The Faithful Translator (profile of Syrian writer Fawwaz Haddad)

The works of 2009 Arab Booker Prize nominee Fawwaz Haddad are leaving a distinctive mark on the contemporary Arab literary landscape.

Fawwaz Haddad / Photo by Carole al-Farah

Fawwaz Haddad / Photo by Carole al-Farah

When I meet Arab Booker Prize nominee Fawwaz Haddad in Choice Café in central Damascus, the modest-looking, slender novelist sitting opposite me seems, at first, anything but the fearless 62-year-old author I have heard so much about.

Yet Haddad’s novels, which intertwine Middle Eastern history and criticisms of its political fabric with fictional plots, have earned him a reputation as one of the Arab world’s boldest contemporary writers.

“I don’t see why we can’t give fictional stories a political or historical background,” Haddad says, in a distinctive Chami accent. “This helps readers to understand the story in context, even 10 years or more after the event.”

Haddad’s most internationally celebrated work, The Unfaithful Translator, delves into the murky business of what he labels the “corruption” of Syria’s intelligentsia. The novel highlights how intellectuals are pressured to succumb to the demands and whims of government agendas, free-market economic policies and global inter-governmental dynamics. The story focuses on Hamed, a passionate translator, who becomes so involved in the novel he is translating that he cannot resist changing the plot to create his happy ending.

“Bringing up the issue of corruption and calling for an end to it doesn’t make a difference,” Haddad, born in Sarouja, one of Damascus’s oldest districts, says. “It’s more important to highlight the ways in which corruption actually works.”

Combining the accuracy of a history book with the suspense and humour of a novel, The Unfaithful Translator has been recognised as an important contemporary Arab work, so much so that it was one of only six works shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a prestigious literary prize awarded in association with the UK’s Booker Prize Foundation. Haddad now hopes the work will be translated into English.

“I think it’s important to translate Syrian novels into English, not only because it will give foreign readers an insight into Syrian literature, but because it will allow them to get a different image of Syrian society than the one that is created within the international political debate,” he said. “This, in turn, will create a connection between Syria and the West and make us realise that we are more similar than we thought.”

The Faithful Translator

The Unfaithful Translator is officially banned in Syria, although relatively easy to come by. Unfazed by the controversy, Haddad says his favourite literary themes remain corruption and censorship, as well as political and military coups. Willing to sacrifice exposure for content, only four of Haddad’s eight novels are technically permitted on Syrian bookshelves.

“I don’t take censorship into account when I’m writing my novels,” Haddad, whose latest novel Azef Munfared ‘ala al-Piano (A Solo Performance on Piano) has just been released in Lebanon, said. “My real problem is with inner censorship. I often have to face myself and wonder to what extent I, as a novelist, can overcome my own set of axioms and beliefs and if I have the courage to question them in the first place.”

All of Haddad’s novels are set in Damascus, whether the topics touch on politics or sex. Haddad lovingly recreates his city of birth: the districts, landmarks, shops and traffic are so vivid that readers feel like they are watching the novel, rather than reading it.

“I consider Damascus to be one of the main characters in my novels,” Haddad said. “I want readers to recognise the city in my works and realise that my characters aren’t imaginary. They live among us and resemble us or might even be any of us.”

Damascus was the focus of Haddad’s first book, Mosaic, Damascus ‘39, a novel set at the beginning of the Second World War when Syria was under the French mandate. The novel, published in 1991 when Haddad was 44 years old, had respected critics such as Syrian writer Abd al-Salam al-Oujayli raving about its insightful description of 1930s Damascus.

“No one could describe the city in this way unless he actually lived in Damascus during the 1930s,” Oujayli told Haddad.

For Haddad, the secret of his success is simple. “To write a good book you need a lot of intellect, reading and life experience,” he said. “This is why, even though I started writing at the age of 14, I only published my first book after the age of 40.”

Haddad’s dark eyes sparkle as he recalls the hours he used to spend as a child coveting the thick books on display in the window of his local bookshop.

“I couldn’t wait for my end of year exams because every time I passed the year at school, my brother would take me to the bookshop and I would leave carrying a pile of books taller than me,” he laughs.

Back then, Haddad could never have imagined his books would one day line up on the very same shelves he used to stare at as a child.

“When I saw my first book out in the market I was terrified,” he said. “I worried about how people would receive it and whether or not they would like it. Today I don’t worry about these things anymore. I write because this is what gives meaning to my life.”

Born in Damascus in 1947, Haddad graduated with a law degree from the University of Damascus in 1970, but chose not to pursue law as a profession. Instead, he worked part time at a pharmacy and as a trader, importing and exporting industrial materials before he became a full-time writer. He published his first book in 1991.
• Mosaic, Damascus ‘39, (1991)
• Teatro 1949, (1994)
Al-Risala al-Akhira, (The Last Letter), (1994)
Surat al-Rawee (The Image of the Narrator), (1998)
Al-Walad al-Jahel (The Ignorant Child), (2000)
Al-Daghina wa al-Hawa (Rancor and Affection), (2001)
Mersal al-Gharam (The Love Messenger), (2004)
Mashhad ‘Aber (A Fleeting Scene), (2007)
Al-Mutarjim al-Kha’in (The Unfaithful Translator), (2008)
Azef Munfared ‘ala al-Piano (A Solo Performance on Piano), (2009)

This article was published in Syria Today magazine


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