Social media was flooded with tributes to Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, who died May 5 at the age of 87.
His son Majd Haidar wrote on Facebook, “The leopard has left us his kingdom,” while Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa wrote that the man of the “banquet and the leopard has departed.”
These are references to two of Haidar’s best-loved novels: his 1968 novel The Leopard (لفهد) and his 1983 novel A Banquet for Seaweed (وليمة لأعشاب البحر,), about which Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon wrote on Facebook: “A Banquet for Seaweed is one of the most beautiful novels I have read!”
Haidar was born in 1936, in the village of Hussein Al-Baher on the Syrian coast. He taught Arabic in Algeria before moving to Beirut to work in publishing, where he became a well-known supporter of the Palestinian resistance, as historian Esmat Elhalaby noted on Twitter: “Peace to the great Syrian writer Haider Haider (1936 – 2023), fellow traveler in the Palestinian Revolution.”
But Haider was perhaps best-known for the controversy that swirled around his novels, particularly the protests sparked in Cairo in 2000 after the Egyptian Ministry of Culture announced plans to republish A Banquet for Seaweed.
As the critic Sabry Hafez wrote in the fall of 2000:
On April 28th of this year an impassioned appeal appeared in Cairo, blazoned across the pages of the newspaper al-Sha‘b. Entitled ‘Who Pledges to Die with Me?’, it was a ferocious attack on a novel published in Egypt some months earlier, Walimah li-A‘shab al-Bahr (Banquet for Seaweed), calling it a blasphemous work by an apostate who merited assassination. Uproar ensued. Mosques thundered at the discovery of this infamy. The novel was withdrawn. Judges and police interrogated intellectuals and officials in the Ministry of Culture. Students demonstrated, and armoured cars rolled into the streets. Debate raged in the National Assembly, and the activities of a political party were suspended. Two different government committees were set up to investigate the affair. A torrent of articles and declarations, for and against the book at issue, poured off the presses. In Yemen, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait analogous campaigns were triggered. Though the Arab world has seen not a few cultural or political clashes over literary works, the scale and intensity of the hubbub in Egypt this year is unprecedented.
It was a story that resounded — and was reported — around the world. Yet Haidar Haidar retained his critical stance toward the world’s powers. As Hisham Bustani wrote in introducing an interview with the author in 2019, for The Common magazine:
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. The literary “School of Haidar Haidar” is not dystopian but one that considers our reality to be far more miserable than any dystopia.
In the interview, Haidar said:
Indeed, we have not yet fully understood our turath. In order to do so, we need to re-read it in a scientific, historical, secular, objective way—to de-holify it, re-interpret its texts, and critique it with openness, with the ruthless scalpel of a surgeon and without the restriction of “holiness.” We need to approach it away from the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane, and away from irrational and superstitious attitudes. This is what puts religious heritage on a veracious and rational path. This is what I aspire for in my literary writings.
By the 2010s, according to Syrian writer and translator Osama Esber, Haidar was living “in a small cottage on the beach, isolated from people, where he is writing and fishing, giving himself to more meditation.”