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from the October 2014 issue

The Liberated Voice: Three Writers from Syria

Clearly the most important duty for the outsider looking to read new Syrian literature at the moment is not to expect a consistent voice or search for a monolithic take on the current period of Syrian history—or on anything else, for that matter. As a translator of Arabic literature and a sometime resident of Damascus with many Syrian friends, perhaps the most depressing question one gets asked is “What do Syrians / Syrian women / Arabs / young Arabs / ordinary Arabs think about X?” So far there’s no tattoo on my forehead of the phrase “'They' Are as Diverse as ‘We’ Are,” but it could yet come to that.

One way for us translators to keep our faces uninked is to keep translating as broad an array of Syrian voices as possible and getting people to read them: hence the little selection of contemporary Syrian work I’ve chosen here. These writers are all asking and answering different questions, in different ways, as individuals, like any other artist working anywhere; their work is moving and important and challenging for a whole range of reasons and in a whole range of ways, without representing anyone else or any particular demographic.

Having said that, of course their work—and their commentary on it—is deeply entangled with the extreme politics of the context in which they’ve grown up and lived, and as such has much to teach us about the specific horrors and joys of that reality. Just don’t expect the nature of that teaching to be neat, categorized, obvious, or even necessarily noticeable to you as the reader. This little snippet of three Syrian voices should be read as the tattoo about individuality, not as any sort of cross-section or comprehensive guide to the (dreaded) “authentic Syrian voice.”

Both Rasha Abbas and Zaher Omareen are contributors to the major new anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (London: Saqi, 2014) and have new solo volumes forthcoming in my English translation as well. Important emerging figures in the very exciting new wave of Syrian expression pouring out since 2011, both are known for their work in other arts fields (academic, editorial, and translation) but are only now having their literary work translated into English. Abbas earned critical acclaim in Syria and Lebanon for her first short-story collection, Adam Hates the Television, winning the Damascus Capital of Culture award in 2008; this year, while completing her second collection, she has been awarded the prestigious Jean Jacques Rousseau Fellowship in Stuttgart. Eclectic, intense, often psychedelic, many of her stories are dreamscapes which creep up on us with sudden plunges into haunting hyper-realism. In the story published here—a preview from her forthcoming collection (tentatively titled The Gist of It in English)—we enter the inner world of a teenage girl not only navigating the choppy waters of social media and globalized mass culture like any other teen, but also engaging with much darker and more challenging aspects of current Syrian reality, which eventually lead her to a desperate final act.

Omareen’s tale takes us on a journey back to 1980s Hama, zooming in on some of the individual victims of the massacres and disappearances committed there by the regime, as told by a mother to her son. Many readers will know that between 10,000 and 40,000 people perished at the hands of Hafez al-Assad’s forces in a 27-day massacre in 1982: such was the climate of fear that it has only ever been referred to—if at all—as The Events. Taken from Tales of the Orontes River, his forthcoming collection based on oral histories passed down in secret by Hama families such as his own, this story marks the first published literary work on the subject of the massacres. The breaking of the Syrian silence surely deserves to be celebrated endlessly, even as we mourn all that has come with it. As this story is told in the imagined voice of a Syrian mother talking to her child, pre-2011, however, there is much that is not spelled out as it might be if it was directed at the foreign reader: the words massacre, arbitrary detention, or torture don’t appear here, but are signaled by euphemisms such as “the Events,” “serving a sentence,” or “having medical needs.” There are several other references that readers unfamiliar with Syria may be confused by, as well: Tadmor and the Palestine Branch are both prisons notorious for extreme torture and for being shrouded in horrific mystery, swallowing endless numbers of citizens and occasionally spitting some back out, mutilated, dead or even—just about—alive. The Tadmor Events, as they’ve been known in Syria, were a specific massacre of at least a thousand inmates inside that prison in 1980. And al-rush, taking its name from a firing mode on a Kalashnikov, is a vernacular term for a mass execution of inhabitants marched out of their houses and shot as one in the street. How does anyone attempt to stay sane in this context? One way, as we see in the story, is to focus on tiny human details, such as the fact that someone was “already quite old” when they had their daughter, or what someone’s brothers were studying in school.

The third author featured here belongs to a different generation from Abbas and Omareen, and his trajectory has also been markedly different from theirs: now in his eighties, Mohamed Raouf Bachir has been writing short stories since 1959, existing within the Syrian literary establishment—with all the complexities that implies—since then. As he explains in my interview with him here, as a writer accepted by the regime he had to find subtle ways around the censors, delicate codes to express himself with—quite unlike the relative freedom of expression seized by Abbas and Omareen when writing from exile. His work has taken a very new direction, however, since he lost his home and his entire six-decade creative archive when forced into sudden exile from his native Aleppo. Overcome by grief and rage at the unraveling he sees in his homeland, Bachir has turned away from the story form and taken to poetry, as he also explains to me in the interview accompanying his poem. The resulting sparse free verses are howls of pain and injustice, stark laments for his people and their suffering.

Howls and laments are sometimes all that one can imagine making up contemporary Syrian creative expression, and certainly there is plenty to rage and weep about in every one of these texts. But there is also a blazing and resilient humanity to be found in all the nuance, strangeness, contradiction, and individuality playing out across these pages. To go back to my virtual tattoo, this diverse individuality is an absolutely crucial but long-suppressed and ignored aspect of Syrian culture, which is now beginning to emerge in literature, and is surely to be savored. As Rasha Abbas spells out in her recent article for the PEN Atlas, "Individual artistic inclination was treated with such contempt, and was so successfully abased, that many of us were too intimidated to engage with ideas that really touched us personally or that strayed from the prescribed set of major stock themes." The small selection of individual artistic inclinations featured here, and the other Syrian work emerging since 2011, offer a glimpse into the vanguard of a long-awaited creative surge coming in the wake of all the tragedy unfolding in Syria. It seems to me that the power inherent in the breaking of the old collective silence is not to be underestimated, as bell hooks spells out in her seminal work Talking Back: "Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of 'talking back,' that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice." Here's to the liberated Syrian voice, in all its diversity.

© 2014 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.

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