Zahran Alqasmi on The Water Diviner - and why geography has its place in literature

The winning entry in this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction explores the ancient irrigation systems of rural Oman

Zahran Alqasmi at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Pawan Singh / The National
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For a novel about life in a tranquil Omani village, The Water Diviner kept taking author Zahran Alqasmi to the city.

First it was to Muscat, where he was feted at the city's book fair last month, then it was to Abu Dhabi, where the work won this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

In addition to the $50,000 prize and support for a future English translation, Alqasmi also has the distinction of being the first Omani to win the prestigious award.

This meant spending extra time in Abu Dhabi, conducting book-signing sessions while family and friends from his home province of Dima Wattayeen, an agricultural region south of Muscat, called in to congratulate the local hero.

“I really feel proud and humbled and speechless to be honest,” Alqasmi told The National from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

“While the announcement ceremony was a lovely celebration, the bigger one will be when I return home with my family, my daughters and sons."

Alqasmi’s achievement sheds further light on the sultanate’s thriving literary scene, with two of its authors winning some of the biggest book prizes in the Arab world. This win comes on the back of Jokha Alharthi becoming the first female Omani novelist to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 for Celestial Bodies.

"I don't see any distinction between Omani novels and greater Arabic literature because we all share the same language," Alqasmi says.

"I don't think geography has an effect in this case. But what I do note is that there is greater openness in the region and the world about Omani literature due to the exposure caused by these big awards and social media.

“What readers have found by reading works by Omani writers is that we also have these mature and deep experiences that we want to share.

“The awards have shown the depth of our literature and proves that they deserve to be read."

Published in 2021, The Water Diviner follows the life of an enigmatic and mystical man employed by Omani villages to track the ebb and flow of local rivers and ravines.

Haunted by the deaths of his parents, he faces his fear as he clings to life after getting stuck in a water channel.

While the judges praised Alqasmi’s rich yet accessible prose, the novel illuminates rural Oman's aflaj irrigation system.

Acknowledged by Unesco and dating back to the Iron Age, the system relies on the fair and effective management of water resources among surrounding villages.

"It is also a complicated social system," Aqasmi says.

"It relates to how a community is built and it’s linked to different social and economic classes. I grew up in these villages and used the experiences in writing the novel."

That experience also shaped the title character’s narrative voice, which begins in a matter-of-fact style before digressing into various meditations on village life.

"I wanted to emulate the way a village person tells a story," Alqasmi says.

"A lot of times they eventually branch off into various things and weave in other stories, symbols and legends which enhance the power of the overall tale."

Another aspect of rural life Alqasmi cherishes is the relative solitude it provides.

Despite his rising profile and the growing demands that go with being a successful novelist, he is adamant he has no plans to relocate from Dima Wattayeen.

"The city can agitate me with the tension of its streets and commitments," he says.

"The village is naturally quiet in both its setting and people. It makes the soul calm and inspires me to come with many useful ideas."

Updated: June 09, 2023, 6:02 PM