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‘Writing saved me from my demons,’ says Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb

March 5, 2021 at 10:53 am

Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb

Amidst the harsh, rugged environment of Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan a Palestinian apprentice seamstress runs her hands across rolls of velvet. Hands that speak of a decaying spirit and up until now have only witnessed the collective loss of the past.

“You cannot imagine anything beautiful in this camp,” says Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb. “Velvet represents everything these women love, everything they long for and everything they yearn for in this life.”

And so Huzama’s third novel Velvet is named after the luxury material in which protagonist Hawwa finds her escape from the unforgiving daily life of the camp and a husband who, like her father once did, beats her regularly.

Velvet explores Hawwa’s memories as she delves into her childhood and recalls how she learnt to cut dresses with Sitt Qamar, the second bold female character in this novel that gives shape to a story of defiance and resilience.

“I know a lot of Palestinian women like the women of Velvet who are willing and resilient,” says Huzama. “They are so passionate and unconquerable; they have an undefeatable spirit, and they fight for the things they love that mean the most to them.”

“Despite the unbearable miseries and violations they have to deal with on a daily basis they can still show a great deal of defiance and what makes them also truly impressive is their ability to celebrate the small pleasures in their lives,” she continues. “Hawwa and Sitt Qamar are as precious as velvet. These are my women.”

Huzama herself is a second-generation Palestinian refugee. Her father and his family grew up in the camps that are scattered around Jordan and she would spend the summers there with her cousins, helping them knead the bread and swinging from the climbing frames as the sun went down.

“It was a yearly ritual,” she says, “like a pilgrimage to travel at school break in summer, spending eight to ten weeks there, living the life of the refugees in the impoverished dwellings of the camp. I got to connect with the people there, my people, and I very much appreciated their appetite for life. I was also a witness to moments of immense misery and suffering. This should not have been our lives or anyone else’s life.”

As a middle-class Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait, life for Huzama wasn’t that different to her how her extended family in Jordan lived. They ate the same types of food, tuned into the 8 o’clock news and cursed at it, and even had the same map of Palestine on the wall with the names of the pre-Nakba villages and towns marked out.

“We were cramped in a small apartment with a meagre income,” she recalls. “Sometimes we could barely make it through. For both families across the diasporic zone, every day of living was an attempt to survive. Palestinian identity created a collective consciousness that was like a thread connecting Palestinians in the diaspora.”

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Velvet, then, is weaved with Huzama’s own memories of time she spent with her family. To help her conjure them whilst she was writing Huzama kept pieces of fabric she had bought in the souqs outside the camp and studied the photographs she had taken there as part of her research. Huzama printed the images and hung them in a room she had prepared and designated for writing.

“The setup with all the photos surrounding me was like a miniature of the camp – the houses, alleys, camp souq, people. Sometimes, I would even smell the dirt or mud and hear the voices. Therefore, every single day of writing, I felt that I was living in the camp, walking with Hawwa, and peeking into her life.”

Back in the apartment in Kuwait, Huzama recalls storing books under her pillow because she didn’t have her own room, let alone her own bookshelves. Among these novels were Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani though which she learnt not only about her Palestinian identify but what the ramifications of this identity were.

Bait min Lahm, A House of Flesh by Yusuf Idris, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novellas were also there, transporting Huzama to another time and place and showing her the world from an unexpected perspective. Samira Azzam, Mahmoud Darwish and Zakaria Tamer also opened up a new universe to Huzama which in turn became part of her own.

“I think it all started in the first place with reading,” she says. “I still remember the great effect reading stories and novels had on me, the way they would touch me, filling my heart with emotions, the places, characters, the sounds, smells, colours, everything would turn into living images of my mind. There were readings that shook my world or reshaped my thoughts and beliefs.”

“Writing has always been a way for me to look for answers to burning questions inside me, only to end up most of the time with more unanswered questions,” she adds. “Questions would generate more questions, it would seem. Today, after all these years, I can say that writing, in a way, saved me, it saved me from my own demons. It made the world around me more tolerable. Not that I understand it any better or understand my own self. At least, I am less at a loss than I was before. In this sense writing is a constant process of trying, trying to know, trying to figure out.”

“The fact that I came from a Palestinian background with all the excess baggage that comes with it added a complex element into it, as I couldn’t help but dwell on feelings of uneasiness, shakiness, uprootedness, and the sense that I don’t belong. Yet, I owe it to writing that it sometimes gives me a reason to live, to be more stable and so true to myself.”

Earlier this year Kay Heikkinen won the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for successfully converting Velvet from its original Arabic into English. “She was actually translating like she was sewing a dress or doing some sort of embroidery,” says Huzama.

“I would say that Kay embraced the world of Velvet, and managed skilfully to reproduce the lyricism, the general sentiment and the vibe of the narrative in a manner that bridged cultural and linguistic disparities between Arabic and English language.”

It was the second award to Velvet’s name after Huzama already won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2017. As a college student Huzama had read the Egyptian master’s Cairo Trilogy and later discovered Hadith Al-Sabah wa Al-Masa, Morning and Evening Talk and Awlad Haretna, Children of Geblawi, which was banned in many parts of the Arab world.

When a member of the award committee called her to tell her she had won the Naguib Mahfouz prize she cried. Huzama cast her mind back all those years ago, to the cramped apartment in Kuwait, to the room where she used to read the trilogy and then stuff it underneath her pillow before she fell asleep. “I never thought that one day I’d be connected to him,” she says.

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