Iraqi Kurdish novelist, artist, and essayist Haifa Zangana talks, this Women in Translation Month, about how translation connects the past and present, her relationship to London, and which books by women writers she recommends for translation:

By Tugrul Mende  

Last month, Wen-Chin Ouyang talked with ArabLit about her relationship to Haifa Zangana’s Packaged Lives, which she translated to English. We now catch up with Zangana, who has written, over the last several decades, in a wide range of topics and styles, from fiction to journalism. She has also worked with former Palestinian and Tunisian women who were political prisoners, helping them to write their own experiences, and she recently edited She edited A Party for Tha’ira: Palestinian Women Writing Life, a collection of nonfictional creative writings by former Palestinian women prisoners, and is at work with former Tunisian detainees on a similar volume.

Her collection Packaged LivesTen Stories and a Novella is set to appear next month from Syracuse University Press.

How does it feel to have Packaged Lives published in English, and to revisit these stories?


Haifa Zangana. Palfest 2017 evening event in Ramallah. Credit: Rob Stothard.

Haifa Zangana: You are right in using “revisit.” It does actually summarize my feelings to read them again, especially in Arabic during the process of translation. It’s very much like revisiting places that you liked at a certain time and think they are worth going back to at a different time, even if it’s only sometimes, just to make sure that you were right in choosing them in the first place and to see how different they are after so many years and so many other journeys.

How did your life in London influence your writing style and how much did your living in London change the way you write or think in Arabic?

HZ: London has always been the place away from Home. This feeling of standing at the threshold has been reflected in or shadowed all my writing, no matter what genre it is. I am not talking about a paralyzing feeling that has left me unable to work or enjoy life in London, but about that very deep special feeling of belonging that does not fade with time because it’s ingrained in your existence. And I still carry it within myself. I would say living in London has affected my political writing in Arabic more than my literary writing, for a simple reason: freedom, which is a hard currency in the Middle East.

Wen-Chin Ouyang said in her discussion around this book: “Each story is about the cost of living as you are expected to do. We seem able to choose how we want to live, but in reality we all live in ready-made boxes (of expectation) and it is very difficult to come out of them.“  How do you see the meaning of Packaged Lives, and in what way are each of the stories connected?

HZ: Wen-Chin has eloquently expressed what I wanted to convey in the stories and the novella. Regarding what connects the stories or the characters, I think it is their entrapment in a pre-manufactured or pre-determined series of situations while they are led to believe they have free choice.

How much did you have a back-and-forth with Wen-Chin Ouyang during the process of translating the collection?

HZ: I can’t say exactly how much. We are friends and meet from time to time. Discussing the translation was part of other discussions. Probably because Wen-Chin’s translation was great from the start, and all we needed was to clarify a few very local Iraqi expressions and names of places.

If you were asked to compare short stories and novels – which format do you prefer?

HZ: Short stories. Why? It’s probably related to my scientific background. Short stories are precise and condensed in time and place, which liberates the writer of the constrains attached to novel writing. In a short story, you can capture a glimpse into life without its mundane details, thus leaving more space for the reader’s imagination to act rather than react. When writing a short story, because it is short, I spend more time crafting and enjoying the language. Sometimes, It feels like I am about to grasp a poem rather than a short story… or could it be both?

What challenges do you face in writing short stories, as different from long novels?

HZ: For the short stories, what binds them is the uncertainty and their struggle to understand their past and present. They seem as if they have been stopped at a checkpoint and asked to empty their baggage and their pockets in order to be allowed passage. 

What is an Arabic book by a woman writer you often recommend to others? A book you think deserves more attention and readers? Why?

HZ: None of Them are Left by May Muzaffar. May is a poet, short-story writer, critic, editor, and translator. Her book (in Arabic) portrays, in a poetic style, which defies categorization, the lives of ordinary Baghdadis who are no more, either because they were forced to leave the country or they died.  

While working on Packaged Lives, what was the most important question or motif you wanted to express within the stories?

HZ: At the time of writing the novella, I was preoccupied with a question: Is there is free will? Naturally, this question led to others: And how does it fit in a socially controlled life? How can individuals who arrived to London, not by choice, escape the new constraints? 

Since you are living in London, how difficult is it for you to find and work with Arabic publishers and to continue to publish your work in Arabic?

HZ: When it comes to publishing, I have been lucky. I have two publishers, one in London and the other in Beirut, and I don’t have a problem with them.  

When you publish a new work of fiction – how does it find its place in the current Iraqi literary landscape? How much did the literary landscape change between the time you started writing and now?

HZ: I haven’t written any fiction since the occupation of Iraq in 2003. In fact, the Packaged Lives novella was my last. So, I really don’t know. Having said that, I know that there is an increasing demand for my novels, especially by Master and PhD students in various Iraqi universities.

The change in the literary landscape is mostly related to topics. There are two predominant topics. First, by writers who spent decades in exile and their writing on return became a mixture of revisiting an old place and the shock of not recognizing it, neither it nor in some cases its people. Second, writers who convey the destruction of the occupation and the horror of the violence that followed, mostly written in magical realist style — as if this is the only way one can face the absurdity of reality.  

What compelled you to start writing in the beginning and what made you want to write the stories that are now in Packaged Lives?

HZ: I really don’t know why. No specific reason. What I know for sure is, if I don’t write (no matter what), life would be acceptable but devoid of that fantastic exhilaration I feel whenever I write.  

Are there any other contemporary novelist that you are reading and should be translated in English?

HZ: Dreams of Freedom (2004), a memoir by Aisha Aouda. Aisha is a Palestinian who was imprisoned and tortured in Israeli occupation prisons for 10 years. In Dreams of Freedom we witness her arrest, interrogation and torture and share her reflection on struggle, justice, country and comrades. A must-read book.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.

3 thoughts on “Haifa Zangana on Translation as Revisiting the Past

  1. Many thanks for this extended interview. Haifa Zankana’s life and writings consolidate perceptions of resilience and courage as fundamentals of the good life. Imprisoned and harassed for years, Zangana won in the end and did her part to shore up faith in humanity and in being connected to people and causes.

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