Conversations with Writers: Rana Haddad

Nektaria Anastasiadou, author of “The Way to Baghdad,” which was featured in our 2019 publication of American Fiction Volume 17, recently interviewed fellow writer, Rana Haddad, about her novel, The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor.

More information can be found on Anastasiadou on her website:

Nektaria Anastasiadou’s first novel, A Recipe for Daphne, will be published in the US and Canada by the American University in Cairo Press in February 2021. Her contemporary literary novel is set among the Rum, Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Istanbul for centuries. Anastasiadou is the 2019 winner of the Zografeios Agon, a prestigious Greek literary award founded in nineteenth-century Constantinople.

Haddad can be found on Twitter:

Rana Haddad is the author of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, a social satire and coming-of-age story about a curly-haired, rebellious young photographer. The novel is set in Latakia and Aleppo, Syria during the Hafez al-Assad dictatorship (1970s-1990s).

Rana and Nektaria first met beneath the fretted iron awning of a café in a restored Neoclassical building in the Monastiraki market district of Athens on a summery day in April 2019. They met again on a warm October afternoon at a vegan restaurant near Syntagma, Athens’s central square. Their conversations about their work, humor in Middle Eastern novels, and freedom continued in correspondence between Athens and Istanbul after their meetings, and well into the 2020 Corona months.

“Many Middle Eastern readers were happy to read a novel that described their lived experience of Syria, rather than only what one hears about it in the Western Media.”

ANASTASIADOU: Can you talk about the genesis of Dunya?

HADDAD: It took me a few false starts before Dunya was born. The way I knew I had found her was when I stumbled upon her name, which I typed out not knowing where it came from. I was typing different names for days on end (maybe even a month) and none of them felt right, until I finally saw her name on the page and it had the ring of truth or inevitability to it. After deciding upon her name, I started experimenting with book titles, many of which were really silly and had a fake self-conscious ring to them. Then one day among the pages and pages of false starts I typed out these words: The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, and then I knew this would be it—that I was no longer making the book up but that I would now be listening to her voice typing out her words. From then on, I felt as if Dunya was now writing the book, and I was more like her editor or typist. This was the first step.

ANASTASIADOU: What difficulties did you face in writing the book?

HADDAD: The biggest difficulty was to trust my own instinct and taste and not comply with the invisible pressure to fit into contemporary expectations of what a novel should look or sound like. Whenever I caught myself self-censoring or “copying” other writers, I deleted what I had written and continued to try to find my own voice. There was pressure to write an “Arab novel” or an “English novel,” a “literary novel” or a “chick lit novel.” You know all the new and endless categories created by marketing executives and PR personnel, academics and literary critics, not by writers themselves. In the UK, publishing has become an industry subjugated to market forces and academia, each creating what I think of as a straight-jacket for writers, who are being told by people who are not writers how they must write, or else. The pressure to conform is strong and counter-productive.  

ANASTASIADOU: While trying to get A Recipe for Daphne represented and published, I was told by two agents that the book “needed some bombs” because “Western readers think of Istanbul as a place with terrorism and bombs.” I found this ridiculous and refused. Istanbul is an exceptionally safe city. I wonder if you faced similar difficulties while trying to publish Dunya?

HADDAD: Yes, it’s strange to be put under that expectation as a writer, to always have to include bombs, terrorism, torture etc. simply because your book is not set in Britain or the USA or Europe and your world must be so “unfortunate” and “traumatic” and “our readers would like to feel sympathy for you and thank their lucky stars that they don’t live in your country.” One publisher said, “It’s too humourous for a book set in Syria, can you rewrite it to make it sad like The Kite Runner?” Another: “It’s too serious for a commercial novel but too playful for a literary novel, it won’t be easy to market it.” And another: “Can you take out all the ideas and thoughts and just stick to the plot, show don’t tell…” Etc., etc. There was a lot of interest from publishers, but it was conditional upon re-writing the book in a way I disagreed with. It became a matter of principle for me not to do what they asked me to do despite the fear I may not be able to find a suitable home for my novel. Then after much to-ing and fro-ing I found Hoopoe Fiction, a publisher who did not want to change Dunya to suit their own theories about how novels must be written, not only in terms of style and structure but also world-view, mood and ways of presenting the world. The editing process with Nadine El-Hadi, my editor, enhanced and improved what I had already written. It did not detract from key elements, de-form the novel, or turn it into something that fitted into a ready-made box.

ANASTASIADOU: Previously you mentioned that Western editors had trouble with Dunya because it doesn’t play into the Western media’s conceptions of the Middle East. Could you talk about that?

HADDAD: I was told by one editor that people would be offended that I’d written a book about Syria which did not focus on the tragedies of war, but was primarily about love, as well as dictatorship and also had a humorous tone and upbeat mood. As this communication happened through my agent, I wasn’t able to reply that, first of all, the book was set in another historical era, not during the current war. (I had written the first draft before the war even started). Even though the UK, Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, and even Russia went through devastating wars and/or dictatorships, many humorous and romantic books and films were set in those countries during these times. Why is it that if a story is set in the Middle East (or somewhere in the so-called Third World), it has to be tragic to be considered authentic? Without a victim narrative, a story from the Middle East would apparently cause offense.

ANASTASIADOU: What kind of reception did you have from American and European readers as opposed to Middle Eastern readers?

HADDAD: I had a lot of positive reactions from both. I felt many readers from the West had never read something of that nature about Syria or about the Middle East and found it refreshing to read something different. Some people told me that they felt it had a universal quality to it and so it did not matter that it was set in Syria or that the heroine was a young woman. I’ve had a lot of male British and American readers (the last one an 84-year-old poet from the States) who said they could identify with the novel and enjoyed reading it, and it made them smile.

Many Middle Eastern readers were happy to read a novel that described their lived experience of Syria, rather than only what one hears about it in the Western Media, so I had a lot of positive reactions. One Arabic bookseller in London told me that “it must’ve taken a lot of courage to write a book like that.” Because he thought it would offend certain types of people or annoy them, and that’s what I was expecting to happen and was nervous about it. But I was surprised at the lack of any negative reactions so far. I think the humor makes it an easier pill for swallow. Or perhaps none of the old-school authoritarian types have yet got their hands on a copy of it. My dentist in London, who is a young Saudi woman, read it and smuggled a few copies back to Saudi Arabia to distribute to her friends and relatives. She told me they all enjoyed it and shared it around. Also a few students at the American University in Beirut have written their final year papers about it, which I read and found fascinating. The book has not yet been translated into Arabic, if that ever happens it would reach a wider audience and the reactions might be rather different. I don’t know.

ANASTASIADOU: One of my favorite aspects of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor is its brilliant use of profession for characterization. Dunya is a photographer, Hilal an astronomer, Joseph a heart surgeon, Hilal’s parents tailors. How did you choose their professions? How did you delve into them?

HADDAD: It’s difficult for me to remember how that came about! Most of it by accident to be honest, but then slowly I started to find meaning in their professions and link it to the narrative. It wasn’t all thought out in advance, it grew somehow organically. Maybe I do write and think in a slightly metaphoric way and this can lead to strange synchronicities.

ANASTASIADOU: On my second reading of Dunya during the corona quarantine, I was especially impressed by what the book had to say about freedom. In your characteristic blend of humor and gravitas, you write: “Was freedom, then, just the freedom to shop? Dunya wondered during that time. Or was it also the freedom to open your mouth and say whatever you liked without anyone taking any notice of you?” Ηow would you relate Dunya’s thoughts to our current experience?

HADDAD: Having left Syria when I was almost 16, I felt a huge sense of relief that I was no longer living in a dictatorship but rather a democracy like the United Kingdom where anyone could express their thoughts and disagree without fear of consequences or retribution.

I have found the last two months of corona quarantine very disturbing indeed. I understand the world is having a health crisis, but I simply cannot see the link between that and handing over the power to control our movements to the police, or the power to control our thoughts to tech companies who can now censor willy-nilly what they like. Overnight we live in a state run by the police and tech companies, while a large proportion of people don’t seem to mind that—rather, they are asking for more. The rhetoric of anger and even hate towards anyone who questions is alarming and has turned into open bullying. Seeing how fear can make even the most “democratic” nations shift overnight to demanding controls on their populations and harsh punishments for anyone who transgresses, I’m finding this hard to accept. It’s extraordinary how many are ready to throw away liberty for security when Fear rears its ugly head. The art of listening to others is fast disappearing, and this is the psychological hallmark of authoritarian societies. I always felt dictatorship is first and foremost an emotional problem before it becomes political, that politics are a reflection of a state of mind and emotions. Freedom requires courage and maturity in a large segment of the population. When fear becomes the norm, it’s harder to keep the right psychological balance.

ANASTASIADOU: Joseph Noor says to his daughter Dunya: “Because in this city, in this country, in this house the art of keeping secrets is an essential survival tool and a highly prized social skill. The price of failing to suppress the truth is very high, my dear, anything—from social ostracism to prison. Are you prepared to pay this price, Dunya? Well, even if you are, I am not.” Do you feel that there is a connection between Joseph’s words and the restrictions that we are now experiencing during the quarantine?

HADDAD: Things are not yet as bad as they are in countries with full-blown in-your-face authoritarian regimes, but there has been a sudden and very dramatic loss in freedoms of speech and thought. What I find odd and even disappointing about it, is that so many people want that and are calling for it. It’s not coming just from the authorities, but from people turning on each other and refusing to listen to differing points of view. This can still look like “democracy,” because it may be the will of the majority in a time of great fear, but it’s a sign of a psychological state that can easily lead us to a drastic loss of freedoms…rather quickly. I’m very surprised that this is how people are reacting. Having grown up in a dictatorship, I don’t find it easy to want to let go of freedom simply because I’m afraid. I fear the loss of freedom, more than anything—because freedom is hard to gain and very easy to lose. Also, I feel there are many ways of dealing with the threat of a virus that do not entail being aggressive to other people or using the Police to enforce health recommendations. It seems surreal and maybe it’s the reaction of a population who have become unable to live with any uncertainty and want all of life to be controlled so they can feel safe. With such a mindset, freedom becomes an unimportant detail or a luxury easily dispensed with. Imagine if some historian of the future writes these words down: “The nation of XX devolved into a police state as a response to a contagious virus…The people of XX accepted all new laws—many of which had no relation to health—without question or debate, because they were too worried about catching the virus and too busy purchasing toilet paper.” If we continue on this trajectory, our grandchildren will not thank us.

ANASTASIADOU: As someone who grew up during the Syrian dictatorship, can you tell me if any other alarm bells are going off in your head now?

HADDAD: I’m very worried about the role of the media. When I read the newspapers these days or listen to broadcasts, I have to pinch myself: “where am I?” The media more often than not describes or reports events in a way that increasingly reminds me of how events were and are reported in a country like Syria. Any opposition to the mainstream view is portrayed as extreme even if it isn’t, and regularly mis-represented and made to look insane, to justify a crackdown or to demonize certain points of view and intimidate people into silence. This is how bullying works between individuals, in small and large groups and politically, and this is how you divide a population to rule them, rather than how you encourage dialogue to bring about real solutions and progress. As I worked in the media myself for more than a decade, I could write an entire book about that, but luckily for you I won’t!