Huzama Habayeb’s ‘Velvet’—a Palestinian woman’s dreams in a refugee camp










Huzama Habayeb: Writing Place When Displaced

“The velvet in the novel is like a contradiction, something that’s against the bitter reality.”
 ArabLit blog, 30 March 2019

Winner of the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature

In December 2017, the Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature—a literary medal given out in the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s name for the best novel written in Arabic—for her powerful work Velvet, described by the judges as “a new kind of Palestinian novel.”

Mahfouz jury member and translator of The Yacoubian Building Humphrey Davies, said about Velvet: “Habayeb’s text is as sensuous, smooth, and strong as the fabric that gives it its title. Velvet is distinguished by the richness of its language and its empathy with its subject. Together, these produce a finely textured description of a life lived in hardship but overflowing with sensibility and grace.” Click here for all the jury citations.

Huzama Habayeb receiving the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, 11 December 2017, AUC Tahrir, Cairo















Velvet: The Novel

Two years on, the award-winning novel has been translated into English by Kay Heikkinen, and recently published by Hoopoe.

“I decided a while ago to live writing and live within it,” Habayeb told Hoopoe, while emphasizing that her Palestinian heritage was very much part of her story.

In her novel Velvet, the main character Hawwa is an ordinary yet strong and resilient woman who fights through the daily grind and hardship of a Palestinian refugee camp during the 1960s and 1970s. She works for a Syrian seamstress in the city, traveling back and forth between the camp and workshop.

The story unfolds over a day in Hawwa’s life, as she makes plans for a new beginning that may take her out of the camp. She sifts back through her memories of the past: the stories of her family, her childhood, and her beloved mentor, who invited her into the glamorous world of the rich women of Amman.

In the author’s words, it is a story about women exhausted by violation, misery, and repression, “able to capture joy in the midst of oppression.”

“Hawwa is actually the embodiment of passion. . . . She has been through everything that can easily break the soul of any human being yet she manages to keep [it] untouched and unbroken,” Habayeb told Hoopoe in a video interview.

Reviews & Articles

A piece of passionate literary fiction
“[B]ursting with sensory detail . . . Habayeb allows her writing to breath.”
The National, 12 August 2019

Huzama Habayeb: a novelist with a velvet touch
“One of the charms of Habayeb’s writing is her characters’ big appetites for life.”
The National, 19 December 2017

Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to Huzama Habayeb for ‘A New Kind of Palestinian Novel’
ArabLit blog, 11 December 2017

Huzama Habayeb:  Biography












Huzama Habayeb is a Palestinian novelist who was born and raised in Kuwait, where she graduated from Kuwait University, earning a BA in English language and literature in 1987. She started writing and publishing short stories and poetry as a student, and her journalistic writings were published in several newspapers and magazines.

In 1990 Habayeb fled Kuwait to Jordan, establishing her reputation there as a short-story writer and publishing her first s collection, al-Rajul aladhi yatakarrar (The Man Who Is Repeated) in 1992, for which she was awarded the Short Story Prize for Young Writers in 1993. In 1994, her second collection, al-Tuffahat al-ba‘ida (The Distant Apples), was published, receiving critical praise. In the same year, she was awarded the Short Story Prize in Amman, the highest recognition prize from the Jordanian Writers Society. In 1997 her third collection, Shaklun li-l-ghiyab (Form of Absence), was published, which further cemented her status as a prominent short-story wtirter in the 1990s Palestine/Jordan literary scene. Her fourth collection, Laylun ahla (A More Beautiful Night), was published in 2001.

Habayeb’s first novel, Asl al-hawa (Root of Passion), was published in 2007, gaining wide critical acclaim, and her second novel, Qabla an ‘Tanama al-‘Malika (Before The Queen Falls Asleep), published in 2011, was described by critics as an epic novel of the Palestinian diaspora. Novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author of the bestselling book The Map of Love, named it one of her favorites of 2012, saying it was a “brilliant novel of the Palestinian diaspora. Funny and gritty, and bursting with life and humour.”

In addition to her novels and short stories, Habeyeb has published a poetry collection, Istijda’ (Begging), in 2009.

Her third novel Mukhmal (Velvet) was first published in Arabic in Beirut in 2016 by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing.

Read an extract

About the translator: Kay Heikkinen

Kay Heikkinen is a translator and academic who holds a PhD from Harvard University and is currently Ibn Rushd Lecturer of Arabic at the University of Chicago. Among other books, she has translated Naguib Mahfouz’s In the Time of Love and Radwa Ashour’s The Woman From Tantoura.

“Kay Heikkinen managed to transfer the language, which is very important and sensitive, mixing it with the mood and emotions, and she also managed to transfer the environment and the music of the Palestinian heritage for the western reader. I think the language is a continuation of what I have written, although in a different guise. The biggest challenge was the translation of the language, and the language’s mood, and I think she managed to do that.”—Huzama Habayeb

Upcoming Event: November 18













On November 18 at 6:00pm, Kay Heikkinen, translator of Huzama Habayeb’s award-winning novel Velvet (Hoopoe Fiction), will talk about the book at The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, 5751 S Woodlawn Ave. A Q&A will follow the discussion.

This event is organized in partnership with the University in Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.



Posted on 12/09/2019 in FICTION General, FICTION Historical, FICTION Political, FICTION Psychological


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