Maha Hassan
I Came to Writing from the World of Politics

Maha Hassan

From the author of the novel 'Umbilical Cord', excerpted in Banipal 44  

A testimony on Writing


I Came to Writing from the World of Politics


I grew up in an environment that was more interested in politics than anything else. There was no interest in my family in literature, but politics brought me to reading. Because of my readings in politics, I was gradually drawn to reading world literature. I began with Russian novels. Then I discovered the enjoyment of literature and became interested in French literature. My discovery of French literature introduced me to Sartre. He dominated my spirit for a long time and I struggled to liberate myself from his influence. Then I became acquainted with the writings of Kafka, who enchanted me; I considered that my own life resembled his. Kafka still resides deep inside me.

I was influenced by existentialism and then by surrealism. I read many authors of the surrealist school and really loved André Breton. I was fascinated by the astonishing life history of Rimbaud.

I began writing through polemical texts, because I was influenced by schools that held fast to liberty. I wanted to be different; it was a kind of intellectual adolescence – a desire to provoke the other person. I began with erotica but then struggled for a long time to erase its effects on the history of my writing in the social sense, because Arab society continues to view writing through the lens of morality.

I wanted my first novel Al-Lamutanahi (The Infinite) to be a turning point in my writing career. This book remains very close to my heart, and there is a playful relationship between it and my life. It is a long book about a person who is reincarnated multiple times. His name is Adham Bin Waraqa.

In my second novel, Lawhat al-Ghilaf (Cover Art) I addressed the idea of failure, especially because I belong to a generation that has struggled with disillusionment – in politics first of all – and disappointments that have progressed through all levels of our lives.

The third novel was Tarateel al-‘Adam (Hymns of Nothingness), and in it I employed the technique of creating “ancient” texts as a way of treating the concept of destiny. This novel imitated the structure of ancient Sufi works. Its publication was banned in Syria because I referred in a note to the Kabbalah, and that is forbidden. This actually worked to my advantage because it inspired me to look for a publisher outside Syria. It was the first of my novels I published in Beirut.

After that came the novel Habl Surri (Umbilical Cord), which was longlisted for the Arabic Booker – the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In it I discussed the concerns of exile and identity and the variable status of woman in the Arab world. The latest of my novels to be published is Banat al-Barari (Daughters of the Wilderness). In it I focus on crimes of honour killing.

My literary themes revolve around my first concerns, which have not changed much and which have not been resolved: identity, belonging, homeland, alienation . . . I believe that the foundation of my writing is a rejection of the state of psychological, spiritual and mental alienation that I experienced living in Syria, within my family and within my milieu, because I am from a Kurdish family but do not believe in nationalism or an ethnic identity for states. I also believe in the right of others to establish their destinies politically. I have multiple identities. Those that I discuss the most often are my Kurdish upbringing, my Arabic language, and the Western ideas which I gained from readings of Western literature and thought and which established my consciousness before I ever read Arabic literature. I turned to the latter only after I became a “professional” writer. This mixture of identities still leaves me in a state of exile and alienation. I try to create my peace, identity and homeland through language and, strictly speaking, through the novel.

All this anxiety was apparent in the novel Umbilical Cord. Sophie Perrin suffers from it. She bears the seeds of my anxiety and my search for security within the circle of contradictions between a society and an individual. Sophie Perrin is the Eastern woman who left her homeland in search of the idea of a homeland with which she can identify whether it is legally hers or not, because she is different. She leaves behind her a daughter who bears her genes but who lives a reverse history, because she was born in France and feels a need to discover the East that her mother has quit. This contradiction between a motherland and a new homeland and a search for a sense of belonging have kept me awake at night. It also meant sleepless nights for Sophie Perrin and her daughter Paula, since an umbilical cord unites us all, transcending geography and ties of blood and languages.


Translated by William M. Hutchins for Banipal 44


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