Hiam: A Yemeni Girl Makes an Australian a Celebrity [Archives:1999/15/Culture]

April 12 1999

Every young Australian writer dreams of winning the Australian Virgil Literary Award. A promising young Australian writer, Eva Sallis’s dream came true, thanks to Hiam, a Yemeni girl, and the influence Yemen had on the writer.
Here is what she told Hatem Bamehriz of Yemen Times.
Q: How did you start writing about Yemen?
A: I am now writing a second book about Yemen. My first book, Hiam, is a novel. It won a major literary award in Australia and because of that I became quite well known. This particular book was part of my experience as a researcher in Yemen, and in the Middle East while I was doing some research for the University of Manchester. My area research was initially Arabic Stories like ‘Alf Laylah Wa Laylah’ – One Thousand and One Nights. But this developed into a major interest in culture because I studied Arabic in Yemen. I came here twice, each time for 7 weeks as part of my Ph.D. dissertation and program.
Q: What is the award you got for the book?
A: It is the Australia Virgil Literary Award. It is an award for writers under the age of 35 and it is the most prestigious award in Australia for young writers. It was also very nice as a subject matter with an Arab dimension.
Q: What is the story of Hiam?
A: I think the most important aspect of the book is the cultural conflict between Islam and the secular West in Australia, as manifested in the experiences of individual immigrants and their experiences in Australia and how that affects them. It tells the story of a particular woman, her life and her family, and the way her daughter grows up more Westernized than she is, which creates a generational gap between herself and her daughter. At the same time, she is increasingly distant from her husband as he settles more and more into depression.
The wife, dealing with the cultural conflict tries to shut out everything including her family. Her approach to dealing with the cultural conflict is by trying to pretend that everything will be all right in the end.
The story begins with all of that having failed, and a tragedy having fallen on her family. She drives across Australia alone and in grief over everything that has happened in her mind.
In the course of this journey, she not only finds herself, but she also senses her own identity as a Muslim, something which she had lost. She discovered a sense of belonging in any country, whether in Australia or the Middle East. There are flashbacks from her childhood in Yemen, as it relates to the differences between her and her husband.
Her husband is a Palestinian and his childhood was deeply unhappy so when he is in trouble he has no inner resources. Her childhood was in Yemen, and was much happier.
So when she looks inward, she has something of a resource to fall back on, call it her inner spiritual health, if you will. Some of that comes back through memories of Hadhoor and Bait Bos.
Q: Is this a true story or an imaginary one ?
A: It is entirely imaginary, but in it I was able to bring together many of the ideas, observations and experiences I had with cultural conflict. My husband is an Arab born in Australia and so the conflict he experiences growing up with his parents having a more traditional outlook and he having a more Westernized outlook. These sort of things became very familiar to me and I used them in my stories
Q: What are the other countries in the Middle East that you had visited?
A: I also visited Jordan and Egypt. But when I like to visit the Middle East, I prefer Yemen best. I chose Hiam, a Yemeni woman in order to use the images and the memories I had of Yemen. For some strange reason, Yemen and Australia resemble each other in some respects. The trees you have on the streets, many of them are Australian. Also some of the wildness of the countryside here gives you the feeling of openness which is also very Australian. I wanted to use this so that in the end, on a symbolic level when Hiam comes to terms of being in Australia, she’s also gone through the process of regaining her sense of belonging to Yemen in Australia. At the same time it was fun as a writer to use description or experiences I have had in many different places and use them together in an emotional context to this character.
Q: Could you describe your experience here in Yemen?
A: For the first two terms, I had to take 4-hour daily classes studying Arabic language. So I think my passion for the country comes through the language, because having some ability to communicate in Arabic and to read books will eventually end up with you becoming fond of the people as well. So first the language and second the people and each time I came to Yemen my circles of friends grew wider.
Q: Do you get to speak Arabic often?
A: ‘Shwaiah’. A little.
Q: I see you are wearing the traditional Yemeni outfit. Do you wear it back there at home?
A: In Australia even most Muslim people don’t wear the hijab (head scarf) because the wider public attitude to the hijab is so negative. It is really hard to walk on the street wearing it. I have friends in Australia who do wear hijab and some of their experiences are really unpleasant. It puts great distance between them and the people. I wear it in Yemen because of my long hair, and to show respect to the Yemeni culture and the Yemeni religion.
Q: Is there anything you want to add?
A: Yes, at the moment I am writing a book which is set in Yemen. I hope that it will present a richer and deeper picture of Yemen. It has also the theme of the cultural conflict of the European-Arab exchanging experiences. But in exploring all of this, I am exploring the process of reconciliation to the central character. I hope to publish this book by the year 2000.
Note: For a copy of Hiam go to:
–mail: [email protected]