Author Nihad Sirees: ‘We Are Fighting the Formal History of a Regime’

ArabLit’s Nadia Ghanem recently met with Syrian author Nihad Sirees:

By Nadia Ghanem

Nihad Sirees outside his talk at the Southbank Centre. Image credit: English PEN.
Nihad Sirees outside his recent talk at London’s Southbank Centre. Image credit: Rosie Goldsmith.

It is Wednesday 30 January, noon, in London’s middle.  I have just sat down before Syrian author Nihad Sirees and the sunlit Tavistock Square garden where he goes to smoke his pipe. Sirees is here for the launch of his novel The Silence and the Roar, translated in English by Max Weiss and just published by Pushkin Press. He generously allowed me to spend a moment with him to talk about his present novel, crime fiction, memory, and literature.

On the novel’s protagonist, Fathi*:

Nihad Sirees: I was talking about Fathi as a kind of me. I was upset, or depressed, from Bashar El-Assad’s regime when he stopped reforming in his second year or end of his first year as a president of Syria. He came and said that he would be reforming but he changed, around him was the old guard, they got involved in the hayat el mujtama3 (civil society) and it meant that the regime killed any kind of social and political life. We had hoped that he meant what he had said, even the cartoonist Ali Farzat had established his magazine, but at once everything was stopped and all these activities were hit. Some activists were imprisoned. So the regime asked us to keep silent. At the same time they made a lot of noise, everywhere noise. Our silence but their noise.

NG: So which one is Fathi going to choose? The book ends with a very interesting dream…

NS: The end depends on the reader. First of all Ha’el’s plot collapsed. He wanted to use the mother to pressure Fathi to collaborate with them, to be one of their voices in their society. But the mother was okay with it: I need physical contact, she says, I am a woman, and Ha’el was shocked. Now the last thing is like the Americans say: The winner is the one who laughs last, and Fathi and Lama are laughing in the end.

NG: Is it how you see the future for Syria?


NS: Don’t forget that the last two pages were dreams. The reality maybe will be something else. The reality we see now is very tough and very bloody and maybe something else will come.

On humor and poetry:

NS: We Syrians like to be humorous, we want to, we wish to be, but sometimes we fail. It is not like the Egyptians where everywhere, every time, they are ready to tell something funny, to make a joke and maybe they face everything in their lives, especially difficulties or political views, through jokes. But Syrians now face their difficulties with songs, pictures, video clips, and poetry.

NG: Do you write poetry? 

NS: No… Once, early on, I wrote a poem to my girlfriend when I was a boy. That was my way of expressing my emotions to her. But I don’t believe that I am a poet. I love to read poetry, I like Nizar Qabbani, Adonis …

NG: The modern Adonis or the old?

NS: Oh, the old!  By the way we will have Adonis coming to Brown University in March. We will hold some sessions and public meetings.

NG: Which Syrian poet from a younger generation do you read?

NS: Yes… Golan [Haji], we listened to him reciting poetry yesterday and I was so happy. He is a good poet.

Golan Haji, Lyse Doucet, Nihad Sirees, and Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Southbank Centre. Photo credit: English PEN.
Golan Haji, Lyse Doucet, Nihad Sirees, and Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Southbank Centre. Photo credit: Rosie Goldsmith.

Rosie Goldsmith.

Rosie Goldsmith.

NG: Golan spoke about soldiers as victims, and in your book you also talk about how certain people found themselves stuck working for the regime…

NS: Yes, they were afraid, and now it is the same. As you see there are many defectors, a lot of people sympathize with the other side but they stay, maybe because they are afraid that something bad will happen to their families or relatives. So they stay but cooperate with the other side secretly. It is very normal, no?

Now the regime has sensed that if the family of an official or an officer is preparing to travel, then it is an indication that a defection is in preparation so they will make them stay so that they are stuck. Everyone who defects or runs away happens after weeks of working very secretly, otherwise you will be killed and something will happen to the family.  Everyone has relatives, if you don’t have sons or daughters you have uncles, brothers, a mother, a father, and this regime will create something against you by hurting any relatives.

On role of the writer:

NG: In Algeria we no longer have historians I feel, the regime is rewriting modern history.  But our history is being kept and told by Algerian novelists. This is how I access the history of my country. In a way, are you a historian?

NS: This is the role of fiction. I am sure that in Algeria you have a lot of non-fiction talking about Algeria. But fiction will come and tell you history, through telling you a story and you will understand what is history. This is the role of literature. For example in bilad el-sham (the Levant), Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, we have a lot of books, non-fiction, about history, but you read them when it comes to study, as a scholar. But to have history read by thousands of people especially by a young generation who will recognize the history of the country then it is very good to have fiction.


Our task is very difficult because we are fighting the formal history of a regime or regimes. Our colleagues whom we love like Iraqi writers faced Saddam who wanted to rewrite history, to fake the history of Iraq. So they wrote about Iraq and the true history of the people.

It is the same for us. This is what we do. Let me tell you something, once I wanted to write a TV drama about the years when Syria was connected to Egypt and then ask why did they separate? The formal history says that it was because of Israel, and always they mention Israel and America. This is not true, and I wrote in Khan el-Harir (the Silk Road) that no, it was because of the authoritarian way of Abd el-Nasser’s type of government, people lived in fear all the time, so they wanted to separate from this union with Egypt. So I wrote about this.  This is really fighting between the formal history, the dictatorship who wants to tell people fake events. We writers, poets, scholars, we want to tell people the truth.

NG: You are the memory of a people.

NS: Exactly.  You know that…Gone With the Wind, she tells us…a very nice love story but she is depicting the history of America at that time, the civil war. Like Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, they are very interesting love stories but the love story is like the jacket on a larger whole.

On crime fiction


NS: In Arab countries we don’t care about crime fiction. We don’t. Maybe now in Egypt they have started. For example I read the last book of my friend the Algerian novelist, Waciny El-3aredj, Lolita[‘s Fingers]. He explores the story of Algeria within a love story, a man who loves a young lady, and when you read the book you will know a lot of the history of Algeria. This is a very important side of literature. This is also what I do, I am telling a story, but I am telling history.

NG: So are you going to write crime fiction?

NS: No! We have a lot of problems, we haven’t now time for entertainment.

NG: Crime fiction is entertainment?

NS: Yes, it is!  In America, there are a lot of crime novels, thrillers and some Syrians ask me: is it true that in America it is all about shooting, searching, detecting, investigating… [much laughter]

NG: Do you think it is because we have not been allowed to question crime because you put yourself in danger within society, you might create problems for you and your family, and create problems with the regime. So it hasn’t encouraged writing crime novels?

NS: We face other types of problems. Instead of crime fiction we have “prison fiction.” We have several writers who tell stories and write novels about life in political prisons. It is interesting. It reflects what people experience: fear.  People are being taken to political prisons just because they said something slight, that they disliked how Bashar al-Assad put on his tie. They will take that person to prison for that.

So we have this kind of literature or fiction, prison fiction, which is like crime fiction but we don’t have detectives, we have tortures, beatings, fighting.

On the place of poetry and rhythm

NG: In your book you talk about poetry, and Fathi Sheen says: 

“I would like to point out that my country
still lives in the Age of the Masses,
which is why metred speech and rhyming verses
are a fundamental requirement
in our life.”++

Do you state this because it is the rhythm of dictatorship?


NS: Yes, it is the rhythm, a poem builds a rhythm. It is not every kind of rhythm they use. It is more military. So when they want to address the masses they think of addressing them in this way, with some very bad poems and even when they want to praise someone, the leader, or to shape, to write slogans they write it in al-Qafiya. They shape it, write with Qafiya. You can’t address people, the masses through prose, prose with depth, no, just with a very surface [type of content] and with al-Qafiya.

It is enough for them to address the masses this way, they think that the rhythm, the Qafiya, and the poem is very emotional and that they can move people in this way.  I am discovering this, I am witnessing how the authoritarian regime acts with the masses. All the time they want a crowd. They want people to go to streets, and make noise all the time. Pictures of the leaders everywhere, shouting these kinds of poems and military marches. As described in the book, it is always the way dictatorships conduct themselves. Look at old documentaries about Hitler, they like masses of people, before in Prague, they were talented in organizing that kind of demonstrations and very organised. Maybe in the Middle East demonstrations are not so organised, people are not standing in neat order with flags immobile.

On style, Fathi talking to himself, and the writer talking to the reader:

NS: Fathi talking to himself is a kind of writing style. I like this way of writing. I like the protagonist to talk to the reader “now let me tell you something about such and such,” “now we are going to visit my mother.” In talking to myself, in this way, I know what to write when at sit at my computer then I will write. This way also creates a bridge between the reader and the writer. This bridge is very important as it makes the reader excited to discover more and also because he will feel: “he tells me something, to me, not to everybody, but to me.”

++Author’s note: I am sectioning this excerpt of the book shaping it as a poem, but it appears in a single line within a paragraph, as prose. This sentence is so poetic (as with so many in The Silence and the Roar) and has such rhyme to it in English (as managed by Max Weiss and I imagine that the original version in Arabic must have also). It is amusing considering its content that it can be so (re)constructed, and reveal a poem, in free verse. No, it is not in al-Qafiya!

*Editor’s note: Nadia wanted to spell the protagonist’s name FatHi, to save readers from pronouncing a “th” where there should be a ت and a ح, but but as this is a popular and not a scholarly venue, I am using Max Weiss’s transliteration: Fathi. However, I do approve the use of 3 to signal ع, both because it is an elegant solution and because it was invented by bloggers.


Nadia Ghanem is a reader based in London and tweets at @ayatghanem.