From Haifa to Helsinki

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews, Reviews

Born into a Palestinian Christian family in Israel, the journalist Umayya Abu-Hanna has just published a prize-winning autobiographical novel – in Finnish. Here, she tells Anna-Leena Nissilä about life on the outside

In Haifa, Israel, in the 1960s and 1970s, a little girl whose wild, curly hair will not obey a comb is growing up. She is the oldest of three children in a Christian Palestinian family; her father is a rector and poet, her mother a pharmacist and a convinced feminist. Both are solidly leftwing. At home Arabic and English are spoken interchangeably; the children pick up Hebrew on the street. When their education at a Catholic convent begins, Italian and French are added to their languages.

Within the walls of their home, there is a warm and loving atmosphere, but the hubbub of war and violence echoes through their childhood years. The radio spits corpses and Arab children are spat at. Some of the girl’s relatives become refugees. The girl grows up, trying to make sense of her environment in which so many things are upside down.

That girl, Umayya Abu-Hanna, is now a 42-year-old Helsinki journalist. She came to Finland, in 1981, for love. The love affair ended, but Finland had got under Abu-Hanna’s skin.

During her Finnish years Umayya Abu-Hanna has made television documentaries, worked as a radio and television journalist and as a columnist for various magazines. Today she teaches radio and television presentation skills, writes and laughs from the bottom of her heart at least three times a day.

Abu-Hanna poured the joys and sorrows of her colourful childhood into her memoir. Nurinkurin (‘Upside down, inside out’, WSOY, 2003). Teeming with memories and tastes, the kaleidoscopic book brought Abu-Hanna the Suomi Prize, which is awarded by the Finnish Ministry of Education.

A-LN: Congratulations on the Suomi Prize! Do you think that your example will encourage other immigrants to write?

UA-H: I feel that my book is part of Finland’s own history. We are living in a time when Finns have roots elsewhere and I believe that the new history will soon have a section which begins in Somalia or Vietnam.

Do you mean that Finland, too, is becoming a melting-pot for languages and cultures and that in the future we could have, like Britain or France, a rich and diverse literature by immigrants and their descendants?

UA-H: Yes, we are going in this direction, slowly but surely. But the process is certainly the slowest in Europe. Although I’m not worried about it.

Why did you wait so long to write about your childhood?

UA-H: Things took their time to mature. I was and am in therapy and I noticed that there is a lot of suppressed hurt and sorrow inside me. I was surprised by a sense of shame. I was deeply ashamed of who I was. My national identity has been such an enormous taboo and although I would never have admitted it, I have had to bury it every day, and the wound was enormous. Last year I made a television documentary about my family’s celebration of Christmas; I hope it will be broadcast this year. That process, too, opened my eyes and awakened memories.

You’re a professional producer of texts. One could imagine that writing the book was child’s play for you?

UA-H: Anything but. I was scared when I realised that it was something of my own. I was scared to encounter what was coming out. I was scared of what my family would think of the book. At the beginning I was sure I would ‘kill’ my mother and bring shame to the entire family.

How did you manage to go forward?

UA-H: By letting my unconscious flow. I also asked my family for support. I said, I don’t know what I’m going to write, but I want you to be behind me. My mother was scared to death, but she and my father said, nevertheless: write without thinking, without censorship.

What was it like to write in Finnish about a Palestinian childhood? Would it have been a different book if you had written it in Arabic?

UA-H: The book came in Finnish quite naturally. Nowadays I think and dream in Finnish; for a long time the Finnish language has been my soul and my work-tool. But at many points I cried out in pain when I was thinking what this or that might be in Finnish. Arabic is very sensitive in its social and emotional expression, and these change a lot when they are translated into Finnish. The fact that some events and moments lack their associations or connotations has influenced the writing.

Could you give an example?

UA-H: Finns would understand straight away everything that is meant by the sentence, ‘And then they went to the sauna.’ In Arabic, I would have to add a long explanation that they went into a dark little room and sat on shelves, naked, and waited for the sweat to run. This is, for Finns, a pleasant and sacred moment. I have never taken a course in Finnish, so that there are permanent and definite errors in the way I use the language. It was a terrible threshold to give the manuscript to other people to read. When I had handed it in to the publisher, I went home to bite my pillow and stare out of the window. Nevertheless, the text flowed well: the language was, of course, corrected, but the spirit and style of my book were left in peace.

What has been the reaction to your book?

UA-H: A mother whose child is seriously ill wrote that she had gained comfort from my book. Some admire my mother and others say: Oh my God! I wouldn’t want my daughter ever to write like that about me. The general reaction has been positively astonished. My book has been called open, honest, funny and painful. I have had surprisingly positive comments about the language.

In the chapter entitled ‘Flesh titties’, you picture the arrival of womanhood with hilarious aptness. Two strange, embarrassing bumps simply appeared on your chest, and you just had to learn to live with them. Your convent probably didn’t teach you very much about periods or sex?

UA-H: Absolutely not, and it wasn’t much better at home. When I was in secondary school a Jewish doctor came to talk to us and told us hilarious stories about an Orthodox Jewish couple who sometimes came to find help for their infertility. It turned out that they were sleeping in separate beds.

In your book you describe your hair as drier than the Saudi Arabian desert; on your head the hairs stood up like a Greek chorus singing to the entire universe. How are you and your Afro doing now you’re an adult?

UA-H: We’re calmer. Before, a voice spoke up in my head and said: I HATE YOU; DAMN IT; LET’S PULL IT OUT. Now I have another, grandmotherly, voice, which says: Okay, let’s take it easy for a moment.

A Christian Arab in Haifa, an immigrant in Finland. You have, in a way, always lived in a foreign country, been an outsider. How have you felt about this?

UA-H: It’s not a comfortable position. It forces you to be on your guard every moment. But as I said at the beginning, I’m tired of being ‘the different one’, and for that reason I decided to put everything in one book, and then not to talk about it again.

How has living in Finland changed your attitude to your childhood?

UA-H: I don’t know whether it’s living in Finland that has changed my feelings, but time and distance certainly have. Middle age has prompted me to think about my childhood. I have a slightly younger brother with whom I’ve spent a lot of time discussing my childhood experiences a lot. And the fact that I now live in a country whose national identity is secure has also made me reflect on my own abnormal circumstances.

How Finnish do you feel yourself to be?

UA-H: I feel myself to be Finnish. But also an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli and a woman and a Nordic person. And I also have a strong feeling of belonging to the Mediterranean, of being a black woman, a middle-aged woman and a little girl, and often a teenager.

What do you miss about your native land?

UA-H: I miss the rapid rise of the sun, the sound of the waves of the sea, the scent of the cypresses, my sister’s laughter, which makes her eyes narrow, hot asphalt, my father bringing coffee on to the balcony. And I miss the language a great deal. Oh dear, I’m starting to cry, let’s stop here.

Just one more question. You have been interviewed several times now in the course of your varied activities. When you are interviewed what kind of questions irritate you?

UA-H: I’m tired of answering the question: why did you come to Finland? Even worse is: why did you settle in Finland? And the most extraordinary of all: Do you feel like a Finn?


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