Huddud’s House: ‘The Last Thing I Need Is for People To Read My Book Because It’s Forbidden’

Syrian author Fadi Azzam, born in Taara, near the city of Suweida, started writing Huddud’s House back in 2012, just one year after the start of the Syrian revolution:

It was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the second time for the author, after Sarmada was longlisted in 2012. Although neither book advanced to the shortlist, his first book Sarmada was translated by Adam Taleb and published back in 2011 by Swallow Editions, an imprint established by acclaimed Syrian author Rafik Schami.

Together with his wife Nasrin Trabulsi, who is a journalist, Azzam is now living in London. We sat down together for a Skype interview to talk about Huddud’s House and the fine line between reality and imagination.

TM: What was the spark for Huddud’s House

Fadi Azzam: The first spark was in Dubai. The actual scene doesn’t exist in the novel anymore. The novel was over 1000 pages long, so there were some cuts to be made, but when you cut it from the novel the main idea still exists. The parts that were removed will maybe come into another novel.

TM: If you are looking back since you started writing the book, how do you feel now about the book being published, and if there are any changes what would they be? 

Fadi Azzam: In Beit Huddud I worked hard on finding a balance between fact and imagination. In this book, I have two pages about detainees in the jails of the regime. Because I didn’t have this experience before, I did a lot of research. I had to place my character Doctor Annis in this atmosphere. I read hundreds of pages, and I did a lot of interviews, some with my friends, some with people I didn’t know. If I would change the book I would add an introduction at the beginning of the book as a kind of proof or certification that it’s coming from real people.

TM: Was the writing process different from your first novel Sarmada? Did you change the process with Huddud’s House?

FA: It is completely different. In the first novel, you put in everything you have, because it is your first book. You are more independent and you don’t have the pressure of expectations. With Beit Huddud, people, especially revolutionaries, had high expectations. Everyone treats me now as a revolutionary. I am from a small minority, but I don’t need to be a writer for the Druze, I am writing for humans. A lot of writers said, You are good because it is something special. Let’s take, for example, writing about Damascus, which was a very big challenge. It is a very mysterious city, and not easy to write about and, to change all the localities from a small provincial to a big city. I never write about a city if I haven’t visited it, because you will see my character in London moving in the same area where I myself am living. My friend who is living here said you are touching it but you are not going very deep. In Dubai, my character was more comfortable in moving around because I have been living there longer and I know the city and have the experience and knowledge about living there.

I have two characters, one lives in London, one in Dubai. Writing about London is difficult as well for several reasons because I don’t know the place like I know Dubai for example.

TM: In what terms do you think the IPAF award is important for young authors? Does it help you to get more recognition, and what are the positive and negative aspects for having such an award for you as an author?

FZ: It is like everything else, it has positive and negative aspects. The good thing is, they push the people to focus on this kind of art, and because of the Booker price, we have new novelists. For Syria, I wrote in my Facebook to all the Syrians I know: “Start and write your own novel, don’t worry about the quality.“ I urge everyone to write. With this free source, the people share this creativity and the media, and not only big writers have the chance to write. We have a voice, and we write our stories. Good things will arrive and succeed. Writing will help the Syrian people – it’s the only way. Or we go to the extreme. We have eight new writers I haven’t heard about on the long list. This is very good. When I saw the list, I only knew one. They are amazing, they have something to say in a very good way. This is a good thing originating from the prize. But, when you are writing  only for the prize, it’s a very bad thing. This is what I feel a lot of people do. This prize is coming from the Emirates. This is good, but when I write about Dubai, maybe I think whether I may criticize the regime or not, or if I’ll receive the prize if I criticize. There is this question. We need to ask about who created this prize, we need to be clear about it.

Last week, the novel Beit Huddud was banned in Jordan. My publisher got a letter that it is forbidden, and it is now official. My publisher told me that we don’t need to go to the media before the shortlist, after that maybe we go. It is becoming a struggle now and I am stuck on how to react to this issue. If I talk about it, it may give the impression that I want to make a noise, but even if they forbid my book, I will write to anyone in Jordan who wants to read it, and I will send it for free. The last thing I need is that people read me because my book is forbidden. I don’t need it. I need people to read it because they want to read it. The reason why the book is forbidden in Jordan is probably because of one scene which appears late in the book and is not the main aspect of the story. It is because of a sex scene between a man and woman, and it is described as an image like a relationship between God and the human. This issue is different than in Sarmada. In Sarmada it was more explicit and stronger, but this is politics and not because of one love scene.

TM: How do you think that form and content are working together in Huddud’s House different from Sarmada? Did a change in the subject matter demand a change in the content?

FA: In Sarmada, the research part was different from in Huddud’s House. I read more than two hundred books for Sarmada, because it was something unique. I had a strong story, but at the same time I had to place it in a historical and geographical setting. How I work is I do a lot of research. In Beit Huddud, I conducted more interviews, and it was grounded more in reality. The land is moving when you are writing. For example, I write about ISIS, and how I could put ISIS in the book was a challenge, because when I finished Beit Huddud, ISIS was still in Raqqa. But one day, they will be finished, and this is discussed in the book, too. The land is moving in Beit Huddud, while it was stable in Sarmada. Writing is very hard when the land is still moving. In moments of extreme tension, writing is very difficult. Yes you can write articles, but for novels it needs time. My father, my family are still in Syria – and I am waiting for answers every day. It is very hard to write about things when everything is on the move.

On my mind are two things, entertainment and knowledge. In my opinion, you have to enjoy or to present something new. This is what I think about all the time. It is the same with articles. If you don’t enjoy my readings or do not get information, it means I am a bad writer. Sarmada has a lot of language, images, very particular words. When my characters are feeling love, they go back to the human language, and when they face ugly things the language has to be very clear. I don’t use one voice while writing, the voice is changing. Sometimes I am the writer’s voice, sometimes I am the characters’ voices.

TM: Your first book was translated by Adam Talib. How closely did you work with the translator? How much freedom does he have in translating the text?

FA: Before Adam, the publishing house talked about another very good translator. He was originally British, but he had stayed in Syria for a long time. He knew the accent and the culture very well. We worked together but suddenly he disappeared – after one week my publisher called – Fadi, I have bad news. The translator wanted to change his life, and he wanted to go to the Vatican. I told him, “Oh my god, did I shock him?“ After that, Adam Talib came, he was living in Egypt. For me, it was a very good experience. It was interesting to see how a stranger reads my novel. If he can feel it, it means he can translate it.

Adam is really amazing, and a hard worker. My technique was to draw a picture of everything he didn’t know and asked about. Translating this book was very difficult. Even some Syrians had difficulties in understanding some passages and parts of the book. It was a great challenge to understand it, but Adam translated the soul, he caught a lot of different things.

There exists an English and American version. My friends said that the translation by Adam was very good. Especially in the third part, there are a lot of things, you have to know, a lot about history for example. He asked me, can we change it, and I said no, because it belonged to the story. It is a novel. If you translate it, you translate it like this. If you can’t find the word, you have to translate the feeling. It was a very interesting time. We worked for two or three months together. When there are unclear parts, he tries to understand in this way to get more independent. We discussed everything when he had problems with one scene or one conversation. We worked very closely together. I asked him to be very careful when he translated and he was, and he felt it also. I am happy to work with him again in the future.

The translation to German was made by a Turkish guy, Hakan Özgan, he lived in Syria, and he speaks Arabic very well. He was born in Germany, and he writes very well in English. When he started to work with it, he used Adam Talib’s translation, and his supervisor was Rafik Schami. Rafik Schami is a very special person for me. I never would go to this level without Rafik Schami – he gave me the opportunity, and he is kind of my godfather. He is looking after me – he read one article about Damascus from me, and told me to start writing.

In Italy, I think the translation was very bad. The translator did it according to her mind and she never spoke with me. My friends who read it in Italian said it was very terrible. There will be a Turkish translation. Without Rafik and his trust, this would never happen. He gives a gift to another generation and gives the opportunity to writers who he chooses very carefully. This gave me a lesson, and I will give this to a new generation. Someone is giving me a hand – and I give my hand to others.

TM: You live now in London. How much did your move affect your style of writing and how closely are you connected with the literary scene in London?

FA: It is very hard to become part of the scene in London. I tried it a little bit, but it is not my usual thing. There is always this part where I am treated like a refugee, and they will put me into this category, “Wow, you are a Syrian writer,” etc. But for me it is not the issue. In Germany, my friends are writing books and find support. In London, I have to work, and work hard to stand out. I don’t have the luxury that I am a writer. I have two separate lines in my life. When I go to work, I never mix it with my writing. I don’t speak about it at work. I start working at four in the morning, I try every day to write before I go to work. This balance, I have to do it anywhere, and I don’t want to lose it. In London, I didn’t change the habit. To be honest, I don’t love or hate London, I respect this place, but  my place will always be in Syria. This is it. But my wife loves London. It is the first time that she likes a city, and I love this about London. I don’t need to speak about art, I need to practice art. This is my mission, and this is what I do.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is from time to time writing for online magazines such as Mada Masr and Qantara.