Hisham Bustani is an award-winning writer and poet and the author of five collections of poetry and fiction, including Of Love and Death (2008) and The Perception of Meaning (2012), which received the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. In 2017, he was awarded a Bellagio residency for writers by the Rockefeller Foundation. In addition to his literary and artistic achievements, Bustani is also a prominent activist in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. His latest work, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, translated from Arabic by Maia Tabet, has just been published by Mason Jar Press. Curtis Ryan, professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and a member of MERIP’s editorial committee, interviewed him in March 2022.
Curtis Ryan: Congratulations on your new book, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence. This book is your second in English translation from a total of five literary works in Arabic. The inclusion of vintage photos and even graphic novel elements is unique and innovative. Can you tell us about these different styles and why you chose to include them in this collection?
Hisham Bustani: I am a writer who thinks literary writing is a collaborative work done in partnership with readers; I therefore opt for writing forms that enable such a collaboration, and give ample space for a reader’s reflection, creation, manipulation and even subversion. Comics is an immediately observable reinterpretation done by one reader, the artist, of the written word in a different medium, so other readers can become more involved, as the text further opens up in another dimension: visually.
Archival photographs tend to blur the borders between fiction and reality or, more precisely, reorient fiction to be viewed as a product of reality. Everything an artist uses and expresses, even in the most abstract or surreal of forms and concepts is, or represents, a part of the physical world and each impression, emotion or interpretation an observer/reader will experience, is part of experiences derived from the physical world. We can’t imagine anything that is not based on elements of the observable universe. Salvador Dali painted an elephant with long giraffe-like legs carrying a city on its back, an entirely unrealistic being, yet all of its constituent elements are repositioned or manipulated parts of the real world. A person watching a Mark Rothko painting will imagine a sky or the smell of cinnamon or recall the warm feelings once felt in the company of a lost loved one or a complex combination of those and other elements. Again, all those are part of the physical world and our experiences in it, the same goes for Rothko’s experiences, emotions and motivations that lead to his abstract painting.
Art steps in to unearth new and deeper perceptions and visions, establish new connections and formations, or inflict organic emotional experiences, revealing what otherwise might pass unnoticed. This is a function of the artistic tool itself. It is something that is very difficult to do without the involvement of the reader when we’re talking about literary art.
Another angle on this topic stems from the fact that literary writing is a very individual, selfish endeavor, I often say that when I write literature, I don’t write for “an audience” or with an audience in mind, I write for my own artistic, literary fulfillment. The audience comes in only once the piece is published. Literary writing that engages the reader creatively is one attempt to counteract the individual-selfish aspect of writing, democratizing and “socializing” the resulting text.
Curtis: Your work is known for being innovative and even experimental and daring, in both your short stories and your poetry. Do you lean more toward one or the other medium or are these perhaps complementary in your writing?
Hisham: I tend to look at short fiction and poetry as different tools, or brushes, to paint the finished canvas, which is the text. You’ll find both the short story form and poetry in the same book, sometimes in the same piece, sometimes you’ll feel that this text is a short story, but it will also work as poetry. I often play around with the concept of a genre by submitting a “short story” as a poem or a “poem” as a piece of short fiction to relevant editors in literary journals. So far, no one (including myself) can establish a concrete difference. One example is “Orchestra,” a hybrid piece from The Monotonous Chaos of Existence that can be considered both poetry and fiction. Another example is “Voices Within,” a piece from the yet-to-be published Preludes to an Inevitable Demise. A personal favorite of mine as a poem, it will be published as a piece of fiction. I see my book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) as a book of prose-poetry hybrids, but it was published as a book of flash fictions, which is also what it is.
The genre of writing is not my concern, and I don’t think it should be the concern of any writer. Writers’ concern should be focused on the artistic, literary angle: is this literary/artistic writing or not? How can we develop the artistic side of writing? This is a question of form and of perspective.
The problem here (as in many other contexts in our contemporary world) is that publishing, in its mainstream commercial side, is a capitalist industry, and books—like other commodities—are encouraged to be “easier” to digest in order for them to succeed on the level of mass consumption, that puts a lot of pressure on writers to supply “what the public demands” (basically: what the publisher thinks will sell). So, today literary writing is being pushed to the margins.
If you add other complicating factors: the experimental nature of my writing and the fact that it is in translation from a marginalized language and culture (as seen through a Euro-US-centric vantage point) you can appreciate how compounded the challenge becomes for a writer like me. So, I’m happy that there are still organizations out there like Mason Jar Press, the wonderful publisher of The Monotonous Chaos of Existence. Indie presses and literary journals are the ones keeping literary writing alive and kicking, they should be highly valued for that service.
Curtis: “Faysali and Wehdat” is one of your most powerful stories, and one that really underscores the dark side of identity politics in Jordan. How did you approach writing this story, what is its meaning for you and how has it been received in Jordan? (Note: Faysali and Wehdat are the two main rival teams in Jordan’s premier football league, known for the intensity of their fans. The former’s fan base is heavily East Bank Jordanian and the latter is heavily Palestinian Jordanian.)
Hisham: This story was the result of a bewilderment I had and still have about how a relatively new set of fabricated identities are taken for granted at face value among many sectors of society, despite all the contrary historical, societal, economic and even political facts that are still evident and alive today. These identities are the direct product of colonialist division of the region following World War I, which were then adopted and fiercely promoted by corrupt, subordinate regimes as part of their legitimizing propaganda and pseudo-historical narratives. For example, the residents of towns and villages along the border regions in northern Jordan and southern Syria are the same families, displaced into two separate nation states with two separate national identities by an arbitrary border set up by British and French mandate authorities. Part of the farming land on this side of the border belongs to people living on the other side, and vice versa, and to this day, both access their land across the border via special permits. Another example is the natural roaming lands of Bedouin tribes in the south of Jordan, which extends into the northern and northwestern parts of Hijaz and Najd (now Saudi Arabia).
The story also taps into other important subjects, namely, the employment of sports as a tool within a politics of control, in addition to the use of racist and nationalist narratives to mask the unbalanced power relations between the ruling and the ruled.
“Faysali and Wehdat” has almost caused the book to be censored in Jordan. You can read about it in detail in the essay “A Bouquet of Subversive Ideas, Dedicated to Censorship,” published in Barricade. The regime in Jordan was definitely not so happy about it. The censors were especially occupied with and persistent about one question: who among the characters that appear under the subtitle “New Salvador Dalí Painting” represent the Jordanian monarch? Back when the Arabic version was published in 2010, that subject was a major “red line” no one was supposed to cross, even through literary nuances.
After a month-long push and pull with the Department of Press and Publication (the official name of the censoring authority in Jordan), they allowed the book to be distributed in Jordan. A couple of months later, a friend who went to borrow The Monotonous Chaos of Existence from the public library of one of the main independent cultural organizations in Jordan, the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, told me that it was banned from being publicly available on their shelves.
I’ve expounded on these details related to the story to illustrate how so-called independent cultural organizations in Jordan, proclaiming themselves to be carriers of the torch of enlightenment and promoters of artistic liberties and critical thinking, practice censorship as well, sometimes more vehemently than the regime.
Curtis: You’ve been very fortunate in your choice of translators, such as Thoraya El-Rayyes and Maia Tabet. How hard is it to make your stories and poetry available to English-speaking audiences while retaining the original import and meaning?
Hisham: I am indeed fortunate to have worked with magnificent and very knowledgeable literary translators. Thoraya is a writer herself and a brilliant political scientist currently finishing her PhD on Middle East politics at the London School of Economics; Maia, in addition to being an excellent literary translator, is also the associate editor at the Journal of Palestine Studies, so both translators are deeply knowledgeable about the Arab region, not just from the aspects of language and culture, but also politically and socially, so they are able to detect and relay undertones, nuances and the different layers present in my writing, and in particular words or phrases used in special, local contexts. My knowledge of the English language helps me discuss the different drafts with the translators, point out missed embedded meanings or moods and discuss ways of relaying flow and musicality. I also learn a lot from the translators, sometimes introducing edits into the original Arabic version of the stories because of this interaction.
I think translation is an independent creative process, the translated text is an independent text altogether and (if we want to talk about genres) is one true literary genre, a recreation. If transforming a text into a visual medium (comics) is a direct application of extending the creative power to the reader, then translation is definitely another application. There is surely a power relation involved in translation, especially when the target language is globally dominant and the translator is only bilingual but not bicultural, but the process we adopt neutralizes this discrepancy, I hope.
I should also note that I’m currently working with yet another brilliant literary translator, Alice Guthrie, who is bringing my book A Last Breath Before It All Ends, into English. Three pieces from her translation were recently featured in a number of literary reviews; “Packing for a Trip to the Sea” was featured in the New England Review, “Suspended in midair, one-third flexion in the knee joints” was featured in the Massachusetts Review and “Settling: Towards an Arabic translation of the English word ‘Home’” was featured in The Markaz Review. Another piece in Alice’s translation, “Shooting at a Handcuffed City,” is forthcoming in Guernica, so stay tuned!
Curtis: You have long been one of Jordan’s most well-known writers, recognized internationally by multiple awards, but you are also an activist. Can you tell us how your art and your activism interact? And it is hard at times to balance these or are they intertwined and complementary?
Hisham: The activist part of me definitely informs the writer part, provides it with depth and enriches it with experiences and interactions. If a scientist always stands on the shoulders of his predecessors, then writers and artists stand on the shoulders of their surroundings: friends, society, region, the world, other artists and writers, experiences and the interactions that result from all of those elements. This network of existence is what makes a writer—being involved with matters related to my society, my region, and humanity and the world in general gives me wider access and understanding and humbles me.
Writers and artists are always involved with the elements of the world, whether they declare it or not; they cannot write or produce art otherwise. The difference is that I practice my involvement. I believe that this practice gives me a richer experience, makes my existence much more useful, to avoid using the word meaningful. Searching for “meaning” is centered on the individual and is selfish; being useful conveys a sense of continuity with society and nature.
Curtis: You were a big part of the Jordanian national campaign against the gas deal with Israel, which included some innovative forms of activism. Can you discuss the influence of that campaign and perhaps where you see activism going in Jordan today?
Hisham: The campaign was, and still is, a landmark in Jordan’s history of popular political participation, which is often highly restricted and discouraged by the Jordanian regime. As you mentioned, the campaign used innovative and novel techniques, tactics and modalities of protest: It staged a popular tribunal for the regime, complete with officially summoning the government to the peoples’ court and delivery of the court’s decision to the Prime Minister’s office; it used performance and art in many of its sit-ins and demonstrations; it created the largest banner in Jordan’s protest history (33 by 115 feet) and was carried in several locations in Amman; it lobbied the Parliament and managed to get, on two separate occasions, a massive majority vote the first time, and a unanimous vote the second time, against the gas deal, both completely disregarded by our “democratic” government. The campaign also utilized graffiti, implemented a successful national black-out (turn off your lights) protest, extended itself across the country—beyond the capital Amman and reintroduced cross-ideological collaboration between political parties that had turned against each other following the Arab uprisings in 2010–2013, which had further fragmented the already weak political scene in Jordan. The campaign also introduced new media like infographics, information booklets and heavily researched public statements (with references and footnotes) to disseminate credible information about the deal (and alternatives to it), as well as its impact on Jordan’s sovereignty and economy, the magnitude of support it provides for Israel, its occupation and wars.
Yet, the campaign, as is the case with all participatory initiatives in Jordan, has a very narrow space to maneuver. Laws are very restrictive and the many recent constitutional “reforms” concentrated more and more power in the hands of the king who (according to the same constitution) is immune from any liability and responsibility. Add to that the influence and interventionist power of the mukhabarat (the intelligence department), which has a deep reach throughout the country, and the role recently taken-up by the Diwan (Royal Court) by establishing several platforms to absorb and co-opt what remains of the actively engaged individuals through a series of never-ending discussion groups designed to consume enthusiasm and energy and yield nothing. Looking at all these developments you can get a sense of the political desertification the regime in Jordan is sponsoring. Those who are still dissenting outside those circles and beyond specific “red lines” are arrested and prosecuted.
The situation is grim, especially in a world that has moved in the past years to become more authoritarian, more security-based, more involved in surveillance and control. However, that does not mean that the people will yield to such a situation. If history was a physical field, then people and their movements would be the fluctuation that amasses change, eventually. A world without protest is a dream that authority often has. Involved people who care about justice, equality, humanity and nature should keep that authoritarian dream in check, and work to change the current situation in the world. Impossible? Well, if this world is possible, then any other world is too.