I Am the Fire Starter: an Interview with Haidar Haidar


Translated by RAED RAFEI

Haidar Haidar Headshot

Nothing parallels the effect left by the nightmarish atmospheres in the writings of Haidar Haidar. His novels and stories drill deep into our illusory serenity: a serenity we often use to trick ourselves into continuing our lives even when surrounded by death, destruction and injustice. 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. Art is realized through the transformation of this reality from inside out, and by directly confronting decay with creative and avant-garde writing forms.

Haidar Haidar was born in the village of Hussein al-Baher on the Syrian coast. He taught Arabic in Annaba, Algeria, then settled in Beirut where he worked in publishing. At the start of the Lebanese civil war he joined the Palestinian resistance movement—when the resistance left Beirut in 1982, he moved to Cyprus to work as a Culture Editor of Al Mawqef al-Arabi (The Arab Stance) and Sawt al Bilad (The Voice of the Homeland). In 1985, Haidar Haidar returned to his hometown, and has remained there since. He has written seventeen books of fiction, short fiction, essay, and biography. His short story “The Silence of Fire” appears in Issue 17 of The Common.

Hisham Bustani, Arabic Fiction Editor of The Common, spoke with Haidar this year about nightmare visions, Palestinian resistance, the migrations that have carried Haidar “through deserts, cities and seas” back to childhood, and “boldness… always boldness.” This interview is translated from the Arabic by Raed Rafei.


Hisham Bustani (HB): The first thing that comes to mind when I think about your literary work is its uniqueness in presenting and anticipating visions of nightmare, horror and death. Perhaps you are the first author to adopt such approaches in Arabic literary writings, which have long been swamped by optimism and hope. You, on the other hand, avoided escapism from, or compensation for, an ugly reality.

You reached these visions in the 1960s, when a geopolitical nightmare was still forming: the Israeli defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war; the resulting fall for pan-Arabism and “dreams” of unity, liberty and progress; domestic dictatorship regimes becoming more apparent, more violent as they lost their main pretext for existing and halting democracy (that is, liberating Palestine).  This nightmare would lead to the oblivion of a majority of writers, and it is a nightmare that we still live in, in more horrific forms, today. How did you envision this horror as early as the 1960s?

Haidar Haidar (HH): To begin with, I am not an optimistic writer. I do not see in the horizon of the Arab region any hope for people to emerge from their historical free fall. This feeling came after an in-depth observation and reflection on reality, an organic involvement in it, as well as an ability to apprehend it historically and heuristically at early stages. My writing and practical positions in life were my weapon of confrontation.

Issues of freedom, enlightenment and justice are obliterated from the dictionary of power. Oppression, terror, death, humiliation, dishonor and starvation are the alphabets and priorities of its savage lexicon. When you are honest with yourself and the world, and are free and bold, you have to confront and wrestle with oppression, ignorance, backwardness and the power behind these viruses. In the end, you are fighting a battle on a rough and deadly terrain. My early awareness of the nature of that terrain led me early on to that battle.


HB: In your stories, there are many references to turath, or religious heritage—the imagined religious past that is still in action and active and influential today. You frequently invoke “marginal” rebellious opposition figures who were the renegades of this past: al-Jaad bin Dirham, Ghaylan the Damascene, Abu Dhar al-Ghafari. On the other hand, there are texts written in a spirit of engagement with turath. These are like contemporary turath texts, or texts that move religious heritage or myth into the contemporary realm, like “The Inheritance” from the collection The Ibexes (1978), or Elegies: Three Tales of Death (2001), or the chapter “the Advent of The Leviathan” from A Feast for The Seaweeds: The Hymn of Death (1983).

Your work suggests that we are not only prisoners of our turath, but that we have not read it and processed it in all its dimensions, and that we need to digest it fully to create something new out of it—like literature, for example. This is how turath loses its shackling holiness and becomes peacefully part of our cultural, creative and social references. How do you view turath and its functions in literature?

HH: In my library, there is a section dedicated to philosophy, and another to psychology, history, politics and literature. And there is a section for turath. I am haunted by heritage and history. I see through them the past and the present. They shed light for me on calamities, tragedies and destruction.

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.

A cartoon of Haidar Haidar scattering sheets of paper into the wind

HB: It is easy for me to return to the Israeli defeat of the Arabs in the Six Day War in 1967—and the collapse of the “big dreams” of freedom, liberation, unity and progress therein—to locate the cause of the violence and anger woven into your narrative texts. It is a violence stretched over time, continuing from 1967 to the experience of the National Movement in Lebanon, and the defeat of the Palestinian Resistance and its departure from Beirut in 1982, and on to the present moment. Does this first defeat have an impact or a central significance for you, especially since your first book Stories of Migrant Seagulls was published in 1968?

HH: Arab defeats are clearly featured in most of what I wrote, specifically in the novel The Desolate Time, as well in those writings which tend to condense, shorten, and remain limited to what is essential, what is understood as metaphor and allusion—Arabs say that brevity is the soul of wit). You will find that defeat is present in its essence [in my texts], away from the accidental and the secondary, which I usually don’t pay attention to.


HB: From Hussein al-Baher to Tartus, then Aleppo, then Damascus—from Damascus to Annaba in Algeria then Lebanon and Cyprus, and back to Hussein al-Baher, you are an embodiment of the “engaged intellectual”; engaged not only in dialogues around the issues of the time, but through travel and action. How have your travels added to your writing?

HH: The migrations that carried me through deserts, cities and seas enriched me with an experience without which I would have been half a writer. Had it not been for Algeria, A Feast for The Seaweeds or “The Flood” would not have seen the light. Had it not been for Damascus, The Desolate Time would not have been written. And had it not been for Lebanon, The Ibexes, “The Ripples” or “A Field of Purple” would not have been.

Perhaps the expression “engaged intellectual” that you have formulated is equivalent to the image of the “fire starter” in ­decrepit, pockmarked and crumbling forests that I present in my writings. Without the dual qualities of intellect and engagement, there is no real value to the intellectual and the writer.

A book jacket of a Haidar Haidar novel

HB: You have come full circle: from Hussein al-Baher on the Mediterranean coast, where you started, and back to it, where you are today, through a series of ripples, “The Ripples”. You choose to go back to your small, isolated hometown for a long semi-retreat. How and when did this change happen (if one could consider it a change)? Are we witnessing a new Haidar Haidar, hopeful, watchful, careful, taking over from an engaged, fervent and interactive earlier version of yourself?

HH: When you grow old you return to childhood, and childhood takes you back to your first cradle. Now I am in Bahrun, the symbolic name for Hussein al-Baher. I live with my wife Asmahan (whom I call “Asma”). She has been my friend for a quarter century, my assistant, and my left hand in literature as well as typing on computers and communicating through them (because my right hand is for my own writing – I still write with pen and paper). We take care of our home together and our small garden with fruitful trees. Together, we plant crops, grow them and pick from them the vegetables and fruits we need. I read for about two hours every day at night, and write diaries about the past, migration and the filthy sectarian war.


HB: One of the most notable aspects of your writing—and perhaps you were a pioneer among contemporary Arab writers in this respect—is that you don’t submit to any kind of censorship. You have dealt with subjects that were (and some remain) taboo, like: religion and heritage, sex and the body, politics and power, the use of cuss words and obscene imagery, all of which you use creatively so that their effect remains long-lasting and impactful. How did you overcome both external and self-censorship—especially at a time that we might think of as less open than today?

HH: Except for the books Tales of The Migrating Seagull, The Cheetah, and The Flash, all my other books were banned from circulation by Syrian censorship. For example, A Feast for The Seaweeds was banned in Syria for 12 years, and I was barred from entering my country for ten years, from 1975 to 1985, for political reasons. I am a cursed writer, an outcast, hostile and opposed to the regime; at the same time, I am a free writer on the inside. The only censorship I admit is the one stemming from my inner conscience, and therefore it is not really a censorship. My writing conveys my inner convictions. The pressure of external censorship is completely removed from my literary life. Boldness and always boldness, as Danton says, and then comes the guillotine.


HB: Finally, I find you isolated while others run after the spotlight; withdrawn while others beg to become “stars”; content while others chase awards and recognition; assertive about your artistic vision while others write what the public want and what is required for sales. From that perspective, how do you see the transformation of the Arab literary scene today?

HH: Awards do not make a literary writer or a star. In my case, I lost any chance of winning awards because of the unjust campaign launched by Islamists against A Feast for The Seaweeds in 2000 after it was printed in Egypt, then burned by fanatics who led demonstrations against the novel and accused me of heresy. This might be a rare incidence of an Arab novel capable of stirring street manifestations even if only for its confiscation. I am not sorry for not having won prizes (I did not apply to them anyhow), and those writers running after awards disgust me. They are nothing more than base beggars seated around a feast. At the end, what is essential is to write a good literary work, and to hell with prizes.


Haidar Haidar’s short story “The Silence of Fire” was published in a special portfolio of Arabic Stories from Syria in Issue 17 of The Common.

Hisham Bustani is Arabic Fiction Editor of The Common.

Raed Rafei is a Lebanese filmmaker, journalist, and PhD Student currently living in California.


I Am the Fire Starter: an Interview with Haidar Haidar

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