Photos Manaf Hassan
Reading one of Rosa Yasin Hasan’s novels, it’s natural to imagine this Syrian writer as an antagonistic, outspoken rebel in person. Yet, as Hasan explains the motivation behind her controversial works on Syrian society, she reveals herself to be a modest woman with a broad-minded outlook on life.
Hasan’s novels break many taboos in Syrian society by raising contentious political, religious and cultural issues which would otherwise be left ignored. She is careful to assert, however, that creative writing should never be used as a tool for instigating social or political reform, but merely as a platform for asking questions.
“Literature is not a manifesto, it’s a form of entertainment,” Hasan said. “If you want to improve society, you shouldn’t write a book. Instead, you should set up a social help unit.”
Born in 1974 in a village near Lattakia, Hasan believes her generation has been forced into following a certain ‘herd-like’ mentality when it comes to political, social and religious beliefs. The predominance of a single doctrine over all aspects of life in many Arab lands has stifled the scope for creative writing, she said. Emphasising the importance of freedom from all social, political and religious conventions, Hasan believes literature should introduce new ideas and concepts like other art forms.
“There is no point in having countless novels reflecting the same ideas,” she said. “I’m a free woman. Following any ideology or political party restricts my freedom as a writer.”
By creating controversial characters with conflicting beliefs and morals, Hasan hopes to teach her readers the importance of cross-cultural diversity and religious tolerance. Thus, she never gives a leading role to a specific character in her novels, thereby avoiding championing any one belief or ideology. Instead, she introduces the reader to several different protagonists, allowing each to express their ideas freely, without discrimination.
Hasan’s first novel Abanous, published in Beirut in 2004, narrates the story of five generations of women who inherit the same wooden box. Abanous examines women’s rights in Syria, their changing role in society and relationship to the government through the characters’ use of a wooden box, which symbolises femininity.
Hasan said Abanous is especially important because she started writing it only a week after her father’s death. Bu-Ali, as she calls him, was the most significant influence on her life, as he always encouraged her to write.
“He wasn’t only my father and a great writer, but also a very close friend,” she said. “He gave me my first book and taught me to be different, telling me never to copy anyone when I write, especially not him.”
Continuing with the theme of women in society, Hasan’s second novel Negative, published in Cairo in 2007 and written in the style of a documentary, tells the stories of 16 women from various political backgrounds imprisoned for their beliefs. Meanwhile her latest novel The Guards of Air, to be published in Cairo in 2009, discusses the issue of minority groups living in Syria within the context of sex, religion and politics.
Legends and myths also find their way into Hasan’s stories. Flicking through her books you find scenes describing a man making love to a genie, a little girl blighted by the colour of her hair and superstitious women visiting shrines. Hasan explained that re-telling old myths awakens the imagination, further enriching the novel.
“I consider legends to be realistic because some people actually do believe in them,” she said. “They find legends just as convincing as we find scientific knowledge.”
Despite having written three novels and won the Hanna Mina Literature Prize for Abanous, Hasan feels she still has a long way to go before she can feel content as a writer. She explained that censorship in Syria, as well as the difficulty of trying to earn a living as a writer, continues to be a challenge.
“Social and political censorship draw hundreds of red lines around writers which enclose them like a red cocoon,” Hasan said. “We should find a way to break through.”
Rosa Yasin Hasan’s work has until today not been translated.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.