In 2017 he was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature for L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji (Exodus of the Storks, Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2013), a novel which had previously won the Maltese National Book Prize in 2014. In this novel, Nabhan explores issues of identity, exile and displacement brought about by an existentialism that is rooted in the religious and political turmoil of his homeland. The situation of Nabil, the main character, echoes Nabhan’s own as he was born in Jordan but eventually found his way to Malta. However, despite the geographic distance, Nabil is still very much bound in spirit to his former life – in fact, most of the novel is set in Jordan, where Nabil’s family resides.
The religious-political conflict between (and also within) different cultures is internalised by Nabhan’s characters and manifested as an existential impasse that leaves them neither here nor there. They inhabit a state of repeated and distressed liminality, torn (in-)between diametrically opposed modes of existence that prevent them from having a secure sense of self. The narrator in the title story of his short story collection, Bejn Bejnejn (Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2019) dwells in such a space. His constant dismissal of everything and everyone creates a vortex of negativity which displaces and engulfs him.
Whether this negativity is self-imposed or not is another motif close to Nabhan’s heart. It’s a catch-22, as personal strife becomes identified with religious and political turmoil, one feeding off of the other. Nabhan’s characters are alien to both their native and adopted lands, restless souls trapped in a tormented and static mode of being. Their agency is restricted because their freedom of movement comes at the expense of their sense of identity, leaving them exposed to outside forces which constantly threaten to obliterate them, if not physically, then spiritually or psychologically.
A striking image in L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji illustrates this. Nabil’s mother stops talking when he and his twin sister Naseh turn one. She has apparently lost her will to live. Her condition is somehow connected to the political upheaval occurring at the time. A year later, the mother dies. By that time, Nabil was suckling at a dry breast whereas his sister, we are led to believe, was slowly injecting their mother with poison. Nabhan implies that love, even in its purest form, can become corrupt and toxic. The same goes for the love for one’s homeland and one’s roots: these can easily morph into shackles which hinder one’s development and wellbeing.
This in-betweenness is a very important motif in Nabhan’s writings, especially in relation to one’s homeland. It’s a love-hate relationship that has to be constantly negotiated. One simultaneously belongs and doesn’t.
Biography written by Noel Tanti
Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi
With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt
Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul