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.
I Am the Fire Starter: an Interview with Haidar Haidar
An introductory essay to Stories from Syria, a portfolio published in English by The Common and in Arabic by Akhbar Al Adab (Egypt).
Today, in the second installment of a transatlantic literary collaboration which I hope will last for many years to come, Akhbar Al Adab publishes the original Arabic texts of stories by Syrian writers whose English translations appear in a special portfolio in Issue 17 of The Common, a literary magazine based at Amherst College. The first portfolio in the series contained stories by Jordanian writers and was published in Issue 15 of The Common, which followed the collaboration’s inaugural project: an issue of the magazine (Issue 11, Spring 2016) entirely dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation entitled Tajdeed (Renewal), in which editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker and I selected stories and artworks by twenty-six writers and five artists from fifteen Arabic-speaking countries, with eighteen translators bringing the work into English.
An extinguished cigarette is suspended between my fingers. I don’t know who put it there, but I feel worms moving inside it. When I look at them I imagine I’ve seen them before, tens of small bodies—identical, without any features.
The cigarette is a large worm ingesting and regurgitating the smaller worms inside it. They slither into my mouth, filling my lungs, and after a short, loud party there, they begin to flow with my blood.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to jump from the third-floor window. I don’t know where that tree shot out from on my way down. And I don’t know what made our neighbor go outside to hang her laundry at the moment that I fell. I don’t know why I imagined that I died when I collided with the ground. I was happy at that moment of collision; I closed my eyes tight and slipped into something like a delicious nap.
It took only a few moments until I heard our neighbor scream and realized something was wrong. I hadn’t really died; I could still hear the honking of cars driving by.
When I stood up and dusted off my clothes, the crowd surrounding me started to back away. Maybe I scared them. I heard one of them tell another, with fear in his voice: “There are worms coming out of his nose.”
“They are not coming out,” I corrected: “they are spilling.” I left them and walked up to my apartment.
Arabic Literature (in English) has announced that Issue 06 contributor Hisham Bustani is a co-winner of the University of Arkansas Award for the Translation of Arabic Literature, for his third book, The Perception of Meaning, translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes.
Lying suspended over a lake. She can see her entire self on the surface of the water. Every now and then circles appear and expand, distorting the image. At times she looks at her reflection with sadness, at times she chokes with bitterness and tries to escape, to turn over or stand in the air. But it’s no use, she is totally fixed—as if fastened with unseen ropes.
Thick fog passes underneath. When it shrouds the view below, she feels euphoric, she feels herself turn inside out, revealing attractive short hair and two ears with seven rings in each, revealing her perfectly feminine form. She is fragrant with the scent of lemon.