Nasreddine Bahra: Keeping Laughter Alive in Damascus
By: Khalil Sweileh
Published Saturday, September 15, 2012
Damascus - At the age of seven, Nasreddine al-Bahra found himself inside the maze of a huge library filled with Arabic and French books. The child was confused by what to pick until he spied a book by Kamel al-Kilani.
"The book was a collection of short stories inspired by One Thousand and One Nights and Greek legends," Bahra says. "Ever since then, I have been passionate about reading."
His father, who studied philosophy at Sorbonne University in Paris in the 1920s and was the owner of al-Jazirah newspaper, died early. The son virtually lived between the shelves of that enormous library, where he pulled out literary treasures by Al-Jahiz, Al-Asfahani, Balzac, Stendhal, and Chekov.
Bahra's discovery of the Egyptian al-Hilal magazine gave him other options. "I was amazed by the stories the magazine published for a writer named Mahmoud Taymour, who was my first story-writing teacher," he tells Al-Akhbar in an interview in a Damascus café.
Later, al-Kateb al-Masri (Egyptian Writer) magazine, whose editor-in-chief was Taha Hussein, played a fundamental role in shaping the young Bahra's cultural awareness. It prompted him to follow in his father's footsteps and study philosophy, though he never abandoned story-writing, which he considers his first love.
Bahra went to Said al-Jazaeri's al-Nuqqad (Critics) magazine to test his writing skills. This pioneering magazine was considered a literary academy for the 1950s generation and a great way for a young writer to get exposure.
Bahra's first story was published in 1954. The confidence he gained writing for al-Nuqqad encouraged Bahra to participate in a short story competition organized by the Warsaw Youth Festival. He won second prize for his story, Abu Diyab Hates War.
Instead of celebrating the writer, the press agencies either attacked or ignored his prize-winning story, and paid no attention to the head of the jury, well-known Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Bahra remained frustrated by the environment of negative criticism until he received a call from Midhat Ukash, owner of al-Thaqafa (Culture) magazine, which requested a collection of his stories to publish in a book. His first collection of stories, Do Eyes Tear, came out in 1957.
Bahra thus joined the ranks of other well-known short story writers of the time, which included Adel Abu-Shanab, Yassin Rufaiya, Zakaria Tamer, and Said Houraniyeh. Bahra says that the heated critical battles raging in the newspapers and magazines were not always fair, and that cronyism played a role in excluding or praising work based on ideological rather than literary motives.
Bahra's talent was not limited to story-writing. He co-founded the Actors Association, which put on important performances based on the texts of Abdul-Wahhan Abul-Saoud, one of Syria's theater pioneers. He also worked in most of the major newspapers of the1950s and 1960s, including al-Rai al-Aam, al-Talia, al-Sarkha, and al-Dunya.
In particular, the editor-in-chief of al-Rai al-Aam, Ahmad Assah, left a deep impression on Bahra.
"Within six months, he taught me what I never learned in journalism," he says.
Lamenting the decline of the Syrian press, Bahra says that the profession of journalism "died when the state put its hands on it."
Bahra's voice has also been on the airwaves of Damascus Radio for about half a century in a variety of cultural programs, the latest being "Papers and Memories." In this program, aired every Thursday at noon, the veteran journalist combs his impressive memory for critical moments from the history of Syrian cultural and artistic life.
He relays detailed memories of his childhood as if they happened yesterday. He remembers listening to Muhammad Abdel Wahhab sing al-Gandool (Gondola). He invokes a scene from the film Gone With the Wind, which he watched in an outdoor cinema in the late 1930s and describes being with Farid al-Atrash at the moment of his death in the hospital. He recounts the stories of Abu Ahmad Fuful which first attracted him to storytelling, and the shadow puppet theater inside the walls of old Damascus.
Bahra brings the old city to life in his book Damascus of Secrets, which reveals the hidden treasures of its streets and alleyways before they were destroyed by new building, architectural identity lost to soulless concrete blocks.
"The war on old Damascus has been continuous," he explains. "There were those seeking to demolish the house of Yousef al-Azmeh's [a war minister killed in the Battle of Maysaloun by French General Gouraud] but the matter was noticed at the last minute and the plan was stopped."
The same goes for Abu-Khalil al-Qabbani's house, which he says remains neglected despite promises by consecutive governments to renovate it. This is in addition to dozens of other historic houses that were turned into restaurants and bars.
Bahra, author of The Butterfly's Last Dance and Death of a Baker's Helper, has witnessed the history of Damascus, advocating for its treasures in his research studies and radio talks.
He declines to share his position on the uprising in Syria, choosing instead a particularly tragic quote from Nazim Hikmet: "I'm at the point where the world ended."
Bahra comes to al-Rawda Café every day, and once a week he gets together with his old comrades – musician Suhail Arafa, researcher Yasser al-Maleh, and director Alaeddine Kokash – for what he calls a "session dedicated to laughter before the tragedies manifest in the skies of Damascus.”
Despite his obvious sadness over the fate of his city, Bahra remains lighthearted. He recently completed a project called Laughter Is History and Art, which looks into Arab laughter. Bahra says that the tragedies and ordeals in the history of the Arabs never managed to kill their wit.
He considers al-Jahiz to be the "unrivalled father of Arab laughter and I hope to follow in his footsteps in documenting the features of modern laughter."
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.