In the living room of my parents’ home in Tripoli, Lebanon, an elaborate family tree is displayed in a golden frame. It is a constant reminder of a fatalistic vision of life’s ultimate purpose: reproduction. Males are depicted as branches; females as leaves. The thriving of the tree relies on branches like mine. A single man who bears no new branches or leaves could condemn an entire lineage to an end.
Pharaohs, Distorted Body Parts, and Eclectic Symbolism
From her home in Syria, Colette Bahna has been producing short stories, novels, plays, television scripts, and journalism since the 1980s. Despite the raging war in her home country, Bahna remains tenaciously attached to staying there.
Bahna’s writing is infused with symbolism: ancient Egyptian history, biblical stories, and folk tales all allow her to write about life under despotism. With dark and piercing irony, she manages to go beyond the confines of the Syrian experience to compose timeless stories about injustice, tyranny, freedom, and love.
Lebanese journalist, translator, and filmmaker Raed Rafei spoke with Bahna about her short story “و/Waw,” which appears in Issue No.17 of The Common; interconnectedness in her texts; writing during times of oppression; and her decision to remain in Syria.
Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna
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
When popular uprisings against the Baath regime started in Syria in 2011, Odai Al Zoubi was in the United Kingdom working on a PhD thesis in Philosophy. He quickly became involved in the revolution, writing political essays to defend the right of Syrians to self-determination. But his literary passion was fiction. Since 2011 he has published tens of stories and literary essays in journals such as aljumhuriya and Romman and most recently “Silence” in The Common’s forthcoming Issue 17. “Silence” marks Al Zoubi’s first appearance in English translation.
Al Zoubi’s short stories capture feelings of transience shared by many displaced Syrians. They are often set in spaces of transition: a balcony overlooking the sea in Beirut or a mall in Dubai. There, characters caught between a past in ruins and an uncertain future have fleeting conversations, sometimes about matters that might seem trivial considering the gravity of Syria’s situation. But from the attempt to resume the banality of everyday life springs a profound existential anxiety linked to irremediable loss and a striving for survival.
Silence in the Syrian Limbo: an interview with Odai Al Zoubi