lundi 16 janvier 2012

A Prophecy of Blood

Maha Hassan: A Prophecy of Blood

In 'Banat al-Barari', Hassan weaves the story around a myth and presents it to the reader in a shocking way. She addresses the issue of honor crimes in an explicit way, describing her main character’s head being cut off and hung. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)By: Mariam Abdallah

Published Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Syrian writer Maha Hassan has made a career out of challenging patriarchy, which inevitably forced her into exile. Even from afar, her work continues to focus on critical social issues in the Arab world.

Syrian novelist Maha Hassan (b. 1966) describes herself as a writer devoted to the concerns of women. Her latest novel Banat al-Barari (Daughters of the Wilderness) “was published at the wrong time” – as she says – given what is happening in Syria and the Arab world.

But the current focus on regional events and the Arab uprisings does not mean that raising sensitive issues, such as honor crimes, is no longer a pressing matter, because the “killing of women is vicious,” she asserts.

Hassan, author of Habal Sirri (Secret Pregnancy, 2010), likes to distinguish between journalistic and human rights organizations’ reports one one hand, and literary texts on the other.

“A novel is a work of art, not a report,” she says.

In Banat al-Barari, Hassan weaves the story around a myth and presents it to the reader in a shocking way. She addresses the issue of honor crimes in an explicit way, describing her main character’s head being cut off and hung.

The main character, a young woman, loves a man named Ibrahim and eventually becomes pregnant with his child. She is consequently slaughtered as a punishment by her brothers. The entire village then comes under a curse following the young woman’s death.

The intent behind the novel is to counter-punish a society that legitimizes the slaughtering of women. “But the novel is not a call to pass a law for punishing honor crimes,” she says.

Driven by her belief in the organic intellectual’s role, Hassan maintains that the writer has a certain responsibility to society.

Despite her emigration to France, she is still connected to the East.

“My main concern is Eastern women, polygamy, honor crimes, violence against women, political detention, and all issues pertaining to democracy and liberties,” she says.

Because she has been unable to ignore the suffering of others, she has turned to writing political articles as a kind of “duty and moral obligation.”

She writes about women who resemble her because she is still fighting. Through her writing, Hassan endeavors to cut her links with the past and cure the society she was raised in from its sickness.

But this break with traditional patriarchal society does not prevent Hassan from remembering her childhood and her father.

“His oppressive upbringing, concern for his image through my behavior, and his rejection of my social life have compelled me to go all the way,” she says of her father.

As a child, Hassan loved acting. One year, her mandatory training in the “Vanguards of the Baath” was replaced by an art festival. Thus, Hassan developed a passion for the theater plagued with frustration, because her conservative family viewed actresses “as women with a bad reputation.”

Today she does not regret being denied a career on stage. Instead, she sees herself more as a writer. Throughout her five novels, Hassan delved into the issues of language.

Regarding herself as an experimental writer, each one of her novels has its own independent linguistic fabric. She rediscovers herself and her tools with every novel, and creates a new horizon with every text.

Since writing often involves taking a position, Hassan decided to leave Syria after her writings were censored and she was subjected to harassment.

Her 2009 novel Tarateel al-Adam (Hymns of Nothingness) was banned in Syria.

In an attempt to trick the censors she changed the title of the book, but it was banned nevertheless. Thus, she says, “the publisher was forced to publish the book in Paris instead of Aleppo.”

Her novel Habal Sirri faced the same fate, even though it can be found in Damascus today. When an article was published in the Syrian newspaper Tishreen about the book, Hassan was surprised and commented sarcastically: “There is democracy indeed.”

Hassan believes that Syria’s current phase of conflict and political instability will not lead to civil war. In her opinion, the Arab Spring — a term she does not like — is not a romantic state where justice for minorities, such as the Kurds, will prevail.

Thus, she sees an Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but a multi-ethnic spring in Syria.

Since cultural corruption was an inevitable result of political corruption, Hassan hopes that the revolutions will put an end to the “culture of loyalty and submission” in the arts.

Before Habal Sirri was nominated for the Arab Booker Prize, Hassan considered herself a marginalized writer.

“This nomination was a form of recognition by the Arab cultural milieu of my work and it drew attention to my writings. However, Arab awards should be more concerned with creativity than with names…and should be free of the big star syndrome,” she says.

She suggests that the bloody theme of Banat al-Barari gave the reader a glimpse of the future.

“The entire village was destroyed and the red curse was inflicted on it. This could be some sort of prognosis of what Syria is going through today,” she explains.

While Hassan writes continuously, trying to publish one book every year, she does not consider quantitative writing to be flawed.

“I am someone who does not stop writing,” she says.

Nevertheless, she believes that the turmoil taking place in the Arab world may be an obstacle to publishing books that are “far from the reality and the reader.”


Maha Hassan was born in Aleppo, where she obtained a degree in law. She published her first novel Al-Lamotanahi – Seerat al-Akhar (The Infinite – Biography of the Other) in 1995.

It was not until 2002 that she produced her second work, Lawhat al-Ghilaf – Judran al-Khayba Aala (Cover Picture – The Walls of Disappointment are Higher).

Hassan has been active in the field of human rights and received a Hellman/Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch in 2005. She writes in both Arabic and French.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition