Mazen Maarouf Interview: Between Beirut and Reykjavik

“Memory was like a beast that wanted to be fed.” Meet Palestinian-Icelandic writer Mazen Maarouf, whose work has been compared to that of Samuel Beckett. With his praised short story collection ‘Jokes for the Gunmen’ (2019) – which deals with life during wartime – as a starting point, Maarouf talks about treating memories as raw material for fiction and manipulating tragedy through humour.

Maarouf shares how he was haunted by nightmares from the war in Beirut for nearly two years while living in Reykjavik. His experiences and feelings from the time were so rooted in him that they had become what he describes as “chronic emotions.” Consequently, he began working on the short story collection ‘Jokes for the Gunmen’: “It’s something that I had to write, to get rid of my memory.” Living in the peaceful city of Reykjavik and looking back at his life in Beirut, things suddenly seemed quite grotesque, even fictional: “I wanted in this book to highlight this fictional feature of war, of tragedy. To do this, I had to magnify the fictional part and minimise the reality in a way – or induce alternative reality.” Maarouf also explains how he tried to “diminish the elements of the war as much as possible and magnify the voices of the characters and their inner conflicts and outer conflicts as much as possible.” When the characters decide to use humour in the face of tragedy, it means that they are experiencing a moment of rebellion, which makes them victorious: “Just for a moment, they are not acknowledging this war anymore through humour.” Finally, Maarouf talks about how the freedom he experienced in Reykjavik, compared to Beirut, gave him the courage to go back and confront the memory of his past: “It gave me the haven, the space to be able to write, to deal with my memory.”

Mazen Maarouf (b. 1978) is a Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, journalist, and one of the foremost translators of Icelandic literature into Arabic. Maarouf has published three collections of poetry: ‘Our Grief Resembles Bread’ (2000), ‘The Camera Doesn’t Capture Birds’ (2004, 2010), and ‘An Angel Suspended on a Clothesline’ (2012). His short story collection ‘Jokes for the Gunmen’ (2019) was nominated for the International Man Booker Prize and won the prestigious Al-Mutaqa Prize. Maarouf lives between Reykjavik and Beirut.

Mazen Maarouf was interviewed by Steen Nørskov in August 2019 in connection with the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark.

Camera: Klaus Elmer

Edited by Klaus Elmer

Produced by Marc-Christoph Wagner

Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

Supported by Nordea-fonden




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