Writer Lifts Veil on Syrian Life
Interview with Ammar Abdulhamid
Abdulhamid’s daring début novel Menstruation, which examines the
issues of sexuality and repression, has been banned in the author’s
conservative Muslim homeland.
writer Ammar Abdulhamid has come a long way to publish his first novel, the
provocatively titled Menstruation. It was only through his journey into
various aspects of Islamic fundamentalism and his struggles to come to terms
with his own identity and religious beliefs that he was able to write his daring
début, which explores in depth the contemporary issues of sexuality,
self-awareness and repression within the conservative religious framework of
novel, originally written in English and published by British publishing house
Saqi Books last year , has been translated into six languages including
Japanese, but its controversial content means it cannot be published in Arabic
for readers in Ammar’s home country.
kinds of issues are very difficult to accept in Syria,” the writer said in an
interview during a recent visit to Japan.
for me, writing is a therapeutic process, a way of coping with reality,” he
said. “When I was disillusioned with Islamic fundamentalism, I became so
depressed that I thought I would commit suicide. It was at that moment that I
started writing. It saved my life.”
is in many ways a portrayal of how Ammar came to realize his doubts about and
frustration with religion and traditional Syrian life, told through the eyes of
contemporary Syrian young people. The story is narrated on various levels,
including through the eyes of Hasan, a local imam’s son who has a strange
ability to tell when a woman is menstruating by her smell, and Wisam, who is
unhappily married to a domineering man. Both are frustrated and repressed in
their conservative lives until they enter into sexual encounters that
irreversibly transform them—Hasan has an affair with a married woman, while
Wisam has her first lesbian relationship. Their liberation shakes their
previously held notions of religion and sexuality forever, and with the help of
progressive intellectuals Nadim and Kindah, the two start to form a whole new
outlook on life.
the cultured and religiously mixed environment in which Ammar was brought up in
traditional and sectarian Syria, it is little wonder the 36-year-old writer
started questioning his religious identity. In particular, he was influenced on
many levels by his unconventional, artistic family—his mother is one of
Syria’s best known movie stars and his father is a prolific film director.
According to Ammar, the whole issue of religion was very malleable and flexible
in his family.
“I was sent to a Catholic boarding school when I was 3, but adopted Islam when I was 7,” he said. “This change created no difficulties whatsoever.”
was in 1983, when the then 17-year-old Ammar arrived in Britain—his first
visit to a Western country—that he began to focus on his religious identity
and its influence on him.
felt a strong repulsion toward the emphasis on masculinity and machismo in the
West. It seemed as though everyone was wearing masculinity on their sleeves. Why
couldn’t things be more natural?” said Ammar, who was in Britain to study.
his long-cherished dream was to become an astronomer, so he left Britain and
moved to Moscow the following year to pursue his goal. However, eight months was
all Ammar lasted under the restrictive Soviet system.
reality killed my dream. I just couldn’t cope with the Soviet way of life,”
he said. “I had to be accountable at all times. It was like living with ‘Big
Brother’ from George Orwell’s 1984.”
lost his dream and grown frustrated at being unable to settle in either country,
Ammar turned to religion, and one month later became a fundamentalist. He went
to the United States in 1986 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where
he studied for a bachelor’s degree in history while educating himself to be an
was while studying Islamic law that Ammar came across the Koran’s teachings on
menstruation and female hygiene, which he later adopted in his novel.
was shocked to find that for more than 1,400 years, menstruation has been
regarded as an impure and dirty thing, when it’s supposed to be a sign of
life,” he explained.
are not allowed to pray or fast in a ritual manner, and men avoid eating from
the same bowl as their wives when their wives are menstruating. Some men in
religious families even check their wives’ tampons to make sure. Can you
was the many such unexpected discoveries Ammar made that saw him gradually lose
his faith in Islam. The last straw was the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, in
which Iran’s Islamic government declared the Indian writer’s novel The
Satanic Verses blasphemous for criticizing Mohammed and issued a death
order, or fatwa, against him.
death sentence! I just couldn’t digest the idea that a man should be killed
because he disagreed with certain beliefs,” Ammar said. The incident
ultimately made Ammar turn his back on fundamentalism, as he realized he was
wasting his time, he said.
it was very hard to accept the truth at first,” he explained. “I thought of
killing myself. I was so dispirited, but I found my way out by writing my
thoughts down on paper.”
back on his intensely religious period now, Ammar admits he was searching for
the answers to certain universal questions. “But I don’t need them anymore
because I’m secure with myself, capable of loving and being loved. It took a
long time to discover this single truth.”
regards himself as an atheist now, finding both Mohammed and Jesus mere
psychological archetypes. He said he has learned the importance of drawing
one’s own conclusions through raw experience. “After all, it’s the only
way we can find any wisdom. And it’s necessary that we be open to differences,
especially cultural differences, because we’re all interrelated in this small
believes the global change effected by contemporary Western civilization has
created a clash between tradition and modernization, ultimately bringing similar
identity crises to many people around the world. He stresses the need to listen
to the grievances of people worldwide to find a suitable solution that leaves no
country on the sidelines.
country must play God, for as long as there’s a God, there will always be a
devil,” he said. “This is what the majority of Arab people feel right
now—that the Americans are playing God, and that Western civilization was
taking advantage of their misery until finally, late last year, people were
willing to ram airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York.
when a county feels powerful and victorious enough to crush the smallest
rebellion that trouble always starts.”
has now returned to Syria, which he describes as the place where all his
inspirations lie. There he intends to continue creating dialogue through Etana
Press, a small publishing company he recently established in Damascus. He said
he plans to hold seminars and publish books that will generate dialogue in an
environment that still needs to be enlightened.
so often the case that Syrian people are open only on a superficial level,”
Ammar said. “For example, take women who’ve removed their veils and wear
bikinis instead. They want Western privileges—to be free and independent—but
they still want to be proposed to in a traditional way like Eastern women.
They’re not eager to sacrifice anything on either side, you see.”
Ammar cannot publish his work in Syria because of the country’s strict
censorship laws, he plans to release it in Arabic on the Internet in the near
future. Even the English publishing house that published Menstruation had
to remove the final chapter of the book—which featured characters talking
frankly about religious taboos—for fear of provoking fundamentalists.
there’s bound to be a lot of rejection from people at home when it comes out
on the Internet in Arabic,” Ammar said. “There will probably be more
shouting than dialogue. But I hope the book will suggest a rational way for
dialogue between those who follow a religion and those who don’t.”
© Asahi Shinbun News
IHT/Asahi: April 7, 2002