BEIRUT

Culture

Maha Hassan: Multiple identities not such a bad thing

Hassan: Women writers as good as men.

BEIRUT: Syrian novelist Maha Hassan says that while Kurdish culture guides her, only the Arabic language can convey her ideas and feelings. “Kurdish is the essence,” she tells The Daily Star, “and Arabic is the means of expression.

”The self-exiled novelist explains that although she suffers from an identity problem, recently she came to realize that having multiple identities is not such a bad thing after all.

“Whenever I’m with an Arab I feel I am a Kurd and whenever I am with a Kurd I feel Arab,” Hassan says. “But only recently have I come to realize that this situation might create a sense of fullness and richness.”

The theme of multiple identities and the eternal rivalry between the East and the West are thoroughly addressed for the first time from a female perspective in Hassan’s 2010 book “Habl Siri” (Umbilical Cord).

The experimental writer’s poignant accounts of women are concerned with depictions of both the Kurdish and Arab communities, and in 2000 Syrian authorities banned her works, citing “lack of morality” as the main cause.

Her 2011 novel “Banat al-Barari” (Girls of the Wilderness) treats the thorny issue of honor crimes in a crude yet subtly poetic manner.

Hassan’s row with the Syrian state reached the point of no return in 2004 when, in the aftermath of a violent crackdown on Kurdish protests, she left for Paris.

“I never thought something so beautiful could happen in my country, that my people are so courageous” she says, referring to the wave of popular protests that have swept Syria since mid-March.

“So much blood has been spilled,” she adds, tears welling in her eyes, “so many people have died for us to live more decently.”

Hassan is in Beirut for the 18th edition of Lebanon’s Francophone book fair, where she is scheduled to comment on events in her country Saturday, at a roundtable on the Arab Spring.

The novelist does not hide the feelings of guilt she experiences whenever she addresses the Syrian revolt. “I cannot but feel guilty talking about it when I am living outside the country,” she says. “I always wonder what role I would play if I were [living] there now.”

Hassan, who received a Hellman-Hammett grant for persecuted writers in 2005, also admits that she does not feel fully ready to write about events in Syria. She says she postponed the publication of her new book “because I felt it’s not up to the standards of the changes happening in my country.

“All the writing [we] intellectuals might do becomes utterly futile in such circumstances,” Hassan adds.

“Something very big is happening in my country … The people have given new meanings to life that no writings can render.”

The Aleppo-born writer hopes that the Arab Spring will bring about change not only on the political and human rights level but also in the Arab cultural sphere.

Normally serene, Hassan is most likely to lose her composure when discussing women’s conditions in the Arab world and Syria, to the extent of shedding tears.

A fierce critic of such labels as “feminist writers,” Hassan argues that male writers imposed such terms in order to discredit their female colleagues. She also derides Arab women writers for their generally “mediocre” output.

“There is no such thing as ‘manly writing’ and ‘feminist writing,’” she says. “A woman is able to yield the same quality of writing as a man, often [many] times better.”

She adds that the innate “sensibility and flair” that women generally exhibit can express itself in novel forms and themes not previously taken up by male authors.

“Men and women,” Hassan opines, “perceive things differently.”

Hassan also slams several Arab women novelists who have set a “bad example” for the generations to come, citing Syrian novelist Samar Yazbeck as one of the few writers who succeeded in making valuable contributions to modern Arabic literature.

“Don’t [try to] convince me that a woman writing about the sorrow she is feeling because her lover dumped her is a feminist,” says Hassan. “Women writers need to deal with realistic issues if they were to be taken seriously.”

Maha Hassan will take part in Saturday’s 6 p.m. roundtable discussion titled “Samir Kassir: a visionary of the Arab Spring,” along with Henry Laurens, Jean-Pierre Filiu, Delphine Minoui and Ziad Majed and moderated by Christophe Ayad, as part of the 18th French book fair in BIEL, Espace Agora.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 05, 2011, on page 16.

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