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  Sahar Khalifa

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»Men are not used to taking a brave look at things that might hurt their soul«


Interview mit Sahar Khalifa (The Star, Jordanien)

EDITOR'S NOTE: An attractive woman with short dark hair and beautiful eyes welcomed us into her apartment in Tla' Al 'Ali. She is the well-known Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh. The novelist studied Palestinian society like no other writer has. In her books she talks about real problems facing Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Her characters are so real you can actually relate to them by mistaking them for someone you know. Khalifeh, who has a Phd in Women Literature and Women Studies from the USA, has written several novels, most of which are translated into German, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Indonesian and Russian.

Her latest novel Sayf Maksour (A Shattered Summer) is to be published soon. According to the writer, it is a dedication to the beauty and Arab identity of Jerusalem. Khalifeh felt that she needed to write such a novel about the Holy City because she says its Arab identity is slowly being immersed by the Jewish character.The Star's Samaa Abu Sharar and Ghassan Joha talked to the novelist about her life and works. Excerpts follow:

 

Can you tell us about your life?

I come from an ordinary traditional middle class family in Nablus. I was married at the age of 18, and thought my husband would be my 'prince charming' who would relieve me of the suffocating atmosphere I was living under and take me to New York where he was working. I realized later that I was only running after a dream. Despite our differences, I lived with him for 13 years. I started to read anything that I got my hands on. At the end of my marriage I started drawing and writing, but my husband tore up everything I did! Once I left him in 1972, I threw myself into writing. I wanted to write about everything and be myself, something which society frowned upon. During my marriage, I felt that I was dying while I was still alive. So I wanted to try my way and die struggling. My first published novel was called Lam Na'ad Jawari Lakm (We Are No Longer Your Slaves). When my first novel was published by Dar Al Ma'aref in Egypt, one of the biggest publishing houses, I knew I was becoming a full-time professional writer.

When did you first feel you needed to write?

Since I was a little girl I felt the urge to write. My passion for writing developed every day, because of the enclosed atmosphere I was living under.

Can you tell us how do you get an idea for a book?

Each novel must have its own theme; for example Lam Na'ad Jawari Lakm was about the educated classes of Palestinian society before the occupation. And Al Soubar (Cactus) is about the Palestinian labor force in Israel and its effects on Palestinian society, while Abbad Al Shams (The Sunflower) is about the struggle of Palestinian women. Mouthakarat Imra Ghair Wakiayah (Memoirs Of An Unrealistic Woman), talks about how Palestinian women started to realize that they have rights shortly before the Intifada. However, Bab Al Saaha (The City Gate) focused on the role of women during the Intifada. 'Al Mirath' (The Inheritance), gives a broader picture of Arab Palestinian society following the 1967 war, where the individual and the family were defeated, resulting in a defeated society.

How do you choose your characters?

When I first start a novel I sketch my characters in my head, but as I proceed these characters develop, sometimes taking a totally different shape than originally intended. The character must uphold the theme in the novel, but should be reflective of society. If there are mor characters, the place becomes more alive as is the case in my latest novel about Jerusalem.

You are one of the pioneering writers who use spoken and classical Arabic in your novels. Is this acceptable?

It's true that I was amongst the first to start such a trend, and I thought this was appropriate because my novels are real life stories focusing on real life people. Can you imagine for example Khadra, an ordinary woman from the slums in Nablus speaking in classical Arabic, or the intellectual speaking in the same language as Khadra. We live in a society with different people, and these people speak in a different manner.

You also use 'frank and blatant language.' Is this accepted by your readers and critics?

Writing in frank and blatant language gives the novel a living atmosphere. The language of the street is simple and crude, and this is what I seek to convey. The Arabic language is not sacred. It is up to us to play around with it.

How do you describe your works?

I do not think that anyone has written about the Palestinian society in the way I did. No one has dissected this society as I did. I was determined to write about the different periods of Palestinian society, especially the one after the Israeli occupation. I don't think any writer has written about the Palestinian society in an accurate way, and in such frankness as I did. My novels are used in several countries as references to what was going on in Palestine. My novel Al Mirath (The Inheritance), for instance, was studied in universities in Syria and Lebanon to evaluate the Palestinian situation after the Oslo accord.

Do you think that Palestinian women writers are different from Palestinian male writers in portraying the Palestinian society?

As a female writer, I believe that I was able to really dig into different aspects of Palestinian society. Few men can do likewise, because when you look into a mirror you do not want to see how ugly you are. You do not want to see the dimension of things. Men are not used to taking a brave look at things that might hurt their soul. A woman on the other hand, is different. This is because of her education, and how she is raised as a marginal being and an outsider. She is accustomed to look at things not in a glorified manner, but in a more realistic one. However, this does not mean that all women writers see this reality. Several neglect their unprivileged role in society and ignore in the process all marginal people, because they think that they are leaders and have become part of the elite. A woman writer has to have feminist awareness not an ideology. Middle class people can afford to sit and write anything and produce beautiful pieces, but unfortunately this is not the reality of our society.

You are active in the field of women affairs. What projects are you currently working on, whether in Jordan or in the West Bank?

We started off with research projects on the situation of Palestinian women under occupation, but we realized that people do not read. Therefore, we decided to shift directions and go to television since the public watches TV more. We currently have a television project, called 'Al Galtah Bi Ishreen' financed by the Welfare Association. The idea is to entertain through covering subjects of development that effect our society, such as hygiene, values and traditions, health of women and children and so on. It will be first broadcasted on 18 local channels in Palestine and hopefully later on we can broadcast them through the Arab world. The first seven episodes will be broadcasted in March. We also finished working on an education and entertaining song which awaits to be filmed. It talks about public and personal hygiene and it urges people to clean up the city.

Who is your favorite writer, Arab and international?

Dostoevsky, for me is the greatest. In the Arab world, I enjoy reading the novels of Najib Mahfouz. There are many exceptional Palestinian writers, although each work must be judged on its own merits. But having said that, I like to read Ghassan Kanfani, Yahya Yakhluf, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Fadwa Toukan.

Is Sahar Khalifeh proud of herself?

 Yes I am proud of myself, in the sense that I was able to get out of the suffocating and limited environment I was living in. I would have very much liked to have been able to start my career as a writer earlier, but I had personal problems and I wasted several years and a lot of effort and emotions. But despite all this, I am proud of myself as a human being, but not as a writer. I feel that as a writer, I can still give much more.

 

26.11.1998





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