Cover photo by Per Albrightsen, Ostlandsposten,2018
You can read the original interview appearing on 30 November 2021 in L’Ortique in Italian and English here
Valentina and Viviana: What’s your experience of writing and living with two languages, Palestinian Arabic and Norwegian? How do languages bond with memories and the possibilities to tell your and Palestinian stories?
Wesam Almadani: For someone like me who was born in Sudan, grew up in Egypt, then moved to Gaza to live 20 years there, and then moved to Norway, it is a completely correct question.
Language is a culture in itself, so when we learn a language, we need to learn the culture and history of this language so that we can write in it and use it in creative and literary writing. Therefore, learning the Norwegian language was not as difficult as it is difficult to understand the current culture of this language, and this requires a long time. Despite reading Norwegian history and studying some Norwegian cultural and linguistic history, I still ask: Will the day come when I use Norwegian in my literary works?
On the other hand, the quality of the audience is a challenge when I write. After what I went through in the experience of translating my work into Norwegian, the urgent question became, who is my audience, is he a European, a Norwegian, or an Arab reader? Every audience has a certain expectation and preference when it comes to literary taste.
How do I write about the violence and hatred that we suffer under the weight of the war in a positive language that does not harm the Western reader, but is strong enough to reflect the amount of pain the Palestinians suffered and expect me and any writer to be honest in exposing this pain? How do I write the feelings of a mother who lost her children, how do I fulfil her right, and how do I protect my Western reader, and make sure that he does not suffer depression and sadness for which he is not guilty?
While the purpose of this work is to mobilize voices in support of the human right to live in peace. Therefore, you will find in my new collection of short stories That’s how war left me alive, some stories that present the war in a humorous way, such as a missile that tells of its suffering among its family, or a clown who uses a helium balloon (for children) to survive.
Valentina and Viviana: One of the topics you address in your writing is homophile in the Arabic countries. Could you tell us more about this?
Wesam Almadani: In 2013, a lesbian friend of mine committed suicide while she was pregnant. Her death caused great pain to me and the rest of my friends, but it was a light that gave me strength. I decided to write her story and shed light on the suffering of other lesbians from different Arab countries, giving them the right to speak and giving them a neutral voice to talk about their suffering, their experiences, and the experiences of their friends who left this world because they were killed by their families or committed suicide.
The aim of the novel The body’s Schizophrenia was to shed light on other aspects of gays, especially lesbians, to give the reader the opportunity to see them from another perspective. To see that they are no different from him, just ordinary people and not corrupt lustful animals who want to rape everyone and corrupt society, as the commercial novels show them. I also wanted to show the extent of the suffering they are exposed to, both from the community around them and the special inner suffering that makes them not feel at peace and reject themselves. It is not an attempt to impose the acceptance of homosexuals, but just to gain the sympathy of others, as a start. In the hope that society will stop the judgment against homosexuals and stop bothering them, hopefully in the near future they will be able to accept them.
The novel is the story of a lesbian Arabic woman in her journey of understanding and living the conflict inside her between what she really is and how the Arabic society wants her to act. This is the main motive for all the actions in the novel. The reader will have a look inside the Arabic society through the stories of other women crossing her life.
After the fourth chapter, I put the blue chapter which contains parts of real Facebook pages about homosexual their secret society, and their problems in the Arabic countries written in their own dialect (I wanted to show that they are everywhere in the middle east), and for that reason, I worked at least two years in collecting the stories from the real-life in different countries.
Valentina and Viviana: Norway and Palestine, two very distant places and cultures. Could you tell us the most beautiful aspects of both cultures?
Valentina and Viviana: It would be easier to look at the similarities between us humans but we focus more on the differences: to what do we owe this ancestral limit?
Wesam Almadani: I answer to both these questions. When I hear the word Palestine, the first thing that comes to my mind is the word “Dar”, which means home, my grandfather, and my grandmothers, people who in war open their homes to strangers for helping them, the smell of the old olive trees from which my grandfather was keen to make us pick olives one by one, so as not to harm the tree. The whole family would gather every year to pick olives, amid laughter and warm conversations.
Palestine is a word that means family, love, and sympathy. This is the thing I am most proud of when I am talking about our culture.
And when I think of Norway, I feel the fresh air of freedom in my chest. I feel respect for Norway and its people, who have been able to develop themselves in such a wonderful way so that there is respect, acceptance and empathy for others who are different. The unconditional love with which my Norwegian friends surrounded me.
Unfortunately, many people focus on difference and use it for bad purposes, such as to create reasons for hatred, discrimination, and division between people. But if we tried to study my experience in two geographically distant countries that have two completely different languages, we will find that they shared many beautiful customs and inherited traditions. An example of this is the Norwegians’ retention of the “Bunad” as a national dress, just as the Palestinians who keep the Palestinian peasant dress “althawb”, and both use it in celebrating.
Another example is the importance of the family in both cultures, despite the different ways of showing this love between the two cultures.
I am very happy that my children are growing up in a country with ancient customs and traditions that enable them to keep and understand the customs that they brought from the motherland.
Valentina and Viviana: “Light I was jumping through its holes, recolouring it, giving it the gift of speech despite the silence of the body.” Light has words, the body is silent. Could you tell us something about the importance of writing in your life?
Valentina and Viviana: Your poetry and narrative are testimony literature. Do you think it can, at least in part, transform the hatred, rage, fear between human beings?
Wesam Almadani: I answer to both these questions. The world around us has become very scary and unfair. I feel that we have all become implicated in the making of injustice. When we live our lives normally while wars kill and destroy people’s lives when the legal and illegal arms industry and trade continue, and when people oppress minority groups in conservative societies and steal their lives.
I feel that our duty is mobilizing to stop all this, or else we – with this silence – are involved in supporting this injustice in one way or another.
Writing is my only way to fight all of this. I believe that the word has a power no less than the power of the weapon to create change, but it needs time.
There is a concept called the Fusion of Horizons, which was made popular by Hans Georg Gadamer in his book Truth and Method. It acknowledges the fact that all people are limited by their own horizons. The only way that we can get a better understanding of reality is when we enter into constructive dialogue and fuse our horizons. I totally agree with him. By writing about different topics from different perspectives, we give people the opportunity to rethink their positions and opinions, giving them the ability to understand the feelings of others.
For example, when I chose the war and its effects on people in That’s how war left me alive, I wanted to show the side and images that newscasts couldn’t convey. The war does not end with the declaration of a cease-fire, the matter goes further because war is a slow poison that leaves a trail that poisons the present generation, the future, and perhaps beyond. A person who experiences war will not be the same person who was before it. This person and his roles in his family and society – unintentionally – will transmit this trauma in different forms to those around him, such as turning into a violent person who harms others or withdraws from people and gets excessive fear that makes him/her unable to play his/her role as a father or mother or even as a human being. The words finished and there are many effects that words cannot describe, and this is of course in addition to the physical damages such as disability, and the chemical effects on crops that cause different types of cancers, etc. This is what I also touched upon when I talked about my novel The body’s Schizophrenia. I tried to present people in a real way. The curtain revealed their suffering.
surrounds by mountains,
or maybe it’s only inside me.
I have a face,
and several things,
but I don’t look like anyone else.
Hiding under my hat.
In the group photo, I look like hat-wearing shoes.
Neither the photographer asks,
nor take I place in the pictures.
Ideas take the form of people,
One of them is afraidly reeling
It’s whispers stings me: tell them,
come out into the light,
let everything fall into place,
maybe everything will be fine.
Another thought running panicly,
it’s mouth is a gray cloud blowing it’s storms towards me:
don’t do that,
You will be killed, burned, banished
The curse of the Lord and his creation will come upon you.
A dressed-up idea swaying,
comes from the other side,
showing it’s most beautiful suits,
let out a loud laugh in the form of words:
Live as you wish,
remove their names from you,
Whoever loved you will accept you,
and others will reject you
But you are what you are anyway.
suddenly the mountains become smaller,
and I get bigger
what should I do?
am I ready
Or do I have to prepare myself?
it doesn’t matter
I was created
as the mountains were created,
no matter if I stand or hide
I have the height of the mountains
and the capacity of my heart
War has started
I want to sleep for a long time
Peacefully, never scratch a dream
Escaping from the martyrs noise
From the hissing of crying
From the braveness of the scream
I want to sleep for a long time
Till death wakes me up
Or awakening forgets me
War /poetry /electricity /exile
Screams / blood / the whiz of the plane
Yes poetry is a criterion
The words are shaking in the hug of a child
Nothing annoys the plane
We reschedule the words
No poems until the war dies
A fourth language spoken by the walls
No rain in summer
Writing can’t draw the houses that didn’t comb their hair
The aurora surprised it / suddenly cut their hair
An explosion inside as outside
It is that bubble between you and the place
The scene becomes rougher
Blood and panic from each direction
The war turns houses /stories /women/children /the orange /olives
To their first creation, sand.
The war is ironic, it can’t smile.
Clothesline and the dead trees at the fake ceasefire
They are touching the smell of the place
The smell seems with different touch
She can’t recognize it
Autumn was shy from the dead branches
Lulls the dead baby’s body
The ceasefire was broken before the roads breathe their sons,
Everybody is running
The plane too
And the land silently fixed, digging more graves
On the other side of the text
The news drinks our fear
We sleep for a few moments without eating
Mom, does the plane sleep?
The answer comes from outside
Something was broken, something was falling
Maybe it is the neighbor’s house
Or it is just our fears
The base says
The rocket that you hear doesn’t kill you
© Wesam Almadani
© Valentina Di Cesare & Viviana Fiorentino
Wesam Almadani is a Palestinian writer. Originally from Jaffa, Wesam grown up between Sudan, Egypt and Gaza. She lives in Norway. She published two books, the novel The body’s schizophrenia (Arab institute for research & publishing, 2020) and the poetry collection ياء yaa, (Dar Al Kalima for Publishing and Distribution, 2015). Wesam’s literary works have been translated into English, Norwegian, Swedish, Hebrew and Italian. As an activist, Wesam has fought for human rights, freedom of expression whatever the religion, gender or background and the collective right to live in peace.