Career[ edit ] Her father was fond of both Western literature and Arabic literature ; this influenced her deeply and gave her a unique style that combines attributes of both. Nevertheless, she soon was confronted with the conservative Damascene society in which she was raised and lived her early years. However, she was lumped at the time with other traditional feminine writers. Her later publications took her out of the tight range of feminine and love novels to much wider social, feminist and philosophical extents. The articles she wrote during that period became the source of some of her later publications. A few months later the civil war broke out in Lebanon.
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Ghada Samman: A Writer of Many Layers By Pauline Homsi Vinson Ghada Samman is a prolific writer who has produced over 40 works in a variety of genres, including journalism, poetry, short stories, and the novel. Outspoken, innovative, and provocative, Samman is a highly respected if sometimes controversial writer in the Arab world who is becoming increasingly well known internationally; several of her works have been translated from Arabic into languages such as English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Farsi.
All of the works above have been reviewed in previous issues of Al Jadid. There is a wealth of material on Samman in Arabic, including several book-length studies and numerous interviews. Her mother, who was a writer herself, 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.
She then obtained an M. From there she went to London to pursue a Ph. While Samman was still in London, her father died. During that crucial year of , 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. 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; currently, she maintains two homes, one in Beirut and one in Paris.
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 and thus has been able to publish her own writing free of editorial interference.
While her writing can sometimes seem repetitious, 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 writing. 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.
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. Through symbolism and allegory, Samman addresses sensitive social and political issues that might be either too dangerous or less effective if confronted directly. A distinctive feature of her work is the symbolic use of animals to give insight into the human condition.
Khalil is a struggling, poor Lebanese who is caught in the snare of his rich and corrupt immigrant compatriots. His predicament is powerfully embodied in two images of trapped creatures. The second is a rat that Khalil sees in a shop window in Greece, ceaselessly running among the replicas of Lebanese ruins being sold under an Israeli flag.
Staring at the rat, Khalil understands that what he sees is his own image looking back at him. In these ways, Samman encapsulates the condition of many Lebanese. Seduced by the attractions of commercial profit, they become trapped in conditions of their own making. The front section of the shop is reserved for the customers. It presents a beautiful, modern, clean, and urbane atmosphere.
The back section, however, which the protagonist glimpses surreptitiously, reveals the cramped, dirty, and horrible conditions in which the shop owner keeps the animals. Like the poor and oppressed Lebanese masses, the animals remain in horrible conditions in order to ensure the commercial success of the pet owner, whose wealth depends not only on the ill treatment of his animals, but also on his presentation of a convincingly modern and progressive front.
Like the disenfranchised Lebanese masses, the animals in the pet shop become so accustomed to their imprisonment that they are lost and confused when the protagonist opens their cages and offers them freedom. Then like so many of the Lebanese fighters waging war in the streets of Beirut, the animals turn against one another long before they attack the shop owner, who is set upon by the dogs when he finally remembers to bring food to his neglected charges. This style, as several critics have noted see, for example, Al Jadid, Nos.
I am learning how to polish my Arab tools in the light of the literary endeavors of others. In this collection, Samman explores the difficulties and internal contradictions experienced by various Arab immigrants living in Europe. In settings far removed from their Arab origins, the various characters encounter liberation for women, but also racism, displacement, and alienation.
As they struggle with questions of identity, allegiance, separation, and personal freedom, they also discover the tenacious hold of old traditions upon their lives. These appear in various guises, some positive, some negative, but almost always as the manifestations of repressed anxieties and fears that haunt the characters in supernatural form.
They neither confine themselves to palaces and the rich, nor do they wear white sheets and burst into laughter. Rather, they assume forms modeled upon those found in Arabic folkloric superstitions and literary traditions.
When Samman signals the meanings of her symbols and the Arabic heritage that she evokes in her writing in — at times — overly explicit modes, it may be the result of her multi-layered attempts to both justify her literary choices and reach as wide an audience as possible. The title and chapter headings, coupled with grotesque comedy, the absurd, and the macabre all recreate the nightmarish aspect of the civil war, stiflingly experienced by the narrator-protagonist in both her waking and sleeping states.
Moreover, they are a forum for political critique and the questioning of such issues as corruption, inequality, the plight of the poor, the role of violence in revolution, and, especially, the relationship between the pen and the gun. We see this through the eyes of Khalil, who is coerced into becoming a drug user. When Khalil tries to warn one of them of the impending disaster, he is told to mind his own business.
In this circus world, the police function to silence or expel anyone who speaks out against the show. The women participants are content in traditional female roles and refuse any alternative to their daily household chores. It is easy to see how the different episodes in the circus represent the sad state of Arab, and especially Lebanese, life as Samman sees it.
It is a state of enforced silence and willing surrender, a state far fallen from the long-gone glories of Arab civilization as epitomized and idealized in the Arab Andalusian past, a time and place in history to which one of the stunted circus performers allows Khalil to time-travel to in secret.
The will to wake up is what we [Arabs] are lacking. This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol.
Ghada Samman: A Writer of Many Layers