Syrian Novelist Maha Hassan on Trying ‘To Pay Respect to the Victims of War’

Award-winning Syrian-Kurdish novelist Maha Hassan was at this year’s Emirates LitFest, where she spoke with ArabLit’s Hend Saeed:

By Hend Saeed

Courtesy: Emirates LitFest

Maha Hassan (b. 1966) is a Syrian-Kurdish novelist and short-story writer. After earning her B.A. in law from the University of Aleppo, she went on to publish many novels, beginning with: The Infinite: Biography of the Other (1995), The Picture on the Cover: The Walls of Disappointment are Higher (2002), and Hymns of Nothingness (2009). In 2011, her Umbilical Cord as longlisted for the IPAF, as was her 2015 novel, Female Voices, while her Aleppo Metro was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, and excerpts have been published in English translation on ArabLit and in Banipal.

Hassan was also awarded the Hellman/Hammett Award in 2005, given in recognition of a writer’s “courage in the face of political persecution.” She currently lives in Paris and writes in both Arabic and French. Her latest novel, Good Morning, War was published at the end of 2017 by Al-Mutawassit Publishing in Italy.

This year, Maha Hassan participated in two sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature: “In Conversation: Good Morning, War” and “Writing Exile,” with Iraqi novelist Mushin Al Ramli. Afterwards, she spoke with ArabLit’s Hend Saeed.

Hend Saeed: You once mentioned that, if it hadn’t been for the war, you wouldn’t have written your novels. Is that true? Does writing help to overcome the ugliness of the war and reclaim the humanity destroyed by war?

Maha Hassan: I wrote that in my novel Good Morning, War, but it isn’t the case because I started writing before the war. But writing now, while the war is still going on, is totally different from writing under normal circumstances.

War forces us to be in a state of alert all the time, and writing in the time of war has a number of motives, which are complicated and tangled together, such as when the author — in my situation — is trying to pay respect to the victims of war and give meaning to their death, so it isn’t of no value.

In Good Morning, War, my mother, who didn’t believe in her death, is the main narrator, speaking from the grave. The shock of my mother’s death, in which I also didn’t believe, and the shock of the fall of my country and its continued destruction, drove me to write to hold on to our humanity, so that war victims don’t become numbers. I found myself, in a away, forced to tell their stories, as that way the stories stay alive and stay in memory, and no war can destroy stories and novels. That’s why they are written, in order to keep the history alive.

HS: This is your first time participating in the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature. What are your impressions on the festival and its readers?

MH: I was surprised how well-organized the festival was; I’ve participated in different events in both the Arab world and the Western world, but haven’t noticed such attention to details in any other events.

As for my meeting with the readers, it was an additional surprise for me. I am not used to book-signing sessions: first, because I live in Europe, and second, because I haven’t done them at the book fairs I attend.

I felt the festival gave me a special gift when they put me with the readers, especially with the women in the UAE in general and Dubai in particular, where most of the audience at the literary events are women. That made me happy and gave me hope, not because I’m a feminist, but because of my belief that women are the ones who build the community and mothers are the main pillar in building boys’ and girls’ personalities.

That’s why the women’s appearance in the festival was very clear and the clever and challenging questions I was asked during the sessions, and during the signing, gave me hope in what I’m doing and the importance of my role as a writer. Even when men came, holding my books at the signing, it was for their wives or mothers, as one man asked me to sign the book for his mother. This active role of the women is very important, and this is again additional credit to the festival.

HS: Sometimes we hear Arabic readers say “Arabic novels are sad and depressing, and that’s why more people don’t read.” What do you think about that?

MH: I think this is the case for some readers, but there are others who are keen to know what is happening in the Arab world through literature, and because literature is the true mirror of the nation’s history, and in contrast to this saying, my novels (Aleppo Metro and Good Morning, War) which are about the war and exile have been more popular than my earlier novels, in spite of the big dose of sadness in them.

Also, sometime the readers identify with the author, and I found a great number of readers loved my mother and sympathized with her story about the war.

I think the sadness and depression described in our novels are noble emotions and they provide knowledge, and knowledge provides pleasure. So we can say it is a sadness that can provide human pleasure at the end, through understanding of the nation and the innocents’ suffering in the shadow of a war machine that has made the world lose its humanity.

HS: What comes after Aleppo Metro and Good Morning, War?

MH: My new novel is coming soon, The Surprised Neighborhood. The novel is different, and it isn’t about war and war stories,  but it’s about stories from a common neighborhood. The characters are from different groups and have different struggles.

I used new a technique in writing it, and I’m usually obsessed with techniques. I think what make the plot different is not the subject, but how you present it, and in this comes the enjoyment, in spite of the pain, the beauty of storytelling and reading.

I hope this novel will achieve the enjoyment that I’ve pictured for the Arabic reader; first, because it isn’t about war, and it’s away from the depression of war and, second, because of the different technique I used, which I think will cultivate the love of reading in new readers, or I think and hope it might.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translator, life consultant, and book reviewer.

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