Hanna Mina: Doyen of the Syrian novel who highlighted the human condition

“No grief, no tears, no black misery, and most importantly — no commemoration ceremony. Everything that will be said about me after I die, I have heard during my lifetime, so spare my bones from it.”

This was the last will of celebrated Syrian novelist Hanna Mina, who died in Damascus on Tuesday, aged 94. The hand-written document, with strict orders to refrain from publishing anything about him in news outlets, was released by his family. “I lived a simple life,” he wrote, “and I want a simple death”.

Mina added: “I lived so long that I started to fear that I would never die.” He asked that four paid workers carry his coffin to “any available grave” adding, “once through with covering me with dirt, go back home. The party is over.”

Mina asked his relatives to distribute part of his belongings to the poor, and pledged his home in Latakia to his wife Mariam, saying that she can only sell it once and if she returns to poverty — “ … poverty that she emerged from, and so did I”.

Born in the port city of Latakia in 1924, Mina was raised in the villages of the Sanjak of Alexandretta, a narrow coastal plain backed by a chain of mountains on the lower valley of the Orontes River (now part of Turkey). He grew up in extreme poverty and became a communist during his teens, working as a barber, a bicycle repairman, a pharmacy clerk, finally ending up as a sailor in 1941. He never went to school, although his mother wanted him to become a priest or police officer. Years later, Mina looked back at his youth and said that he had studied at the “University of Black Poverty, while hungry, barefoot, and naked.”

Mina started to write letters for villagers who couldn’t read and write, and in 1947, travelled to Damascus to work as a journalist for the popular daily Al Inshaa. In 1951, along with the painter Fateh Al Moudarres, he cofounded the Syrian Writers’ Syndicate and in 1969, was a main force behind the Arab Writers’ Union. Mina was persecuted for his communist views and was frequently arrested during the 1950s and 1960s.

A complex novelist

Mina wrote about the daily suffering of man, depicting the tumultuous lives of inhabitants of the Syrian coast, and their toil in putting food on their tables. Of his 30 novels, eight are about the sea, which he came to love during his years as a sailor. “The sea has always been the source of my inspiration, so much so that much of my work was literally soaked by its tumultuous waves.”

He portrayed the complexities of individual life, showing how daily acts can be transformed into heroic ones in the subconscious mind and used to elevate one’s perception of life. He showed superior talent in depicting characters, weaving complex events through narrative skills, and penetrating the depth of human beings.

Although Mina had no formal education, he became highly acclaimed in Arab literary circles as the “master of the Arab novel”. In 1985, he wrote Kayf Hamalt Al Qalam (How Did I Carry the Pen?).

Among his best published works are Al Thalj Ya’ti Min Al Nafiza (The Snow Comes from the Window, 1969), Al Shira’ Wa Al Asifa (The Mast and the Storm, 1977), and Arrabi’ wa Al Kharif (Spring and Autumn, 1984).

In the 1990s, Mina’s productivity increased threefold. He began producing a novel a year, and all of them became best-sellers in Syria.

In 1990, he wrote Fawq Al Jabal wa Tahet Al Thalj (Over the Mountain and Under the Snow). In 1996, Mina wrote Al Mar’a Zat Al Thawb Al Aswad (The Woman with the Black Robe). And in 1998, he published his masterpiece, Al Rajul Allazi Yakrah Nafsahu (The Man Who Hates Himself).

Mina reached pan-Arab fame when in 1994, his novel Nihayat Rajul Shujaa (End of a Brave Man) was adapted into a television series, starring Syrian actor Ayman Zeidan. The work became an overnight success and has regularly been aired on Arab satellite television.

Champion of the people

Speaking to Gulf News, Zeidan said: “I was pained by his loss. I don’t know who can ever replace him. Twenty-five years ago, Hanna Mina and I toasted to an era that we thought was more beautiful than ours, and we started our journey with Mofid Al Wahsh (the central character in the novel, played by Zeidan). Farewell to the icon and pioneer of the Syrian novel.”

Syrian writer Hassan M. Yousuf told Gulf News: “The people who Mina dedicated his work to and spent a lifetime defending, do not read. They are simply prisoners behind the walls of illiteracy.” Yousuf, who transformed Niyayet Rajul Shujaa into a television script, added: “I was honoured with breaking that wall between Mina and his simple people 25 years ago, when we adopted his novel into a television script. The scenario required some variation from the novel, but we remained loyal to the original work, which is why it is so eternal. Not a year passed without its rerun on TV.”

Prominent, internationally acclaimed novelist Fawaz Haddad told Gulf News: “Hanna Mina was a wonderful man, with a great influence on Arab novelists, without exception. He was a master, always loyal to the novel. His death is a great loss and his simple presence meant so much to us, in terms of values. He was a great man who gave the best of what he had, never holding back anything. Syria, the Arabs, and the novel have lost him.”

In 2002, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad decorated Mina with the Highest Order of the Syrian Republic, for his cultural contributions.

In a rare moment of reflection, Mina looked back on his career and said that he never imagined he would become famous. Despite the fame, which he attributed to “pure luck,” Mina added, “I have started to hate this melancholic profession and the only way out of it is death. Death is a coward. For 80 years, I have pursued him, but he keeps running away from me.”

Mina refused to write his autobiography, saying that it is scattered in bits and pieces across his novels, namely his first work Al Masabih Al Zirk (Blue Lanterns), published in 1954.

In a 2012 interview with the Beirut daily Al Akhbar, Mina was described as “doyen of Syrian novelists.” The article reads: “His cramped study is surrounded by portraits of Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Stalin. 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.”

Published in Gulf News on 22 August 2018.