In Praise of the Critic

Dr Hüseyin Esved


Dr Hüseyin Esved was born in the rural outskirts of Hama growing up on a farm of olive orchards in which he laboured until he graduated from high school. His childhood memories, he says, are still marred by the sounds of the war that took place in the 1982s: “We heard weapons being fired. I still very vividly remember the stories that are still circulating and are much worse than the sound of the weapons themselves. I remember stories about homes being detonated to collapse on the people who were still inside them, how women were raped and how any people were detained, and until now, we still don’t know anything about their fate.” 

After high school, he left Hama to attend Aleppo University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Arabic in 2001. He followed this up with two master’s degrees, one in Arabic Linguistics from Damascus University with Distinction and the other in Islamic Studies from the Islamic da’wah faculty in Lebanon. Along the way he became an accredited language teacher, specialising in teaching Arabic to non-Arabic speakers, again with the intention of leaving because he had dreams of teaching in an international university where he would realise his full potential. He enrolled at the University of Damascus for his PhD between 2006 and 2010, while continuing to work, teaching at the Arabic Academy, the Arabic Teaching Institute for non-Arabic Speakers, the Al-Sham High School Institute for Islamic and Linguistic Sciences, and the International University for Science and Technology in Damascus, as well as at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Beirut.

He left Syria for Turkey, partly because he felt his world shrinking, and partly because of the oppressive dictatorship. As a literary critic and a lover of Arabic literature, language and rhetoric, he understood that the critic in him would not tolerate being silenced: “I was critiquing the political situation, which was dangerous in that context,” he says, “and I had already made up my mind to leave. When the war started, I was residing in Damascus and had already been in touch with some international universities. I went to the Chinese consulate and asked them to provide me with a list of universities in China. I contacted a university in South Korea and another in Malaysia and got offers from all of them, as well as from Bingol University in Turkey.” He chose to attend the Islamic studies faculty at Bingol to teach Arabic, where he also coordinates postgraduate students’ studies, edits Arabic articles in the Faculty Journal of Theology, and plans the research that he hopes to undertake.

Esved has covered a lot of ground in the last decade. His multidisciplinary research encompasses a broad span of writing, from pre-Islamic Bedouin texts to mystical phonology evoked in the Quran, to the letters and writings of literary figures who responded through their writing to the challenges of their time. This includes the revolutionary modernist writings of Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran, the fifteenth-century Turkish historian Ibn Kamal Pasha who chronicled the changes of the Ottoman Empire, and the eleventh-century theologian/linguist Hasan Kafi al-Akhisari al-Bosnavi, a linguist who spoke Arabic, Turkish and Bosnian. These are the contours of his Levantine world that continue to fascinate him: “If we go back into history,” he says, “Syria and Lebanon are practically the same place. That world included Palestine and Jordan, because despite the current borders, these countries share history, traditions and literary cultures. For example, where the poet Kahlil Gibran was raised is similar to Syria; perhaps it is a slightly more poetic, creative place, but it is the same.” He has also contributed to several significant regional language projects: the Cultural Terminology Dictionary by the Arabic Academy in Damascus, the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic and the Arabic-Turkish Language of Metaphorical Expressions Dictionary.

In 2022 and 2023, supported by Cara Syria Programme grants, Esved and Syrian colleagues undertook two related research projects. The first, now published, explores in-depth the representation of the Syrian in three post-2011 novels by authors from countries neighbouring Syrian to which Syrians fled: Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Even the Butterflies are Crying by Celal Demir (2018), is the first Turkish novel to depict the life of Syrian refugees in Turkey; Al-jalus ‘ala al-hafa (Sitting on the Edge) by Baria al-Naqshbandi (2019); and Yaqut by Mariam Michtawi (2017). He says that Syrian characters are central each of these novels providing rich material to analyse. They offer well-rounded three-dimensional characters, drawing either on existing knowledge of Syrian culture or excellent research, to the extent that Esved felt “the novels portrayed the Syrian existence in all its historical, social, cultural and economic dimensions”. They also challenged Syrian refugee stereotypes created by other media, demonstrating the vital role that fiction has to play in depicting the “Other” in literature, mirroring society, as well as being an escape, and combining fiction and truth.

Esved has noticed several interesting changes in Syrian literature over the last two decades. There have been considerable losses to its canon, including beloved Syrian writers such as Khaled Khalifa, Walid Ikhlasi, Halim Barakat, Khairy Alzahabi, Haidar Haidar and Hanna Mina, while many new authors, mainly based in the diaspora, have emerged including those like Enas Muhanna, Nour al-Din al-Hashemi, Maria Dadouch, Maha Hassan, Shahla Al-Ajili and Omar Youssef Souleimane, who have gone on to win regional and international prizes. Since 2011, when the Syrian tragedy began to unfold, first with peaceful demonstrations and then degenerating into war, writing has become more colloquial, urgent and transgressive, more journalistic than before, when metaphors, allegories, and silences characterised the country’s novels and poems. There was always a diasporic presence, the shared history and tradition of Jordan, Palestine and Turkey, but new stories of migration to Europe and elsewhere share trauma, loss, as well as stories of courage, survival and resilience in hostile societies.

Subjects once deemed taboo, which few writers felt safe or free to tackle without fear of detention, torture or physical backlash, predominate in the new Syrian novels: “Previously, the topics of any novel would relate to a love story. Something imaginary or history” he says, “But since the start of the war, hundreds of writers have emerged, and much of the purpose of their writing has been to document the Syrian war.” These new voices respond to the enormous ruptures wrought across the Arab world by revolutions since the Arab Spring. He has been reading texts that experiment with subversion of social and cultural values: “The emerging literature includes subjects that might be common in world literature, but not in Arabic literature. Whether talking about these issues that were previously considered taboo is good or not is debatable. Some contradict what we are raised to respect, especially issues related to sexuality.” 

His second and ongoing Cara Syria Programme-funded study focuses on the role of war in the contemporary Syrian novel – a study between the years 2012-2021 – which he is exploring with Syria colleagues: Hüsam AL Saad, Ahmet Derviş Müezzin, Maher Jesry,and Akeel Shawakh Mohamad, supported by their Syria Programme mentors, Johan Siebers, Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University and Dr Alessandro Columbu, Senior Lecturer in Arabic at The University of Westminster. 

Through the Syria Programme, Esved says he has been able to improve his English language and English for academic purposes, with weekly one-to-one online sessions and, in 2022, he benefited from a Cara-facilitated 11-week General English course at the University of Leeds with full fee waiver: “Before working with Cara, I had no idea how to apply for sources of research funding, but now I know how to develop a funding proposal. The dissemination of research in internationally renowned journals is also very important. I was publishing in Arabic but, working with Cara, I have managed to publish in English in a Scopus index journal. I didn’t realise the importance at the time, but now I know how important it is. I can say that my academic career flourished because of it.” He says he has learned more about structuring an article, focusing on each section, including the abstract. “I have learned to tailor each to ensure I’m submitting something publishable. Now, because of this experience gained from Cara, I’m working as a journal editor for my university, and as an editor, I’m always applying the things I learned when amending or copy editing what has been submitted.”

Esved is currently supervising four Bingol doctoral and six master’s students from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as working as a British Language Services Direct assessor. Over 2020-2021, he participated in the certificated Cara Syria Programme ‘A&H Teaching & Learning’ series supported by a dozen UK university faculty members. He also remains interested in the challenges of teaching Arabic literature and language to non-native speakers and, in 2021, co-wrote an 8-volume series for Arabic teaching for non-Arabic speakers, as well as publishing an analytical study Arabic in Use in Teaching, aspart of theMuftahu’l Arabiyye Series.  

As the years have passed, he thinks more and more about what he can do for Syria and its people. He has begun researching contemporary Arabic literature and the electronic and digital aspects of Arabic rhetoric on different platforms. Most recently, his aim is to build a not-for-profit online Arabic tutoring platform to provide employment and a simple income for tutors still living in Syria. Of course, he has done a lot, but as a critic, Esved thinks he still has much to still do and to accomplish.