Sarah Irving spent time this week with Syrian author Nihad Sirees, now wrapping up his trip to London. But before she did, she sat down with his The Silence and the Roar, and shares her thoughts here:
By Sarah Irving
If good things come in threes, I’m waiting for one more excellent book tackling the ideas of silence/ing, sound, voice, and the political role (or lack thereof) of the writer. The first was Khaled Furani’s fabulous anthropological study of Palestinian poets, Silencing the Sea. The second is Syrian author Nihad Sirees’ novel The Silence and the Roar, out from Pushkin Press, trans. Max Weiss.
Sirees’ novel depicts one day in the life of a writer in an unnamed city, in a country ruled by a dictator known only as The Leader. Over the course of the day our writer visits his mother, his lover, Lama, and his sister, but every journey and interaction is dominated by a vast demonstration of loyalty to The Leader which fills the streets of the city, and where anyone not apparently participating immediately becomes an object of suspicion. Sirees’ tone is one of sarcastic humour as he ridicules the degrees of devotion the people must display and traces his protagonist’s efforts to carve out some mental independence.
The din of the regime demonstration can be heard everywhere, either in the flesh or on televisions and radios, and the racket of its chanting, speeches and megaphones is juxtaposed with two types of silence. The first is the quiet that the writer craves but which is impossible to find in the raucous city; the second is the ironic opposite – that he has also been silenced by this regime, which has forbidden him to write and cancelled his radio programme on literature. The regime is noisy, but it is approved, regulated noise; unapproved noise is eliminated, and unapproved silence drowned out.
There is a parallel here with Furani and his Palestinian poets. Sound becomes public and political; it is also regulated, in its form or in its content. Silence, however, is personal, whether it is chosen or imposed – it is about, or it confines one to, a smaller, more self-oriented, world. What then, in either account, is the place of the silent, or silenced, writer?
For Sirees’ protagonist, we know almost from the start that by cutting off the route his voice might take to the outside world, the regime has killed his desire to write. He is frittering his days away, financially dependent on his mother or taking refuge in his lover’s flat, which with its quiet surrounding neighbourhood, her cooling ministrations in the sweltering heat and her ongoing rejection of the regime represents his only escape. Throughout the novel, personal and professional opportunities present themselves if he will accept co-optation and the bastardisation of his words – his voice could be restored, but only in the service of The Leader. Only Lama is steadfast in her support for his personal and professional integrity.
It is tempting, of course, to ascribe autobiographical elements to this novel, especially following Nihad Sirees’ decision to leave his home city of Aleppo and go into – hopefully temporary – exile. There are also echoes of Kafka in the images of unending, oppressive bureaucracies, as well as the writer’s surname, Sheen, which might be a single letter in the manner of Josef K. But with Syria in collapse, most attention has been focused on The Silence and the Roar as a portrait of the country before the current uprising, a depiction of the strictures of life under the Assad regime. But the novel’s resolute rejection of a real-world name for The Leader or his domain reinforces the wider applicability of Sirees’ themes of freedom of thought and expression and the experiences of hopelessness, internal dispossession and impotent rage facing the silenced writer.
Sarah Irving [http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.