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
The protagonist of Mahir Guven’s debut novel, Older Brother, is the son of a Syrian emigre taxi driver and a French mother who has died by the time the story begins. He is in his late twenties. An Uber driver addicted to hash, he is living in a suburban ghetto outside of Paris he calls “the dump of France.” He fears his ennui, induced by the indifference of the countless customers he ferries around, might kill him. But despite the jadedness, his caustic humor enlivens him, endowing his fulminations with a faint existential quality.
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
Tamara says that I am constantly on edge; she says that for people like me, meditation can help. “Meditate on what?” “On yourself,” she replies. “Look inside yourself.” There’s nothing there, Tamara, nothing to see; everything that crosses my mind lies outside me: Goya’s caprichos, the appalling translation of Bertrand Russell’s essays on epistemology I was reading yesterday, the over-vinegared salad I ate today. Perhaps this is my self, Tamara: nothing worth contemplating.
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 uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.
Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.”
“They’re here—” she was about to scream,bolting upright, her heart pounding in her chest. It was as if a snake had brushed against her bare skin under the comforter. He snatched his arms away from where they lay against her neck and her cleavage. They were both naked: beads of sweat quivered on the hairs of his broad chest, and her breasts trembled over thevolcano that had erupted in her heart.