The Pioneers: Ghada Samman

September 30, 2011

Words by Faith Cowling

A pioneering and prolific author, Ghada Samman (or al-Samman), a Syrian writer, has published over 40 books including poetry, novels and short stories. Many have been met with controversy at home and in the wider Arab world. Next year, Samman celebrates her 70th birthday. In the essay ‘Arab Women Writers’, the academic Miriam Cooke describes Samman as ‘the writer who has continued to attract the most consistent attention in the Arab world’. So who is she? And why has her writing held the attention of the Arabic speaking world for over 50 years?

Samman has been translated into thirteen languages and her poetry and novels have been subject to many critical works published in the Arabic literary field. However, in spite of her importance in the Arab Literary world, few in the English speaking world have heard or her or had the opportunity to read her – relatively few of Samman’s works are available in English.

Ghada Samman was born in Damascus in 1942. She was brought up primarily by her father, a dean at the University of Damascus, as her mother died when Samman was very young. She said of these formative years “I cannot recall the day when I didn’t know how to read and write. I know that I learned French first, and then Arabic and the Qur’an”. However, it was in Arabic that she eventually chose to write. Rebelling against her father’s wish for her to become a doctor, she studied for a BA in English Literature at the University of Damascus. She then completed a Masters at the American University of Beirut and later went to the University of London to start a PhD, which she never completed.

In 1966, while she was abroad, her father died. She was sentenced to three years impris- onment by the Syrian government for leaving Syria without official permission and she lost her job as a journalist for a Lebanese news- paper. In this formative period Samman was alone without the protection of family or money. She is quoted in Ghalia Shukri’s book “Ghada al-Samman Bila Ajniha” (“Ghada Samman without wings”) as saying: “The hardest lesson I learned was my final discovery of the superficiality of the bourgeois Dama- scene society that used to consider me during those years as good as dead – ‘a fallen woman’ – whereas I was in reality a woman starting to live her life and an artist gaining in awareness [of life around her].”

Samman’s writing was much influenced by her experiences as a woman during this time. Her first publication in 1962 “Your Eyes are my Destiny”, was immediately grouped with other ‘feminine’ romantic female writings. However, her literary canon grew and she began to encompass more themes. Her trilogy of novels, ‘Beirut 75’, ‘Beirut Nightmares’ and ‘The Night of the First Billion’ centered on her experiences in the Lebanese Civil War. Her writing focuses particularly on women, questioning under- standings of women’s sexuality in the Arab world at that time. As Rim Zahra, translator of Samman’s poetry collection ‘Arab Women in Love and War’ declares: “Samman’s poetry offers a culturally and socially specific view of the erotic, which calls for rebuilding the social and political structures of society. It calls for uprooting misogynistic practices on the social, political and individual levels where the freedom for self-expression, creativity, love, passion and civic rights become possible once more.”

“The liberated woman is a person who believes she is as human as a man”

Her writing defies genre; at times surre- alist, at times conforming to magical realism and at times using stark verisimilitude. At its core is an abiding theme: liberty of the indi- vidual. In an article in the Gulf-based ‘Al-Ittihad’ newspaper, she wrote “As to the critic who finds it difficult to pinpoint my writing in one area, I will make things easy for him. He can write on the drawer in which he files my work ‘A cry for freedom!’”

For Samman this quest for individual freedom is inextricably tied up with the ques- tion of women’s freedom. She speaks of this to Shukri in ‘Ghada al-Samman Bila Ajniha’: “sexual revolution…cannot be separated from the revolt of the individual Arab against all that restricts his freedoms…There is no way but through struggle against all reactionary thought, which includes our understanding of sex, and against the overall bourgeois view of freedom.”

Her ideas on equality are outlined in her first essay entitled ‘Our Constitution – We the Liberated Women’ written when she was just nineteen. “The liberated woman is a person who believes she is as human as a man. At the time she acknowledges that she is female and he is male and the difference between them is how not how much. Since they are equally human, they must have equal human rights.”

Throughout her work Samman’s charac- ters are strong, willful and flawed; the writing allegorical and surrealist. In both her creative work and her journalistic writing she has tackled themes that are considered taboo, exposing all that she considers hypocritical in society. She has contributed invaluably to Arabic Literature and to the women’s literary canon. In recent years, Samman has gained more and more recognition in the English- speaking world. We can only hope that more translations are to come.


Three Poems By Ghada Samman

A Rebellious Owl

Why do I write? Perhaps because my alphabet Avenges itself against the appressors Who try to shine their shoes with my inkwell And this blue wine that spilled upon my paper Seems to me the alphabet’s blood

So take it … drink it … For ink is sobriety’s wine.

An Owl Whose Heart is in Beirut

I still love you, In spite of it all For, at your shores I learned How to drink moonlight from a seashell.

A Revived Owl

Every time you embrace me I become a virgin again, I feel it is my wedding night!

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