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Writing, Revolution, and Change in Syria: An Interview with Nihad Sirees

[Nihad Sirees. Image from] [Nihad Sirees. Image from]

It can be said without hesitation that Nihad Sirees is an Aleppine writer, not because he hails from that city and lived there for most of his life, but because the bulk of his writing starts there and orbits in its universe. From Northern Winds to The Girls, and even The Silence and the Roar, which does not belong to any clear time or place but between the lines of which it is not too hard to glean that embattled city. The most well-known of all his works, though, was The Silk Market, the memorable television serial that narrated a period of the political history of that city, and through it a chapter of the history of Syria. Sirees witnessed the explosion of the revolution in his country but then concluded that he had to free himself from all the immediate dangers, and that getting some distance would help his writing and his optimism.

Yusuf Akkawi (YA): You are from Aleppo, and you lived there during some of the revolution. What is your interpretation for how late Aleppo joined the revolution?

Nihad Sirees (NS): Who even thought that Syria would revolt against the regime of the al-Assad clan prior to March 2011 in Aleppo or anywhere else? Before the revolution, Bashar al-Assad had a respectable amount of popularity despite the fact that everybody knew Syria was a security state, that corruption and plunder of the country were widespread, and that there was a master plan to transform the economy into a capitalist one. This is to say nothing of the political and party-based monopoly. We in Aleppo knew all too well how a financial clique that was close-to-home, close to the regime, and allied with the security services had its hands all over the economy. Even if they did not own everything, they insisted in being involved in order for any project to get off the ground. But our industrialists, businessmen, and agriculturalists consented to this situation because it was better than the nothing that had prevailed under Hafiz al-Assad. The tremendous economic boom the city experienced before March 2011 can explain the acceptance of the regime by certain segments of Aleppo, including craftsmen and workers. Now, the Syrian people in every city and rural area who had never thought to rebel, even after seeing the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions broadcast on television, even if they felt solidarity with the rights of the Tunisians and the Egyptians, will not abide the shocking violence carried out by the regime from the very beginning, which [has] gradually created a revolutionary response all over Syria. It was violence and humiliation that created this revolutionary mood we are experiencing today. Being a developed city, and as a consequence of its social and economic situation, Aleppo did not get involved with the mobilization right away, until it came to harm. And it would be affected later on as a direct result of what happened in the nearby rural areas. Right now, the government is making a big mistake by dealing with the city in this well-known violent manner because the city will no longer care about its losses and instead will rise up against the regime.

YA: Has Aleppo ever truly revolted before?

NS: Aleppo rose up during the late seventies and was hit hard. Such an uprising would not be seen again until the mid-nineties. Therefore, the city is cautious now. In any case, now you can see how Aleppo is embedded in the armed revolution in a big way, and soon we will hear about the large and serious role of the city in the events that are taking place.

YA: Meanwhile, one finds that most of the intellectuals in Aleppo are either silent or have publicly announced their siding with the regime. How do you explain this? More generally, how do you explain this sharp division regarding the Syrian revolution in particular among Arab and Syrian intellectuals?

NS: This goes back to the stalwart “resistant” and progressive and Arab nationalist discourse on the part of the regime, which actually conceals something else: in other words, the existence of two contradictory faces to the regime itself. The regime has two faces, a soft side and a very violent, even murderous, side. Everyone knew about the violence and the humiliation that it practiced against its citizens in the dungeons of the intelligence services and by the army units. However, [being]accustomed to forgetting about it allowed people to go on living. You might say that the regime was nice to intellectuals and artists and even tried to get close to them. I was a witness on more than one occasion, and I mean directly, to the extent of their affection for those artists in particular, and intellectuals in general. Furthermore, the regime provided huge subsidies for art, especially television drama, and it became concerned with the interests of artists. So its representatives forged friendships with them. A large proportion of those who work in this sector are close to men of the regime and the security apparatus. Intellectuals in Aleppo are no different from their counterparts in Damascus but as a result of the shrinking cultural and artistic voice of the city, you do not hear their opinions clearly. I understand you are referring to one writer in particular who worked after March 2011 to implement the policies of the regime, a writer for whom the regime had done huge favors and now he had to return them. Generally speaking, this is how the regime functions.

The Superstars of Writing

YA: Were you somehow involved in the revolution? Did you go out to demonstrations? Do you have any personal recollections about them? What do you remember? Any images that particularly affected you?

NS: Of course, I did not demonstrate, but I allowed myself to interact with the revolution. Because I am a writer, every scene connected to the revolution inspires and helps me. I try to understand what is happening. Usually, I am with change, big and meaningful change. However, I am afraid of revolutions. Now, that does not mean I am against this revolution. It is quite the opposite. But I would have preferred for change to come peacefully, and this is what we were working for when we got involved with civil activism more than ten years ago. Of course, we were repressed and some of our possessions were liquidated by the security regime. I am struck, for example, by some of the scenes broadcast by demonstrators (revolutionaries) of their last breath after they have been fatally shot. They are dying calmly. There is always someone asking them to recite the shahadatayn calmly, which is also incredible. I watch in fear as he expires and death, or the threat of death, become inspiration for the revolution and not obstacles to it.

YA: How have your writing habits changed? Have you written about the revolution? Have you come up with topics and ideas for creative writing?

NS: Creative writing is stalled today. Not just for me, but for many other writers. The imagination withdraws to an interest in tangible reality. The superstars of writing today are those who write articles about “the events in Syria” or “the Syrian crisis” and, finally, “the Syrian revolution.” People have come to prefer reading posts on Facebook, the latest breaking news, or even a rumor to reading a story, even if its subject matter is the revolution. People are nervous about the country, about reality itself. They rush to read any article analyzing or interpreting what is going on. The best thing one can do is to be brief, and to cast some light on what is happening. I have written some stories and conducted a few interviews about the revolution, publishing some of them here in Egypt. When I posted one or two of them to Facebook, I noticed that this is not the time for imagination but for analytical and journalistic talk. Moreover, the matter concerns me personally and so my mind is now consumed by the latest news story and by trying to understand what is happening and by predicting what is going to happen much more than literary or artistic creation. 

The Novel of Tyranny

YA: Today, how do you see your literary achievements in the shadow of the revolution? Specifically, how do you view your novel, The Silence and the Roar, which is about tyranny?

NS: I think I contributed, if only in a modest way, to developing an awareness of the reality that prevailed prior to the revolution and the push for change. All of my literary and dramatic works aim to awaken the consciousness of the Arab citizen and the Syrian, particularly in order to alert them to the winds of change, from Northern Winds, whose title even refers to the winds of change, all the way up to the most recent television drama I wrote about Gibran Khalil Gibran. Take, for example, the serial entitled The Silk Market. It is not only a nice story whose protagonist is the city of Aleppo and the Aleppine dialect, etc.; the program attempted to instill nostalgia for the Syrian democratic past in the fifties. People loved that show because it reminded them of those golden years even as their consciousness would recognize the political reality in which they were living. The same thing can be said about my other works such as Thuraya, which aimed to open up people’s self-awareness and consciousness of others in the construction of modern Syria. Then there is the novel The Silence and the Roar, which I wrote after the program to revitalize a civil society broken down under the weight of the regime. It observes the phenomenon of authoritarianism. I diagnosed it and wondered about its origin. I purposefully made fun of the dictator in order to participate in tearing off his halo of veneration and then to topple him. Publishing that novel was an act surrounded with danger but I was not worried because that is my role as a writer. Some of those who read it knew how bold it was. In fact, a diplomat who knew Arabic well asked me whether the men of the regime even read literature in Syria! But I never sent it to Syrian publishing houses, which I was supposed to do first in order to get official permission, sending it straight away instead to Dar al-Adab (in Beirut), which published it without any hesitation.

YA: The novel makes no reference to any clear place or time. Has the revolution made you think at all about rewriting it?

NS: Tyranny is a historical phenomenon and has no specific homeland. I wrote the novel in 2004 when dozens of Arab, African, and many other countries, including Syria, were languishing under authoritarian rule. In the novel, I did not name the country, the city, or the dictator, but anyone who read it knew what and whom I was talking about. By not explicitly naming the place, I wanted to make it simultaneously more general and more specific. Moreover, I wanted to avoid having the novel banned or confiscated. This is one of the amazing possibilities that literature provides — to say what you want to say in a complex artistic fashion and at the same time using simple tools. Do you mean literally rewrite it? Of course, I would not. The novel is a product of its time. But I do want to write a novel like El Manuscrito Carmesí by the Spanish writer Antonio Gala about Abdallah al-Saghir, the last taifa king of al-Andalus.

YA: There was a clip on the Syrian news service of your reading selections from a novel, which was in fact The Silence and the Roar, but then replaced by another novel. What was that all about?

NS: This novel attracted the interest of cultural circles and publishing houses outside of Syria, particularly in Europe. I was invited last May to the Solothurn Literature Festival in Switzerland, where in one of the sessions I read a few pages from the novel translated into German. Most of the questions for me revolved around authoritarianism and the events in Syria. However, SANA framed the news a bit differently. The broadcast by the Syrian state news agency about my reading reported I had read selections from my novel, State of Passion, which is completely different in subject matter. That novel looks at a situation of female-female love in Aleppo. I think that the news agency, as usual, wanted to say that everything in Syria was fine and that our esteemed writers continue to be interested in matters of love.


YA: You recently decided to leave the country. Was that under any duress or pressure or personal fears? Did leaving make you freer to write about and deal with the Syrian situation?

NS: I do not demonstrate and I do not take up arms, but I am for fundamental change. I found that life in Syria had become dangerous with this [regime that is acting like a] wounded wolf, and I preferred to live without the immediate pressure of the events. Someone like me needs to be far away in order to offer the best he has in order to serve the process of change. I found myself working for the cause of the Syrian people in a different way, and in different places than, say, the awesome Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Fares al-Helou, to take two examples.

YA: Do you see the revolution proceeding as expected? Or have there been any surprises as far as you can tell?

NS: Before the revolution, I knew, as many people did, about the violence and humiliation that was going on in the basements of the security services. When they decided to repress the movement for the revitalization of civil society, they carried out simple actions: smashing my car windows, and spraying Samir Nashar’s car windows with acid (Samir is now a member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council). We said ma’lesh (no big deal). We were expecting some kind of violence in the event of demonstrations demanding democracy or replacing the governor (as actually happened in Homs at the beginning). But to pull out children’s fingernails because they were messing around by scrawling revolutionary Egyptian slogans that they had seen on television on the walls, then to open fire on the demonstrators, then to unleash tank artillery and fighter jets on ordinary people, and to mutilate dead bodies and to cut off people’s genitals before sending the corpses back to their families — nobody could have imagined this. In the past, the regime carried out violence in a subterranean fashion. But after March 2011 it rose to the surface and the regime started engaging in it out in the streets and in the light of day. All the respect in the world to the mobile phone cameras that scandalized these practices even as the regime refused to own up to it in the beginning, locking up anyone who publicized the fact of the horrifying violence being carried out by the regime. Even though Lavrov criticized the big mistakes that were made by the regime (at the start of the events!) and President al-Assad recognized these very same mistakes, they continue to make them over and over again and nobody is going to stop them, even if it leads to the destruction of the country.

YA: Are there any fears you are particularly aware of today?

NS: Naturally, there a lot of fears that anyone with a conscience and a rational mind would have. I see a decimated country where no town or village is spared, and I see the army coming apart and tanks abandoned in the streets, whether they are destroyed or in fine condition, but their soldiers leave them before fleeing. I see how Syrians have been made into refugees who are unwanted by the neighbors who were welcomed into these very same houses that have been abandoned now because their owners have become refugees. And I see how this honorable people are waiting for someone to help them, to offer them a crust of bread or a tent to sleep in. Who could have ever imagined this prior to March 2011? There was not a single person thinking about this. All of this could have been avoided and Syria could have been saved if the regime had a shred of wisdom and had just sent someone to receive the leading shaykhs of Deraa and apologized for the unacceptable behavior of the idiotic arrogant local Baathists and seen that justice was done for those mutilated children.

[This interview was originally published in Arabic in al-Safir under the title "Nihad Sirees: I am with fundamental change but I am afraid of revolutions.” It was translated into English by Max Weiss.]

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