research centres and I’m hopeful that it will eventually happen.”

Duwaihi talked about freedom of thought and speech and the freedom of the press, in particular in Saudi Arabia and especially in the context of changes at the national level.

“I have spent many years serving the fourth estate,” he said. “I’ve trodden its many fields as a contributor and employee. I entered the press through the gates of literature and it has welcomed me with open arms.

“The press as a profession and industry has gone through many transformations, just like every other domain in our country. The question of press freedom is reflected by our ability to approach perceived taboos. The press had played an important role by becoming a sincere and honest critic of various government agencies. In that task, the press had taken a constructive approach for the benefit of the citizen and the nation.”

Duwaihi added: “Now, the role of the press is waning because of modern media technologies. Overall, it’s the entire country that is going through very delicate transformations and we are perfectly aware that any modernisation effort brings its own set of challenges and problems.

“Let’s not forget that our society was conservative for decades and will continue to resist modernisation trends. Having said that, “I’m convinced that we can’t escape being part of this modern world and that we will give to it and take from it, always pushing forward with open eyes.”

Duwaihi said the “religious revivalist movement” of the 1960s stunted and deformed social life. “It was anything but a renaissance movement,” he said, adding that it took the society in its clutches then started feeding its backward ideology and demonising anything different from it.

“Through its pulpits, this trend opposed the arts, women, philosophy and life in general. Undoubtedly, figures of modernity and the other social groups must have gone through virulent battles with this oppressive movement,” he said.

“Through the decades, the movement transformed the social order and atmosphere. Anyone who knows the society of southern Saudi Arabia, where I come from, will recognise how this ideology marred its outlook. It wiped out the spirit of tolerance, relegated women to the background, forbade all signs of joy and killed everything beautiful and pleasing in society. I’m sure the same could be said about all other regional societies in Saudi Arabia.

“This is why changes introduced by the government have rekindled our hope for a new normal reality. It would be a mistake to think that this oppressive ideology has been eradicated for good. It is still here, hidden among us and you can see samples of it in every household.”

About the challenge posed by modernists to the revivalist movement, the Saudi writer said: “At the time, unfortunately, modernity in Saudi Arabia couldn’t go beyond writing literature.”

“Change,” he said, “must come from inside the society and in stages. The government must play the role of the engine behind this change.

“You cannot expect a miracle from a society that obsesses over tribal allegiances. I remember that within the society of the Hijaz in particular, there used to be early signs of a modern civilised society. There used to be a minimum of practical and professional considerations that regulated social life and added a touch of beauty to it. Then came the winds of obscurantism and wiped out every single hope.”

He said: “Today, hope lies in what we can call the ‘soft culture.’ We are witnessing the presence of women in football stadiums, cinema theatres, book fairs, markets and behind car steering wheels. There is new legislation giving them more rights and placing limits on the fascist male culture as well as on the power of those who pretend to be the guardians of virtue.”

Regarding the changes in Saudi Arabia and the ability of Saudi intellectuals to grasp their significance, Duwaihi said that “the entire population, not just intellectuals, has high expectations of the changes and hopes that the new era will be one of progress and development.

“As citizens and intellectuals, we realise the importance of the changes going on in the world around us, especially in the Arab world, and realise their effect on us and elsewhere,” Duwaihi said. “Therefore, our country must be placed above all the insignificant details. The only place for a country like ours with its significant size, history, relevance and wealth can only be in our hearts and in the pupils of our eyes.”