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Hanna Mina was one of the foremost novelists of the Arab world, renowned for his depiction of the social tensions and hard realities of life in modern Syria, as well as the lives of sailors and the sea. He excelled in depicting the afflictions of a life lived under great stress and anxiety, himself one of only a few major Arab writers to have suffered extreme poverty and hardship in his childhood and youth.
A leading Arab novelist, a pioneer in modern Arabic literature, and a leading force in the creation and development of the Arabic novel, Hanna Mina was born in 1924 in Lattakia, Syria. He died in Damascus, Syria on August 21, 2018, at the age of 94. The eminent Syrian writer had narrated not only his life, as well as the life of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed; but also recorded the social and political developments and the cultural history of Syria following the First World War. As a particularly productive and genuine realist, he became the front-runner of the social realism trend in modern Arab prose.
Mina was a self-taught writer and a self-made man. He attended only a few years of elementary school before he was forced to drop out and look for work, in order to provide for his family. As a boy he worked, amongst other jobs, in a barber shop: he swept the floor, dumped the trash, and prepared tea for customers. He suffered hunger, displacement, and homelessness. He lived on the streets for years, leading him to become a friend to and advocate of the homeless, the oppressed, the deprived and the banished.
He worked as a porter and janitor in seaports; later he became a sailor, establishing a profound relationship with the sea. The sweat of the suffering sailors and deprived workers, the cooling breeze of the sea, the refreshing and uplifting waves and blue depths of the sea – all these impressions and experiences fed into his work, leading him to be called “the novelist of the sea”, because of its central place in his writing.
In 1942, Mina began writing short stories for literary magazines in Syria and Lebanon, and in 1947 he decided to leave the barber shop in Lattakia and move to Damascus to begin his career in journalism. He played a major role in establishing the Syrian Writers Union in 1951; he also helped shape its ideology, emphasizing the social and political commitment of the Arab writer – an idea that was very influential in Arabic literature in the post-independence climate of the 1950s. He contributed to the foundation of the Arab Writers Union in 1969.
Mina’s first novel Blue Lamps opened a new phase in his career; after its publication in 1954 he devoted himself exclusively to writing novels. The novel remained his principle obsession and favorite literary form of writing; yet he continued to publish short stories and other literary and journalistic essays and articles. Mina continued to express in his writings the voice of resistance against the European powers, particularly the French colonizers; believing that the novel must reflect social reality, as it is the most suitable genre for the articulation and transformation of personal and social reality.
He produced 40 works, mostly novels; several of his novels were made into admired films, and turned into popular television series. In appreciation of his role as a leading Syrian writer, Mina was offered a position in the Syrian Ministry of Culture. In 1966 he published The Sail and the Storm, in which he exposed the exploitation of seaport workers by the French colonizers and their French local agents, and called for resistance and defiance. Fragments of Memory (1974) and The Swamp (1977), two autobiographical novels narrated from a child’s point of view, narrate the experiences of his own sadly deprived childhood.
After the publication of his third novel, Snow Comes through the Window (1969), which emphasized the need for political activism, defiance and revolt in life, Mina received the Award of The Syrian State. His literary achievements brought him several other prestigious awards, among them the Sultan Owais Cultural Foundation award in Abu Dhabi in 1990, the Arab Writer’s Prize for his collected works in 2005, and the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize for Arabic Literature in 2010.
Mina’s novel Sun on a Cloudy Day (1973) is considered by critics to be one of the most important novels in Arabic literature. It accurately portrays the social and political conflict, class struggle and contradictions which prevailed in Syria during the French Mandate. Mina communicated his vision beyond the borders of Syria and its mandate, to apply to every society under an oppressive regime; in this way, the novel is universal. The dagger-dancer in the novel is seeking to reach the truth, and to achieve the justice that is as inevitable as the sun rising, despite the thick black clouds blocking its rays. An observer described the dagger-dance in the novel as a symbolic challenge and confrontation, a fierce fight with life and its violence, and a strong affirmation of human existence.
In this novel, as well as in his other novels, Mina tells us that we must beat the earth until she wakes up. We must learn how to lose ourselves in something which generates and creates real passion. Mina wrote, “Life is beautiful. Drink from its spring; what seems muddy today will become clear as crystal tomorrow.” In his novels, Mina brought to our consciousness a simple but important truth: we must have someone or something to live for, because living for nothing is false. “Only then do playing, singing, and dancing have meaning.” Mina believes that if we do not possess something we are devoted to, then we must create it, even only in our imagination. According to Mina, sincerity and devotion are the ultimate keys to joy. To devote oneself to something means to love it. As a result, when we give our heart and soul to something, it will give itself to us. He wrote, “Let your instruments speak if you are a musician. Let your feet speak if you are a dancer. Let your arms speak if you are a fighter.” He insisted that the key to success lies in persevering with devotion. “Persevering is the key,” and that we must “keep beating our sleeping land with our feet to wake her up, and she shall be awoken. The door that is knocked on shall open. And the magic spell dissolve when we act sincerely.” Mina’s works are like paintings, revealing themselves fully only upon contemplation.
Mina is never a silent witness. Ever truthful to his values and philosophies in life and art, he endured imprisonment and exile due to his principles and views. He stood in the gutter with the deceived and the powerless. His protagonists refuse to reconcile with their depressed reality. They are always revolting against miserable, unjust conditions. Mina, a genuine social realist with social and moral commitment, used his pen as a weapon to create new consciousness; which is a first step toward any revolutionary change, and a necessary requirement for eradicating misery and oppression. As a writer, he sought to change the existing order of a society that was besieged by inhumane conditions, striving above all for cultural, political, and social change in Arab life. He became a literary school unto himself, a school of genuine realism mixed with revolutionary idealism, unique in the history of Arabic literature.
Mina was a legend in life and literature. He raged against colonialism, corruption and injustice across the Middle East. He was the first Arabic writer to use genuine social realism in modern Arabic prose writing. He was a writer with a passionate concern for changing the existing order of Arab society. His legacy and literature have significantly influenced the modern Arab novel. His departure leaves a chasm in modern Arabic prose literature – an emptiness likely to continue for a long time. There seem to be no contemporary writers following in his footsteps, let alone any who could fill the void his passing has left.
Selected from Banipal 63 – The 100 Best Arabic Novels