Anwar Hamed was born in the West Bank in 1957, which is where he began writing and publishing his stories, as a 15-year-old schoolboy. In 1980, he moved to Hungary, and there he found a different audience for his work. For a time, he shifted to writing in Hungarian, translating his own novels into Arabic:
His novels include The Bridge of Babylon, Stones of Pain, Scheherazade Tells Tales No More, and The Game of Love and Pride. He also has produced a poetry collection, Mind the Gap, a short-story collection, Oh, Those Days! and writes literary criticism.
He moved from Hungary to London in 2004 and currently works as a journalist at the BBC. He has also turned his hand to writing poetry in English. But it’s his Jaffa Prepares Morning Coffee, published by The Arabic Institute for Research and Publishing, that made this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) longlist. Hamed answered a few questions about his life, work, and ideas about literature.
ArabLit: You publish in Arabic, English, and Hungarian. When do you choose which language, for which creative expressions? For instance, is it correct that with شهرزاد تقطف الزعتر في عنبتا and “حجارة الألم” you originally wrote them in Hungarian and later translated them into Arabic? Does this bring a different flavor to your Arabic?
Anwar Hamed: I started writing as a school boy in Arabic. Back then I was living in the West Bank, so it was natural that my short stories and poems were written in Arabic. In 1980 I moved to Hungary, to pursue my studies. It was there and then that I realised that readers of different cultures need to be approached differently. My perception of the world was very much affected by my talks with Hungarian intellectuals, ordinary people, so when I wrote my first Hungarian novel (Stones of Pain), I approached the Palestinian reality in a way that would make sense to my Hungarian readers. Then, when I translated it to be published in Arabic, I actually “relocated it” so it would make sense to my Arab readers.
I started writing in English years after I moved to London, again, because I was tempted to address an English speaking audience in its language, and adapting to its way of perceiving things. I only wrote poems and articles in English, no novels yet.
AL: But throughout, your subject remains Palestine — not Hungary, and not England?
AH: I wouldn’t say that my subject is always Palestine, but even when it is Palestine it’s looked at from a different angle, a global one, if I may say so. I have novels that are set in Hungary and their subject is not Palestine. Of Cracked Bridges and Grounded Birds is about cross cultural relationships and The Game of Love and Pride, and other Idiocies is set in London and it’s about human communication (and lack of it).
AL: Your current book, يافا تعد قهوة الصباح, you wrote first in Arabic? Why?
AH: .يافا تعد قهوة الصباح was written in Arabic because it was set in a different era, its my first historical novel, I needed to assimilate with the atmosphere and the culture of the era I tackled in it, so it was natural that I used the language spoken there and then.
AL: You began writing in Hungarian when you went to university in Hungary, but you don’t choose to write novels in English now that you’re in London. Have you made a decision to choose Arabic, or is it a project-by-project, day-by-day decision?
AH: It’s a project by project decision as you will see from my previous answers, it’s not merely where I live and what language is spoken there. My next novel might be written in English, who knows ?
AL: A while back, you spoke at the Mosaic Rooms about the “challenges of writing to a foreign audience in its own language”; you also spoke with Wasafiri about how audience changes the way you construct your work. What audience, or audiences, were you writing toward as you wrote يافا تعد قهوة الصباح?
AH: All my novels are written to a global audience, regardless of their language and thinking, but I usually translate them into other languages myself, so I make certain changes to make certain things more easily perceivable to the audience in question.
AL: Bahaa Taher said, at one point, that you were following in the tradition of Emile Habibi. Do you see yourself writing in any particular tradition, in a conversation with any other particular authors?
AH: I admire Emil Habibi of course, but I wouldn’t say that I am following his writing tradition. I think his style is unique . Actually those who read my novels must have noticed that my writing style is different in each one, it changes with the nature, world of the novel. Baha Taher might have thought of my “sarcastic” style in some of the novels he read.
AL: Do you consider يافا تعد قهوة الصباح a historical novel? Did you do research to write it?
AH: Yes, I would say it is a historical novel, I did a lot of research before venturing to write it, spent three years interviewing Palestinians who lived in Jaffa and Beit Dajan (where the novel is set), and visited the city several times.
AL: Several recent Palestinian novels and memoirs return to the time before the Nakba — Sahar Khalifeh’s أصل وفصل, and Ibrahim Nasrallah’s big books, and Raja Shehadeh’s Travels With My Ottoman Uncle. Why did you want to visit with this time?
AH: What I wanted to do differently is portray the civil life in pre-1948 Palestine, away from the stereotypical picture that has been portrayed to the world through films and literature, to which Palestinian writers, artists also contributed, the picture in which Palestinians appeared fleeing their country as refugees, and portrayed either as victims or heroes.
The reader will notice that the novel ended years before the Nakba, and while the tension was there in a subtle way, I tried to focus on the lifestyle, the diversity of population in Jaffa (there are Muslim, Christian, and Jewish characters in the novel, living together and constituting a coherent social and economic fabric; this is the picture I got from my interviews with old people, and my child memories of my grandmother’s tales and anecdotes about my grandfather’s Jewish business partners and associates before the European Jewish emigration to Palestine intensified. I think, while other Palestinian writers had Jewish characters in their novels, many of them portrayed them from a distance. I also tried to make my characters’ inner world more sophisticated, less idealised than what’s been done so far, no black and white, no absolute values, no judgement. This is what I tried to do; I hope I succeeded. I also used a huge amount of folklore, folk songs, marriage customs, feasts…etc
AL: You have also written literary theory, correct? “An attempt towards the definition of the function of literature.” So…how does (your) literature function?
AH: That was my MA thesis, in which I tried to shed light on the difficulty of coming up with a unique definition of the function of literature. For me literature, and art in general, is a means of aesthetic communication in the first place. This is too general of course, but this is how so varied and diverse functions fit into it. When I write I feel I have something I want to share with my readers: that “something” could be a mere aesthetic experience, and it could be a very specific thought, and a lot of things in between.