In late June, a Jadaliyya affiliate sat with Syrian novelist Rosa Yaseen Hassan to talk about the Syrian revolution. The interview was conducted in Arabic and transcribed/translated into English. This post represents Part 3 of the interview, in which Hassan discusses culture and culture production in Syria during the Syrian revolution. Part 1 and Part 2, each dealing with the nature of the Syrian revolution and regimes attempts to suppress it, respectively, will be published later this week.
[Rosa Yaseen Hassan is a Syrian writer and activist. She studied architecture and worked as a journalist. She has published a short story collection, Sama` Mulawwatha Bi-l-daw` (A Sky Tainted with Light, 2000) and three novels, the last of which, Hurras al-Hawa` (Guards of the Air, Beirut, al-Kawkab Books, 2009) was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction]
Jadaliyya Affiliate: Let us continue the dialogue to deal with issues related to culture and cultural production in Syria. There are those that have been taken aback by the semi-absence of intellectuals from the field of the Syrian revolution. Are these impressions correct?
Rosa Yaseen Hassan: Not completely. No. What I mean is, you have to take three things into account. The first thing is that, in general, during its decades of rule, the Syrian regime worked to split [and thus create] two fronts, if you will: the political front and the cultural front. This is despite the fact that most of the Syrian intellectuals come from a political background. However, the apparatus of oppression [has] over the decades split the two fronts. So, generally, the intellectuals today are different from [those that are] politicized. I do not see a problem with this situation because I do not mean organized politicization in the sense of their presence in political forces. What I mean is politicization in the sense of an ideology specific to themselves; as a political position. This is the first thing.
The other issue is that you have to also consider the horrific apparatus of violence that the Syrian regime is using today against the revolution [which] makes many of the people who have a desire to participate in the revolution fear going into the streets; just like a lot of people [in general] are afraid. The revolution in Syria is not like the revolution in Egypt. You do not have a square that people are gathering in. In such a case, a lot of intellectuals would be present [in the streets]. This is the other, and second, issue.
The third issue is there are two groups of intellectuals in Syria. There are intellectuals of the regime, that are on the official [television] channels and official media outlets and such locations, whose positions are going to be known today because their existence is premised on [that of] this regime. There is also a group, a larger group, of intellectuals, who if they are not oppositionists are certainly not loyalists. These intellectuals from whom I want to wait for a position from are those that I have justified this issue [i.e., their silence] a little by fear.
Another issue that I can also speak to is that the mobilization of the streets has overthrown the intellectuals. Therefore, I think they stand today in such a position whereby they question their role and position. The popular mobilization of the streets has passed them by and now they are trying to catch up with it.
There is a large part of the Syrian intellectual community that has tried to issue statements with the people, work with civil society groups with the people, and go out into the streets with the people in the areas where it is possible to protest, like Latakia, Salamiyah, al-Suwayda, Qatana, here in Damascus, Aleppo, the University City in Aleppo, the University City in Damascus, and the northeast regions like al-Hasakah, al-Qamishli, `Amudah. These [areas] have always had intellectuals in them. [Even] Homs. So I do not agree that they [the intellectuals] are completely absent. But, certainly, there are some obstacles to their complete participation.
Also, intellectuals, as a generally peaceful sector that works in culture, might harbor some fears of a breakdown in security. A general breakdown might scare them a little bit.
JA: How do you, as a writer, novelist, and activists, view the near future in terms of possibilities for a new cultural program in Syria.
RYH: I want to add a sentence to the previous question. These intellectuals have also paid a heavy price. They have been insulted, insulted in the streets and public spaces. Some of them had groups sent to them to beat them up and insult them. They have been labeled `traitors.` Syrian media has labeled them traitors, and through the use of the internet sought to damage their personal reputations. Many of them have seen their ability to work constrained by the regime. Therefore, they have paid a real price as oppositionsts.
The split that I spoke of earlier that the regime succeeded in maintaining but has not completely secured. And that failure is being proven today... My vision is that in the end it opens up possibilities of what will happen. However, I dream, and my dream certainly has roots in reality but remains my dream [nonetheless], that we in Syria come out of this state of one voice, one party, and one regime, this singular vision that was imposed on us, [while moving] towards diversity. Difference [in opinion] is a beautiful thing, so long as we disagree democratically and with respect. And I dream that this revolution can reach a place where everyone wants: a civilian and democratic Syria in which all are equal in front of the law such that everyone has the right to practice [her/his] beliefs, slogans, viewpoints under the umbrella of the law. I dream of this and have a belief that it will be realized even if it takes a while. It is clear that the revolution will not end soon and that this regime is clinging to power and using, as we said, its entire apparatus of violence. It is clear that the revolution will take a while. The people are very aware of the waiting game that the regime is playing. It is clear that every Friday the protests are growing larger than they were the previous Friday. While the regime kills, the protests increase.
JA: In your view, is there an important role for writing that would be parallel to developments on the streets?
RYH: Do you mean literally writing?
JA: Let us consider several types of writing, [including] political writing as well as literary writing.
RYH: Of course, writing has a great importance. I believe there needs to be some distance in time between literary writing and its subject matter. Therefore, I am not for immediate literary writing [in regards to the revolution]. However, writing that has to do with political analysis, [stating] positions, or shedding light on areas that are not known to others has a big role. But this type of writing is presentist writing and therefore may have an importance that springs only from its presentism. However, literary writing is cumulative with a long-term perspective and therefore needs time to mature within writers so that it can be written. I personally have been very affected by articles that I have read. They have changed my mind about certain things and turned my attention to things I was not paying attention to. They have opened my horizon to visions of the future I had not considered.
JA: Is the process of writing liberating in-and-of-itself or is it an instrument for liberation?
RYH: Sometimes the pen is the instrument of some people. The attempt to utilize the tools that I possess in the service of a position or principle that I believe in is [a form] of asserting a position with the tools that I am skilled in using. Someone else [maybe] has other tools that they should use in the service of the revolution. Anything that occurs today in the service of the revolution, I believe, is very important. [There are] cartoon artists that are drawing some beautiful things about the revolution. They are very important. And those that write are very important. There are different forms of expression that resemble the expression of protesters . . . these are all attempts in the service of the revolution and they should be made.
JA: Do you believe we are in the presence of a new generation of artists?
RYH: I believe that the basis of the issue is that there are always new generations so long as the law of nature is in effect. As long as new generations are being born then certainly there are new generations of intellectuals. However, there is a primary matter that the revolution has achieved today in Syria that makes me say that things will not go back under any circumstances. This is the demolition of a infrastructure that is internal to the Syrian individual called the infrastructure of fear; it has been demolished. There are new generations today that are being raised far away from the culture of fear that our generations were raised in. Therefore, this will produce brave new generations that are not afraid. As part of the demolition of this infrastructure that I am speaking about today, there will emerge manifestations of achievement that were not present before. It is known that Syria suffers, and for a long time suffered, from a diligent censorship over everything, including art and culture. This was a tyrannical censorship, of course on publishing, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief. Perhaps this can help us get to a place where we can tear out the self-censorship we cultivated inside ourselves for the sake of our liberation. I believe this has perhaps begun, in some way.
JA: Would you say that there is optimism in the street?
RYH: This is clear in the street. I mean, people, the Syrian street, is clear. People are coming out into the streets in spite of the fact that it is a project of self-sacrifice. Each person going out into the street is a testament to this project. And they are continuing to come out in greater and greater numbers. Therefore, it is clear that there is a infrastructure of fear that has been demolished. Second, you are seeing people today - You know what the structure of Syrian society was? In the previous structure of Syrian society, it was said that the walls had ears. You would be afraid from the people who were closest to you; that they would report you. That is how Syrian people used to live.
Today, this old structure is being taken apart. People are saying what they want and expressing themselves. They are trying to rid themselves from the traces of this fear; people are writing, being active, beginning to build the infrastructure of a civil society, as well as coalitions. It is quite clear on the ground. Coordinating committees are doing immense civilian work. There is evidence that the infrastructure of fear is being demolished. Today, the children playing in the street - Yesterday, a group of children were playing in the street singing "one, one, one, the Syrian people are one." They are singing. What more do you want? There is something children are being raised on today that we were deprived from. A while ago, my son was on the bus to school and the diver hit one of the children with his stick, and then all the children in the bus--the eldest one being eleven years old--started saying "the people want the fall of driver." There is a generation being raised to the sound of "the people want the fall of the regime." In contrast, when I was their age, I would not dare pronounce the name of the president. Pronouncing the name [of the president] was something I would not dare do because my parents were afraid someone would hurt me in school or in the street. There is something being demolished and this very clear.
JA: If you were the President of Syria on the stage of a university in Syria, what message would you deliver to the audience in the auditorium or across the Syrian television screens.
RYH: It is impossible for me to be in his situation. . . . [laughter]. Impossible. I could not be in this position, not at all. When my people demand something of me, it is my duty to do what it is that they want me to do and not what I want. I would never find myself in the situation he is in -- never.
By the way, the other day, I saw the most beautiful sign that has been raised in the Syrian revolution. It said, "Oh germs and rats of the world, unite!" [This was] in response to the "rats" of Qaddafi and the "germs" of Syrians. So, oh germs and rats of the world, unite! The sign is very nice. It is the best sign I have seen in the revolution.