Six Arab Novelists on Why They Write

During recent visits to Jordan and Syria, Boston librarian Diane D’Almeida (pictured) videotaped short interviews with a dozen different Arab authors. She also has since interviewed a dozen Boston-based authors, asking similar basic questions: Why do they write? For whom (if they imagine an audience)? How do they imagine “inspiration”? Do they offer advice to young and emerging authors?

D’Almeida hasn’t yet posted the second set of interviews, and adds that a third set of interviews is also forthcoming: “I have also interviewed translators who can give an idea as to what is involved in translating from the Middle East.”

All the interviews of Arab writers save one (Haddiya Hussein’s) were conducted in English, so I foresee an imbalance between the two sets of author interviews. Jordanian author Rana Azzoubi seems wholly comfortable in English — she writes in English — but for others it’s a foreign language. It would be interesting, perhaps, to see the Boston authors giving their interviews in a second or third language (and be translated back into English, why not).

I am going to guess that, all told, the authors will answer these questions along rather similar lines. It will be interesting to see how it all comes together. I’d also like to see a question such as “How do you see an author’s responsibility to society?” answered by authors from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Boston, inner-city Boston, and so on.

Without further nattering, the interviews:

Palestinian author Leila Atrash has published several novels (A Woman of Five Seasons is available in English, trans Nora Nweihid Halwani and Christopher Tingley). A TV producer and news editor, she writes a regular column for the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour. You can find excerpts from her work (in translation) on her website.

Atrash: “Never write with ideology, no. This is not the way to write literature. But when I do my articles or my television program, yes. I have that ideology. Because I know my audience. But when I write literature, no.”

Atrash: “Unfortunately, this generation, they are in a hurry. They don’t read… Knowledge is not only to come out of people. You have to absorb the thoughts of other people.”

Jordanian author Samiha Khreis has published several novels and short-story collections. An excerpt of her novel The Poppy was published in Banipal.

Khreis: “I read every day, I write every day. Always, I think about one reader. Maybe he is not a real one, but he is mixed of people. How they will think, how they will read. I have a reader in my mind, yeah.”

Khreis: “When I am young, I am happy with everything I write, and everything I want the people to read it. But now know how to create the novel…you need to delete many things.”

Jordanian author Basma El-Nsour is a Jordanian short story writer and lawyer. She is editor-in-chief of the Jordanian Tayki magazine that specialises in “women’s literature.”

In her formative period, El-Nsour read the “great Russians,” as well as Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris. But her icon was O. Henry. “So he is my role model, he is my hero. The way he writes just makes me want to fly.”

Jordanian Rana Azzoubi has published two books in English for young people: Through a Mud Wall (2006) and Million Star Hotel (2007).

Azzoubi: “With the second book, I struggled more with it, because I’d learned more, so I had to do it better, in a better way. So I actually threw half of it and then I started over again, until I got the story that I wanted.”

Azzoubi writes stories for children because she wants to reach young readers and “to have them relate to…my kids.”

Iraqi author Lutfiyya al-Dulaimi was born in Diyala, Iraq. She has published ten books of fiction, five plays and three books of essays. She also translates from English into Arabic.

Al-Dulaimi: “My stories are about the human being[s’] situation, always. And sometimes it’s about a woman.”

Al-Dulaimi: “I don’t like to give advices to anybody. But I can say that the writing is not the easy thing to do.”

You can read al-Dulaimi’s “Episode 28: Mannar in Baghdad 2007,” trans. John Peate on Banipal.

Iraqi author Haddiya Hussein was born in Baghdad. She is a novelist and short-story writer.

Hussein: “It would be a great feeling to feel that a change will happen through a book, but it doesn’t…nowadays.”

Diane D’Almeida is the recipient of two Fulbright grants to video and interview Middle Eastern women writers (Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian). She subsequently created a bibliography of many writers and posted videoed selected interviews online at: