Samar Yazbek, ‘A Sudden Visitor in This Place’

Syrian author Samar Yazbek has long been interested in literary red lines. She told Sousan Hammad in the Beirut39 blog last year:

I do not suggest that literature solely has a reform function, as literature’s premier function is both artistic and aesthetic; nevertheless, discussing taboos will pave the road to eliminating those problems that have long obstructed its [literature’s] development. Of course, I mean talking about politics, sex, and religion in the Arab world.

Yazbek’s work has been praised by (some) critics and has riled up (some, perhaps many) readers.

Yesterday, Jadaliyya published a prose work by Yazbek that reflects events in Syria through the prism of a woman writer. The work, titled “Waiting for Death: I Will Not Carry Flowers to my Grave,” is not assigned a genre, but feels in parts like a prose poem, elsewhere like an essay or memoir fragment.

Anne-Marie McManus’s translation is at times choppy, and some sentences require a few readings. But when the reader pushes herself into the text, the images and juxtapositions of this short work take us far into the intimacies of terror and the space beyond terror. One would expect that a phrase like “bullets dance between our feet and under our windows” would induce eye-rolling, but, in the context, it brings the reader into a space of real-unreality that echoes the dislocations described by the author.

From “Waiting for Death”:

The killers plunder people and places. The killers terrify the people, they spread out before the houses of the neighbors, they gesture to them that we will kill them. Then they come to us and they shriek: those people are going to kill you all!

I am the sudden visitor in this place. I am the itinerant in life. I don’t belong to the world of the living; like a wild animal, I have swum in nothingness. I have wandered, emptied of all but the freedom of my being. Here, I look out of the windows and watch what is happening, then I become more calm and am silent. My voice does not emerge, and in these moments I remember Omar Amiralay and what he said on one of the mornings when we sat together. I said to him: I will write novels about the history of this country. He said: don’t take too long!

The gangs that have come out of the earth sprouted like anything else here – from nothingness, without logic or reason. How did these gangs of madness spring out of the earth, how did they kill people? How did they make bullets dance between our feet and under our windows? How did all this happen? People wonder. The same gangs go to our Sunni neighbors and frighten them, saying that we will kill them. They come to us, and say that they [the Sunni] will kill every single Alawite. I am the visitor in this place, and I watch what is happening with horror. I am the exile from the city and the village and the air of the sea. I receive sharp looks from everyone, from every side. I know the two sides. I know the faces of the other life in Damascus, where the city has turned into another kind of village?!

Yazbek has published four novels. Her most recent is the 2010 Mirrors for Her, published by Dar al-Adab. As far as I know, the only other work of hers in English translation is in Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World, but “Waiting for Death” is the more interesting. She is represented by the Raya Agency.