Review of ’Arous Amman, a novel by Jordanian writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout

’Arous Amman (Amman’s bride), a controversial book in both its form and content

Book cover of 'Arous Amman

Book cover of ‘Arous Amman

In an interview on Roya Jordanian TV channel with writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout, the presenter referred to a gay character in Zaghmout’s novel ’Arous Amman as shaz (an offensive term to describe gays, similar to faggot). „Muthley,” Zaghmout corrected her using a politically correct word for “homosexual”. By the end of the interview, the presenter was using „LGBT-friendly language”.

More than a literary work, Zaghomout’s first novel ’Arous Amman is an activism work advocating women rights and sexual liberties in the conservative Jordanian society. The novel is based on  a collection of short stories, film scripts and blog posts that Zaghmout published on his popular blog. The blog had 118,745 subscribers at the time of publishing this review.

What makes Zaghmout’s blog-turned-into-novel stand out is that it not only tackles some of the major taboos in Jordanian society like domestic rape, inter-religious marriages, sex out-of-wedlock which are often covered in contemporary literature, but it also raises other sensitive issues that are less talked about like LGBT rights and the sexual rights of women who were tricked into marrying homosexual men to hide the husband’s sexual orientation. What also makes it unique is that it is one of the few Arab feminist novels written by a man. Perhaps this is also why it is one of the few novels that don’t crucify men and blame them solely for the plight of women in the Arab world. Rather, Zaghmout presents them as loving fathers and supportive husbands and sometimes even victims of the patriarchal society just like women, blaming women rights violations in the Arab world on the patriarchal upbringing, ignorance and social pressure among others. It is also one of the few feminist novels I read that managed to walk the fine line between creating sympathy for its violated women and LGBT characters and being too depressive. In his novel, Zaghmout does not only showcase the problems that Jordanian women and LGBTs face, but also explains the mentality behind it.

The form and language of ’Arous Amman is no less controversial than its content. It is made up of a series of monologues and reflections by its main characters: 4 women and a homosexual man with very little dialogue. If this sounds daunting, it isn’t. Zaghmout divided his novel into short, blog like sections written in a simple language often using colloquial words which made it easy to read and accessible for a wider audience. While the style he adopted definitely helps in spreading his advocacy message, it triggered heated debates among the more traditional Jordanian intellectuals who call for elitist literature written in pure fusha (literary Arabic language).

Rather than its simple language and form, which I personally found suitable for the message that the novel conveys, what I didn’t like in ’Arous Amman is its romantic ’everyone lived happily ever after’ ending because it lies in contrast with the story’s serious and sometimes even tragic tone. To avoid including spoilers here… it just wasn’t convincing!

’Arous Amman is definitely a good choice if you are a foreigner interested in better understanding the psychology behind women and LGBT rights violations in the Arab world. While the novel might offer little new information for Arab readers, its power lies in challenging the traditional mindset of Arab societies and being brave enough to call social prejudices and atrocities by the name.

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

Courting Controversy (profile of Syrian writer Naila al-Atrash)

Photo Manaf Hassan

He grabs a knife to kill her. His sister stretches out, allowing him to wash the family’s honour clean of her sins. In a moving love scene, the brother retreats and his sister throws herself into the river to spare him the grim task. As the curtain falls, the auditorium fills with rapturous applause.

The recent production of Saadallah Wannous’ Miserable Dreams (Ahlam Shakeyyah) by Naila al-Atrash offers a pointed criticism of the patriarchal structure of Syrian society. The play is constructed around beautifully built, juicy scenes. It tells the story of two women – one Christian, the other Muslim – so oppressed by their husbands, families and society at large that they are denied the right to even dream. The play, presented in June 2008 in the framework of Damascus the Arab Capital of Culture, was a completely Syrian production, with a Syrian director, Syrian actors and, crucially, a Syrian script.

Atrash’s theatre productions are renowned for tackling controversial topics. While studying at the High Institute of Dramatic Arts (HIDA) in Bulgaria in the 1970s, she directed Fire and Olives (Al-Nar wa al-Zaytoon) by Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag. The play examined how the relationship between Palestinian Jews and Muslims changed after the creation of Israel in 1948. It conveyed the message that Palestinian Jews were also misled Hassanwhen Israel was founded, just the same as Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Directed shortly after the notorious Black September gang killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympic games, Fire and Olives tells the emotional love story of two Palestinians, one who grows up to become an Israeli officer and the other a liberation fighter. The play ends with a moving love scene in which the Israeli officer holds a gun to her lover’s head, claiming she no longer knows who he is.

Photo Adel Samara

“The play formed a turning point in my relationship with my Bulgarian colleagues,” Atrash said. “Although some students turned their backs on me, the majority began to show more of an interest in the Palestinian-Israeli situation, wanting to know more about the Palestinian side of the story.”

Atrash says her membership in the Communist party as a teenager, which ran into direct conflict with her aristocratic background, has strongly influenced the choices she has made as a director. During her time in the party, she became interested in political, social and justice issues, an experience which shaped her world view from an early age. Atrash also points to her rebellious grandfather Sultan Basha as a source of inspiration. As a prominent Druze leader, Basha fought for Syrian independence from the French in 1925 and campaigned hard for a unified Arab army to liberate Palestine in 1948.

Atrash’s commitment to pushing the boundaries almost ended her career as a young artist when she took the decision to direct The Slaves’ Night’ (Layl al ‘Abeed), written by Syrian playwright Mamduh Udwan, in the 1970s. The play, which explores the founding of the Islamic faith, was banned by the Syrian government for attacking religion.

“The Slaves’ Night was completely misunderstood by the Syrian authorities,” Atrash said. “It was not meant to be viewed as an attack on religion. It was about the game of power before and after the rise of Islam in the Arab world.”

While Atrash was never formally banned from working, she was no longer welcome at the National Theatre, the only theatrical stage in Damascus at the time. Effectively exiled from theatre, Atrash turned her attention to cinema, winning the best actress award at the Tunisian Carthage Film Festival in 1986 for the film Facts from the Next Year (Wakae’ al ‘am al Mukbel).

“I always loved acting,” she said. “When I applied to study theatre directing in Bulgaria, I was asked to consider acting instead. But I knew there was no shortage of talented actors in Syria; good theatre directors were what the country needed.”

After a seven-year absence from theatre directing, the opening of Damascus’ Higher Institute for Music and Theatre (DHIMT) in 1977 brought new opportunities Atrash’s way. She worked at the DHIMT as a drama coach until 2004 when she moved to the US to teach at the Tisch School of Art in New York University. During her time in the US, Atrash directed several plays, many of which were put on stage at Ohio State University. In 2000, she also became a committee member of the Cannes Theatrical Institute in France.

Despite the lack of funding for plays in Syria, Atrash believes there are a number of talented young directors in the country. She also praises the Directorate of Damascus Capital of Arab Culture for reopening some of the country’s disused playhouses and for planning to restore the Roman-style open air theatre, al-Kanawat.

While Atrash’s interpretation of Miserable Dreams won much praise for being a 100 percent Syrian production (Syria boasts only a handful of great playwrights and such directors have little other choice than to put foreign plays on stage, prompting some critics to complain that a lack of theatre productions culturally relevant to Syria alienates audiences) for Atrash a play has meaning regardless of its origin.

“Creating a powerful working relationship between the actors and the director and ensuring that the audience connects with the issues we present as a team is what defines theatre for me,” she said.

After almost 40 years in the theatre industry, Atrash has travelled the world directing plays, coaching young talent and holding workshops. Today, she lives and works back in Syria with that same spirit of the 18-year-old rebel who once secretly distributed communist leaflets and fought hard to have her voice heard.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Straying From the Herd (Profile of writer Rosa Hasan)

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.