Sunday, February 03, 2013

Nihad Sirees, Ghalia Kabbani, Malu Halasa in English PEN's Syrian Writers' Panel at Waterstones Piccadilly

Nihad Sirees and Rosie Goldsmith

Over the past week, Syrian literature has been in the spotlight in London due to the visit of Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees and to the wish of audiences to try to learn more about Syria and its writers, especially in light of the dreadful situation there.

Sirees' visit to London coincided with the publication by Pushkin Press of his novel The Silence and the Roar in English translation by Max Weiss. The Silence and the Roar, the first of Sirees' novels to be published in English translation, received an English PEN Award for Writers in Translation 2013.

One of several events in which he participated was the Syrian Writers' Panel organised by English PEN at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday evening. The event ended with a drinks reception and book signing.

 Waterstones Piccadilly

The panel was chaired by the journalist, presenter and writer Rosie Goldsmith who presents many literature events, particularly those involving works in translation. In her introduction she said: "We'll perhaps surprise you with the topic we're going to start with: we're going to talk about sex and humour as an artistic response to the Syrian dictatorship".

The use of sex and humour to resist and escape a dictator's oppression is a key theme of The Silence and the Roar. Asked why he had chosen to use sex and humour to such a large degree in his prescient 2004 novel, Sirees replied: "Because in sex and love men or women feel really free, they feel their personality. It is like standing against tyranny. Any man or woman who feels defeated by tyranny will stop loving."

Sirees was joined on the panel by editor, journalist and cultural curator Malu Halasa and Syrian novelist and journalist Ghalia Kabbani. Both are long-time residents of London. On Tuesday evening BBC Radio 3 broadcast a joint interview with Sirees and Halasa in its Night Waves slot. Sirees was also interviewed by BBC presenter Samira Ahmed on the BBC World Service radio series The Strand.


Goldsmith said all three writers on the panel explore the strategies that people use to help them cope, and tolerate and survive when living under dictatorships and oppression. Sirees, born in Aleppo in 1950, is the author of seven novels, several plays and many screenplays. His work was banned in Syria after his TV series The Silk Market, set in the period 1956-61 was screened in 1998. The Silence and the Roar was published not in Syria but in Beirut by Dar Al-Adab under the title Al Samt Wal Sakhab.

Sirees left Syria a year ago after feeling that for security reasons was no longer possible for him to remain there and went into self-imposed exile in Egypt. He is currently on an October 2012 - February 2013 residency at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA.

Kabbani has been an activist during the Syrian uprising, and is often called on by the broadcast media or other organisations to comment. Her second novel Secrets and Lies, published in Arabic in 2010 and not yet translated into English, deals with life for Syrians under dictatorship as seen through the eyes of a female main protagonist.

Halasa is the author with Rana Salam of the 2008 book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (Chronicle Books, San Francisco). She co-curated the exhibition Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria, held from 4 June to 23 November 2012 at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam.

The Waterstones evening was a mix of the serious and the light hearted. Goldsmith, who had accompanied Sirees during his visit, said: "I've spent a few days with you and I know you have a great sense of humour; I dare say it's almost British, at least I can understand it." She joked that at the previous night's Syria Speaks event at the South Bank's Purcell Room - which she introduced and BBC senior presenter and correspondent Lyse Doucet chaired - Sirees had been surrounded by men: he appeared on stage alongside Syrian poet Golan Haji and British-Syrian novelist and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab. "Tonight I thought I'd make his dreams come true and surround him with women."

The wide-ranging discussion encompassed topics including the books of the three authors, strategies of resisting dictatorship including through sex and humour, propaganda and censorship, pre-civil war Aleppo and its delights, and how Syrian writing in its various forms reflects the civil war.

Halasa had written a four-page essay for the Waterstones event, which she distributed to the audience. Its provocative title is: No Sex Please, We're Syrian: Confessions from the Lingerie Drawer.

Sirees too has written of Syrian lingerie. In his wonderfully evocative essay on Aleppo, Geography of Secrets, for the PEN Atlas website, in which he writes frankly of the sexual culture of the city, he describes his joyous boyhood exploration of the souks:

"In every step I discovered a new and surprising secret, in particular, the Niswan Souk 'the women’s market' which specialises in selling women’s stuff, from bridal dresses, to underwear and lingerie. Usually, the souk is crowded with women and with one visit to the souk, one can discover what women wear for their husbands to make them continue to love them. In a shop window I once saw a two-piece underwear set which flashes with a light when touched by the husband." His description of lingerie with flashing lights could be right out of Halasa's book.

picture of Nihad Sirees from the English PEN website

Goldsmith described The Silence and the Roar as "such an unusual book, such a brilliant book." It is a slender volume, but "there's is an awful lot in here, there's a lot of wisdom, and there's a lot of politics, and there is some humour and there's a lot of sex."  People in the West often assume that those in the Arab world are "incredibly prudish and so on, but of course that's not the case." She had been surprised that the book had so much sex in it was like erotic fiction. Fathi, the central protagonist, is "a very sensuous  man". The hot steamy weather adds to the sensual atmosphere, with Fathi and his girlfriend stripping off and having showers.

Halasa said "coming from the West there is a tendency to think about sexual relations as something very private and individual between consenting adults. It  doesn't really act as any kind of mirror on the social and political situation".

Whereas when she had asked Sirees on Night Waves why sex was so important to the protagonist of The Silence and the Roar, "it became clear that within the context of the novel, and perhaps for some people in Syria, sex is a way of showing that they are free individuals within a totalitarian regime. And I thought that was very interesting. I mean we're sort of jaded about sex in the West."

Sirees said at the end of a day in which Fathi has been in the city with the roar the regime has pushed people to make, and after he has been in the basement of the secret police, "he finds himself in need to be with his girlfriend just to feel that he's all right, and he will stand and confront all these difficulties and problems." The regime wants him to work for it, but "because of his  nice relationship with his girlfriend he refuses to give up."

Goldsmith found the two main women characters - Fathi's girlfriend Lama and his mother Ratiba - "wonderful characters, They are very positive images of beauty and love and comfort: you see women in a quite positive way, I think." Nihad simply replied "Always!"

 Malu Halasa, Ghalia Kabbani, Nihad Sirees

Halasa too was interested by Ratiba. "Fathi's mother is a 56-year old widow planning to marry a regime official - her son is just finding out about this. So you have this traditional woman who wants to have a life, who's looking forward to getting married, and then you contrast her with the girlfriend Lama who figured out that her husband went off and had a secret second marriage - and she and Fathi have a very sexually free relationship.

"I found it very interesting contrasting the traditional attitude towards marriage and sex and then this couple - they are reacting against this totalitarian regime, this day-long march where people are hysterical and proclaiming their love of this great leader - and this couple is trying to insulate themselves from that - and yet all of that is coming into their lives in more ways than one."

"They are creating a cocoon" Goldsmith said. "Fathi is walking against the crowd, and the masses are coming this way, the leader's 20th anniversary, and there is propaganda everywhere and this noise as you call it the roar. Tell us about the title, this perfect title."

Sirees explained the silence is that of the writer who is ordered to keep silent and not to write any more because there have been differences between  him and the regime. The roar is the roar of the regime: the leader wants always people to show love and to show that they adore him. During the 24 hours in which the  novel takes place "we always feel how Fathi Sheen tried to keep himself, even in silence, talking against the regime, against tyranny, despite all this noise around him. He has to talk to himself and not give up. They want him to talk but in the benefit for the regime but he prefers to keep silent, not to give up."

In the novel there are propaganda writers, and Goldsmith asked Sirees about the pressures writers like Fathi are under to conform and become a writer for the regime. .

Sirees said there are writers who are against, and other who in favour of, the regime. Several writers had been unable to stand up against the regime, but work for it, despite all  "because they are in fear of their safety and that of their relatives".

When Kabbani was asked about her interpretation of The Silence and the Roar she said: "Syrian people would not be surprised by this novel because we were brought up in this state and we see all this all the time. Of course, I see him as a very brave writer to write about it. I was surprised recently to find it was published in 2004. It is not a recent novel. So he was brave to write it at that time.

"But I notice - and I have read almost all his books - that this is maybe the first and only novel in which he doesn't mention the real place and the real names. You sense that this is Syria but there is no mention about Syria or about al-Assad nor anything, it's just a dictator and a place."

Goldsmith agreed that she would not have guessed it was written back in 2004 "because it is very contemporary". She asked Sirees what the circumstances were in 2004 which meant he had to write the novel under cover and have it published in Beirut rather than Syria.

"After the death [in 2000] of Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, we had sensed that something will be better" Sirees said. Writers and activists had started to meet to discuss developing civil society and social organisation. The discussions, including those in the governmental press and media, had been in-depth and very rich. The renowned cartoonist Ali Farzat had established a satirical magazine Al-Domari (The Lamplighter). (Farzat came to world attention in August 2011 when he was beaten up and  had his hands broken after the regime objected to his cartoons).  

"But after less than a year, the president stopped everything and asked all for all this to stop and all to be silent. They stopped everything and all we intellectuals felt we had to sit down and just watch, we must not be active in social life and political life in Syria at that time."

Some writers left Syria, others kept silent.  The intellectuals might feel they were defeated, "but they want inside to resist and to continue by some way: everyone has his way to continue." Goldsmith found this similar to the kind of  "inner emigration" of  the type that Vaclav Havel and some other Eastern European writers adopted.

the machinery of propaganda

Halasa has written often on censorship in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. She said that before the uprising some artists and spaces were able to exist, but "they had to have a relationship with the regime."

She found one particularly interesting angle of The Silence and the Roar to be the scene in which Fathi goes to reclaim his ID which had been taken from him by the secret police earlier in the day. He goes into a basement in which is located the propaganda machinery of the regime; they are making the posters, the pictures, they are writing the slogans. The novel also describes the way in which the regime uses poetry to entice the masses and to get their attention.

"I've always been curious in my various travels in Syria or other countries, or watching countries in turmoil from London, in how can a single society be convinced of one thing, how can thousands of people move one way," Halasa said.

"I have a friend who is Serbian and she says she remembers the moment that Serbia became a fascist state, it happened very quickly. And so it is very interesting to be able to look through the novel to see the machinery of propaganda and to see who's writing this, who's making this, who's doing this sort of material so that the regime's propaganda machine can cover hotels and public spaces with pictures and slogans."

Halasa mentioned the research of Italian visual critic  Donatella Della Ratta who has done doctoral research on the Syrian media industry, particularly TV drama, and who has a blog at

"She has done a lot of work on Syrian soap operas and she gave a talk last year and was talking about the three areas of censorship that is particularly for TV - the president's office, the media and the secret police.

"And if there is something that is going to be aired on television that one of these offices didn't like than usually it didn't happen, but the president's office would not make comment, it would stand aloof. And that there are in Syria some cultural productions like miniseries or literature or art that are allowed to be put out in public, and some of those ideas are a little risqué but it's just to let the society kind of ventilate and lose some of that tension.

"But still, dissidents were being arrested, people were still being put in jail, there was still surveillance, so although you'd have the appearance that there is like a freedom, there wasn't like a real freedom, things weren't really changing particularly for Syrians."

Halasa thought that if you were a foreigner travelling to Syria after 2000 you did have a sense there was freedom. "Some of my Syrian friends would say 'look, we're in a pub drinking beer, I can tell  you about the slaughter in Hama in '82'  - I mean there was a time when you couldn't even say the word Hama - but that didn't really mean that life was really changing for Syrians."

secrets, lies and videotapes

Kabbani outlined the first part of the story of her 2010 novel Secrets and Lies. The protagonist is a woman civil engineer whose mother is an MP, and stepfather a highly-ranked policeman. She realises that she is constantly  under observation by her stepfather, meaning she cannot have ordinary relationships with men. "And then suddenly she notices that in her family there are a lot of secrets. And when she faces her mother, she starts to shut her up. Her mother doesn't want the secrets to be aired because if you open this file you will open a lot of other files, and she is a deputy, married to a well known man."

The woman flees the country and chooses to live in London as an art student. "In London she meets this man who is originally from Syria, but brought up here, and he is a documentary maker. He notices all the time she doesn't tell him about anything about her past. They get married but he realises  she has a lot of trouble in her psychology so he suggests that she talks to a video camera at home and tells the camera about her life".

The woman makes four video tapes, and "starts to have a new relationship with her past, with her family, because she faces all these problems in her life." The name of the central character in Kabbani's novel is Intisar - meaning Victory.

Ghalia said one similarity between her novel and The Silence and the Roar was the inclusion of "the pre-prepared marches which the regime usually claims are 'spontaneous'. But Nihad used this march as a main stream in his book - for Intisar it was like flashback." The novels also share the theme of the fear Syrian writers and others feel, knowing they are under surveillance.

Kabbani mentioned how Syrian writers talk about the human body, and about love and sex. Sirees used this theme to show how people take refuge in their bodies because they can't talk openly. In Secrets and Lies she shows how the regime does not leave people to enjoy their bodies; Intisar was under surveillance all the time. The Syrian regime, which called itself secular, sometimes used sexual relationships to target or blackmail people, or to write reports on them.

Halasa said that in researching her book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie "this was the first time anyone had gone into lingerie factories and really quizzed the people working there. The sexy-lingerie culture is really created by men: the men who designed it were celebrating the female body, they were in love with the female body, they were in love with sex."

Goldsmith said she had smiled while reading The Silence and the Roar. "I couldn't believe I was reading a book about a dictatorship and was actually enjoying it; it was funny, I thought Fathi was the most wonderful character, and there were some wonderful almost laugh-out-loud lines."

Goldsmith asked whether this political satire is something quite Syrian. Nihad pointed to a strand of humour and political satire in Syrian literature, for example in the work of Mohammed Maghout (and at the previous evening's Syria Speaks Robin Yassin-Kassab recommended Maghout's poetry rather than than of Nizar Qabbani).

Asked whether political satire continues, Kabbani said: "Very much so; you can see it in slogans which people show in demonstrations and you can see it also on Facebook  - sometimes you just want to laugh and I think Nihad tried to show this sense of humour because really even the Arabs thought that Syrian people are very gloomy." But Halasa said Arabs often tell her that "Syrian people are very sexy".

Sirees said: "I am not always like this - I am sometimes very serious in writing, but I always like to have some line of comedy." This helps the reader to live in the whole world of the novel. Goldsmith said: "I'd love to read some more Syrian satire - I see a whole genre coming on." A member of the audience also recommended Zakaria Tamer.

it is important our writing reflects Aleppo people's love of life

Sirees pointed out: "We have something else, especially in Aleppo: music. Music is something in our blood. And this city is known as having a musical instrument in every house. For example my grandfather, my mother's father, was a sheikh, an Imam, and he called for prayer and had a beard and everything, but he had seven daughters, and he asked all of them to learn music. All of them can play music and sing, and this is just an example - so there is music, humour.."

Ghalia said Aleppo is well known for its kitchen and its music. "In Syria everybody knows that when you go to Aleppo you enjoy your time, go to restaurants to enjoy good food, and enjoy the music. This  is the city which now the regime wants to say to everybody is a Salafi Muslim city. But the people of Aleppo love life, and I think it's very important to reflect this in our writing."

Goldsmith said that given Aleppo is a great cultural city with its wonderful architecture - old souks and so on - and its beautiful visual arts and its writers "it must be incredibly painful to  you two to know what's happening in your home city... it has lost a great heritage. It must be very hard." 

Kabbani said the whole of the Old City is destroyed. Because Aleppo is so well known, many people are talking about its destruction, it is getting a lot of attention, but she wanted to point out that "you know Homs is really totally destroyed now."

Sirees read in English from the second chapter of The Silence and the Roar - a chapter about Fathi's mother Ratiba and sister Samira. Ratiba "never stopped laughing, not even in her sleep." His liberal lawyer father was a combative writer of newspaper articles whose words had earned him many enemies, making it difficult for him to find a bride." On their honeymoon "my father discovered the amazing talents of his bride." This talent lay in coming up with new descriptions her husband's political adversaries." making suggestions which he incorporated in his articles.

At the beginning of the Q and A session Goldsmith introduced a friend of Sirees, Anwar Kawadri, who was sitting in the front row. Kawadri is a London-based film and TV director, originally from Damascus. He said The Silence and the Roar had provoked him a lot and that - finance permitting - he had decided to make it into a movie adapted to what is  happening now.

"I must say that apart from what you've heard about the plot, there are very important sub-plots and details in this book that makes it very charming and interesting" Sirees had predicted what is going on in the Arab Spring, "and I salute him".

The angle that had particularly attracted Kawadri's attention is that the man who has proposed marriage to Fathi's widowed mother is Mr Ha'el, head of the president's personal security. "Now Nihad captures him in a very original way - he came from nothing." Ha'el had been placed in his position by accident, "because everything happens by accident in this part of the world" after saving the president from the humiliation of falling down while a TV camera was rolling. He was rewarded not because of any merit of his own. because he actually saved the president from humiliation so that he didn't fall down. Ha'el is well aware that the regime dislikes Fathi and wants to get him to work for it. It is this aspect of the novel that Kawadri has developed in his script. Kawadri said that he plans to make the film in Egypt.

A member of the audience had been struck by "the personal nature of what you've all written about...   the idea of the Aleppo souk, and who these people are". Before the event he had ventured up to the Middle East section on the fifth floor of Waterstones. What he found, which he said was a shame, but which is typical of most big retail outlets, was books about the clash of civilisations, the Taliban and so on. "It's a certain narrative that you see on the shelves of outlets like this."

With the awfulness of what is  happening in Syria it is asked why the West isn't doing more, why there isn't more action. He felt that one reason is that the type of material and narrative that had been discussed by the panel "is not being shown or distributed in places like this. The public has no clue and they  just see it as being a Sunni versus Shia situation. They don't see people, they just see politics. I think what you're doing it really important, but if only places like this would see the deeper stories."

Halasa  thought there is a need for more of a culture of writing of visual arts to be explored so the people are really met, that the voices of the people from the region are met directly by the people who don't live there. That is slowly happening. "But I think the Arab Spring and also I think social networking, all of those things are helping that. It's sad to say that  because of the political situation in Syria more Syrian writers will be translated into English. Before it wasn't really happening as much as it will start to be  happening now."

Goldsmith said that there seems, if slowly, to be more Arabic literature translated into English. She hoped that Ghalia's novel, and the other novels of Sirees, will be translated.

syrian writing reflects the war

Kabbani noted that the main form of writing seen is in the form of new media - Facebook, blogs. But the impact of the war is beginning to be seen in poetry and novels. "You can sense this  titles - like Khawla Dunia the poetess, her new book is called Quick Poems Before the Fall of Shells - Adnan Farzat, the brother of Ali, wrote his story about the cartoonist called I Was a Friend of the President, Maha Hassan wrote Drums of Love about the uprising and there is a novel by Abdullah Maksour called Baba Amr about that district of Homs."

Halasa said  "I think the thing about Syria is that it is always surprising, it is a very important country - it goes against expectations of what we're fed in the West about what the revolution, what Islam, should look like.

"It's far more complex, it's much more enjoyable, it's very rich, and this book The Silence and the Roar is a very good introduction because through this gateway you will see many things that will surprise you and it will make you laugh, and at this time, particularly at this time because of Syria, we all need to laugh and strengthen our political resolve to do something about what's going on in the country. It's very important now."
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

Susan Malter said...

Thank you! I am picking up Sirees's Silence and the Roar today.