As part of the University for Seniors, a community outreach program at the American University of Beirut, Mishka Mojabber Mourani was asked me to organize a series of literary evenings to be held at AUB, with an emphasis on Arabic literature in English.  They have had two open mike events, and a “meet the author” evening, featuring Nazik Saba Yared, who has had two novels translated to English:

By Mishka Mojabber Mourani

Yared standing with Mourani.
Yared standing with Mourani.

Nazik Yared is an Arab writer, critic and researcher.  She has written a variety of books including young adult literature, novels, and an autobiography.

Both of Yared’s novels that have been translated into English tackle the themes of identity and belonging. Improvisations on a Missing String is about a young Palestinian-Lebanese woman who leaves Jerusalem for Cairo to pursue her studies in Arabic literature, and is caught in the events of 1948, never to return to her hometown.  Yared said she wanted to highlight the issue of Christian Arabs, who are every bit as defined by their Arab heritage as Muslims. The novel explores relationships and their complications when couples come from different religions.

Commenting on a passage she read from Cancelled Memories, which is set in Lebanon during the war years of the 80’s, Yared said that her novels explore a further dimension, that of the Arab woman and intellectual, and the challenges she faces in a traditional patriarchal society. A long discussion ensued on gender issues and the legal rights of women in the Arab World, made all the more interesting since some of these issues are still being debated today, many decades later.

Nazik Saba Yared: “In all my novels, I address problems that women face: domestic violence, basic human rights, custody rights, conflicts that women contend with because they have to give up their jobs to follow their husbands…”

Are Her Novels Autobiographical?

Yared addressed the difficulties of writing about real incidents and real people in a fictional manner, saying that a writer gives herself the license to change events in a novel. She recounted an anecdote involving a sibling rivalry in a fictional passage in one of her novels, and the discussion that ensued with her real sister when she tried to convince her that the motivations of the character in the book had nothing to do with hers in the real incident.

Asked if she were ever accused of invasion of privacy when she wrote her autobiography, Yared was uncompromising: “I said things clearly and honestly, and people were surprised.”

Choosing Titles

“I chose the title of my Improvisations because I felt I was the missing string. I identify with something that others don’t identify with. I love music, so I improvised on it! But the title of my book is “taqaseem,” which is more variations than improvisations.

Should the Translator’s Voice Intrude?

Yared agreed that it is a complicated issue, but that the author’s voice should come through, as well as the integrity of the original language.

Improvisations on a Missing String

In Improvisations on a Missing String, there is an  interesting interplay between the first and the third persons.  The main character, Saada, lives very much in the present as she lies in a hospital, recovering from surgery.  These chapters alternate with chapters by an omniscient narrator who describes Saada’s past.  I asked Yared: Why did you choose this format?

“I didn’t start with a decision to use this particular form: the form actually lent itself to the story I wanted to tell.”

Yared’s writing is understated, almost stark, there is very little description of setting.

“You are right, I like the characters to speak for themselves, The situation creates the emotion and the atmosphere.”

WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?

“I started late, actually. I was a wife, mother of three children, a teacher…I was commissioned to write young adult stories and I enjoyed it. I have always loved reading and telling stories.  In the days of King Farouk’s Egypt, I used to go to the opera. I would come back and tell my friends the story of the opera! So, yes, I started writing late, but then Kazantzakis was 56 when he wrote his first novel!”

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE you TO WRITE A NOVEL?

“About two years.  But I do so many other things as well: research, running a household…”

Are you working on another novel?

“I am actually!”

Writing Novels About Teachers

“Yes, I think it is a wonderful profession.  People think that Arabic is a difficult language to teach. I say it is not difficult if you love it.  What is important is for a teacher to convey her love for the language and its literature to her students. I have been both a university professor and a high school teacher, and despite the prestige and status of the former, I loved teaching high school best.  I believe literature is the best way to teach a language and its beauty.”

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Mishka Mojabber Mourani is the author of  Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir and Alone, Together ( poems in two languages co-authored with Aida Haddad)

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