Samar Yazbek on conflict, imagination and literature in Syria. Translated by Leri Price.
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Samar – I’m so pleased to be able to correspond with you. I’d like to start with this: In an interview six years ago, you spoke about crossing into Syria after the revolution. You said you were ‘not frightened’, because it was your ‘homeland’ – and that, instead, your fear was that the homeland you knew might never go back to how it was; might not recover from its ‘scars’. Could I ask whether those feelings have changed, and what your greatest fear is 10 years on from the uprisings? I understand that it has not been safe for you to return since 2013. When you imagine returning (as you have said you do, elsewhere), how far in the future is that imagined journey happening?
I think that if I could go back to those days, I would do the same thing all over again. I never regret going back to Syria – being there at the frontline, and in the middle of the war – nor do I regret leaving. I always tried to stay alive, but with my personal condition I had to do what needed to be done, despite the fear. By that token, in returning and sharing in death and people’s pain, through my discussions with them and with the fighters, I gained a greater understanding of the Syrian issue. Yes, fear was my hero. I always say that I don’t like the word ‘brave’; I see it as an invention of war. I prefer to say, ‘People’s fear within the dilemma of human survival, and in our existential questions about death and life’.
Yes, I saw Syria’s future the moment I went back in 2012. I saw that we were embarking upon the country’s division via an international struggle to loot its wealth, gas being one of the most important parts of this. What frightens me most ten years on is the utter indifference to what has happened, as the international community keeps repeating what it terms “political realism” around the rehabilitation of Bashar Al-Assad, ignoring the war crimes that have been committed in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of victims have been forgotten. Life goes on as if nothing happened. What tortures me most, genuinely, is indifference towards the pain and suffering of others.
Something particularly compelling about Planet of Clay, your most recent novel, is the voice of the central character, Rima; that the narrative – one both of witness, and of lyrical fantasy – is delivered through the voice of a young girl, and indeed through the voice of a non-verbal individual. Could you talk to me a little about Rima? About why the voice of the novel is a girl’s, a child’s, a silent one?
Rima isn’t just a girl in the context of the novel. She talks about her childhood, but also about her adolescence, about growing up. In the novel she is a young woman, and a child, and the woman she will become in the future. The idea of her being silent and tied up emanates from the nature of the society in which she lives. It is a symbol of the story of most women in the Arab world. She is silent as an act of protest against the world, which doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t want to hear her or even to see her. She doesn’t want to stop walking because she wants her freedom. Rima is a fantastical, complicated, and confusing character, who is more than just a story about a girl in the war.
This is also one of the problems we see throughout the West: How does the other world see us? It doesn’t see the nature of composition and the novelistic labour that went into constructing the text. Instead, it sees politics, and it wants to speak about politics. This is how the West sees us: as political topics, even in our literature. Rima’s story is the story of a young girl in the war, but the most important thing, to me, was how I told the story artistically. I invented a brain game that was like unpicking a puzzle in Rima’s story, a story that relates to violence without touching upon blood; a story that says that the imagination is more powerful than reality and war, and conquers them both.
In Arabic, the novel is called Al-Masha’a. ‘Al-Masha’un’, or ‘The Walkers’, were Aristotle’s followers. Rima doesn’t stop walking because she is also claiming freedom of thought. Usually, when there is a discussion about women’s issues in the Arab world, we speak about their sexual freedom, or legal equality with men. Rima wants to liberate her mind, and to go beyond it, so she objects, and her method of objecting to societal violence and the violence of war is to stop talking and to walk without stopping. This is the opposite to what has been said about Rima in the media – she is not ill, nor does he have a disability.
The form/genre of Planet of Clay felt, to me, like it had come from the same breath as the characters and plot and language – that these things were all born in the same moment, tightly braided together. I sensed that this had something to do with the radical force of imagination, and that it had something to say of both the ways in which storytelling and literature and the imagination are besieged by conflict, but also about the sustaining force of stories, literature and the imagination in contexts of conflict. Would you agree with that? Can the “literary” do something to bespeak these contexts in a way that the “documentary” can’t?
Literature has a magical power. This power rests in reinterpreting the world from a different aesthetic viewpoint and originating a more sensitive relationship with the outside world. In my project of documenting the Syrian war through books like A Woman in the Crossfire and The Crossing, or even Nineteen Women, I tried to convey the reality of the experience of war and revolution. It was clear to me that these are archival works; they are books that speak about history and victims, and they demand justice and truth.
But my relationship with my novels is a different matter. When I write a novel, I am thinking of literature specifically: I consider the language, the construction of the phrase, the artistic and novelistic composition, producing a different linguistic narrative. My focus is the power of the imagination, and the words’ power in giving the text its uniqueness. This is my primary concern, and the themes, how to convey fact, all the other things, come afterwards. I think that the novel can communicate and translate human feelings beyond the capability of any other form, because the fundamental root of writing a novel is absolute freedom, the unlimited individuality of the writer, without condition or constraint, because the writer’s space is vast enough to create their own planet with their text.
There’s a moment full of horrific complexity in Planet of Clay: the moment in which, after the chemical attack, women die because their hijabs and clothes have been permeated by the chemicals, but the men will not remove them because it is haram. It feels like so many things are being said here – intersecting things, complex things, nuanced things. Would you be able to talk about that a little?
This is one of the scenes that I worked on the most. Deleting and rewriting it was exhausting. It is a scene based on confirmed evidence, told to me by a number of women who witnessed and survived the massacre in August 2013, one of whom was a lawyer and my friend, Razan Zeitouna. It gives an idea of the position of women in the war, and opens a wider window onto the multifaceted and complex violence that women face, and which Rima, in some way, was the fantastical character capable of narrating. She would not be able to narrate it if her strangeness was less; her strangeness balances out the strangeness and complexity of the violence she is narrating. When I read what was written about Rima – that it is the story of a sick little girl telling a story about the war – I though it was the most fatuous thing I had heard.
The truth is that women die in this scene because the men decide not to remove their clothes – it is considered haram, and it goes against their religion and their shari’a (so they say). It was one of the most difficult scenes. Of course, the sensitivity of the scene here is that if the women’s clothes had been removed, the sarin gas would not have penetrated their bodies so quickly, and they might have lived. But the women are left to die. Why? So that their female bodies will not be made naked! Appalling! You can imagine the situation: the Assad regime’s planes were dropping chemical weapons, and at the same time women were living under these horrific conditions. I sometimes thought of omitting this scene because it was so hideous, but I found it represents our situation accurately. We live between the fangs of these monsters, made up from a dictatorship, religious extremism, a patriarchal society…
How closely did you collaborate with Leri Price, the English-language translator of Planet of Clay, as she was translating?
For me, Leri isn’t just a translator. Leri is my writing partner in English. We discussed phrases, concepts and technical terms, even some words that were written in ‘amiya (spoken Syrian Arabic). There was a great cooperation between me and her, but she doesn’t need me much. Her relationship to Arabic literature is outstanding. I trust her, and after discussing I leave her with the freedom to make her own choices. This was my first experience with her, and we are collaborating on my new novel. I hope that she will remain my translator because we work well together, and I have complete trust and confidence in her. [Translator’s note: I feel the same about working with Samar!]
This is the first novel you have written since the revolution, but you have been a novelist for much longer than that. How was that return – was it a kind of ‘return’? Has fiction been burning bright inside you all this time?
Yes, I stopped writing novels after 2010, since the beginning of the revolutions in the Arab world. My last novel, Laha al-Miraya [translated by Samar’s agent Yasmina Jraissati as In Her Mirrors, not yet available in English] was published at the end of 2010. At the beginning of the revolution in Spring 2011, I stopped. I was entirely taken up by what was happening in Syria, I was writing articles and books that documented the revolution and the war, and I was occupied with establishing a civil society foundation that empowers women in refugee camps and in regions hit by war. Its name is Women Now for Development, and it has taken up much of my time, but all the while I was in pain. Being kept away from writing novels was like a second exile; like my being was living in exile from my soul, as if I wasn’t me. Those violent years didn’t give me time even to look at myself and reflect on what had happened. Writing novels had been a continual fundamental of my life; even though I have several identities (as an activist, a journalist), when I look deep inside my soul I know that my fundamental identity was and still is a novelist. So when I wrote this novel it was like Odysseus returning to Ithaca. Yes, through writing the novel I returned to myself, and I think I am better as a result.
I started by asking about fear. I’d like to end by asking: what gives you comfort? What gives you hope?
Fear, for me, is the term I am trying to understand now – in the dilemma of human existence, and because I think that I am still living in fear. I witnessed a revolution and horrifying war. I have come right up to the cruelty and savagery of the human being. I know it in all its states, and I am aware that I have lost a lot of hope. That experience, what has happened in Syria, and the disasters currently going on around the world, have all confirmed to me that I live in a time that I call the epoch of human shame. Yes, I think that the indifference to the pain of others that I have seen and experienced in the reactions of the international community to what is going on in Syria, while I work and write on the Syrian issue, has made me have a different relationship with life.
I don’t think of hope very much, and I am not optimistic about what is happening in this new world, which has witnessed the birth of a humanity with unclear features. My relationship with hope is simple: it is to work against the indifference of others to the pain of victims. For myself specifically, I have hope that through my words and my writing, novels and otherwise, I can give meaning to words, such as saying that we have been fighting for justice, and democracy, and freedom for the Syrian people. I only beg this: that I don’t let the indifferent world change me. That is hope, for me – reclaiming the meanings and power of words, and the importance of literature. And I judge this to be a kind of implicit hope.
Samar Yazbek is a Syrian writer, novelist, and journalist. She was born in Jableh in 1970 and studied literature before beginning her career as a journalist and a scriptwriter for Syrian television and film. Her novels include Cinnamon (2012) and Planet of Clay (2021). Her accounts of the Syrian conflict include A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (2015). Yazbek’s work has been translated into multiple languages and has been recognized with numerous awards—notably, the French Best Foreign Book Award, the PEN-Oxfam Novib, PEN Tucholsky, and PEN Pinter awards.
Leri Price is an award-winning literary translator of contemporary Arabic fiction. Price’s translation of Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature (US) and winner of the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Her translation of Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City was shortlisted for the ALTA National Translation Award. Price’s other recent translations include Sarab by award-winning writer Raja Alem.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.