Friday Finds: A Talk with Haidar Haidar

Haidar Haidar (b. 1936) is a Syrian novelist who is perhaps best known for the waves of controversy set off by his work, including a wave of protests in Cairo in 2000 about a reprint of his 1983 novel A Banquet for Seaweed.

But Haidar’s work — whose The Desolate Time was chosen by the Arab Writers Union as one of the best 105 books of the 20th century — is about a good deal more than the uproars that have followed in his wake.

But his oppositional stance is certainly central to his oeuvre. As Hisham Bustani writes in the introduction to his interview with Haidar Haidar in The Common: “Despite changing times, Haidar has not been defeated by censorship—either imposed by others or himself. He has kept a fierce, critical distance from all sides: the dictatorship of the ruling regime in his country of Syria; the dictatorship of public taste and ‘conventions’; the oppression of dogmatic ideology and the ruling party; the tyranny of power derived from religion.”

Haidar was born in a village on the Syrian coast, taught in Algeria, wrote in Beirut, worked as a journalist in Cyprus, and then returned to his hometown in 1985, where he has remained since. He has published more than a dozen books: fiction, short fiction, essay, and biography. Although none of his book-length works have yet been published in English translation, you can read an excerpt of A Banquet for Seaweedtr. Allen Hibbard and Osama Esber, and Haidar’s short story “The Silence of Fire” in Issue 17 of The Common.

Among other things, Haidar says in the interview (which has been translated by Raed Rafei) that he’s not sad he hasn’t received literary prizes:

Awards do not make a literary writer or a star. In my case, I lost any chance of winning awards because of the unjust campaign launched by Islamists against A Feast for The Seaweeds in 2000 after it was printed in Egypt, then burned by fanatics who led demonstrations against the novel and accused me of heresy. This might be a rare incidence of an Arab novel capable of stirring street manifestations even if only for its confiscation. I am not sorry for not having won prizes (I did not apply to them anyhow), and those writers running after awards disgust me. They are nothing more than base beggars seated around a feast. At the end, what is essential is to write a good literary work, and to hell with prizes.

You can read the whole interview at The Common.