Hanna Mina was born in Latakia in 1924 to a very poor family. He spent the early years of his childhood in the Eskenderoun Brigade, in Swamp Street, until that area was annexed by Turkey in 1939, at which point he returned with his family to Latakia. Mina has had numerous occupations before settling to become one of the most celebrated writers in Syrian history. His work has been translated to many languages and his stories have been turned to popular television dramas.
Fragments of Memory is set against the backdrop of intense social and political change in Syria in the 1920s and 1930s. Though seemingly structured as a buildungsroman, this is a novel that sits comfortably within the tradition of historiographic metafiction in its examination of the consequences of colonialism following the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and the deterioration of artisanal life as a result of aggressive economic policies. The novel reflects on the competing versions of mansculinity that dominate the changing landscape of Syria from 1920-1975.
A NOTE ON THE TITLE:
The title of Mina’s novel Baqaya Suwar (1975) is translated into English as Fragments of Memory. This translation does not convey the exact meaning of the Arabic title which refers to left-over photographs or mental images. There is an important distinction to be made between memories and mental images and it is to the latter that the title refers.
Silk Trade: A Short History
A well-written, brief History of the Silk Trade can be read on the Encyclopaedia Britannica page
For the purposes of this novel, it is important to understand that the family were engaged in manual labour on the land owned by the Mukhtar (Mayor). Their job entailed harvesting the cocoons of the Silk Worm and delivering them to the landlord. This is the first step in the process that produces silk. During the time of the novel the "organic" silk trade in Syria was in a state of decline on account of the advent of Synthetic Silk from China. Hence the family's fortune followed a similar fate to that of the feudal landlord who became bankrupt.
Syria and the Ottomans
Mina's novel is set just after the fall of the Great Ottoman Empire which had ruled over vast lands and territories for over 600 years. The novel is set at a time of great political conflict that resulted in a crisis of identity on a national scale.
Baqaya Suwar is written from the perspective of the grown up narrator who attempts to recuperate his childhood through series of fragmented mental images, drawn from the oral world of poor peasants in Syria at the beginning of the twentieth century, including the stories his mother told him, the tales his father recounted and his own recollections of the past.
Critical interest in Mina’s novel, especially by Arab critics, emphasises either the autobiographical elements in it or the novel’s critique of the erosion of the silk industry by the advent of synthetic silk from China. Readings of this novel as a piece of nostalgic autobiography written by a mature and successful author do not offer much insight into the complicated politics of this text. Autobiographical readings of this novel have mostly focused on the rags to riches story of Mina’s life which, in my opinion, fails to capture the reality of his life. For although it is true that Hanna Mina’s life, “parallels in its rhythm and details his aesthetic performance” (Khaldoon Shamaa) yet criticism which has focussed solely on checking facts and confirming the hardship experienced by silk farmers in the 1920s has failed to offer insights into the complex layers of meaning embedded in this narrative. Similarly, critics who have read this novel as a historiographic narrative, focussing on a particular moment in Syria’s economic decline after WWI, have done this in a rather cautious, superficial, at times even subdued way.
By addressing the deeper, more controversial levels that this novel reaches it is possible to establish this text as one of a handful of novels that fulfilled the mission of the Arab Writers Association by critiquing vehemently particular established traditions, by highlighting and mocking the government’s lack of control over the population and by predicting a bleak future to a country which presents itself as a socialist republic, with a strong underground communist movement, but which fails to take into account those strata of society that socialism is concerned with.
Fragments of Memory (1975)
Translators: Olive Kenny and Lorne Kenny
Publisher: Interlink Books (2004)