In a moving piece for PEN Atlas, Khaled Khalifa writes about the hypocrisy of the intelligentsia, the context of the Syrian revolution, and the task of imagining the world that will come after.It is impossible to speak of the new Syrian society without addressing the revolution’s role in destroying the fabric of the former. It is impossible to talk about it without considering the beginning of new values for this new society – one awaiting the end of this revolution’s bloody phase, so that stability can finally reign. Such talk of Syrian society only makes us realise how these diverse budding values are being tried and tested with every passing day.Despite the bloodshed and rows of martyrs; despite the regime destroying cities with scud missiles, war planes, heavy artillery, and every other means possible – despite all this, Syrians don’t stop their spirited chanting, painting, and writing in protest at the current situation.All this while they repeatedly question Syria’s future, and contemplate the shape of this new revolution – a revolution which celebrates an impending freedom: the freedom of expression and the freedom to criticise – a liberty which the revolutionaries haven’t stopped exercising since the onset of this great uprising.Before the revolution, Syrian society had become full of death and decay. The absence of objective newspapers and public criticism created a deceptive and delusional national image, which at the best of times made Syria appear civil.The dictator was portrayed as decidedly saintly in caricatures, writing, cinema, theatre, and in all other art forms. And this very dictator made even the elite regress to behaviour resembling that of those in a state governed by the mafia – one in which every type of free expression was scorned. Such an environment eradicated any inkling of criticism, and aimed to venerate he who has been declared sacred. It is one where the ruling classes have been granted their positions by the governing power as a form of immunity. And those included in the unspoken agreement of this unholy alliance participated in celebrating the scraps that the regime threw their way now and again – particularly after Bashar Al-Asad came to power in 2000.While it is true that, officially, the ruling power allowed artists and writers to produce their counter-rhetoric on the sidelines, the more telling truth lies in the fact that any public interaction with these creative minds was all but prohibited. Books and films that the regime itself took part in producing were not banned, however.Similarly no social movement was allowed to grow and continue, youth projects were stopped and restrictions were placed on their leaders. Any collective action that could stir up even the discussion of dissent was banned, unless the venture was under the regime’s complete control.The ruling power didn’t even permit the publishing of independent newspapers. And when one was allowed, its owner was backed by the regime – so that there was barely a discernible difference between the paper and the government’s own publications. In fact, it was arguably even more loyal than government-owned newspapers. In the same vein, all private magazines and creative publications were banned.This is exactly what happened with Alif magazine, a publication that celebrated new writing. A group of independent writers, myself among them, had been publishing it since 1990. We have numerous examples of writing that all fall into the category of ‘banned collective work’ i.e. subversive of the government. Thin margins were left for us in which to pursue our individual work – as long, of course, as it didn’t approach the sacred cows embodied by the president and his entourage.This created a society entrenched in lies and convenient, deceptive silences. It has also enabled the veneration of a select few who have benefitted from the lack of ability to criticise. With the spread of this culture of hypocrisy, these names have transformed themselves into a group of mini-dictators in training who have then collaborated with the bigger dictator in their fight against freedom of speech. A freedom which until recently only a few courageous journalists have dared to exercise.The stance of the Syrian educated elite with regards to the Syrian revolution casts light on some of the details of this hypocritical culture. Great poets, writers, artists, and film directors stood against their people’s revolution – the same revolution that they talked about and foretold for 40 years. They, these people, talk comfortably about new art and new cinema, but they refuse the birth of a new society unless it’s done their way. They see the revolution and yet they are oblivious to the blood of their people which has been spilled day after day.This blood has become an icon for all Syrians who dream of a civil future for their new nation, one based on freedom of expression. No society will, or can survive without it.I believe that the Syrians have felt the jolt that any society wanting progress or transformation needs – a shock required by any culture wanting the creation of a new system, one based on humanitarian values defending freedom of speech and human rights, all which is in line with great Arab precedents.This shock is still on-going. It will continue as long as the revolution continues and it is able to explore new methods of resisting dictatorships, which maintain a culture of exclusion and censorship, and Islamic hard-line regimes.The blood of martyrs has given this fledgling new Syrian culture a great push. It has destroyed the culture of silence and prevented new forms of hypocrisy taking root in Syrian civil society – our society, for which we all in Syria wish revolution and ensuing freedom.
To read this piece in the original Arabic, please click here.
About the author
Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964, in a village close to Aleppo, Syria. He is the fifth child of a family of thirteen siblings. He studied law at Aleppo University and actively participated in the foundation of Aleph magazine with a group of writers and poets. A few months later, the magazine was closed down by Syrian censorship.He currently lives in Damascus where he writes scripts for cinema and television. Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred – published secretly in Damascus and banned forty days later – was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. Set in and around 1980s Aleppo, the story unpicks a life lived under dictatorship and loudly echoes the violence across the Middle East and the Arab world over the past two years.In Praise of Hatred is longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013. It is published by Doubleday in the UK and has just been released in paperback by Black Swan.
About the translator
Sawad Hussain is a literary translator who currently teaches Arabic in Dubai. She graduated from SOAS with an M.A in Arabic Literature. She is very passionate about the Arabic language and is an avid reader. Her goal one day is to translate a book from an Arab country that hasn’t been as well represented in the literary arena as other nations – such as Sudan, Yemen or Mauritania.