By Karen Zraick
Hanna Mina, an eminent Syrian writer who chronicled the lives of the poor and oppressed in dozens of books as one of the first Arab novelists to employ social realism, died on Tuesday in Damascus. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by Syrian state media.
Mr. Mina’s career spanned half a century, and several of his works were adapted for film and television. But only two were translated into English.
Bassam Frangieh, a professor of Arabic at Claremont McKenna College in California who translated Mr. Mina’s novel “Sun on a Cloudy Day” with Clementina Brown, called him “a majestic figure” in Arabic literature.
“Hanna Mina always sided with the poor against the rich, against corruption,” Mr. Frangieh said in an interview. “He was leading a literary revolution in his writing in order to create a new consciousness of the Arab people.”
“Sun on a Cloudy Day,” originally published in 1973, captured the essence of Mr. Mina’s work and his central arguments against imperialism and oppression, Mr. Frangieh said. It tells the story of a young Syrian man who rebels against his elite family during the French Mandate, when France held administrative control of Syria. It was a time of shifting political realities: The Ottoman Empire had been partitioned after the end of World War I, and Syria did not gain independence until 1943.
The man’s family is decadent and aligned with the French. Searching for an oud teacher, he makes his way to a poor area of the city, where he finds a teacher who is also an ardent nationalist. He falls in love with a prostitute who lives in the teacher’s basement, scandalizing his family.
“The inner turmoil of this man,” one reviewer noted, “mirrors the political torment of a torn, occupied nation.”
The other work of Mr. Mina’s to be translated into English, “Fragments of Memory,” is a semi-autobiographical novel about a poor, troubled family in rural northern Syria, also set during the French Mandate. When the silk industry collapses because of new technology and cheap imports, the family’s already precarious lives are thrown into even greater turmoil.
“He was born at a time of great social and political change,” said Cathia Jenainati, a professor at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, who has studied Mr. Mina’s work. “And he spent his whole life writing about ways in which social justice can be achieved in Syria.”
Mr. Mina was born on March 9, 1924, in the Syrian coastal area of Latakia, and later lived in what is now southern Turkey as a young child, according to published accounts. The family moved back to Latakia when Turkey took over that area.
Mr. Mina worked many jobs as a young man. He was a barber, a sailor and a porter on the docks until he began publishing stories in Syrian newspapers. His first novel, “The Blue Lamps,” was published in 1954.
But those early jobs always remained with him. Many of his later works dealt with the theme of the sea, including his most famous one, “The Sail and the Storm.”
Mr. Mina helped found the Syrian Writers Association in 1951, and the Arab Writers Union in the late ’60s. (He quit the union in protest in 1995, in solidarity with the famed poet Adonis, who was thrown out after meeting with Israeli intellectuals.)
There was no immediate word on his survivors.
In an article about Mr. Mina’s death, the news site Al Arabiya published what it said was his handwritten will, dated Aug. 17, 2008. In the note, he requested a simple funeral, with no publicity and no grieving.