Interview with Ala Hlehel

Ala Hlehel, 40, Palestinian writer, journalist and scriptwriter is the founder of the online magazine Qadita1 dedicated to Arabic literature. Born in the town of Jish (Gush Halav) in Galilee, his studies at the Haïfa University constitute a major crossroads for him. There, he was exposed to western culture and he became part of a group of young bohemian Arabic intellectuals, who discussed Freud, Lacan and Sartre in cafés. We met him in a trendy Arabic restaurant in Akko, the city in which he lives.

Being a mother? A very western question….

It’s a bit like asking about identity, in the sense that both never stop being reshaped. All my ideas of how it is to be a mother’s child, and to be married to the mother of my children, change all the time. Until I left home to go to university, my mother was a goddess to me. She is a very strong woman. All her life she regretted not being born a man, and not having finished her studies. She was like a lion in a cage. The problem of the status of women in a patriarchal society ate away at her.

My rapport with women has been influenced by her a lot. I adore strong women, and I hate those who are weak. My role model is that of a woman capable of running the home, having an equal relationship with a man and challenging him intellectually.

Like your mother, you are concerned by the status of women in society….

When I left my village to study in Haïfa, I rebelled for a few years. I totally refused all of the social codes I grew up with. I come from a Moslem family, but today I’m a resolute atheist. At twenty, I was already a feminist and a militant for homosexual rights. Every thing I do converges around this point.

The fact that my mother regretted not being able to realize her potential her whole life developed in me a deep sense of political awareness, that of the rapport of dominant-dominated. So, for example, the question of knowing who will do the washing-up in the evening is for me a political debate. It is not a given that the world be organized according to a hierarchy of power. Classical feminism wanted women to be equal to men. Supporters of queer theory say: what good being equal to men? Women and men are different beings. The same thing plays out in society between   government and its citizens, majority and minority, community and individual. For example, Arabs in Israel shouldn’t aspire to be like Jews. This is a huge mistake.

Yet, your encounter with Jews seems to have been significant for you.

I went through a process around this question. At 18, I wanted to be Jewish: to speak Hebrew, to have a Jewish girlfriend, to be well integrated in the university environment. Afterwards, I intended to write in Hebrew. Little by little, I discovered that it was impossible, that I would never be like a Jew. Then, the question of knowing what to do with the fact of being Arab took over. Since then, I have fallen back in love with the Arabic language. But, I didn’t give up on Hebrew. Hebrew is for me a powerful tool for speaking with the Other that I want to influence. If one day I were discouraged by the possibility of living here with the Jews, I would stop writing in Hebrew. I think that this process is common to many young Arabs. In the end, the Arabs in Israel are a product of an encounter with the Jews, which created a new culture. The Arab elite in Israel is alarmed by a new language that has appeared, called « arabrit » (Arabic embellished with words and expressions in Hebrew). There is a fear that the Arabic language will be lost as the use of language is the condition for identity.

These questions concerned me every day. The reflection on the relationship between West and East pushed me to write, in my second last book, a funny short novel called: My secret relationships with Carla Bruni. This is a fantasy about an Arabic writer in Akko with whom Carla Bruni falls in love. She come to live in Akko and hides her identity under a burka. A passionate love story forms between us. On the one hand, this novel describes the West’s attraction to the East as sexual, exotic, envied, and on the other hand the complex relationship that Easterners have with the West. Formerly, colonialism was very cruel. Today, it has became sexy and attractive: Paris, Berlin, London, New York….we want to be there. This is a classic case of a love-hate relationship.

What is your most remarkable memory connected to the expression « being a mother »?

It is a traumatic memory, a fundamental moment. I was 16 when I saw my father hit my mother. I understood then that my father was not a saint as I had thought and that my mother was not the heroine that I had imagined, as she didn’t react. This is one of things that distanced me from my parents. But there were also other reasons. My parents tried to keep me away from politics. They followed the Arab proverb that says: Hug the walls and keep quiet. This created a big clash between us. One day, they heard in the press about my involvement in a protest at the university, which got a bit out of hand. My mother called me to say: Now, pack your stuff and come back home. It was the first serious rift with my parents, especially with my mother. I was very angry with them. To myself I thought: How can you stay quiet like this? You were beaten in 1948. They took your land, you are living like slaves. But, as I matured, particularly after the age of 30 and with the birth of my children, I started to understand that they are, in a certain sense, heroes, because they preserved the home and they managed to live like refugees in their own homeland against all hope. If I changed my relationship with my parents, there was also a shift in them when I got my first literary prize and my name appeared in the newspaper.

Your mother’s strength is having wanted something different for her children…

My mother thinks today that my actor brother and I embody her own talents. On her side, without having studied, she became the coordinator of a women’s movement in the village called Na’amat2. She organized symposia, gave speeches and attracted admiration. A year ago, I presented my book about Carla in the village. She wanted to open the evening, and without having read the book, she did it in a remarkable way. It was one of the most touching moments of my life. My parents never read my books. My mother puts the book on the shelf and says: « It’s my son’s book ». Well, a few months ago, she had to go to the hospital for surgery. She called me on the phone to say: « I took your book with me, I read two short stories. You are a good writer, my son ».

What are you working on at the moment?

One of the main themes of my last novel is that of female war victims. It deals with a true story during Napoleon’s siege of Akko. A boat of prostitutes sent from Paris to lift the spirits of the French soldiers fell into the hands of the English navy which was supporting the city. The English passed them on to the Al Jazzar soldiers who raped and killed them. In retaliation Napoleon took revenge on the women in the Arab villages of the region. Cruelty is on every side in this game of men, but it is women that pay the price.

Interview by Patricia Bosquin Caroz and Gil Caroz in Akko, August 8, 2014.

Translation to English by Sarah Abitbol

[1] In October 2012, this magazine published in Arabic an interview from J.-A. Miller entitled « We love those who respond to our question: « Who am I?” (Translation by Khalil Sbeit)

2Acronym for working and volunteering women.