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Figure of the Month: Ghada Samman, The Power of Word PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 11 October 2009 23:42

Al Waref Exclusive

The Syrian Writer Ghada Samman, has been selected by Al Waref Institute for Humanitarian Studies in Washington, as the Figure of the Month for October. Ghada Samman is an outstanding  Syrian writer who has written over 40 books, which include poetry, short stories, and novels.

 

Outspoken, innovative, and provocative; Samman is a highly respected and thought provoking writer in the Arab world, who has recently received increased international acclaim. Her works have been translated from Arabic into a number of languages including English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Farsi. She has captivated the world with her incredible insight and passion, and her sometimes controversial pieces have fueled dialogue internationally.

Samman was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1942. Her mother, who was also a writer, died when Samman was still a young child. Samman thus grew up primarily under the care of her father, who was a university professor, a dean at the University of Damascus, and a cabinet minister. She credits him for fostering within her an appreciation for both hard work and learning. In his book, “Ghada al-Samman Bila Ajniha” (“Ghada Samman Without Wings”), Ghali Shukri quotes Samman on her passion for the written word: “I cannot recall the day when I didn’t know how to read and write. I know that I learned French first [from her mother], and then Arabic and the Qur'an.”  The young Samman chose to pursue a B.A. in English literature, rather than medicine as her father had hoped, at the University of Damascus. She then obtained an M.A. from the American University of Beirut, where she wrote her thesis on the Theater of the Absurd. From there she went to London to pursue a Ph.D., but eventually abandoned the project.

While Samman was still in London, her father died. During that crucial year of 1966, Samman also lost her job as a journalist for a Lebanese newspaper and was sentenced in absentia for a three-month prison term for having left Syria without official permission, a sentence which was later revoked under a general pardon by the Syrian government. At the time, however, Samman was left completely on her own, an unusual position for a young Arab woman of her social class.
Of the years 1966-1969, Samman told Shukri,
“I stood truly alone in this fierce world, facing all the forces that were against me. … I spent [those years] … between Lebanon and various European countries, working and living like any young man alone. These years are what formed me … During those years I confronted others as a foreigner in a foreign land without the protection of family, social status, or money, and I learned what I hadn’t known before. … The hardest lesson I learned was my final discovery of the superficiality of the bourgeois Damascene society that used to consider me during those years as good as dead – ‘a fallen woman’ – whereas I was in reality a woman starting to live her life and an artist gaining in awareness [of life around her].”
As recorded in both Shukri and an article in An-Nahar Literary Supplement, Samman willingly traded the personal freedom she experienced in the West for a sense of belonging in the Arab world. She chose to reside in Beirut because, she says, it seemed both to allow for a degree of freedom within the Arab world, and to embody the battle between enlightenment and oppressiveness. During the war in Lebanon, Samman resided in Paris for about 15 years with her husband and son. She currently maintains two homes, one in Beirut and one in Paris.

The same impulse toward individual liberty and self-expression that guides Samman’s personal life also characterizes much of her writing. As a journalist, she explored aspects of Lebanese life that were largely ignored by the mainstream, namely the plight of the poor in neglected areas of north and south Lebanon. Unwilling to be bound by social or literary conventions, Samman established her own publishing company in 1977 and thus has been able to publish her own writing free of editorial interference.

From her relatively early romanticist writings or the more socially engaged fiction such as “Beirut ’75” to her more recent projects, Samman’s work exhibits a boldness that defies restriction. Her interesting blend of surrealism and verisimilitude, coupled with her command of the Arabic language, allows her to be simultaneously poetic and political in her prose.

At the core of Samman’s writing is a cry for individual liberty. In a statement characteristic of Samman’s penetrating and direct wit, published in an article in the Gulf-based Al Itihad newspaper, she declares: “As to the critic who finds it difficult to pinpoint my writing in one area, I will make things easy for him. He can write on the drawer in which he files my work, ‘a cry for freedom!’”

This quest for freedom, Samman insists, is inextricably linked to the question of women’s liberation. As she tells Shukri, “sexual revolution … is a part that cannot be separated from the revolt of the individual Arab against all that restricts his freedoms, be they in the sphere of economics, politics, free speech, expression, or thought.... There is no way but through struggle against all reactionary thought, which includes our understanding of sex, and against the overall bourgeois view of freedom.”

Unconventional in both her personal life and literary works, Samman is undaunted by the negative criticism that some of her work has incurred. She depicts such “taboo” subjects as political corruption and women’s sexuality and exposes all that she considers hypocritical, exploitative, or repressive in Arab societies. Towards that end, she creates strong yet flawed characters in specifically Arab socio-cultural locations, and relies heavily on stream of consciousness, symbolism, allegory and fantasy in much of her work.
Her contributions have influenced the thought of readers across the world and her progressive nature and strong-willed character have acted to inspire and embolden those who look to her as a role model.

 

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