The Narrative Worlds of Hind Haytham

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Since her first novel, Hind Haitham gave the impression that she was born to be a novelist. She has published three novels: Wood War(Abadi Center for Studies and Publishing, 2003), Kings of the Sky of Dreams and Wishes(Abadi Center for Studies and Publishing, 2003), and Affability and Solitude(Al Mithaq for Printing and Publishing, Sana’a, 2006). The narration in Kingsand Affabilityis dominated by a poetic delirium, whereas Wood Waris more formal and tackles revenge between two Yemeni families and its impact on the future of their children and the disintegration of society, as well as the negative impact of revenge on the Palestinian cause and the destruction of Iraq.

Wood War

The novel begins with a mother who bids farewell to her two children, Omar and Zahra, and asks Allah to take good care of them on their way to Aden. The reader later learns that the reason for their fleeing is the mother’s fear for their lives because of revenge and that Omar and Zahra are the remaining two of her six children, four of whom having already perished as a result of revenge. Were it not for the mother’s insistence on saving them and smuggling them away from the specter of revenge, they would have died too. However, at the end of the novel, Omar is killed in Sana’a after he receives his PhD in political science and becomes a professor at the University of Sana’a.

Omar is the narrator of the novel and begins the second section by talking about Abdullah, his brother and Salem’s eldest and favorite son. He is killed on the day he graduated from the Faculty of Medicine with honors. Omar says that he was young, handsome and bright, “as delicate as a breeze, kind-hearted, a lover of people, and loved by uncles, aunts, and children alike”. However, he was killed during his celebration with a group of friends by the family of Omar Salem, after they thought that they were beaten after the latest round of revenge between them and the Abdullah family.

The family meets and decides to make a large surprise raid on the lands of Omar Salem. However, they receive a surprise attack, led by their chief, Abdul Qawi Omar Salem, and almost die before retreating to the agricultural lands, and into stables. There, Omar is hiding in a haystack. He watches Abdul Qawi Omar Salem as he climbs up a tree and kills Salim, one of Omar’s brothers, and his cousin Mohammed Mansour.

Omar, who was 14-years-old at the time, decides to come out of his hiding place and kill Omar Abdul Qawi, the eldest member of the Salem family. Afterwards, he thinks of going to cry in his mother’s lap, but remembers that he has now become a murderer and has left childhood behind. “Everyone tried to know who killed Abdul Qawi Omar Salem but failed”, and Omar stayed silent despite the many incentives offered by his father for the murderer to reveal himself.

Omar kept this secret, even after he and his sister Zahra left for Aden. In Aden, Omar met Maher and they became friends. He then learns that he is one of Abdul Qawi’s grandchildren, born to a son who went to the city away from revenge troubles. Omar and Maher join the University of Sana’a, where Maher admits to Omar that he knows he killed his grandfather and advises him to abandon his rational position on the Palestinian cause or else he will be killed because of it. Omar refuses to back down. Meanwhile, his sister Zahra is getting married but he refuses to return to the village to attend the wedding. His uncle Mansur visits him and accuses him of being a coward, threatening to kill him if he does not attend. After his uncle kills Dr. Maher, the family of Omar Salem decides to avenge this murder by killing the family’s only doctor. This is what happens at the end of the novel, when a Toyota Hilux appears, “stops at the neighborhood entrance, and three gunmen come out…” And the reader discovers the rest, which is identical to the killing of his brother Abdullah.

There are so many victims – mostly children or young people – who are killed for a vacant plot of land, all because of the revenge that is cleverly linked by the author to the Palestinian issue and the loss of Iraq, suggesting that the consequences of revenge are greater than just at the local level. Our weaknesses and divisions are attributed to revenge and religious, sectarian, and political differences.

Omar concludes that it is impossible to reclaim Jerusalem and remove Israeli occupation, “Because we do not agree about what we demand and work for. Do we demand peace only with full readiness to pay any price for it? The restoration of the pre-1948 land? The destruction and eradication of the State of Israel? Who can lead Palestine without being addicted to power or colluding with the enemy in search of a phantom peace built on the tender bodies of the youth?” (p. 97)

The novel contains many details and painful scenes caused by revenge. Although it is short (106 pages), it is a closely woven story with many escalating events. With her short novel, Hind proves that a novel is not measured by its size but rather with its language and tight narrative. The story reveals the author’s political maturity and historical readings, which are even more evident in her second novel, Kings, and more so in her third novel, Affability and Solitude.

Artwork by Shatha al-Towai

Kings of the Sky of Dreams and Wishes

In Kings of the Sky of Dreams and Wishes, Islamic history is invoked by three spirited girls who have wild imaginations. The title in Arabic includes the names of the three main characters: Sama (sky), Ahlam (dreams), the narrator Muluk (kings), and then also Amani (wishes), who seems to be a fictional character they invented in school to make the Arabic language teacher believe they are afflicted with the symptoms of madness!

This short novel (89 pages) is set in the present, in a school that forbids imagination, thinking and reading, which are punishable by dismissal. The story uses humor and sarcasm to explain what goes on in many schools today, especially girls’ schools.

As for Arab politics, it is linked to the original Arab concerns: dancing and singing. “All Arabs realized that the return of all rights and the establishment of a just and comprehensive peace can only be achieved through Shakira’s sinuous body and Adele’s powerful voice” (p. 74-75). The author also links poetry and politics: “After al-Mutanabbi’s fame spread throughout the world, poetry became the official Arab public discourse” (p. 79), as if she were referring to the title of a book by Abdullah al-Qasemi (Arabs are a Sonorous Phenomenon).

In this novel, the young girls dream of knights that Ahlam draws from Islamic history in a cynical manner. Amani loves Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan, Ahlam dreams of Haroun al-Rasheed, and Sama is passionate about Al-Mutanabbi, while Muluk is accidently associated with Sibawayh, for whom she has no  deep affection.

Thus, the novel contains many names of Arab kings and poets who are summoned in a sarcastic manner. This call to history and its men, as well as some other ideas that were redeveloped, went on to be repeated in the novel Affability and Solitude.

Affability and Solitude

In Affability and Solitude, the spirits of the dead from different Arab eras are brought to Paris, and some of them are tried in the Court of Justice in The Hague. A historical court of ethics is established, especially for the kings and princes of the Hamdanid dynasty: Sayf al-Dawla, Abu Firas, Khawla, Da’ad, and their poet Al-Mutanabi.

In this novel, there are many historical figures associated with politics, such as Hajjaj Ibn Mas’ud al-Thaqafi, Ziyad ibn Abih, Al-Shamar ibn al-Jushan, Muslim bin Aqabah, Abdullah ibn Ziyad, Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a, Juhayman al-Otaibi, Ahmad Shah Massoud and others. This is in addition to a lot of news from the past, which is still present in some form:

“Khaled bin Abdullah Al-Qasri dies under torture… Osama bin Laden tells the story of Bush and the young girl with her goat… Ayman al-Zawahri calls on the Pakistani Muslim people to oust the traitor Musharraf… the elders ask for Saad al-Faqih’s repentance… Repentants confess on TV and demand payment for diligence… Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has disappeared… Saddam Hussein is in court… Abdul Qadeer Khan is still under house arrest… Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi dies by suicide after burning his books…” (p. 32)

This narrative blend between the political past and present tells us in an indirect literary language that nothing new happens under the sun of Arabs and Islam.

Some historical names have seen their roles changed, such as Sibawayh who works as a professor of physics. It is an indisputable sign that Sibawayh would have been better off as a physics scholar rather than a grammar scholar. This is also the case with Ahmed Shah Massoud, who works in chemistry, Abdulrahman al-Dakhil, who is a film actor, and whose sons work in trade, as well as other Arab and Muslim politicians who appear in the novel under a different guise.

The central issue revolves around Khawla al-Hamdaniyah and her sister, Daad, who is looking for her in Paris. When she asks Ahmed Shah Massoud, a professor of chemistry, about her, he tells her about her escape from Aleppo and her whereabouts. The stories are told by the narrator from her point of view, in which she expresses herself and keeps her voice strong. They are “bits of many stories arranged haphazardly”, about disordered stories and contradictory news. Each character has multiple lives and spirits, which appear and disappear, die and are summoned back, to tell us that Hajjaj, for example, is not a historical figure linked to his time and place, but rather a symbol of oppression and tyranny that has not ceased to exist throughout Arab and Islamic history, similar to the Autumn of the Patriarchand his long life in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece.

Let us reflect on these excerpts that link the name of Hajjaj to the description of any other dictator, such as Saddam Hussein or Assad, for example:

“International peacekeepers arrested Hajjaj in an area that the United States was not allowed to disclose… In the chaos that followed his arrest, the international community was surprised by the trial of Hajjaj as a war criminal… Hajjaj was handed over to the International Court of Justice and preparations for the trial began… The prosecution, led by Carla Del Ponte, began to collect evidence for conviction… Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik cooperated with the prosecution indefinitely… He gave them access to his intelligence archives and allowed them to investigate the news of massacres as they wish… Thanks to the team’s investigations several mass graves were discovered in Iraq and the Hijaz and Bahrain… In Ahwaz, the atrocities that were committed during the war against the Khawarij led General Abu Safra to prosecution for war crimes against civilians had he not died in Khorasan, which became independent as soon as Hajjaj was ousted, and sank into a cycle of endless wars…” (p. 84)

Later on, Hajjaj would appear at the funeral of Ziyad ibn Abih. “The presence of Hajjaj at the funeral of his teacher Ziad ibn Abih was his first public appearance since his trial, after which he had disappeared as if he had melted into nothingness” (p. 151). And then:

“Hajjaj bin Yusuf died in Maribah… He was killed… According to stories that circulated… Investigators who came from Madrid stormed into his palace… They interrogated his servants… Examined his body… Took pictures… Turned it around… Sent it to the morgue… Then issued a report saying that he was hanged to death… They did not find evidence of what was mentioned in their report… No one asked them to look more… They closed the case files… They placed the body in a plastic bag… They flew it by plane to Damascus, where Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik ordered for it to be buried quietly… Hajjaj did not have the chance to laugh out loud when the Americans declared that the Iraqis were not yet ready for democracy… Only a month after his death… However, it is just hearsay.” (p. 220)

In a later passage, Hajjaj appears to hang between life and death: “Hajjaj disappeared… the people who were still looking into it found no evidence of his death… and no evidence that he was still alive” (p. 220). All this refers to the stories that circulate about the fate of Saddam Hussein!

As you read Affability and Solitude, with its worlds and poetic delusions, linking history with politics and the past to the present, you will realize that its author is a profound reader of history and a fan of poetry, which is present in the spirit and the chapter titles of the novel.

Photo Courtesy of Riad Hammadi

Riadh Hammadi is a Yemeni writer and translator. He has written articles in literary and film criticism, political thought, and criticism of religious thought. He collaborated with several Arab writers in the book Reforming Islam: Progressive Voices from the Arabic Islamic World, which was published in English in the US in December 2014. He has two story collections: The Day we Call each Bullet by its Name (Maqam for Publishing and Distribution, Cairo, 2016) and Steps in the Same River (Hindawi Foundation, 2018). From English he has translated: A Life Worthy of Running (Arwaqa Foundation for Studies and Translation and the Najran Literary Cultural Club); Tagore’s Fireflies (Sufi poetry, 2018, Dar Nahdit Misr, Egypt); and Prayer for Marilyn Monroe (Dar Nahdit Misr, 2019).

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