The first feeling Mazen Maarouf felt when he learned he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize was panic.
“I was happy,” he says, recalling midnight on March 13th—a night when he got hardly any sleep. “But my happiness materialised in the form of panic, rather than jumping and screaming.”
Given the subject matter of the book, his response is perhaps understandable. Mazen’s debut collection of short stories, entitled ‘Jokes for the Gunmen,’ is written from the perspective of a child in a war zone. It was first published in 2015 in Arabic, with an English translation coming out in early 2019. And then suddenly, it was announced as one of 13 contenders for the Man Booker Prize: one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world.
The first person he told about the nomination was his mother. “My mom is a heroine in my mind,” says Mazen, who was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. “My mother, and other mothers in Lebanon, did everything possible to protect their children and families during the time of war,” he continues. “This left them with lots of scars in their minds and souls.”
In 2011, Mazen’s journalistic work led him to seek refuge in Iceland as an ICORN writer-in-residence. When he arrived in Reykjavík, the biggest culture shock for him was peace. “The peace was confusing,” Mazen explains. “In Lebanon, you walk in the streets and wonder whether the car you’re passing by has a bomb inside it.”
Living in Iceland, where one in 10 people are likely to publish a book, helped Mazen keep his ego in check. “When a 75-year-old plumber came to my place to fix my sink, I introduced myself as a writer,” he says. “The plumber gave me a copy of his book. This is what I like about Iceland. Nobody is a superstar, and everybody is a superstar.”
Lost in translation
Mazen learned to compose stanzas by reading the works of Persian poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyam. The very first poems he wrote were love poems. “I was a 15-year-old boy who wanted to impress a girl,” he recalls. He’d go to her place under the excuse of helping her with physics and pass the love poems.
Over time, Mazen built up his poetic style from classical to his own. But when a thief stole his backpack in Stockholm in 2013—complete with a notebook containing 27 finished poems—Mazen got poet’s block. Moving into writing prose was part of his recovery.
Determined not to repeat the writer’s worst nightmare, Mazen digitised his work, which is both comforting and concerning. “The computer doesn’t show you the history of the text,” Mazen says. “When you write it on paper, you can scratch and change the word—you can see how it evolved and developed.”
A translator himself, Mazen is deeply aware of words being lost in translation. “When I read a translated book, I’m only reading this book in a second language,” he says. “There’s a missing part that might tell me a lot about the story.”
In 2013, Mazen was granted Icelandic citizenship. “The world has suddenly opened to me because of this document [Icelandic passport],” he says. “I’m the same person who was banned from many countries five years ago and now I can go everywhere. This tells you a lot about the hypocrisy of the world we live in.”
Mazen had to adjust to the newfound luxury of speaking his mind freely. “I am protected by the system—I can say whatever I want,” he says. “But at the same time, there are people who suffer for doing that elsewhere.” He often refrains from tweeting about the problems of his Icelandic life—compared to the daily struggles of people in war-torn countries, such complaints feel miniscule.
But something Mazen does give voice to is Iceland’s flawed approach to handling refugees and asylum seekers. He took part in protests over the government’s use of force against refugees earlier in March. “If Iceland wants to promote itself as a country of freedom of speech, of a very high level of human rights, the politicians should be more consistent with that,” Mazen says. “Immigrants are not stupid—we have intelligence, we have history, and we are not passive.”
The years of living with and through war accumulated in different ways in Mazen’s mind and body. While ‘Jokes for the Gunmen’ isn’t autobiographical, some of the details and storylines are based on real events. When asked if—eight years later—he is finally used to the peace he found in Iceland, Mazen says: “No—thanks to the characters I write.”
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