Hisham Bustani

The Perception of Meaning

Safia Moore

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Hisham Bustani is an experimental Jordanian writer whose work interrogates the traditional split between poetry and prose. He has been translated into English, French, Spanish, and German and was recently lauded as one of the most influential emerging Arab writers. Hisham is increasingly in demand at international literary events as a representative of the new wave in post-Arab Spring literature.

SM: Welcome to The Honest Ulsterman, Hisham and congratulations on your latest publication. Prior to this bi-lingual version of The Perception of Meaning you published three volumes of short fiction in Beirut and one in Cairo. How important is it to you that this book has been picked up by Syracuse University Press in the USA?

HB: Obviously this is a question about the importance of translation, and the way it opens up new ground for a writer, especially from a country that consumes its writers and pushes them to abide and conform for recognition: abide the government, abide the mainstream cultural institutions, abide the market, and abide by the social norms. In general, I'm an angry and confrontational writer. Some might say I'm “controversial” in the sense of provoking, talking, and writing about controversial issues. But what's a writer supposed to do if not stir the stagnant status quo? And we’re talking about the Arab World in the 21st century, a place still governed by oppressive regimes, a place where an active and highly-aggressive colonial-settler project in Israel is still taking shape, a place pushed back to primitive social formations (sects, tribes etc), a place still plagued by the interventionism of  global powers.

I cannot write cheap sentimentalisms about how “beautiful” Amman is, or how sunny and tolerant Jordan is, in order to get some grant and recognition from Amman’s municipality or the ministry of culture. The superficial layers of existence do not interest me at all.

This is why translation and presence outside my language and literary “community” gives me a space to breath. I say this with pain because my “natural” space should be inside my society, inside my culture, inside my language; but those “natural” spaces are dominated by nepotism, hypocrisy, and the destruction of non-conformists. Those elements are present in varying degrees in almost all human societies, but are more acute in mine.

I don’t write to be translated. I don’t write orientalist stereotypes suitable for the “western” reader. I don’t write about veiled women and honour crimes and the exotic. I don’t write novels (the spoiled children/commodities of the publishing world): I write about death, destruction, war, ecological disasters, and I use language and imagery that seek to dig deep trenches in absent consciousnesses. In a world of conformism, attempting to escape mediocrity is tough on writers and it usually comes with a heavy price. I think of myself as a protagonist of the “pure art” represented by the short form, as Frank O’Connor would put it, and I don't produce commercial literature, or literature that is light on the heart and leaves everybody happy. So, you can imagine it was a real surprise when I was told The Perception of Meaning was awarded the 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, which is presented by the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences in the university, in conjunction with Syracuse University Press. The award included a sum of money but more importantly, a publishing contract with Syracuse University Press.

At the award announcement, Professor Adnan Haydar described the book as‘a groundbreaking work, perhaps a collection of individual lyrics, perhaps a single explosion of luminous insights which sketch a visionary reading of our moment in history.’ Many literary reviews (like World Literature Today, The Literary Review, CutBank, The Malahat Review, Western Humanities Review) were enthusiastic about publishing individual pieces from the book, but taking into consideration the level of commoditisation that governs the world of publishing today (alas, here the west meets the east), I doubted that any publisher in the west would venture into this kind of writing. So, it is in absolute admiration that I look at the University of Arkansas award and Syracuse University Press as a publisher.

SM: Congratulations on the award – I love it when writers don't expect to win and then do.  Could you describe a little of the translation process, in particular the challenges, and how you worked with Thoraya El-Rayyes to insure that the richness and idiosyncrasies of the original Arabic are not diminished by the transformation to English?

HB: I was lucky to work with a smart and gifted translator, who is not only good at both languages with English being her first language, but she is also “bi-cultural”, meaning she has an up-close experience in both cultures the languages represent, giving her a more in-depth access to hidden meaning and psychological modes of words and phrases. She has done an exceptional translation for a text that is very difficult to translate in the first place.

Also, I am fortunate enough to be relatively good in English, so this gave me the advantage of commenting on the translation, suggesting changes, testing the flow of sentences since musicality is an important feature of the Arabic language and my use of it in this book. This exchange between author and translator was valuable to the process of translation.

SM: Musical rhythms take us into poetry and perhaps partly explain why the Arab literary tradition is predominantly a poetic one. You write poetry and prose poetry as well as flash fiction and longer short fiction. As an idea for a piece develops, what is it that determines the form? 

HB: I primarily define myself as a writer of prose, of the short form in particular. But poetry and the “poetic” are omnipresent in my texts for four reasons:

First: Poetry has been the most influential and intrinsic literary form in Arab culture, it has been described as diwan al-Arab (the register of Arabs) and it is a main pillar in the educational system for teaching the language. In school, we were required to memorise poetry (mainly classical poetry) as a means of getting familiar with the language, pronunciation, grammar, meanings, etc. The Quran, another very influential text in Arabic culture and another main source for the teaching of the language, is very poetic in style and is written (unlike the rigid, strictly metered style of classical poetry prevalent at the time) in a more free, more “experimental” and fluid form. These magnified rhythms, these turns and flows of the language, become embedded in the subconscious and express themselves as one writes. 

Second: Outside the rigid defines of school curricula, my next most important exposure to literature and arts was Heavy Metal. It wasn't just the music I liked but the heavy lyrics that came along with it. As a teenager, I tried to get hold of original tapes because the lyrics for each song were in the sleeve, and I'd sing along. I also wrote lyrics for a band we never had the chance to assemble! So, poetry was present then/there as well.

Third: I am an admirer of poetry and an avid reader of it, thus tremendously influenced by it. I am also a big admirer of music, and as an artist of words, I try to produce music through that medium.

Fourth: Arabic language itself is very “musical”, its flow and fluidity can be exploited to serve the form and the expressibility of the text. Thus, all my writing contains elements of the poetic in various levels as a means to magnify expression or draw emphasis on certain areas or blur others. I am of the opinion that subject and form should exist in a dialectical union: a union in which the form can express, intensify and explore the subject. Poetry is an excellent tool for that approach.

I can’t say that I wrote this piece as a short-story and that piece as a poem. I write, and as the process itself unfolds, sentences take shape and “destinies” are created on the spot. There is a mental process at work all the time, and as a piece is written, a new idea might pop up and take things in another direction. That's very common among writers, but for me, it involves form as well. That said, I'd add that one can consider all my short stories as poems, and all my poems as short stories.

I have two very different modes of writing: one resembles vomiting, where I am nauseated by an idea for some days and then relieved by a first sentence that pulses out with it the rest of the piece. Usually the entire piece is written in one go, followed by a feeling of relief. These are usually the shorter pieces that are born almost complete and are later refined and edited after putting them aside for a while.

The other mode of writing resembles a process of accumulation, in which I write fragments, sentences, ideas, structures, and then sit down (like I imagine novelists would do) and work on building something from that raw material. Those would usually (but not necessarily) evolve into longer pieces that I will also put aside for a while then refine them and edit them.

SM: That vomiting a poem image will stay with me for a while. Like it, your work is hard-hitting and graphic, yet at the same time, highly lyrical, verging on the surreal. Seamus Heaney described poetic composition as a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.  Which of our most pressing predicaments is your greatest concern right now?

HB: Selfishness, individualism and anthropocentricity, all propelled and inflated by capitalism’s overarching consumerist “culture”. It is comprehendible to me that “the empowered few” would want to impoverish and oppress “the many” to maintain their status and privileges; but what I fail to understand is the success of “the few” to brainwash “the many” so that they are willing to step over each other in an illusionary attempt to try and reach “the top”, the mirage.

Here in the Arab World we are held at point-blank range.  People who do not die by the bullet or the missile die in the sea or the air-tight container of a truck trying to escape. It has been this way for decades and it's where I wake up every day. I can’t write about “sterile” subjects or “personal” subjects. At the Cork International Short Story Festival in 2014, many of the European and American writers read these benign nostalgic stories, stories about memories of childhood, stories about broken personal relationships. I'd have felt like a complete alien were it not for another weird story writer, Clive Sinclair, whose stories depart into more existential and contemplative areas with black sarcasm intertwined in the mesh.

“I am the writer of despair and harshness” said Haidar Haidar, the Syrian writer whom I acknowledge as one of my main influences. I think this phrase echoes my approach as well. It echoes our contemporary context, and our current place in that context.

SM: You also often highlight mankind's shameful treatment of the earth and its natural resources as well as our capacity for self-destruction through deception and corruption (I'm thinking of that line, 'lies trap us like a cloud of poison' from "Cunning Clouds of Betrayal").  How can poets, writers, and artists most effectively make a difference amongst the chaos of contemporary life? 

HB: There is no alchemical formula. Literature and art do not influence the immediate moment, and they have rarely influenced any outcome of events in the short term. Literature works on a deeper level of understanding. It impacts individuals rather than societies; and through its impact on individuals, it might bring forth social change in the longer historical run.

The writer is a person who rings bells, destroys them, dives into them, restructures them, presents their other meanings. A writer is thus a “pioneer” because he/she walks a land of his/her own invention or reinterpretation or dissection of “reality”. If it is not disturbing or moving, then it has no real value.

Let's take some of the works I “interacted” with in my book as examples: Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (which is, in turn, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) spoke of the horrors of colonialism, Imperialism and interventionism. Both works have failed to stop the phenomenon in question, but their value lies in maintaining consciousness; in leaving an indelible artistic mark that condemns and stands in the face of such horrors, possibly moving us one step forward, maybe an ineffective step, but necessary all the same. You can see the power of art at work in these examples. Heart of Darkness (published in 1899) still lives on, and it took on a new form in Apocalypse Now (released in 1979). Both therefore influenced my work and reappeared in it in 2015. This is the main power of art: the power of continuity and impact, regardless of its actual influence on the immediate course of history. The dormant potential is what matters most.

SM: As I read your work I was particularly affected by recurring images of humans drowning, being subsumed by a thick fog or disappearing into clouds and mist.  Similarly, pieces like "Freefall in a Shattered Mirror" and "Mirror, Mirror" rely on extremely violent images, and occasionally reminded me of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Such tropes are clearly influenced by the death toll in the Middle East, but are there any specific incidents which compelled you to pen a particular piece?

HB: Writing is born in context. The current context of humanity is that of a scorched land rather than a wasteland. It is interesting that you brought up T. S. Eliot’s poem, although I’d be more inclined to think of Wilfred Owen: his poetic account of the trenches, the cold, the bullets, the shells, and (yes, again) the gas: the deadly green mist. The First World War seems very distant but close; the tortures of a British soldier serving in France seem like old news but they are quite contemporary.

It is “death by water” in The Waste Land, and death by gas in Dulce et Decorum Est, the all-encompassing death, the death you cannot escape for it totally surrounds you. This is how it feels in the centre of the battleground. This feeling is exaggerated by absurdity when you know that people are but pawns in the chess game (The Waste Land again).

As Owen “found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate”, I found my peace in the scorched and burnt fields of my region, the peace of engagement and fighting fire with fire: absurdity with dark sarcasm, ugliness with the esthetics of flow, commercialism with multi-layered art. In his introduction to Owen’s collected works, Owen Knowles describes how “the poet adopts the machinery of war in making his work the equivalent of a destructive cannon designed to explode in the comfortable civilian’s face. The cannon is carefully aimed.” I hope my cannon is as carefully aimed.

All my literary writing is influenced by the death toll in the Middle East, not just this book in particular. Of course you’ll find pieces that are specifically written in response to certain events, like “History Will Not Be Made on This Couch” which is my literary response to the events of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The piece No. 68 in The Perception of Meaning is influenced by the scene of tens of corpses lying around on the ground following car bombings in Baghdad, and “Gaza” (a story of two parts: “Expressions in Red”, and “Expressions in White”; published in my book The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, currently being translated by Maia Tabet) is influenced by scenes of death and destruction in Gaza brought about by the “stealth” might of Israeli aerial bombardment in the 2008/2009 assault dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. The first day of the assault was characterised by bloody scenes (hence “Expressions in Red”), the following days dominated by white phosphorus, rubble, ascending dust from fallen buildings (hence “Expressions in White”).

SM: Your subject matter means that you're invariably classified first as an 'Arab' writer, whose themes concern the woes of a certain geographical area, but you have the poet's gift of addressing the universal through the particular.  For example, 'Requiem for The Aral Sea' appears lightweight, unadorned, but two key images pull heavyweight punches: God as 'just another of the unemployed' and man as the hand that turned the Aral Sea into desert. Could you explain this poem's heritage and whether it stems from Jordan's relationship with the Circassian people?

HB: Although the Aral Sea was located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there is no direct connection between that story/poem and the Circassians who comprise part of the fabric in Jordanian society, although they, alongside other parts of the fabric like Armenians and Damascene traders appear in other stories, particularly in The Monotonous Chaos of Existence which has more references to Amman and its social fabric. The society in Jordan has been and still is, very diverse: from desert Bedouins to hill farmers, from Bukhara traders to land aristocracies, and then many waves of Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian refugees have shaped and reshaped the social fabric of a country that was initially built on this diversity. The society in Jordan is similar to the short story: it is still “in the process of being invented” as Russell Banks noted. A society in the process of being invented is one that is open to experimentation, ridden with conflict, burdened with contradictions and anomalies. That is the “natural” place to nurture a short story writer.

Coming back to “Requiem for the Aral Sea”, this text came out of the horrific picture I saw in an article I read about the environmental catastrophe after the drying out of what was once one of the four largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometres. The most touching photograph was of a rusted ship standing on the sand: a silent witness to the crime. I thought, I need to be a witness too, a witness to the cruelty of Man, of “modernity” which followed the Abrahamic religions and, with its disrespect for nature (permitting devastating encroaches on the eco system for the sake of human advancement) produced societies of surplus and consumption with a bloated “I”: the consuming individual being the purpose of existence.

This was the Man-made God that fed into the tyranny of Man. Man was given Earth as his pasture land to use and abuse and was declared a Master. Now, God has reincarnated into the commodity, the advertisements being the new holy script, and Man just follows the “mirage” to his own termination: the death of the Aral Sea.

SM: We've touched on your use of often surreal imagery and I came across references to visual artists like Mondrian and Muhammad Nasrullah. You told me that you are drawn to 'crossing boundaries', considering this as paramount to the future of art and literature. Could you expand on how that philosophy feeds into your recent projects?

HB: The Arts are very important to me as a writer. They allow me to expand and develop my writing form, and give me the ability to incorporate different layers of meanings in the text. From cinema I learned how to write moving scenes and how to zoom in and out on subjects, characters and events; from contemporary dance I learned how to control and manipulate space and time; from the plastic arts I learned a different array of perspectives; from music I learned flow. I incorporate a lot of that in my writing in addition to references to films, paintings, songs, etc.

All that is done inside the text itself, but I don’t stop there. I also take the text out from the pages to engage with other arts on stage. In 2012, I launched the Arabic version of The Perception of Meaning with readings that interacted with music, live painting, and short film based on my story “Laila and the Wolf”. In 2013, I worked with a hip-hop artist and came out with a performance and an album, “The Crow Effect”, where short fiction interacted with colloquial poetry and electronic music. In 2014, I initiated an experimental laboratory under the name “Another Nightmare Explodes”, and worked with an entire set of musicians, sound artists and visual artists, an effort that resulted in a series of three performances: “First Rehearsal”, “Daydreaming” and “Endings”. Last year I also initiated collaboration with a contemporary dancer that resulted in a performance called “Fluid”, where I read a piece specifically written for the show, whereas the dancer would hear the text for the first time and improvise her moves according to her relationship with what she hears. This year, I initiated a wider platform to incorporate more writers and artists: under the name “Spaces of Engagement / Horizons of Exploration” four writers were twinned one-to-one with four artists, each twin working on a single mutual end product that was collectively performed in the theatre.

I think this process exposes writers and artists to different worlds and modes of expression, and it exposes the different audiences of each art to other arts, and to the scope of interaction between the arts.

SM: The Perception of Meaning which is due out in November 2015, is a collection of 78 flash fiction pieces of a fairly intertextual nature. Could you talk a little about how you reconcile your Arabic influences with those of a more international flavour?

HB: Well arts and literature from all around the world are part of the human literary and artistic canon. They are some of the very few things that unite us through transnational, supra-linguistic, supra-cultural influences and accumulation. Art and literature, like science, is a process where successors stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, even paradigm shifts are the result of slow accumulation of knowledge and experimentation. Therefore creativity is a process of recreation through digestion. It is only normal then that al-Hallaj, the Sufi poet from BC 10th century Baghdad, and who was killed in the most horrific of ways for having a different interpretation of the deity (is he not very contemporary in that aspect?) will be in the vicinity of Stanley Kubrick and his visionary films “Dr. Strangelove”, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut”, which tackle different levels of fanaticism, control and oppression.  Likewise, Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”, an attempt to romanticise colonialism, is there back to back with the colonised condensed in the great poetry of Humberto Ak’abal, a K'iche' Maya poet from Guatemala who has an acute sensitivity to nature and the human’s position in it.

Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of starstuff”, and I'd add, we are but particles of this cosmos, a continuity which manifests itself in different interactions, so it is only normal that all these interactions, all these influences, all these representations of art, are digested and intensely recreated to represent what this writer wants to say at this particular moment in time.

SM: And makes what he/she says totally unique, always.  In addition to the books, your work has been published widely in journals such as The Malahat Review, The Common, World Literature Today, and The Literary Review. The Honest Ulsterman has published "Voices Within" in this issue, appearing for the first time ever in English, so that's an exclusive, but where can readers access your work in English online (as I'm sure they'll want to after reading this)? Do you have a blog or a website and how do you most often engage with your readers?

HB: I am very “outside” the virtual world. I actually have negative feelings towards it. I have only recently acquired a Twitter account (@H_Bustani). My Facebook account is for friends only, but by the time this interview is published, a website will be partially active: HishamBustani.com. The only obligation I feel towards social media is to keep in contact with the readers and those interested in my work. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have any internet presence at all.

I’d say the website is the best platform to read my previously published material, check for updates and follow-up on my forthcoming events, translations and books.

SM: Hisham, it's been a pleasure. I know you've visited Ireland when you were hosted by The Cork International Short Story Festival in 2014 and I hope that you'll have many more opportunities to share your work and your views with us again in the near future. Shoukran!

HB: ‘Afwan! Thank you Safia for these smart and deep questions. I was very impressed with Cork itself, its short story festival (an internationally unique celebration of an often neglected literary genre) and its vibrant cultural scene and activities that are mainly organised by the Munster Literature Centre. During the festival, there was one particular day when all the libraries, art galleries, bookstores, and other cultural spaces would open up for the public for an entire day of exhibiting, story-reading, musical performances, theatre performances, children’s cultural activities, and many other things. That was one of the most brilliant things, showing how a city can embrace literature and arts and bring them closer to its residents; something we completely miss in this part of the world.  

* The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani (translator Thoraya El-Rayyes) is published by Syracuse University Press: http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2015/perception-of-meaning.html