My interest in translating Persian poems began more than a decade ago, while spending six months in Tehran researching contemporary Iranian poetry. I met many poets and returned with hundreds of poetry books. The range of voices was amazing—their work ran the gamut from postmodern experimentations to traditional ghazals—yet very few of these poets were available or properly translated in English.
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
I sprinted towards them as they battered away. Tried, but could not open the bolted door. I shouted out, called at the top of my voice for those around me to help, but to no avail. And when at last I despaired, and turned my back to come away, my head knocked against the wall of a water tank, greater still, shut fast against me.
She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.
The sea had depressed Huda ever since she was a schoolgirl, bent eagerly over a drawing of a Phoenician princess walking with her prince beside the sea, while their dog played with a shell. The creature that lived in the shell had dyed the dog’s mouth a purple color that clashed with the blue sea. She had written below the picture, ‘The color purple was discovered in the city of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, like Beirut.’ Then she took her crayons and gave the prince and princess the most beautiful clothes, and colored the world around them like rainbows mingling with the blue of the sea, but instead of being happy that she had finished her homework, she felt a pain, different from when she had a toothache or grazed her knee: it began in her throat and descended into her belly, because the world and the colors she had drawn on the sheet of paper were what she longed for, unlike her house, empty of color and pictures and music. The pain attacked her throat and she felt as if she was suffocating because she would never walk by the sea like this prince and princess and their dog, never set eyes on its blueness or the lovely colors of the prince and princess’s clothes except in her dreams, and only then if she dreamt in color and not in black and white as usual.
When I first got together with Hilda, I used to enjoy contemplating her reflection in the mirror for hours. I would intentionally take her to cafés and other places filled with mirrors. I’d look at her features in the mirror more than I’d gaze at her directly, as if purposely creating a distance between the physical being that was ostensibly her and her reflection, because a person’s mirror image reveals more of who they really are; it reveals, in fact, the inner self, and to look upon that, as gratifying as it is, requires extraordinary courage.
Suheil Bushrui and James Malarkey’s anthology, Desert Songs of the Night: AnAnthology of 1500 years of Arabic Literature, is not aptly named. The romantic title conjures up an image of a bard, reciting poetry and telling stories in the Arabian desert by a fire: the very best poetry and tales from the Arabic literary tradition. In fact, the anthology is a collection of a wide range of texts, reflecting the rich cultural history and thought of Arabic heritage: chivalric verse, political, philosophical, and legal treatises, religious texts, moralistic essays, folktales, travel writing, excerpts from plays and memoirs and modern narrative poetry.
The collection is tempered by the academic backgrounds and interests of the two editors. Suheil Bushrui, who died last year at 84, was a distinguished critic and translator, an authority on Yeats and Kahlil Gibran and the founder and former director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Center for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland. James Malarkey was Professor Emeritus at Antioch University, the former Chair of Humanities and General Education with past stints at universities in Algeria and Beirut. He is an anthropologist, specializing in Algerian politics.
Review: Desert Songs of the Night: An Anthology of 1500 Years of Arabic Literature