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A Conversation with Hedy Habra

by Sherine Elbanhawy

It is strange how, in late 2012/early 2013, Habra found herself publishing three books at the same time, Flying Carpets (Interlink, 2013), Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53, 2013) and Mundos Alternos y Artisticos en Vargas Llosa (Iberoamericana, 2012).

Hedy Habra’s Flying Carpets won recognition with the Arab American Book Award’s Honorable Mention in Fiction for 2013. Habra is extremely honored and privileged to have received this award.

Habra explains how the journey of Flying Carpets happened organically; for example, the first story was written last. In total there are twenty-one short stories, over 212 pages, which span from 1935 to the late ‘70s. They start off in Egypt and Lebanon with a touch of magical realism, then they move into fantasy. The stories eventually have no specificity, no names, with the surreal and magical elements increasing, they have a growing element so that the stories could have happened anywhere. Habra explains how the stories at the end “require more from the reader, there are of course clues, the language is leading. However, there are necessary leaps of faith, leaps of dreams.”

The beginning of Flying Carpets is the childhood and adolescence, which she feels is akin to what James Joyce describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “the portrait of the artist is linked to the scenery of your adolescence.” Habra clarifies how great an impact those first seventeen years in Egypt had on her and how that period stayed with her. For example, one of her stories is about a nanny telling stories to children. Although similar to her experiences as a child, which made the voices and personas more believable, the details of the stories are all invented.

Habra’s stories aren’t purely a feminist perspective, nor are they specifically Middle Eastern problems. They deal with issues that can be found in any country or culture around the world, like interfaith marriages, racism, segregation, patriarchy, psychological problems and struggles.

The stories are all about a quest for happiness, for love. It’s the human search for belonging and fulfillment. Habra doesn’t consider herself a political person and explains how her “allegiance is to the imagination.” Habra feels that although patriarchy is very much a part of Arab culture, Middle Eastern women are very strong similar to women in the Latin American culture, where macho culture is likewise still predominant.

Some of the stories are based on memories and experiences of Egypt, the struggle of many women fending for themselves in their own way. In one of the stories, the wife Yvonne found several ways to avoid and elude the control of her husband, Emile. In another story, Mariam, the nanny, gives an interesting painting of society, how she is overwhelmed by work, and delves into the storytelling that she recites to the children at bedtime. Not all the stories revolve around women. For instance there is Paul, an artist, a painter who is not recognized artistically by his wife; although he is hurt by her lack of support and negativity, he decides he won’t be unfaithful.

Habra’s home in Egypt where she grew up was in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. She identifies so much of her time in Egypt with this district. The book of poetry Tea in Heliopolis, says “The blue heron! The I is, he recognizes that the water of the Nile runs in my veins.”

Habra elaborates on how she believes we are all rooted in the land that we grow up in, especially with the added bonds of friends and family. Those first impressions that you have while growing up remain a reference point, intellectually and culturally.

“In that way, Heliopolis is embedded in my mind and heart, and the water color painting on the cover of the book, is the Palace Hotel balcony which I can describe exactly as if I were standing before it today. It was a landmark that belonged to tourists, and businessmen, just like the Heliopolis Sporting Club. I remember a friend had invited me to her birthday which was held at the Palace Hotel and Leblebba (the famous actress) performed there.”

Habra started Tea in Heliopolis fifteen years ago, and she has rewritten and revised it several times since. In 2010-11 she revised it extensively, almost completely changing it from the original, until only the title remained, and she put it together as a collection. It was a finalist in both the Gival Press Poetry Contest (2012), as well as in the White Pine Press Competition (2011).

Parents of Hedy Hebra
The parents of Hedy Habra with her older sister in Heliopolis.

Khalass [Enough] it’s perfect. This is a great achievement that it is being recognized. It has taken me a long time to make it what it is; I’m really happy.”

“The poems are like a flashback disregarding time and space. They go back to memories of my parents, the death of my father. The poem with the title of the collection is where I meet my mother and I am the same age as her. It’s a leap. I transcend time and space. It’s like I’m flying over gardens in Heliopolis.”

Habra reveals how she, her mother, and sister all attended the Mère De Dieu school in Garden City, Cairo. After graduating from school, they moved to Lebanon, where Habra got her BSc in Pharmacology. Habra wanted to be a teacher and study literature; however, being surrounded by many widows, there was a fear of the Arts not providing proper economic independence. Science in general was expected to provide better career opportunities. At the board exam certifying pharmacists, she met her future husband. Soon they married and his employer transferred the family to Brussels, and then Greece, because of the war in Lebanon. They then moved to the US in 1981. In the US, Habra earned another BA, MA, and PhD in Spanish Literature. She also has an MFA in English, all from Western Michigan University. Habra received the Alumni Achievement Award this year from the University.

Writing has always been a part of Habra’s life. She writes regularly in her journal, and switches between the three Latin languages. She started by writing poetry in French, and criticism in Spanish. She is quadrilingual and feels creative in the three Latin-based languages. Growing up she spoke French and Arabic at home. When in the US, she perfected English and Spanish. She even dreams in the three languages. She is also capable of reading Italian and has a good knowledge of it. Sometimes when writing she would write the same poem in all three languages. Traveling between languages for her “is like osmosis.” She is able to translate Spanish to English and English to French the best. “It helps that I teach Spanish Literature at the university, because I am able to practice all languages, as I teach French as well. I live ten minutes from the university. I also have lots of friends, and there are lots of possibilities and interactions through the university. I was able to raise my children while being a full-time student.”

Hedy Hebra at One Of Her Book Signing
Hedy Hebra at one of her book signings

Habra discloses how her mother was an artist/painter, and how that influenced her. “As a poet I thrive in museums, I am so inspired by visual art. In general, I find poetry easier, because of the constraints of time, it is easier to focus on smaller pieces and complete them. I also love to paint for pleasure. Although I have written much more poetry, I find that I love writing short stories equally. For a very long time, I was doing criticism, and I wrote in all three genres: poetry, short stories, and criticisms. I needed to decide if I was a writer or a critic.” For thirty years she has been publishing criticism. Her book of literary criticism Mundos Alternos y Artísticos en Vargas Llosa (Mario Vargas’ Alternate Artistic World) explores the function of the visual in the creation of subworlds in the narrative of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize recipient.

The process for a writer is very long: revising, drafting, rejections, and acceptances, as well as teaching in the University, searching for publishers, and keeping up with these threads. “You have to get used to getting rejections all the time. The journey is taking each rejection and moving forward, all it takes sometimes is adding a sentence or changing a word. It’s a useful sounding board and I really appreciate the process. Jack Gilbert twenty years ago, shredded my work to pieces, and asked me to rewrite it. You also have to follow the desire to write, by constantly putting your pen to paper.” Habra followed her own advice by writing mini-plays, fairy tales with different endings, and organizing the mini-plays during the University breaks.

“Although, I have been published in several journals, it wasn’t until 2012 when all the good news came flooding in the same time. Along with the awards for Flying Carpets and Tea in Heliopolis, I was invited in December 2013 as an honorary guest to the 50th Anniversary of the publication of The City and The Dogs, Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel, in Lima, Peru, to present my book of literary criticism Mundos Alternos y Artísticos en Vargas Llosa, which explores the visual aspects of Vargas Llosa’s fiction in the Conference.”

Hedy Hebra And Her Husband
Hedy Hebra and her husband Nabil at a conference in Istanbul

As a student, Habra was an avid reader; her favorite writers were Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Among her favorite Arab writers are Adonis, Amin Maalouf, Taher Benjalloum and Khaled Mattawa, who is not only a poet and translator, but a great thinker, friend and supporter. Other writers who she feels she has to mention are Borges and Julio Cortazar, the spiritual son of Borges, both whom write in the fantastic genre. Also Italo Calvino, who for her was a great source of inspiration, “the way he writes about clouds, and landscapes, the way he interprets science, and describes light and dark areas is brilliant.”

Habra’s last visit to Egypt was in 1975 and lasted for less than 10 days; she only visited Lebanon once after twenty-five years. Yet she feels very close to both Egypt and Lebanon because “writing erases time and space, it’s like an old friend that you pick up from where you left off, no matter how much time has passed.”

Habra ends the interview with Borges’ words to warm us up in our solitary craft:

“…A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward…” – Jorge Luis Borges.

Garden City, Cairo
Pensionnat de la Mère De Dieu, Garden City, Cairo
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