Syrian literature in times of turmoil

An author on standby

The Arab revolutions – and the Syrian revolution in particular – changed authors conception of themselves. For some, the change was so great that they find they can no longer write. This is the experience of Dima Wannous, one of Syria′s outstanding young authors

For me, writing means finding a space in which to live. Writing turns that space into the reality we desire, while reality itself becomes a fantasy or a nightmare from which we awake when we write. Writing is an escape. Creating characters enables us to live with them, because in life we meet people who deserve to be characters in novels.

In Syria writers never aimed at a broad readership, but rather at an elitist one. Writing tended merely to exist within the context of personal pleasure or of trying to survive in a place where human beings, let alone citizens, were not recognised. You were not protected, neither by any sense of belonging, nor of being. Writing reminded you that you existed, as an entity with your own ego. In this way, it helped create identity in a place where independent identities did not exist.

Those reading me

I never wrote for a particular readership. I didn′t write for friends or readers. Before the revolution I used to write for myself; I wrote so that, in that imaginative space, I could find an extension of my existence.

It may have been a private, egoistical act, but it was also an act of rebellion against the place, the times, my surroundings and the country that I was born in and that I had rarely left. Had I happened to imagine the people that I wrote for, they would only have been those associated with the Syrian regime or who worked in government institutions.

Infuriating in their servility, they were clones of each other, a generic type that had the same characteristics, behaved in the same way and had the same limited range of physical gestures. I imagined them reading what I and others were writing. I imagined them getting angry at what they read and I enjoyed the idea of making them angry and frustrating their false sense of confidence.

White Helmets in Aleppo look for survivors
"I am not part of the majority and I do not claim to be part of it. I will not write about people if I have not lived among them, if I have not felt the same fear or heard the same sounds of bombing or weeping or screaming at the emptiness around them. I will not write about a country I have not visited for more than two years," asserts Wannous

There was also a desire to say to them, ″There are Syrians who are living with you and among you under duress who aren′t necessarily like you. They live with you without identifying with your system of morality, behaviour and politics. If they were forced to meet you, they would find out about you and write about your lives and your corruption. They would challenge your way of life, which depends on them not existing. Yet they exist, because most Syrians are marginalised and excluded from public life, repressed, deprived of free will and freedom of expression.″’

Writing became an assertion of the self in an attempt to restore it to its natural place as a separate entity with a different way of expressing itself – with different desires, a different temperament and different dreams.

Literature failed

Personally, I lost my ability to write literature after the revolution. This inability has been frustrating, yet at the same time healthy. A generation of young Syrians came out onto the streets, not armed with literature or novels but with courage and rebellion and a refusal to obey. They came out bare-chested, indifferent to the possibility of dying. They came out on our behalf and on the behalf of every oppressed Syrian who dreams of freedom, democracy, political pluralism and dignity.

By coming out of their houses into the street, by giving voice to their suffering, they exposed the fact that literature had failed to fulfil its supposed function as an agent for change. They exploded all those delusions shared by Syrian writers and creative artists about the importance of literature as a real leader of the masses, as a theorist and vehicle for their concerns.

In fact, in my opinion, literature was not that important, because the people who thronged the streets generally had not read those books, anyway. Indeed, they had never even heard the names of the cultural elite, or those who had been detained, tortured, or who had sought refuge in exile during the Assad era.

Besides, the demonstrations that called for freedom and dignity and ultimately for the downfall of the regime were not led by Syrian intellectuals, writers, creative artists, nor by activists or opponents of the regime. The elite were in the vanguard, catching up with the people and trying to join their gatherings.

Anti-Assad demonstration in Kafranbel, close to Idlib (photo: Reuters/Shaam News Network)
"A generation of young Syrians came out onto the streets, not armed with literature or novels but with courage and rebellion and a refusal to obey. They came out bare-chested, indifferent to the possibility of dying. They came out on our behalf and on the behalf of every oppressed Syrian who dreams of freedom, democracy, political pluralism and dignity," writes Wannous

Young people no older than twenty were the ones who led the demonstrations. They were the organisers, the theorists and also the unknowns who, when they died, became mere numbers. These people did not come out seeking fame or a worldwide stage, as did many writers and activists who used the revolution to fulfil their dream of escaping the prison that was Syria and reaching the outside world. These young people are the ones who deserve to be written about, whose stories and rare courage we should narrate.

In an attempt to do them justice, I decided to write the stories of those I met in Beirut, which is so close to Damascus and yet so unbearably far. I met a number of them and listened to their accounts of events, which were extraordinary in terms of their content, the moral values they reflected and the precocious awareness of those who told their stories.

Bearing witness

I had stories published about women who had seen their houses collapsing under barrel bombs and who had looked into the eyes of husbands killed in demonstrations or under torture. I wrote about young people who had gone through living hell, breathing and with their eyes open, in a branch of the security services called the Death and Madness Branch.

They emerged from it by a miracle, ravaged by skin and chest diseases during their brief stay in a room, designed for four people, into which dozens had been crammed. They saw bodies falling apart; they smelled the putrid stench of rotting wounds and deep inflammations. While they were there they hoped that others would die so that they could have an extra lungful of air or an extra portion of food.

Yes, I wrote about them and had their stories published – and then suddenly I stopped and a profound question loomed in front of me on the computer screen. I was writing about heroes whose identities were unknown. I was plagiarising their heroic deeds and myself becoming a pretentious, deceitful heroine.

It was at that point that my inability to write was born, acquiring eyes and hands and feet. It took hold of me and paralysed my imagination. What was imagination compared with these stories, which a short while ago we thought we could find only in novels or in science-fiction films?

Reality outstrips imagination

A strange phenomenon has emerged from my inability to write subjective literature. Before the revolution, I used to resort to my imagination in order to survive a reality that was bitter, frustrating and miserable. Through imagination I sought my own private world as a haven where I could breathe. After the revolution, that imagination became reality.

In other words, the world that I created through writing and in which I enjoyed living became the reality; so what kind of imagination and what dreams could I seek now? Everything was confused; compared with the horror that was taking place in front of our eyes, imagination became an inactive area with a trace of pretension. Reality outdid imagination and disrupted the usual scale by which the human mind measures plausibility. Our minds and our memories were confused, so what could we write, what could we write about, and who should we write for?

These questions did not arise before the revolution, at least as far as I was concerned, because we had stability, however negative, oppressive and deceptive that stability might have been. It was, nonetheless, stability and it turned writing into a pleasant form of rebellion, a departure from the familiar and an attempt to stand apart from one′s surroundings and from the routine of daily life, from rituals, conventions and taboos.

How can writing now be all of those things together? Against what reality can writing rebel when dozens of Syrians are being killed every day in bombings, in prison cells and in refugee camps from cold, hunger and the psychological and physical damage that has been inflicted on millions of people?

Are the feelings of a Syrian writer today equal to the feelings of the unfortunate Syrians for whom death is a constant presence? Is the suffering and the pain equivalent? Even if we assume that writers are committed to the idea of a moral duty imposed by their profession, a duty to write about people′s suffering and convey their pain and their concerns, what happens in fact is completely the opposite.

It is the Syrians inside Syria and those Syrians who are refugees or displaced who convey the sufferings of all Syrians, whether they are writers, creative artists, or people who are unknown. It is the pictures of the people tortured to death released by CNN and the Guardian newspaper that conveyed the reality, without addition or exaggeration.

We have swapped roles. Most Syrian writers now live abroad and enjoy at least the basic necessities of life. They live in houses, however small those houses might be. They have roofs over their heads that are not in danger of being bombarded and are not likely to fall on their heads at any moment. Most of the intellectuals and the elite do not see from close up what is happening in their country, so how can they write about what is happening? Is it fair to steal the stories of those heroes and write them up in cafes or at home, shedding tears – to then return to the normal lives that most of them lead?

Cover of Wannous' "Dunkle Wolken üver Damaskus" (lit. Dark clouds over Damascus, published in German by Nautilus))
Dima Wannous is a well-known Syrian TV journalist and writer. Her book Dunkle Wolken über Damaskus [Dark Clouds Over Damascus] on the pre-revolutionary period in Syria was published in German by Edition Nautilus in 2013. She currently lives in Beirut.

And what about all those talented and respected directors who have been living abroad since the first months of the revolution? They have made films that have been highly acclaimed and won prizes at fancy international gatherings, even though not one reel was shot in Syria! They have made their films in the countries where they have sought refuge.

Films based either on the testimony of people who have fled the destruction and the shelling and become refugees, or made by editing clips together from YouTube, filmed by non-professional activists or citizen journalists and then leaked to the Arab or international media in order to reach the largest possible audience of viewers and decision-makers.

It is these activists, who dare not reveal their names, who are the real heroes; they are the ones who pay the price for staying inside Syria and exposing themselves to danger. Their right to appear in public and exhibit their work is forfeit. Meanwhile, directors abroad use this footage and tour the world and festivals, wallowing in the applause.

Self-imposed abstinence

In short, I find myself unable to write and my imagination refuses to function. I make do with watching and trying to take in what is happening. I anxiously follow the news, the stories and the cruel and gruelling experiences that the majority of Syrians are going through.

But I am not part of the majority and I do not claim to be part of it. I will not write about people if I have not lived among them, if I have not felt the same fear or heard the same sounds of bombing or weeping or screaming at the emptiness around them.

I will not write about a country I have not visited for more than two years. It′s true that I haven′t visited it because I can′t, but in this case my imagination seems to be inadequate.

I can′t imagine the sufferings of others and write about them when I have chosen to leave, when I could have sacrificed my son and my family and stayed, despite the fear and the anxiety. I know that what I say may be cruel and masochistic but, as long as I am far away and my writing is not based on a lived reality that smells of death and fear and the clouds of smoke that drift across poor Syria, my imagination will remain deactivated.

I will spend a long time looking for another space in which to live outside the world of writing, until I can go back to where I belong – to where I long to sleep.

Dima Wannous

© Goethe-Institut 2016

Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

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