Huzama Habayeb on the Painful Process of Writing and the Joy of Reading

Over at The National, there is a profile of Palestinian novelist Huzama Habayeb by ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey. It opens:

Every December 11, on the anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth, a literary medal is given out in the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s name for the best novel written in Arabic. The book is then translated into English by the prize’s organiser, the American University of Cairo. There have been many emotional award nights and a number of heartfelt speeches given since the award was first presented in 1996. But this year’s, in downtown Cairo, may have been the most affecting yet.

The prize went to Palestinian novelist Huzama Habayeb for her 2016 novel Velvet. When she finished giving her address, the audience rose to their feet, some in tears. American University in Cairo Press’s Trevor Naylor called it “the most passionate acceptance speech ever”.

In her talk, Habayeb spoke about her father, who left his Palestinian village when he was 7 years old. “I choked in particular when I mentioned the full name of my father,” Habayeb admits. “I nearly sobbed. ‘What’s in a name?’ they would say. Well, everything. It is my history, my love, and my loss.”

By the time Habayeb was born, her father had moved to Kuwait, where she was born and raised. In 1990, during the Iraqi invasion, she had to leave. After that, Habayeb moved to Jordan, and later to Dubai, where she now lives. Habayeb didn’t publish her debut short-story collection, The Man Who Is Repeated (1992), until she was living in Jordan. But she began writing while still a student in Kuwait.

“I think it blossomed somewhat unconsciously,” Habayeb says. Writing was a way to get at her feelings of “deprivation, uneasiness, entrenched pain, the shakiness of the land beneath my feet, the vulnerability of the self, my self indeed. And the persistent sense of defeat – especially since I grew up fully aware that I belonged to a homeland that was bequeathed to me in the form of an open wound, bleeding everlastingly.”

Habayeb describes her childhood home in Kuwait as a place where she was constantly reminded of her Palestinian identity. This wasn’t through lectures on politics, she says, but through food, dress, songs, stories and hearing the Palestinian dialect. Her father was the first to encourage her to read, because as a young girl she stuttered. “He told me: ‘Read loud. Listen to the words.’”

At first, Habayeb was fascinated with the Hans Christian Andersen stories that were loosely translated into Arabic. “It didn’t take long before I discovered Agatha Christie and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, as well as much-needed ‘quick’ reads. Yet something was missing in these unrefined, kitsch-like works.”

What was missing was passion, Habayeb says. This was something she discovered in her teens, “in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and Tawfiq Al-Hakim, among others”. Later, in her early 20s, Habayeb came across many great Palestinian authors. She picks out Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Samira Azzam, Mahmoud Shukair, and “Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry provided me, as a passionate young reader, with an appreciation for a refined, personalised and sensitively coined lexicon”. Yet it was in Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Habayeb says, that she found what it meant to be a Palestinian. “I cried because of this discovery.”

There are a number of books to which Habayeb returns again and again. “The first and most important is One Thousand and One Nights.” She adds that she re-reads the stories “to remind myself of the true purpose of storytelling – what’s it about”.

And what is storytelling about? “Well, it’s about joy. Writing is a painful and emotionally draining process,” she says, but it is “meant in the end to produce the joy of reading”.

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