Iraqi Novelist Hadiya Hussein on Personal and Public Memory

Qantara has this week a short interview I conducted with Iraqi novelist Hadiya Hussein whose novel, Beyond Love, was released last year in beautiful translation by Ikram Masmoudi. (Review.)

Was there a moment when you began to write, in reaction to something?

50e6e6b25dd6b_Hadiyya_Hussei_noflashHadiya Hussein: There was no particular thing or event that pushed me towards writing. However, my childhood environment gradually prepared me for it. I was raised in a family that loved singing and poetry. My father was colloquial poet, and most of my relatives were either poets or memorized poetry. We had a gramophone and many records from the most well-known Iraqi and Arab singers. Our house was located on Tigris River, one of the biggest rivers in Iraq, where my imagination was fed by the river’s legends and its impact on the lives of the Iraqi people. My father was the one who encouraged me to read and brought me many books.

At the very beginning of my literary path, I thought I might become a major poet, especially after I won first prize among the schools in Baghdad. But later, my readings interests widened and varied, and the novel and story became my top priorities.

What is your relationship with Iraqi writers and readers?

Hussein: Since I left Iraq thirteen years ago, I have been in underground contact with some writer friends inside Iraq, as my name was blacklisted by the former regime. After the collapse in 2003, it became easier to communicate with other writers.

Does being away from the country where your work is read give you a sort of freedom? Do you imagine that you would write differently if you were in Iraq, or in Jordan, where you spent many years in exile?

Hussein: Although I left Iraq in 1999, I wasn’t separated from it in my writing, particularly as I was writing my novels. Therefore, the places and characters in my seven novels were Iraqi. I write against the wars that distorted the beautiful features of my country.

Book cover 'Beyond Love' by Hadiya Hussein (copyright: Syracuse University Press)“A a portrait of a nation”, according to Arab literature expert Roger Allen: Hadiya Hussein’s “Beyond Love”Indeed, I feel closer to my country when I’m away. It is like a work of art: It gets clearer the more we step away from it. Leaving Iraq granted me the freedom to express all I wanted to say while I was living inside, under constant suppression. As for Jordan, I never felt myself a stranger there. Jordan opened its heart to me and helped me overcome the pain and keep the distance to my country short. There, I was among people who shared the same language, the same history, and the same spirit. That’s where I wrote most of my novels and collections of short stories and my cultural articles.

Being away from Iraq has its painful side and it also negatively impacted my writings. I didn’t experience the last war and its consequences, the unrestrained murders. So this part is absent, or is not fundamental, in my writings. On the other side, being away has a positive impact, as I am free: I wrote about the past wars, which I experienced, the severe injustice and militarization of life, and the disappearance of youth into the regime’s hidden prisons. These were crimes that went unrecognized by the world, or were recognized but not discussed. I wrote without fear of the regime’s infamous repression, although it had agents in all neighboring countries.

How do you conceive of censorship, self-censorship? Keep reading on Qantara.

Thanks to Shakir Mustafa for helping arrange the interview and fixing up messiness in my translation. However, any errors should either be blamed on me or if you really like me you could blame Qantara.