Mohammed Kadalah

It was a winter night when I sat in a café with four friends and heard on the news that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president of Tunisia, had fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. It was a strange piece of news! We looked at one another, and all of us were thinking the same thing: ‘Could it happen in Syria?’ But nobody dared to say it out loud... After a few months, three of us were protesting and could not believe it was really us!

Hasan Khalil, a Syrian refugee.[1]

“The uprising was sparked, spontaneously, in the southern city of Dar‘a when a group of children was arrested for writing graffiti on their school wall, calling for the fall of the regime.”[2] But what was the context for that spark? The Arab World was on a hot surface at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011. Many Arab countries caught the fire that Mohammed Bouzizi thought he would set only himself on. In the midst of this, Syria was no exception. But unlike Bouzizi of Tunisia, Syria’s uprising began with writing, an unexpected form of writing. Under a regime that interferes with the minute details of its citizens, the threat came from where the regime had never expected. Some school children in Dar‘a in southern Syria had heard the slogans of protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—slogans that filled Arab TV channels with “the people want to oust the regime” and “freedom.” With children’s innocence and desire to repeat what they hear, they scrawled some of these slogans as graffiti on the walls of their school in Dar‘a. With the intent to suppress any scenarios similar to those of Tunisia or Egypt, the intelligence services arrested, tortured and refused to release those children from prison. When the children’s families went to the political security branch to demand the release of their children, the chief officer, with unparalleled arrogance, asked them to forget about their children. He asked them to go and make new children or to bring their wives to the security branch and they will impregnate their women, an act intended for the ultimate humiliation of the families. In response, the people of Dar‘a began demonstrating in the streets, and that was the spark of the Syrian Revolution.

Despite the constant media coverage of Syria and its three-and-a-half-year-old revolution, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Every day brings more horrific events that are impossible to cover completely, and many stories fall in the shadow of silence. Despite Syria’s strategic location in the heart of the Arab world, very little is known about its cultural production, particularly its literature from both before and after the revolution.

I choose to address this revolution from the literary works that discuss and narrate what it looks like, its internal and external motivations, and the perspective of those who lived the extraordinary moments of March 2011 and afterwards. I will be focusing on three characteristics of a large corpus of prose works: (a) the recurring invocation of earlier traumatic history, in particular the failed revolt of 1982 in Hama; (b) the significant role attributed to youth as a revolutionary force; and (c) a repeated emphasis on the diversity of perspectives represented on both sides of the conflict.

These literary works depict the political, social and religious realities of Syria before and after March 2011 in order to draw a more comprehensive picture of Syria’s culture. These cultural details lay the foundation and act as necessary components for the development of the narratives and their relation to the current situation in Syria. This literary corpus is both fiction and non-fiction written primarily in prose. Examples of the non-fiction, most of which carry the journalistic structure, are Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Cross Fire, Mohammed Abi Samra’s Death of the Syrian Eternity: Testimonies of the Generations of Silence and Revolution, Ghadi Francis’ My Pen and Pain, and Khawla Dunia’s short piece “And the Demonstrations Go On” in Layla al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel’s Diaries of An Unfinished Revolution. Some works of fiction, which are inspired from the Syrian revolution, are Haifa Bitar’s Faces from Syria, Maha Hassan’s Drums of Love, and Ruth Sherlock’s et. al.’s play The Fear of Breathing: Stories from the Syrian Revolution. The majority of these works have not yet been known in the West nor have they been sufficiently studied because they were published between 2011 and 2013.

The need for writing

It would be inaccurate to assume that the literature centering on Assad’s family regime only started with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution. Some Syrian authors and dramatists have always addressed Assad’s politics in their works despite the fact that their criticism was indirect. They employed historical figures and events, constructing allegorical works so that they met the expectations of the censor. For example, some works were crafted to revolve around an event in pre-Islamic, Islamic or medieval Arab history and they exposed the ways the Arab kings ruled the masses. Through the interactions between the masses and the king, the monopoly of power alluded to the current politics of Syria and its corruption. Authors such as Mohammed al-Maghot, Mamduh Udwan, Sadallah Wanus and Zakaryya Tamer did not miss a chance to criticize the Syrian regime. However, there were not any explicit attempts to condemn that regime or its head.

With the outbreak of the revolution, the allegorical style would be abandoned because of the flooding of news of demonstrations, attacks, shelling and most importantly, the daily killing of innocent Syrians. Such incidents brought a radical change to literature. Due to the pace of news coming out of Syria, the media had to handle it in a way that served the needs of its audience, delivering the most up-to-date news without necessarily pinpointing the background of the revolution or taking into consideration the different constituencies that supported the revolution.

The intensity of the incidents and the abruptness of the advances that the revolution achieved created a need for documenting what was happening. The Syrian people surprised the world as much they surprised themselves when they marched through the streets demanding freedom and political reform. Because of this spontaneous eruption, writers who wrote about Syria were called upon to use a documentary-like style. Moreover, the majority of the works that I discuss are published in Lebanon because the Syrian authorities ban any attempts to acknowledge that Syria has been going through a revolution.

But what is the importance of literature that makes it different from the news? Why did some authors choose to write very quickly and publish works about the Syrian revolution in a relatively short period of time? To answer these questions, I would like to mention a crucial point. There was always fear that the revolution would be crushed because of the excessive violence that Assad used. Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, whose revolutions claimed a few hundred casualties, Syria lost a thousand people in the first two months of its uprising. In the early days, Assad’s troops used to kill on a daily basis, though they kept the number of victims below fifty each day in order not to provoke the international community. In that case, creating literature was an attempt to document the daily progress of a revolution that could be suppressed at any moment. No one, even protesters, would believe that there would be demonstrations in the next week because the killing was done randomly, brutally, and in public. The unwillingness to leave the task of documentation to the Syrian official media and the fear that the uprising would go undocumented except by the daily news reinforced the sense of urgency for writers to describe the massive social and political transformation that Syria was experiencing for the first time in more than forty years.

If we look at the themes covered by the non-fiction works, we see that they center on the novelty of the experience, such as breaking the barrier of fear, the birth of social activism, the rediscovery of some Syrian cities and towns, and the rise of youth as the major component and leaders of the uprising. The narratives reflect the personal accounts of the protagonists who roam some Syrian revolutionary spots and their interactions with the uprising leaders in the towns they visit. The protagonists’ journeys symbolize the rediscovery of their country, as if they were blind to it before the revolution. They witness the people’s optimism, fear, future plans and hopes for the end of an era marked by nothing but terror. The accounts focus on the transformation of Syria from the kingdom of fear into the land of the revolution. Khawla Dunia says in her memoir, written in July 2011, “Today, for instance, we are closer to one another than at any time in the past. Our motivation to press on until we achieve change is stronger than ever. Our mission now is to restore the faith of those in society who are now more frightened than ever of what tomorrow brings…there is consensus over the goal of a civil state.”[3]

The style employed in the non-fiction works follow mostly a journalistic, diary-like style, depicting the revolutionary activities from day to day and city to city, trying to include as much detail as possible. The significance of such a style comes from its attempts to immortalize the revolution. The narratives are full of the elements of the epic, giving a lot of space to names of cities, towns, streets, etc., as an attempt to pause the time so that the writer is able to document every detail. These works are extremely significant because they offer the first glimpse of the uprising and the social and political dilemma in a country that is culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse. Like early World War I literature, these works will always be the backbone for any future study of the Syrian revolution because they capture the days when the Syrian people were able to remain peaceful, before they took arms around 2011 as their last solution to defend themselves against Assad’s death machine. Without knowing whether the revolution would succeed, what these writers have in common is the recognition of the peaceful beginnings and the noble demands of the country’s initial uprising.

In the early days, the Syrian regime launched massive PR campaigns against the rebels, branding them as intruders and vandals on TV and in newspapers in Syria and Lebanon (including on al-Manar TV, Hezbollah’s official channel). There was a need to prove to the world that a full-fledged revolution was sweeping through Syria. I am not claiming these works became the only strategy to oppose Assad’s propaganda; instead, the revolution relied on social media to refute Assad’s falsehood. They have instead become living and authentic documents for the generations to come and for the rest of the world to see into the Syrian uprising.

In his non-fiction Death of the Syrian Eternity, Mohammed Abi Samra notes that his attempt to write about the revolution is inspired by the need to break the silence imposed by the Syrian regime. Also, his work condemns the lack of investigative reporting by most Arab media, which covered the revolution only perfunctorily. In his introduction, he writes “… this book had to wait for the great Syrian event that has been going on since March 2011 in order to be accomplished and to find a context in the midst of the Syrians’ liberation from their gigantic prison of silence.” He adds, “Finally, I don’t know if it is worth pointing to the extreme scarcity of the Arabic and Lebanese writing [on the Syrian revolution] and its missing field investigations about the Arab revolutions and the one-year old Syrian uprising. The scarcity of honest journalists and their writing sensitivity is a chronic problem... and the reluctance of professional writers to take the initiative or take the risk to deal with social and daily issues… in order to develop the novel and the writing styles. This is left for people like us, such as journalists, writers and European novelists, some of whom were killed in Homs after they took the risk to go there.”[4]

The reawakening of trauma

Is this the first time the Assad family felt threatened? The answer is absolutely not. The first serious challenge to the family came twelve years after Hafez al-Assad’s military coup in 1970, which he called “Correction Movement.” It was the Muslim Brotherhood that took arms against Assad in 1982, taking refuge in the city of Hama. Half of the city was demolished later on by Assad and his brother, Rifa’t; nearly thirty thousand people were killed, a similar number arrested, and more than ten thousand disappeared. The wound of Hama marked the beginning of prison literature that emerged after some of the regime’s political prisoners wrote about their dreadful experiences in prisons especially the notorious Tadmur Prison. Works like Mustapha Khalifa’s The Shell (2008), Faraj Berikdar’s The Treason of Silence and Language (2011), Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s May We Be Set Free, Guys (2012), Ali Abu Duhn’s A Survivor from Hell (2012), Mohammed Saleem Hammad’s Tadmur: A Witness and A Witnessed (1998), and Hibba al-Dabbagh’s Five Minutes Only: Nine Years in the Prisons of Syria (1995), gave readers across the world a glimpse of the horrors of one of Syria’s prisons that remain secretive to this day.

The revolution reawakened the repressed trauma of the 1982 generation. For example, in Faces from Syria, the fifty-nine-year-old protagonist “suffers from a strange psychological and nervous condition from the beginning of the Dignity Revolutions of the Arab nations…it’s a non-stop condition of daydreaming…picturing him demonstrating against the corruption, oppression and tyranny, shouting with all his might, and his voice unites with the million voices of the oppressed and ignored.”[5] Because of his helplessness, he tries to recreate similar events in which he can do what he could not do in the past, in an attempt to master the situation and atone for his silence. Similarly, and even though her account deals with the 2011 uprising, Khalwa Dunia incorporates the massacre of Hama as a landmark in the contemporary Syrian memory. She writes, “The 1980s were full of pain, a decade that saw the most widespread campaign of political oppression…the 1980s are remembered for Hama.”[6]

Syria’s young generation

Being the victims of the regime’s oppressive policies, and because they were disempowered under Assad’s rule, Syrian youth were the most prominent factor in the uprising. Abi Samra’s stories shed light on the poor preparation of the young people from elementary school to college. In his work, college students lack critical thinking because most courses are censored by the intelligence service. No matter how hard they study, those who graduate will be hired based on nepotism and corruption. For example, a college student says, “Professor, we’re donkeys. Since we were children we were used to memorization before the exam. We’re not able to explain, comment or discuss.”[7] Abi Samra argues that in the early demonstrations in Banias, the youth marched through the streets and asked for freedom and political reform, but they did not know what to do after an hour or so. They knew how to begin a demonstration but they did not know how or when to end it, or what to do next. For him, this delusion symbolizes the loss of a whole generation and encapsulates Assad’s abuse of that generation.

In Faces from Syria, Bitar tries to describe the social and future imagination of Syria by depicting young people and the challenges that face Syrian society in general and the youth in particular. For example, in her short story titled Two Faces, Eiad and Hassan, sons of two “martyrs,” a pro-Assad army officer and a rebel, respectively, fight because of their fathers. They are taken to a hospital because of serious injuries. The story highlights how the younger generation will be the victims of the conflicts of their parents, a situation that symbolizes what is waiting for all of the younger generation. In such conditions, it is probable that they would not be able to escape from the past. This means that the end of the revolution, whether Assad or the rebels win, would not necessarily be the end of this social dilemma. It would leave the younger generation and the society with many questions, including who deserves of the title of martyr. And if there is an answer, another question arises in its place: what will happen to the other party whose dead will not be considered martyrs? Bitar then takes a pacifist attitude; the two young men dream of their parents while under anesthesia. The fathers blame their children for what they did and remind them of their love and respect for each other before the revolution. With this optimistic stand, Bitar anticipates the problem and brings together the divided social components.

The political structure of the rebels

With the incredibly fast developments in the Syrian scene and its complexities, it is inevitable that the public will develop a simplistic picture of the Syrian crisis. For example, despite the hard work of the activists on the ground to report Assad’s daily crimes, much of the world outside of Syria believed that the revolution was based on religion. One reason includes the regime’s recent conflict with the Muslim brotherhood in 1982. Moreover, with the increasing presence of ISIS, the outsiders tend to form a false image of the revolution and its structure. People in the west tend to believe that Islamists have always driven the revolution. In terms of perception, the revolution has become a bipolar phenomenon: a secular front represented by Assad and an Islamic one represented by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamic battalions.

However, Ghadi Francis, a Lebanese journalist who visited Syria to cover the early days of the revolution has a different opinion. In her My Pen and Pain, she answers the question that has always been problematic: why did the demonstrators begin their movement from the mosques? She says that only in the mosques could the Syrian people gather without any punishment. At the beginning, she says that not all Syrians were for or against Assad. The majority chose to remain silent. In her opinion, the conflict escalated between the Assad and the rebels but spread out to include a rivalry to win the silent majority. Assad’s supporters and the opposition are not homogeneous. She describes the attitude of a supporter of Assad, “He is against the movements that oppose the regime, despite being eager to criticize the regime and ask for the execution of the one responsible for the mistake he committed in Dar‘a…[he is] with the president, the regime and the Syrian Army, but he is identified with the [Syrian] victims [of Dara’] and opposes the absolute-violent strategy.”[8] On the other end, we see an opposition member who does not agree with the demonstrations because he is against the freedom that does not come with a plan. He, a rowdy painter, comments, “If I look at the streets, I don’t find room for me…and if I look at the movement, I don’t find room for me either. We waited for the movement to develop in a way that unites all the constituencies of the Syrian people, but it took a different path. All that we can do today is to watch and wish ourselves safety" (68).

Between these contradictions, Francis is conscious of her obligation to remain objective; that is why she does not side completely with Assad, despite her personal admiration of him, or with the revolution because she claims that it lacks a clear strategy and organization. What she stresses, however, is that, “Reason is never absent in the Syrian society today, neither does the awareness that is capable of confronting all internal and external danger, but what is absent is the voice of that reason, which is silenced by oppression, fear, anxiety. Bloodshed puts that voice in silence” (172).  

In Maha Hasan’s Drums of Love, Rima, the protagonist, returns to Syria after twenty years in France. She engages in a cyber-relationship with Yusuf, a rebel and later on a fighter in the Free Syrian Army. The novel sheds light on the structure of the opposition and the rebels as well as the ideological debates among them. It highlights crucial points such as the tension between the educated of the opposition and the average rebel, the discussion whether or not to take arms, and the identity of the revolution and the fear of Islamizing it. Rima is concerned about women’s status and the fear that radical Islamists might substitute Assad, but Yusra, an Alawite activist, address Rima’s concerns by saying, “I don’t think that our Syrian society is ready to become Islamically radical…The Islamists seizing power is something I don’t believe in at all. But, I’ve faith that the people who rebelled against the unbelievable oppression of Assad’s family would stand against any future oppression.”[9]

In conclusion, I can strongly say that the literature on the Syrian uprising is an attempt to reflect the multiple social and political factors that have led the people to bring a revolution after almost fifty years of silence. It aims at clarifying any misconceptions or ambiguities, trying to break the stereotypes about the uprising. Most authors believed that it was their moral responsibility to take the initiative and address an historical moment. However, and because of the continuous uprising, all they could offer was a description of the culture, politics and violence of Assad, without imagining how Syria’s future will be. Hasan, for example, ends her novel with “To be continued.”

[1] Asaad al-Saleh, Voices of The Arab Spring (Columbia University Press 2015), 238.

[2] Salwa Ismail, "The Syrian Uprising: Imagining And Performing The Nation" in Stud Ethn Nation 11.3 (2011): 539.

[3] Layla al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel, and Nemonie C. Roderick, Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, (Penguin 2013), 208.

[4] Samrā M. Abī, Mawt Al-Abad Al-Sūrī: Shahādāt Jīl Al-Ṣamt Wa-Al-Thawrah. (Riyāḍ al-Rayyis lil-Kutub wa-al-Nashr 2012), 12, 13, 18.Bottom of Form

[5] Hayfāʼ Bayṭār, Wujūh Min Sūriyā (Dār al-Sāqī 2013), 13-14.

[6] Zubaidi & Cassel, 181.

[7] Abi, 30.

[8] Ghadi Faransīs, Qalamī Wa-Alamī: Miʻat Yawm Fī Sūriyah (Dār al-Sāqī 2012), 33.

[9] Maha Ḥasan, Ṭubūl Al-Ḥubb/ Drums of Love (Riyad al-Rayyis lil-Kutub wa-al-Nashr 2013), 111.

Feature image: Reem Yassouf, Child's Message via Art on 56th.

Mohammed Kadalah is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut department of Literature, Cultures, and Languages.