Sahar Khalifa : From the Cactus to the Sunflowers











Qazi Mohammed, 1946, Archives

Qazi Mohammed


General Barzani

General Barzani




View of Shibam

Shibam, Yemen

Defi Kurde




Mvt Turc


Q : Who is the hero of Al Subar (The Cactus) ?

SK : I did not want to focus on one hero here. I wanted to focus on the movement of the people, of the Nation itself. ..There are many characters in Al Subar, I have many heroes ; and I think that to focus on one character is very romantic. It is very traditional, not revolutionry. Because, even when we have a hero, he is not a hero who is coming out of the air, or of the vacuum.

No one here is borne to be a hero, without being prepared by the whole background to become a hero. So, to focus on one particular character, and say that he is a hero, is… Nobody is a hero by himself : it is the situation that made him a hero, certain circumstances that made him a hero. And there is no hero that is perfect . It is very romantic to focus on one hero, and what I am trying to do is not to focus on one hero. So we have Tama, Adel, Zohdi, etc.

Q : How did you come to this very mature conception of a novel ? Looking at you, one feels first that you are one of these romantic young ladies…

SK : Before I became a Leftist, I was a romantic too… And I used to think that there is a hero who can surpass his circumstances and build his own life without being affected by the circumstances and the atmosphere… Then, from my own personal experience, I have found out that there is no hero. I could not be a hero without being part of a heroic theory, or of a heroic movement. I cannot, because in this century, there is no way for a person by himself to achieve too much. By too much, I mean he can achieve for his individualistic dreams and individualistic interests, maybe he can do a lot. But then, in the big sense, in the wide universal and transcendental reality, he cannot achieve it alone, without being a part, or being a supporter of a certain movement or ideology or way of thought. Being a part. Not to expect that by yourself you can fulfill too much, or do a lot.

Let us say, if you want to liberate a land, or liberate a nation, or to fulfill human rights for every body, or to feel that all nations are brothers, or to think about all the humanitarian issues, you cannot do that by yourslf. You have to have supporters, and to support others. I think that now in the XXth century, heroism is different, very different from the Middle Age, or the XVIIth century. Now heroism is the nation’s heroism, it is the group’s heroism, it is the masses’ heroism – not one person’s.

Q : You said you became Leftist ?
Did you become a sentimental Leftist, or are you a marxist ? Did you study marxism ?

SK : Yes, I am a marxist, by heart and thought, and belief. I did not start as a marxist; when I wrote Al Subar when I began writing it, I was not a marxist. When I finished it, I became a marxist.
You know why ? Because when I wrote it, it was through a challenge that came to me in a limited sense. It was, it hurt me personnally. I was in Egypt, and I read an article by a certain journalist accusing the Paletinians of being traitors because their workers are working in Israel. So I came back, I wanted to defend the Palestinians by saying they did not work because there was work in the West Bank or in the Arab world and they could work there and left it ; they prefered to work in Israel. No, I tried to rebuild the circumstances that drove the Palestinians to work in Israel. I came back from Egypt, and I tried to collect information about the labourers, how they began to work in Israel. I read many articles, many studies, I mixed with them, I made interviews with them, I went with them to the factories, in Israel, I rode with them on the buses that take them to the factories, then I found that I cannot deal with them without dealing with the economic situation in Israel, in the Gaza strip, in the West Bank, so I came to the bourgeois class in the West Bank and Gaza.
Then the Israeli bourgeois government, then the bourgeois governments in the Arab world, too, though I did not focus on this issue, but it is so much interrelated.

If you read between lines, you can find out when I say in one of the chapters – not I, one of the characters says, the oil is sending us Phantoms. You see, if you read between the lines you can understand what is going on. So it is not an issue that is separated from the whole background. So by studying the workers’ situation, by trying to understand the economical situation, in the West Bank, Gaza, in Israel, by trying to understand the international atmosphere, and the complexity of the economical side and interests, American interests, and so on, so I could understand things better, and then, I became a marxist.

Q : Reading your book, which is so litterary, one does not realize how much you have been working to collect the information. Your book looks like a novel, but you work like a researcher, like a journalist. How come from all these informations, from this political commitment, how can you reach such a high degree of purely litterary novel ?

SK : I am not a politician.
First of all, I decided to become a writer, a real writer, a human writer. I was planning to write a book, I was not a politician. I decided to write a litterary book, and this book led me to become a marxist. Now, although I am a marxist, I am not going to sell… It is very difficult to be convinced of a certain ideology and to keep the artistic elements very rich and clear. If you are a politician who is not dedicated to art, you cannot write or create good art just by politics. No, you got to have the elements of art.

Q : Again, reading your book, one does not imagine the kind of scientific research you did…

SK : I did the same research on litterature itself. I read a lot of criticism, I read lots of lots of novels, of structure, styles. When I decided to become a writer, I studied English litterature, because I knew and I know that in the novel field, English litterature is very much developped. Also in French, I read translations. So I am doing the same thing, the same effort, on litterature, on politics. But basically, I do not catch details in politics. Because, by this, I will lose the way, and I will be very dogmatic in litterature.

I try to forget. Sometimes, I write chapters in which the details and the information are very much like history, like political sciences, something like this. I tear it, I write it gain, and I read it after one month or two. If I find a hint of too much politics or too much historical fact, I tear it and I write it again. That is why you see…. (laughing) because I tear and wtite, tear and write. You have to make effort, otherwise… and a piece of Art needs a lot of effort. It is not only creativity, it is channeled creativity, in which you choose and try to select again, and again and again. On the same piece of art, you have to make more and more effort to purify it. Though Al Subar is not so pure and perfect, but I try as much as possible.

Q : How long di dit take you to write Al Subar ?

SK : It took me… a lot of time !
Two years to collect information, to go around, to the factories, the buses, and so on. And then, after two years, I started. I was studying at that time, I remained at home for 7 months, 7 months not doing anything except writing this very short novel, and I used to tear a lot.

In one chapter, I can cover a whole issue, which means that I have to get rid of all the details, the historical details. Of course, I have to keep the elements which are necessary for building up the atmosphere, the human atmosphere, the influence of this particular issue. I have to keep the influence of it, but not the numbers, and the day, and all the details. Sometimes, there is detail which can clarify a whole atmophere.

For instance, I am writing now, in my new novel, there is one chapter in which I show the problem of confiscation of water by the Israelis. In this chapter, which is about 8 or 9 pages, I could put all the information about how the characters behave toward this problem. Instead of saying the Israelis are this and that, for water. No, I show the women, the ladies, the poor women in Nablus city, who do not find water at their home, and go to the collective Turkish bath. The conversations, the conflicts and the contradictions, and how they are all the time afraid that the water will disappear. Because they say « Come on, come on », « bath your child », « rub his head », « now the water will be cut », « come on, come on, hurry up ». So this feeling, which I try to transcend or to transfer, the reader, that everybody is saying « Hurry up » because the water will evaporate or will be cut or gone… This carries the whole atmosphere or attitude, this is our feeling, that we are afraid that one day we will find ourselves without water even to bath.

Q : This is fascinating. You are working as if there was one recipe to write a nice novel. But as you know, many people know the recipe, but cannot succeed.

SK : You have to have many elements.
I am not that artist, I know, but I hope that I will be a great novelist. But let us face it : until now, how many books did I write and…

Q : The way you work… When you go with the women to the Turkish bath in Nablus. First, you don’t belong to the same class…

SK : No, I have to pass the same experience, and try to consume this experience, and I do not write immediately. I have to grasp it, consume it, and then, get it out. Because, if I do it immediately, it becomes journalism. This is the difference between journalism and litterature. In litterature, you have to meditate, feel, and to transcend, and transfer from one person to another. I mean not to take the shape only, the feelings.

When you talk to others, you have to understand, or try to get deep inside them, and try to let them reflect on you, and this takes time. It takes a lot of suffering. And sometimes I cry and I laugh by myself. I feel very angry for this character, and sometimes when I let him go to this direction, I feel very sad for him, but it is the necssity of the build up of the dramatical atmosphere and reality. This is… I do feel with them – this feeling does not come from vacancy, I have to pass with them the same expriences, though I am not coming from the same class.

Q : You do not belong to the working class. You are different. They look at you as a different woman, no ? When you go to the bath…

SK : I try to put on my worst clothes, I try to… When I introduce myself, I introduce myself as a researcher, sometimes as a labourer myself, sometimes as somebody who is coming to ask them questions for the welfare…Every time, I am a different face. Because, with one face, you cannot but get one face of reality, emotional, intellectual or psychological, or… You have to have many faces – but channeled, you know what you are aiming at, you know what is the conclusion of all these faces : It is not playing games, it is playing the game of Art, which is the greatest game, it is true, but yet, it has an end, it is for a great aim, to feel with people, and to understand, and express what they cannot express themselves.

Q : In your world, the words are very special : when you are in the Turkish bath, or in a factory, or in a bus, do you take notes immediately ?

SK : Yes, sometimes. If they are very conscious of me, and of my presence, I don’t, I keep it in my mind. If they are not, if they feel relaxed, I take notes, always, always. Because there are certain expressions which I don’t know yet ; and I use a lot of their vocabulary . And some of the linguists in Arabic who are rigid and very traditional, they did not like the way I use certain expressions… But this is the way people speak.

Al Subar, it is very simple. Even very young students can read it… Nine years old students discussed it with me. I use very simple language – though it has dimensions for grown ups. They can have the dimensions, they can reach. And the young ones, they can understand it easily. And because it is coming on their own lives, they could see… Adel, Zohdi, Abou Saber, the labourer. They see them everywhere. That’s why it is easy for them to communicate with these characters, because they are coming from their atmosphere, they are not foreign.

Q : But nobody accused you of doing something too artistic of a situation which is very political, and bad ?

SK : No, No, because they have seen that it is mixed, balanced. The litterary side is working side by side with the political or human side.

Q : What is the next book ?

SK : The next book is called The Sunflowers. In Arabic, Abad a Shams. The worshippers of Sun. It focuses on the problems of the other oppressed part of the Arab world – which is the Women ! The Cactus means the plant which can survive in the worst condition, in desert, without water, without… So I had to find another name, on the same level, with the same connotation, and it is near… It is a plant, which symbolizes something. A Sunflower is also a plant which symbolizes something.

Q : What is the relation beteen the Sunflower and the oppressed women ?

SK : I cannot focus on one particular issue without taking the whole atmosphere. The Sunflower is the symbol of the struggler, the fighter, for freedom. Because sun symbolizes freedom. And the worshipper is the one who figths for freedom. So it means fighter, liberator, and it can apply to the women, to the workers, to the Nation, all the oppressed characters in a certain society.

But it is true, in this book, I focus on the problems of the women, but at the same time, I give – I focus also on the fighter who believes in all sorts of fighting, of liberation – not only one fight. The fighting for all the oppressed, no matter whom, even the Israelis who are oppressed.

This is what I try to reveal at the end of the book : this fighter of liberation, this struggler is not struggling for himself as an individual, he is not struggling for himself as a Nation, as a Palestinian, he is not struggling only for the Middle East, he is struggling for human rights, for everybody. Particularly also for the Israelis, too, because we cannot be liberated without the Israelis being liberated, I mean liberated in the wide sense, that if you are fanatic you are not liberated, if you are racist, you are not liberated ; if you are limited to your own individualistic interests, whether nationalist interests, or class interests, then you are also not liberated. If you believe that men are better than women, you are not liberated, OK. This is what I mean by liberated humn being : to be liberated emotionnally, intellectually, and…

Q : Are you all that ?

SK : I try to…
So the worshipper of the Sun symbolizes a person who has all this scope of liberation.

Q : Is your personal experience very important in this book ?

SK : It is, because I am oriental, I am Moslem, I am a Palestinian in the Arab world ; I pass through all these conflicts, the international conflict, the national conflict, the class conflicts, and the sex conflicts. So, this is how I see it. I could not have understood all these issues because to understand the oppression of the Arab women, I might be like an American woman who believes in the women’s lib movement, but she does not understand how I feel, and to what kind of oppression I fall under, and she cannot analyze it from the class point of view, from the islamic point of view, from the national point of view. These conflicts are so much interrelated.

Q : Will it be a litterary novel like Al Subar ?

SK : Yes, but it is based on study, on sociological study. I try first to collect the information, as a social scientist, I try, I focus on certain things that I will use for litterature. It is not only statistics, data… I focus also on human issues, on the individual issues which cannot be revealed if you make a major study on a group. I take an individual, I try to squeeze all that he has, and I try to squeeze all what another one has, and so on, but I have to deal with the individual also.

Q : What is the structure, the frame of your book ?

SK : There are two basic frames : one is larger than the other. The larger frame is the West Bank, like Al Subar. The smaller frame is a magazine, the members of an editorial committee, who are running a magazine, unified in one sense, conflicting in another sense – majority of men, only one woman.

Q : Why only one woman ?

SK : Because this is what we have: in a large number of men, only one woman who is educated, who can speak, who is revoutionary enough to speak for her own wishes, and her aims : you do not find many women who have this capacity, and who are allowed to have this position. Not yet, but maybe one woman if she is justified enough, if the time is mature enough, she can do a lot, in raising the awareness of other women. Maybe not today, maybe not after 5 years, afteer 10 years, after 20 years, but one has to work for the coming years, not for now.

Q : What is the situation of the women here in the West Bank ?

SK : It is better than in the Arab world, but it is worst than it should be. This is what I am trying to raise. I say it clearly. The title is : no national liberation without social liberation. Social liberation means class liberation, in the Cactus. Sex liberation in Aba e Shams (Sunflower). And then ? Then, I do not know.

Q : How many chapters have you written so far ?

SK :The book is almost finished, only one chapter left.

Q : Can you tell us what are the strong points of your book ?

SK : One, the national conflict. Of course, this has branches, the settlements, confiscation of land, water, jail, torture, the racist attitude. I try to elaborate these issues in a ltterary form.

Q :But this is not directly related to the problem of women ? Or is it ?

SK : Then I come to the sociological problem, in which I raise the issue of equality of women.
In this book, I do not focus on the labourers issue, becaue I have done that in the Cactus. I am focusing on something which is a bigger part of the sociological structure, which is half of the Nation, the women, OK ?

Q : What are the main problems of the Palestinian women that you are trying to expose in this book ?

SK : Too many! The conflict with religion, the conflict with men’s chauvinism, the conflict with the Arab intellectual who believes that he knows and believes in the equality of women, but in application, he fails, because of all the accumulation of the past, of the educational system, of what his mother and the society, and the religion, all the privileges that he has taken and inherited from the past, he cannot surpass that by saying that I believe in this and that… These are elements which need to be washed and washed and washed . It takes a long time.

You know that Castro after 20 years of his socialist revolution he made a law, before two months, that any man who does not help his wife at homework, he will be tried… after 20 years of such a socialist regime.

Even in the Soviet Union in which they say « We believe in the equality of all human beings, whatever their religion, etc » still the woman there is not as equal as the man. Even in France, even in America. These are the results of all the oppression that the woman has experienced since the beginning of the patriarchal system, countless years. How could you wipe out all these years and all these results by one law ? By one law, you can make a coup d’etat, but you cannot change the intellect and the feelings, and the atttitude and the education of the people by one blow. You have to work on it. It is just like the salty earth : you have to wash it every year, wash it, until it is clean. And this applies also to the educationl system, not only in Palestine, or in the islamic area, also in the West Bank.

The parabol told by a Leftist in France : in one cell, having all these comrades, they are nine (men), and she is one. And when they mention drinking coffee, all the nine pairs of eyes turn toward this littrle thing, the woman. So you cannot change things immediately. But of course, without working for it, struggling, it cannot change.

Q : Is the occupation of Palestine positive for women ? Does it bring something positive for women ?

SK : There is a book written by a Moroccan feminist, she says that in the oriental countries there will be a revolution which will surpass the revolution of women in the Western world.
Why ? Becaue the woman of the oriental countries is dealing with a man who is defeated by other powers that are bigger than him, while in the West she is dealing with a victorious man. So, maybe, in a very far analysis, this is right. But at the same time, I analyze it this way : for us, in these occupied territories, we feel that every individual is needed, no matter what sex he has, he is needed. And since now we are not mobilizing except one half of the Nation, even this half is not mobilized because of the lack of consciousness and awareness. Well, there is, but it is not up to the level which we want them to be. Then, those women who are educated and who are conscious, and who are aware of their rights as human beings, and their rights as women, as everything, why shouldn’t they use their capacities. So this brings something which necessitates the capacities of the women. So, in this way, occupation is positive because it raises the question, or rises the consciousness of mobilizing everybody, and this helps.

Q : After Vietnam, when the men come back home, they find out that the women have become the boss at home. They took over. Is there anything similar in the West Bnk ?

SK : I focus on this question with one of my characters. You remember Zohdi, the worker who was killed in the factory in Al Subar ? His widow, when she faces life alone, by herself, gradually she becomes stronger and tronger, though she was very weak and very feminine and very small. But passing through these experiences, she becomes stronger and stronger. And these particular isues that we are facing now. You know that the West Bank and Gaza have no industries that can employ all the labourers. And thousands of the workers who were working in Isrel were dismissed because of the economical situation in Israel. Those labourers had to emigrate to Jordan or to Iraq, or to the Arab world, to work there. They left their women here. So I believe now the majority of Palestinians who are now in the West Bank are not men.

There are cases in which women have expressed more action than men in demonstrations, in fights between people and the Israeli soldiers in the refugees camps. In one of the settlements which was built near Nablus the peasants wanted to express their anger and to fight against the settlement. And the majority of the people who were holding rocks and branches of olive trees were women, peasants. So, by experience, through passing all these severe experiences, she is becoming more and more active.
Q : Experience of Algria, where they said : « Thank you, we are liberated now, go back to your kitchens » ?…

SK : We have the experience of Iran, and this is what frightens us and now we have to work, I think it is now the time for the Palestinian women to focus on this issue : « Be on your guard, men, we are aware of the whole situation, and we want you to be aware that the liberation of the country from a foreign power is not enough, we want you to proceed more, and to have the social liberation that we are having in our minds, because no real liberation will take place without social liberation. And to have a crippled half of a Nation, and pretend that you are having a healthy society, this is bullshit ! »

Q : There is a big debate in France : women are running after Khomeiny telling him : What kind of a man are you with your veil ? But there is an important question : Do you think it is better to live in a free democratic society, as a woman, with a veil, or…

SK : What kind of a democracy with a veil ?...(laughing)

Q : Or to live under a dictatorship without a veil ? You know, when the Shah was there, there was no veil, but torture, arbitrary…

SK : There was a class conflict between the Shah and the people, between the ruler and the people. Now it is social conflict. The regime of the Shah does not justify the kind of conflict which he used to have with his masses. I believe that Khomeiny is a step forward to liberate the Nation from dictatorship. But then, they have to proceed. If they continue to be this way, what kind of a social structure…

Q : You do not think a woman can be free with a veil ? The veil means a lot for you ?

SK : Of course !

Q : What does it mean ?

SK : (strongly) It means to hide from real life, from reality. To hide, and to be hidden. Not to face life. When you have a veil, you cannot talk to a man, you cannot participate in demonstrations, you cannot participate. You cannot work, you are confined. Itis just like having chains…

Q : One has to finish with veil ?

SK : Of course ! I look right in your eyes. I am your equal. Finished. That is it. This is equality. To look right in your eyes and say : we are on the same level. I am not afraid of you because you are a male, and I am a female. I have, I don’t have things that frighten me, that frighten you, I don’t have these things. We have our own freedom to choose what we like to act, and we have the freedom to sit side by side in the court, in the bus, in panel odiscussions, to be a lecturer in the university. How could I give a lecture to the students in the university here with a veil on my face ? I cannot do that ! (angry, and laughing)

How could I be a journalist and run with the labourers ? Collecting informations with a veil on my face ? I cannot… There is nothing good in the veil. It is so primitive and so dark. When you put a barrier between the woman ans life ; Why ? Why should I be afraid of the man ? Why should I ? Why ?

Q : Don’t you preserve your feminity ?

SK : What kind of feminity behind the fences and behind the dark. She becomes like a goal, you know, that monster that is black and eats children…

(Interview taped in May 1979)







Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2013











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