Hanna Mina,Sorrows and Joys

Hanna Mina is one of the most famous Syrian authors of our time; well-known to Arabic readers, virtually unknown to the international reading community. He has published 40 novels, written countless editorials, numerous television scripts and contributed to the shaping of the realist form of fiction in the Arab world.

The novelist, born in 1924, says he has had his fill of life's sorrows and joys. He retracted his earlier wish for his gravestone to be inscribed with: "The Woman, the Sea, and Unquenchable Thirst."

His cramped study is surrounded by portraits of Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov and  Ernest Hemingway. Chain-smoking, he recounts stories of distant rough seas, a tough childhood, mysterious women, and unforgotten memories. He is the Syrian Zorba completing his last dance.

His father moved in the 1930s from what had been the Syrian province of Iskenderun to Latakia, homeless and lost, but never found the safe refugee he sought. His son would also be made homeless and set off on travels of his own, albeit under different circumstances, which ended up taking him to China as an exile.

With only an elementary school certificate, Mina used to write letters and petitions to the government on behalf of illiterate neighbors. He later opened a barber’s shop in Latakia. But above all, Mina was a teller of maritime tales.

Mina introduced the sea to the Arabic novel, and took it into unchartered narrative waters."The sea has always been the source of my inspiration."The text of The Road and the Storm had its own long journey. The manuscript was lost three times in postage. He sent another copy from China to his friend Said Houraniyeh by sea freight. It too got lost between Shanghai and Beirut.

In the 1950s, Mina joined the Damascus newspaper al-Inshaa as a trainee editor. He wrote several short stories, which brought him into literary circles, and he co-founded the Syrian Writers Federation in 1951.

The fame he acquired and the prestige that came with it never stopped him from reflecting on the harsh details of his earlier life. In fact, they provided fuel for his novels, and he would invoke them like a mantra to protect his soul from damage. This pioneering novelist concedes that no matter how deep and moving writing can be, it cannot match his life's toughest experiences. "Reality carves its inscriptions on human skin with a hot iron that leaves permanent marks and scars," Mina says.

In the early 1980s, Mina made his famous declaration that: "In the 21st century, the novel will become for the Arabs what poetry is to them today." This prophecy appeared to be a cry in the wilderness at the time. But critics caught on to the idea and the term "age of the novel" began being widely used, ushering in a new emerging generation of Arab novelists. Some of them quickly overtook their elders, but Mina's novels have remained best-sellers.

Mina does not seek to create archetypes, and stresses that honesty comes first. Mina has authored about 40 novels, varying in imaginary value and narrative significance. But his achievement lies in the foundation he laid for this literary structure. Characters such as Zakaria al-Mirsanli in al-Yater, al-Turousi in The Road and the Storm, and Mufid al-Wahsh in The End of a Brave Man, are living examples of life experience intertwined with fiction.

Thus, he reduces the distance between the novel and autobiography, counting on life's paradoxes, follies, and recklessness. He sees the need to expose what has been left unsaid, guided by what forebears wrote centuries ago.

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Nada Haj Khidr

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