Huzama Habayeb: Writing Place When Displaced

Huzama Habayeb’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning novel Velvet is coming this fall in Kay Heikkinen’s translation:

By Hend Saeed

During the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I was able to talk briefly with Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning novelist and poet Huzama Habayeb. The acclaimed Palestinian author spoke to both English- and Arabic-language audiences and found both engaged with her work.

Place seems very important to your work.

Huzama Habayeb: Place is important to me, and it takes up a large space in my novels.

As much as I feel it is temporary, and my identity is not related to place, I am still attached to it in a strange way. The feeling of being in a temporary place, which I might lose, makes me work harder to control and conquer it. So I gather its items, I corral them, and I use the place to help me express myself in one way or another.

My Palestinian characters have no place, so they express themselves in places that don’t look like them, trying to give a Palestinian touch to the places, so that they can adapt to them.

For instance, my novel Velvet. Velvet is a rich fabric, the densest kind of silk, and it is related to certain class. But the main character Eve, who learned tailoring from Jameela, lives in an environment that is poor, and she has to contend with the fact of psychological, emotional and physical violations, as well as different kind of fabrics.

Velvet brings everything she wished for and desired but didn’t have, so she falls in love with the fabric and finds in it a path to freedom, a way to satisfy her desires, a kind of compensation for the deprivations she’s had all her life, so that even when she falls in love and decides to start a new life with a new man, it’s important for her to start it in a velvet dress. She buys velvet and wants to tailor it and imagine how she’ll start the relationship in the velvet dress.

The velvet in the novel is like a contradiction, something that’s against the bitter reality, the poor reality and its emotional drought, against the backdrop of which we find the richness of the velvet.

How was your experience working with the translator of Velvet? Do you think the translation’s managed to transfer the spirit of the novel, or that something was lost in translation ?

The translation of Velvet took a few months, and the translator Kay Heikkinen did a great job. I found her work very professional. She asked me some questions and consulted me about some terminology, with regard to Palestinian culture and heritage, and especially about some dialect used in Palestinian homes, and I gave her alternatives and choices that she could use.

I think I’m lucky to have her as my translator and she’s lucky to have me too, as being bilingual I was able to review the book and give her some tips — not advice — that helped her, and she was grateful for that.

The translator managed to transfer the language, which is very important and sensitive, mixing it with the mood and emotions, and she also managed to transfer the environment and the music of the Palestinian heritage for the western reader.

I think the language is a continuation of what I have written, although in a different guise. The biggest challenge was the translation of the language, and the language’s mood, and I think she managed to do that.

This is your first time participating in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. How did you find the audience?  

HH: The are different kinds of audience at festivals. Today was my first session at the festival, and I think we are mistaken or it’s a myth when we say there are no Arab readers, or that they don’t care about Arabic writing and Arab writers. Today there was a good number in the audience in both Arabic and English sessions.

More Huzama Habayeb: 

Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to Huzama Habayeb for ‘A New Kind of Palestinian Novel’

4 in Translation By Naguib Mahfouz Medal Winner Huzama Habayeb

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

A Story by Huzama Habayeb: ‘A (Somewhat) Realistic Dream’

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and is also a translator, book reviewer, and an editor for ArabLit and ArabKidLitNow!