Mohamed Raouf Bachir was a successful and celebrated writer of short stories in Syria in the sixties and seventies, becoming a member of the state-sponsored Arab Writers Union, on the Story and Novel Committee in 1974, and later honored as the “Sheikh of Aleppo’s Authors.” Now in his eighties, he has gone into exile in Turkey, having lost his home in Aleppo along with its contents, including his entire literary archive, and endured a traumatic exit from his homeland, like so many others. Since leaving, he has shifted his creative practice from prose to poetry—as featured here. Alice Guthrie spoke to him from Turkey in July 2014: the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.—The Editors
Can you tell me how you began writing, and what made you continue for all those long years, even while holding down a career and having a family?
I became a writer by coincidence; I never thought or knew I would become the writer I am now today. Being a writer was not one of my wishes or aims, although I was an insatiable reader—when I was a student in elementary school, I used to read the great Arab authors, such as Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti, Abbas Mahmud Akkad, and Taha Hussein. Even before I received my high school diploma, I had finished reading the Jurji Zaidan's History of Arabic Literature. But I did not want to be a writer, I think because literature in our country was not well appreciated: it could often lead one to poverty and unemployment. Since the days of al-Jahiz, people have used the expression “he works as a writer” to refer to someone who is poor!
My profession as a lawyer often consumed all of my reading and writing energy. But what led me to start writing a book was the aftermath of our defeat by Israel on June 5, 1967. I went through a sad and confusing period, and I wrote my first story, “Greeting Card,” followed by another one, “Tomorrow is Another Day.” Literature and writing followed me and inspired me to be a writer because of the realities around me, especially after 1970. I understood then why literature is said to be “the art of expressing one’s agony.” I did not write a story, but the story guided my hand to write it so that I could relieve my pain and stress.
I continued to write throughout the coming decades and during all that time I practiced my job as a lawyer, which earned me a decent living, and then I retired on January 1, 2011. I devoted myself to literature afterward, but, unfortunately, a foolish war was waged on my country, Syria, and I had to flee to Turkey.
Who are the Syrian writers you most admire, and why?
The Syrian writers whom I like the most are Zakaria Tamer, Sadalallah Wannus, Adel Abu Shanab, and Kamar Kilani. There are also many poets that I admire but not all of whose names I recall today. To mention a few examples: Omar Abu Reishe, Nizar Qabbani, and Sulaiman Al-Issa. One thing to be said about Syria is that it is an ancient country, with a civilization, history, and culture which go back thousands of years, and which has consistently produced great writers and poets over the centuries.
As for international writers, the names that spring to mind are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Françoise Sagan, Alberto Moravia, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, W. Somerset Maugham, Bernard Shaw, Omar Al-Khayyam, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Maxim Gorky, and Nazim Hikmet. I would also like to mention the novel Hunger by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize in 1920.
And what was it like, being a known writer in Syria back then? I’m thinking of the political pressure, censorship, social pressure, or, indeed, the more positive things?
It is no secret that, generally speaking, a writer in the Arab World cannot freely express his/her ideas and thoughts. The lightest penalty they will hand down to a good and honest writer is to ban his writing from publication or distribution to libraries around the world. That was what happened to me with my second collection, Another Face, and it was because one of the stories, “A Story for Children,” was about the 1967 war. If the writer does not know ways of slipping through the net or evading the censors in his country, he will not succeed and actually his fate will be no better than the main character in “A Head for Sale at Abu Tannus Bar,” one of the stories in my collection Thuraya’s Flowers.
And how has that changed for you, if at all, since the revolution began?
The problem with the ongoing war in Syria is that I cannot call it a revolution because sensible thinking has deteriorated and freedom of speech has become more restricted than ever before. In spite of the state's corruption and dictatorship, there were institutions and acquaintances through which you could express some subversive ideas. But at the moment in every street there is a khalifah, and in every suburb there is a leader and a fanatic sheik who controls and slaughters simple folk and innocent people.
The war waged on Syria has destroyed everything, as I said before, but the most precious thing it has destroyed is the humanity of man. The war has revealed the most atrocious and barbaric tendencies in man. The simple protest against corruption which had been started by honorable Syrian people who were motivated by the desire to have reforms was soon hijacked and distorted by foreign international plots and was pushed outside the call-for-reforms circle. Of course what facilitated that was the failure of the people in charge to cope correctly with those protests, so, in turn, foreign enemy forces were sent out onto the Syrian streets—mercenaries, fanatics, sectarians, and other irresponsible people. They gave those people all kinds of killing machines and methods to brutally destroy all the cultural and human infra structures of the nation. Everybody can see that this is a plot to create chaos in the Middle East; it is called “the New Middle East,” so it will not be limited to Syria alone but will spread to all the Middle East.
How can a writer work under these conditions? In this insanity, it is only possible to have maniacs, not writers. The latter have no place in their countries anymore, so they immigrate or get killed or drowned in the sea while they swim for freedom. In short, the ongoing war in Syria is not a revolution. It has turned the citizens of Syria (those that are still alive) into refugees wandering the world and far-flung countries.
Your poem “I am a Refugee” speaks poignantly to that experience, which has been your own and your family’s, hasn’t it?
My family and relatives are scattered between France, Germany, and Turkey. Some of them are in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, etc. I recall as an example one lawyer, Ali Seido Rasho, who used to work in my office and who is now a refugee in England. In regards to the influence of the current war on my literary production, I have started to write poems more meticulously. Since I became a refugee in Turkey, I have written poems about the suffering I have endured. “To Whom Do You Weep My City?,” “I Am a Refugee,” “Sad Wishes,” and, most importantly, “The Language of Things” readily reveal the reality of human relations. Greed, control, arrogance, and the vain desire to rule the world are all vicious motives that drive man to abuse his fellow humans. I convey these messages through poetry in order to alert people to the importance of saving what is left of humanity.
© 2014 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.