Hanna Mina: Syria’s Old Man of the Sea

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Mina wrote several short stories, which brought him into literary circles, and he co-founded the Syrian Writers Federation in 1951. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Saturday, March 24, 2012

At nearly 90 years old, the dean of Syrian novelists continues to draw crowds of young readers.

Hanna Mina refuses to write his autobiography. It is already scattered in his novels, he says. We can find snippets of his life story in his first novel published in 1959, Blue Lanterns, and more in Remains of Photographs, The Swamp, and The Harvest.

Mina, the doyen of Syrian novelists, retired from public life years ago. But he has not stopped writing. A magnifying glass has been his guide to the words since his eyesight began deteriorating.

His cramped study is surrounded by portraits of Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Stalin. Chain-smoking, he recounts stories of distant rough seas, a tough childhood, mysterious women, and unforgotten memories. He is the Syrian Zorba completing his last dance.

The novelist, born in 1924, says he has had his fill of life's sorrows and joys. He rewrote his will two years ago, requesting to be buried quietly, without a funeral. He retracted his earlier wish for his gravestone to be inscribed with: "The Woman, the Sea, and Unquenchable Thirst."

Mina has no qualms about exploring unknown and difficult areas of his life with brutal frankness. His bohemian father moved in the 1930s from what had been the Syrian province of Iskenderun to Latakia, homeless and lost, but never found the safe refuge he sought. His son would also be made homeless and set off on travels of his own, albeit under different circumstances, which ended up taking him to China as an exile.

Chronicling the sea

With only an elementary school certificate, Mina used to write letters and petitions to the government on behalf of illiterate neighbors. He later opened a barber’s shop opposite a military barracks in Latakia, and distributed the Communist Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People) newspaper. But above all, Mina was a teller of maritime tales.

"The sea has always been the source of my inspiration, so much so, that much of my work was literally soaked by its tumultuous waves," he says. Mina introduced the sea to the Arabic novel, and took it into unchartered narrative waters.

The text of The Road and the Storm had its own long journey. The manuscript was lost three times in postage. He sent another copy from China to his friend Said Houraniyeh by sea freight. It too got lost between Shanghai and Beirut, until finally arriving three months later, soaking wet. "The manuscript was saved by an ironer, who slowly dried it up," Mina recounts. "It was published after 10 years of wandering."

In the 1950s, Mina joined the Damascus newspaper al-Inshaa as a trainee editor. He was paid a monthly salary of 100 Syrian pounds. He could barely afford to eat, and remembers having to ask the proprietor for small loans for meals.

He wrote several short stories, which brought him into literary circles, and he co-founded the Syrian Writers Federation in 1951. He would later pull out of the Arab Writers Association – which was established on the ruins of the Syrian Federation – when it expelled Adonis, the renowned poet. Mina and fellow Syrian writer Saadallah Wannous issued a statement opposing the association's decision.

The fame he acquired and the prestige that came with it never stopped him from reflecting on the harsh details of his earlier life. In fact, they provided fuel for his novels, and he would invoke them like a mantra to protect his soul from damage. This pioneering novelist concedes that no matter how deep and moving writing can be, it cannot match his life's toughest experiences. "Reality carves its inscriptions on human skin with a hot iron that leaves permanent marks and scars," Mina says.

Mina summoned his old agonies – the days of homelessness, poverty, and being pursued – most passionately in The Swamp, described by literary critic Salah Fadl as “the greatest autobiography in Arab novel-writing, and the most abundant in brutal honesty and wealth of thought." The novel, invoking fragments of Mina's childhood in Iskenderun, was reminiscent of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables – a human museum of pain, suffering, and poverty.

This period in Mina's life perhaps inspired his answer to a philosophy professor who once asked him, "Dr. Hanna, what is the name of the university you graduated from?" He replied, "The university of dark poverty."

In the early 1980s, Mina made his famous declaration that: "In the 21st century, the novel will become for the Arabs what poetry is to them today." This prophecy appeared to be a cry in the wilderness at the time. But critics caught on to the idea and the term "age of the novel" began being widely used, ushering in a new emerging generation of Arab novelists. Some of them quickly overtook their elders, but Mina's novels have remained best-sellers, even if his latest did not do as well as earlier ones.

Mina has authored about 40 novels, varying in imaginary value and narrative significance. But his achievement lies in the foundation he laid for this literary structure. Characters such as Zakaria al-Mirsanli in al-Yater, al-Turousi in The Road and the Storm, and Mufid al-Wahsh in The End of a Brave Man, are living examples of life experience intertwined with fiction.

Mina does not seek to create archetypes, and stresses that honesty comes first. That partly explains the popularity of his literature. Long lines of young readers can be seen at the Damascus International Book Fair every year waiting for Mina to sign their personal copies of his novels.

"I have always kept two main elements in mind when writing novels: pace and suspense on the one hand and providing pleasure and knowledge on the other. That is the simple secret," Mina says, adding, "The novelist must test his environment well. It is no longer just a matter of entertainment with a dose of moral discourse," Mina says.

Thus, he reduces the distance between the novel and autobiography, counting on life's paradoxes, follies, and recklessness. He sees the need to expose what has been left unsaid, guided by what forebears wrote centuries ago.

Mina points to the boldness of Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri's For Bread Alone as a rich example of autobiographical writing. But for the most part, "personal memoirs would not reflect the facts," he says.

The eccentric, adventurer, and courageous elderly man today seems ascetic and annoyed, indifferent to all the medals and awards that he collected during his long journey. "The profession of writing is daunting, and a road to complete misery," he says.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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