A Conversation with Hadiya Hussein and Barbara Romaine about ‘Waiting for the Past’

By M Lynx Qualey

Hadiya Hussein’s Waiting for the Past was one of our #WiTMonth “Translate This” titles in 2020, and appeared this October, in Barbara Romaine’s translation, from Syracuse University Press. Translator Barbara Romaine describes the premise of the book:

Narjis, the novel’s protagonist, under surveillance by the authorities, has sneaked out of Baghdad against orders. She is on a mission to find the man she loves, who disappeared many months ago, but who she believes is still alive. On a tip, she has been taken to a Kurdish district in the north of Iraq, and is being sheltered by a Kurdish family, resisters who make a practice of helping people who seek their vanished loved ones. In this scene, Narjis is suddenly and urgently ushered by her hostess, Mizgin, through a door hidden behind a picture of a forest. The door leads from the guest quarters where Narjis has been staying into a secret part of the house, but there has been no time for Mizgin to explain to her why this is necessary, or what emergency may have occurred.

The novel takes us through another secret doorway, past the surface of daily life in ’90s and early ’00s Iraq, and into the lives of the families of the disappeared. As part of a special mini-section on Waiting for the Past, Barbara Romaine and Hadiya Hussein shared their thoughts on the process of creating — and then translating — the book. Shakir Mustafa generously translated Hadiya Hussein’s answers.

Hadiya, I love the epigraph about the axe, the tree, and the wooden handle; I had not heard it before. Did you have the epigraph in mind first, or did you look for an epigraph later? What do you think the function of the epigraph is in a novel? How does it change how the reader then approaches the start of the book? 

Hadiya Hussein: The quotations or epigrams I use in my fiction usually come at a later stage. A saying or a line of poetry just emerges after the work of fiction is written, and I see that it fits that work. Quoted material might act as keys to unlock the works for readers.

Barbara, what was your first impression of the book, and what made you want to translate it? How did it change in your mind, if at all, as you spent time rebuilding its sentences and imagery in English? 

Barbara Romaine: Most of the narrative throughout this novel—at least as I experienced it—fills the reader with a persistent sense of foreboding, which I think is intended, and might be cited as a testament to the power of Hadiya’s work, her language. I don’t believe there is truly any way that anyone who has not lived such horrors as those visited on the people of Iraq—including, of course, the Kurds, and the unspeakable tragedy of the chemical attacks—can ever fully comprehend what it is to endure the savagery of ruthless oppression and/or ambition, not least of all the cynical ambition of Western powers. The Palestinians have endured this kind of thing for more than half a century now, of course, and Ukrainians are now experiencing it first-hand. For the rest of us, literature must serve, and to that end, Waiting for the Past delivers, starting on the first page. The narrative has its uplifting moments, but tragedy runs all through it. Any text to be translated must of course be handled with respect, but I think one that so starkly addresses the kind of violence that has been done to Iraq requires a particular kind of delicacy. For this reason, among others, I was extraordinarily grateful to have the input of an Iraqi native speaker—you know to whom I’m referring, of course: our friend Shakir Mustafa. To the extent that my ideas about how to handle the text changed as I moved through the process, they changed to no small extent as a response to his insights.

Hadiya–one of the most compelling aspects of the book is Narjis’s character. She is uncertain and fearful and sometimes lets herself be pushed around — but also, she does this incredibly brave thing, of defying social expectations, political imprisonment, and torture as she searches out her childhood love. When you create a character, do you have any real people in mind, or how did you go about “making” Narjis?

HH: Narjis came out of ideas and tales I knew first hand or heard of, and if her character is not based on one specific human being, it certainly resembles many in our war-plagued land. Wars shrouded every corner of our country with some painful tale, and I built Narjis’ character out of what happened to many. A depressing composition of the women of a depressing reality.

Barbara, can you talk a little about how you experienced the book — tonally, its pacing, its structure — when reading it in Arabic? That is, how would you describe it, and which aspects were you trying to re-create in English? Are there particular books it reminded you of, or you felt were its relatives? Were there any particular models you thought of when crafting the English?

BR: I think perhaps I have substantially addressed this question with my previous response. I might add that what I hoped to convey, in English, was, for one thing, the unremitting deadly tension experienced by those who almost never know whom to trust, and are put in the position of doubting even those they hold dear; for another, the humanity of the protagonists, and their individuality. Mizgin, for example, is perhaps my favorite character in the novel, because of her groundedness, her kindness, her generosity . . . and of course those proverbs!

Hadiya–what made you decide to frame Narjis’s story around these two invasions? 

HH: In my works, characters represent actual and current realities. It was war and its aftermath that initiated me into writing fiction. Two Gulf wars and a long embargo that forced me to leave Iraq for twenty years, and when I came back I saw that things changed. Like Narjis I sought the places I knew only to find a few ruins. War and carnage were with me even after I left Iraq, and that affected the creation of my characters. Personally, I had no sympathy for the Saddam regime and its futile war adventures, and likewise I was against the American invasion of Iraq. War could have been avoided but it was not, and Iraq has not been able to recover from those Gulf wars. I’m not fond of politics but it imposed itself on my works.

Barbara, did you do any research, as you were translating, to get a handle on the visuals of the places Narjis was going, and the landscapes around Iraq? The area around Khanaqin, for instance? Is it important for you to “see” what the characters are seeing, as you translate? Or how do you immerse yourself in their worlds?

BR: I would say that the process of translating anything immerses you in the world created by the writer whose work you are translating. But yes, I did have to do some research, and to this end, not only online keyword searches, but also image searches and map searches were more or less indispensable, especially with regard to Kurdish geography and culture. When all else failed, there was Shakir, always so ready to help!

And what about you, Hadiya? Did you do research for this book, into the stories of the disappeared, for instance, or those who had HIV in Iraq in the 80s? How did you gather information?

HH: I haven’t conducted research. We rarely need such research in Iraq since what you need is there in front of you—in the houses and streets where former prisoners roam. They’ll tell you personally or through the media the horror stories of their lives. I visited the Interior Security headquarters in Sulaymaniyah in 2006, and I saw the chambers where young me were tortured, and I read what they scribbled on the walls. Only a few survived, and some left personal effects behind. And I met victims of the chemical attack on Halabja.

Barbara — this novel, of course, also has moments of hope and beauty. What were some of the moments you found most beautiful, that kept you buoyed as you worked on the book?

BB: Honestly, for reasons having to do both with the essential sadness of the narrative and with my own concomitant experience of struggling to recover from a serious injury, I found it pretty hard to stay buoyed. Maybe this is partly why I particularly enjoyed the passages dedicated to Mizgin (except where she speaks of having had to have a hysterectomy, because she could not carry a normal pregnancy after the Anfal Campaign). Roujda, too, is a breath of fresh air in her own way, of course, but for some reason I’m partial to Mizgin (maybe those proverbs!). The passages in which Narjis participates in the gathering of wild plants with her Kurdish hosts and witnesses farmyard dramas between rooster and hens offered some relief from the sorrow; likewise the episode about Nowrouz. Also, in a way this novel, besides its obvious theme of war and the battering to which Iraq has been subjected over successive generations, is about women bonding: Narjis with Umm Hani, with Mizgin, with Roujda. I liked that aspect of it; by the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to add that I think you could argue that real-life female bonding manifested itself, in some sense, with the contribution of a cover image for the novel by the Iraqi painter Maysaloun Faraj, who magnanimously offered the use of one of her paintings for the purpose. I’ve been seizing every opportunity I can to make sure she gets due credit for this, since I’m not sure how much attention readers normally pay to the provenance of cover art, and here it is perhaps more than usually significant.

Hadiya — one last question. Why did you choose to set so much around the city of Khanaqin? What is the significance of this city for this novel, and for the Iraqi disappeared?

HH: I could have chosen a city other than Khanaqin, but I usually use places I have visited, or I have known well enough. Almost all Iraqi cities have detention centers, and Khanaqin was one of them. Another good reason is that a majority of Kurds live in the city, and Narjis’s journey goes through a Kurdish city. 

Also read:

Recommended Reading: Novelist Hadiya Hussein on 5 Iraqi Books

Two excerpts from the novel: on Asymptote and on ArabLit.