In her "Damascene Diaries", the Syrian writer and journalist Samar Yazbek documents the first months of the revolution. Since she has been in exile, she sees how Syrians have been left utterly alone. She has made it her task to give them a voice. Susanne Schanda met the author for an interview in Zurich
Samar Yazbek, you actively supported the revolution in its early months, collected witness testimonies, and finally published your journal. How do you feel when you observe events in Syria from abroad?
Samar Yazbek: I feel powerless and condemned to inaction here in my Parisian exile. Nonetheless, I continue in my attempts to support the protest movement in any way possible, even if it only means conveying the suffering of the Syrian people to those in the West. What I can do as a writer is to give these people a voice.
Is there anything that you can see clearer from a distance with respect to the uprising against the regime than when you were directly involved in events?
Yazbek: I now see things from the outside that I previously couldn't perceive. On the other hand, there is a lot that I don't see – the things you can only know when you are thick in the middle of events. There remains a lack of information.
What I can now see here in exile is the extent to which Syrians are utterly alone. I had expected much greater support from abroad for the protest movement and now I see that no one is prepared to do anything for the Syrians.
You were born in 1970, as Hafez al-Assad seized power in a putsch. Similar to a large portion of the Syrian population, you know nothing other than the Assad regime. When did you first become aware that something was rotten?
Yazbek: I began to take an interest in politics when I was 16 or 17. I was a communist. By the late 1980s, Hafez al-Asad was engaged in the brutal suppression of the opposition and many of its members were imprisoned. I was in a state of complete despair and realized that there was no scope for this society to change.
As a result, I retreated from politics and concerned myself with social issues such as women's rights and culture. When the revolution began a year ago in March, I was working as a writer and presenter in television. I sought out contact with activists and understood that the time had come to return to politics, as now there was once again the hope of change. I simply had to take part, because for me this revolution suddenly brought back to life an old, almost dead dream.
You had criticized the Syrian regime as an author and journalist even before the revolution. How far did you go in your criticism and how did state authorities react?
Yazbek: I did not criticize the state in state-controlled television, but exclusively discussed literature. I wrote articles for foreign Arab newspapers in which I dealt with social problems. But I did not cross the red line. Back then, I never criticized the Assad family.
Were you subject to censorship?
Yazbek: Of course, but in a very subtle way. Those not on the side of the regime are simply not integrated into everyday life. Therefore, they don't get a job. The regime tries to ruin your reputation, such as with the rumour that you are a spy for Israel. If you are a woman, they try to destroy your marriage. I was able to get around the censorship by publishing my novels and articles in Lebanon.
Did the fact that you belong to the Alawite community play any role?
Yazbek: I had the opportunity to benefit from this, but decided not to and instead tried to dissociate myself from this mechanism. I wanted to be regarded as a true and proper opponent of the regime.
I have to admit that it was probably because of my being an Alawite that I wasn't arrested during the revolution. I was never prevented from leaving the country and I was never imprisoned. I was only harassed. They tried to place doubt upon my credibility, but the young men and women in the protest movement knew and trusted me.
You were under surveillance by the security forces and taken in for interrogation a number of times. What did you experience there?
Yazbek: I was picked up from my home and then blindfolded so that I could not see where they were taking me. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was horrible.
You were led into prison cells to discourage you from any further oppositional activity. What did you see there?
Yazbek: I suddenly found myself in these cells. Some were solitary cells. And I saw the battered bodies of young men. They were hung from the ceiling by their hands – like slaughtered animals. Their feet swung above the floor. I heard horrible screams. Some of the men were unconscious. It was atrocious.
How did you know that the regime wouldn't imprison, torture, and kill you?
Yazbek: I understood that the regime wanted to continue its propaganda claim that the protest was an expression of a confessional division in the country, namely a protest by the Sunnis. This is why they didn't want to have any Alawites in prison on the side of the opposition.
This would have exposed the theory as a sham. If they had wanted to imprison me, they could have done it at once. The repeated interrogations merely showed that they wanted to threaten me. Although if I had stayed in Syria, they probably would have since arrested me, because now they have truly gone mad. There are no boundaries to the violence anymore.
Is this why you left Syria?
Yazbek: No, but rather because I felt that I couldn't do anything more there. I no longer had any freedom of movement. Besides, I wanted to bring my daughter to safety. After the security forces began to label me as a traitor to the Alawite minority, the societal pressure was simply too much for me to bear.
To what extent did your writing during the revolution in Syria help you to come to terms with your experiences?
Yazbek: The situation was horrible and writing helped me to endure it all. Without being able to write, I would have gone mad. I sometimes wrote about myself in the third person, as if I were someone else. This allowed me a sense of perspective.
What role does writing play for you today in exile? Are you now able to once again write literary works?
Yazbek: I'm once again writing literary texts. But I now see my main task as telling people what is going on in Syria and to give lectures. Also my book is being published in various languages.
I have an idea to write about current events in a novel, but certainly not before next year. It takes time.
In your book, you criticise the passivity of Syrian intellectuals. What concrete action should they take?
Yazbek: When I was writing at the beginning of the revolution, the intellectuals did nothing. They are the conscience of society and should get involved. Since then, many have taken a stand. Yet, if they had done so at the start, it would have strengthened the opposition movement.
The people on the street have moved much further along than the intellectuals. The passivity of the intellectuals is a consequence of the dictatorship. It simply smothers everything that arouses opposition.
In Egypt, the intellectuals and artists continue to play an important role in the ongoing revolution. Why are things different in Syria?
Yazbek: The situation in Egypt is completely different. They are undergoing a "soft" revolution, and the previous regime was not as brutally repressive as that in Syria. Intellectuals and artists enjoyed more freedom in Egypt. Yet, even the revolution in Egypt is more of a people's revolution than one propelled by intellectuals. In Syria, there were only a few courageous voices at the start of the revolution, but intellectuals as a group have been largely ignored.
It seems clear that the Syrian regime will fall sooner or later. Is this your opinion as well?
Yazbek: There is no doubt whatsoever. The regime will certainly fall. But a lot of blood will flow before it is finally gone. The army is bombarding the cities. It will still take some time, but the end is coming.
And what will follow?
Yazbek: After so many years of dictatorship, there will surely be problems. Perhaps there will be an increased turn towards religion, religious extremism or even chaos. But that will be a transitional phase on the way to democracy. It is already visible, far off on the horizon.
Interview: Susanne Schanda
© Qantara.de 2012
Translation: John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de