Two Views of ‘Syria Speaks’: A Lens on Syria Through the Arts

ArabLit contributors Sarah Irving and Nadia Ghanem were both in attendance for “Syria Speaks,” an event at London’s Southbank Centre that featured novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees, poet Golan Haji, and novelist and critic Robin Yassin-Kassab.

By Sarah Irving

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.

On January 29, a sold-out audience of Londoners had the rare opportunity to see three prominent authors with close links to Syria talk about their writing, the political and humanitarian situation, and the links between the two. Novelist and scriptwriter Nihad Sirees and poet Golan Haji, both now living in exile, were joined by British-Syrian writer Robin Yassin-Kassab for Syria Speaks at the Purcell Room on the South Bank.

The evening started in unsurprisingly grim terms, with introductory facts, figures, and descriptions from organizer Rosie Goldsmith and chair Lyse Doucet. Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent and had returned from Syria less than a week before. To reinforce the message, the first contribution from the speakers themselves was Golan Haji’s reading of his poem “Shooting Sportsmen,” which features images such as:

They murdered the madman of the quarter, the milk vendor and the parsley seller.

They killed the window and the sister who looked from it,

Neither the neighbours’ cow survived

Nor the streetlamp.

[Read the full poem. ]

Golan Haji. Photo credit: Rosie Goldsmith.

Of Kurdish origins, Haji is a pathologist by training but has an extensive literary presence, including several collections of poetry, one which won the al-Maghut prize, as well as translations of English classics including The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde into Arabic. A new anthology, A Cold Faraway Home, will be published soon in Beirut.

Despite having to flee his country, Haji’s feelings towards the situation in Syria were far from partisan. His new collection includes work based on his experiences working in a military hospital in Damascus, where he describes soldiers suffering from mental trauma, including terrified reactions at the mention of the word Palmyra – the desert city which for most Westerners means spectacular Roman ruins, but which is also the site of a notorious prison. The army has, says Haji, played a “criminal role” for the last two years, but its ordinary soldiers are “poor victims who are now killing other poor victims.”

Reflecting on the relationship between literature and the Syrian uprising, Haji felt that, “I don’t think that a fragile thing like poetry can apply to political control. Later it can add beauty to the revolution – but not in a direct sense.” He noted the revival of martyrdom and revolution as poetic themes in work coming out of Syria, but claimed that “the history of poetry is the history of fragility – you address one person, not a crowd.” He made veiled criticisms of the Syrian poet Adonis and his failure to criticize the regime, despite having lived beyond its grasp for decades.


Haji was, however, blunt in his condemnation of the Syrian opposition’s failure to unite. For writers remaining inside the country, “you will know your country through terror and pain, and this is the hardest way,” he said, noting that “the regime targeted creative people in Syria – the film-makers, the writers, the artists. The country is being destroyed and all the doors are being closed. To be healed will take decades.”

Nihad Sirees’s appearance doubled as the UK launch for the English translation of his novel The Silence and the Roar. Unsurprisingly, both Lyse Doucet and audience members wanted to know how much of the book is autobiographical. Sirees’ answer was that “any writer has to write from his biography. For this novel, it’s not the whole of it, but there are a lot of things from my biography.” He confirmed that at least one tale of the regime’s grimly surrealistic behavior – that of a photocopier workman jailed and tortured for months because a fault in a machine left a blot on the eye of the dictator’s image – was true. And one of the novel’s messages – that “laughter and sex [are a place where] men and women feel free, are a tool to fight against tyranny and give us the support to survive” – was shown to be very much part of Sirees’ own personal philosophy.

Although Nihad Sirees is rapidly becoming known in the West as a novelist, it is as a writer of screenplays for TV that he is familiar in the Middle East. His work Khan al-Harir (The Silk Market, set in Sirees’ beloved Aleppo) ran to several series, depicting what he sees as a ‘golden age’ of democracy in Syria in the 1950s, whilst al-Khait al-Abiadh (The Gleam of Dawn) satirizes life in a state-controlled media organisation.


“I try to criticize through talking about the past… literature and art can do that very well, they can push people to feel nostalgia for the good years and feel pain about something they can’t say freely, but can still feel,” he says. Much of his political sense, he said, comes from the disappointment of the failed “Damascus Spring,” when for a scant year it looked to some as if Hafez al-Assad’s death and Bashar’s takeover might lead to greater freedom inside Syria. “For intellectuals it was a hope, it was like watering a plant that was dying.”

Inevitably, much of the discussion centered on the brutal situation in Syria rather than on the work of the authors on-stage. Sirees and Robin Yassin-Kassab were both forceful in rejecting criticism of ordinary Syrians seen by the Western media as ‘extremists’ for turning to religion. According to Nihad Sirees:

“At the beginning of the revolution we started to hear in demonstrations that they wanted help from the international community and all the time they imagined that one day the UN will make a resolution and help them. They are moderate, even some of them blame extremists for bringing trouble to our country. But nothing happened so people started to think only God is with them while they are facing tanks and missiles, facing hell. So the demonstrations take a new shape, we start to see changes in the flags – in the start it was the Syrian flag, then they shift to have the Syrian independence flag, and now we start to see black flags. Every day the international community delayed, they made more and more extremists. We can’t blame them for this. They are very far from being al-Qaeda but they feel that are alone and only God stands with them”.

Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road From Damascus, also stressed the Assad regime’s targeting of artists. Cartoonist Ali Ferzat, he reminded us, had his hands broken when beaten by pro-Assad shabiha, while Ibrahim Qashoush, whose song ‘Come on Bashar, it’s Time to Go’ became a protest regular, was found dead in the Orontes river, his vocal chords ripped out. Yassin-Kassab may have overstated the case when he claimed Syria was currently undergoing “the worst of times but also the best of times,” in that its people no longer have to “talk in code.” But his emphasis on the “rich, ancient urban culture” of Syria and the wider Bilad ash-Sham  certainly provided a backdrop to two important Syrian writers struggling to show the West that their people are a vibrant artistic force as well as the victims of the brutal death-throes of a dictatorship.

My one criticism of Syria Speaks is that I’m not sure it gave its audience enough credit. The excerpts from Sirees and Haji’s work were read out only in their English translations. Although both have excellent English, I think it takes a very strong grasp of a tongue (often a level of skill even most native speakers don’t have) to read literature, especially poetry, well, and I’m not sure doing this worked. I felt it would have honored both the prose and poems better if they have been read by their authors in the original, and by someone else in translation.

By Nadia Ghanem

Lyse Doucet. Photo credit: English PEN.
Lyse Doucet. Photo credit: Rosie Goldsmith.

As Lyse Doucet said during her introduction, “Syria Speaks, and [looking at a full Purcell Room] it would seem that Syria has already spoken.”

Syria was reverently qualified as a country with a “rich cultural heritage,” and as Doucet further put it, as a “sweet, refined, sophisticated country.”

While I was listening to these heartfelt and emotional statements by Doucet, who had just returned from Syria that weekend, remembering the human tragedy, and also metaphorically alluding to the cultural heritage destruction Syria have been suffering for the past two years, I couldn’t help thinking of Iraq whose ancient past and language is my current research focus.  I wish Iraq was spoken of in these terms by the press.  Iraq as a “sweet, refined and sophisticated country.” Okay, perhaps not sweet but a country whose immensely rich cultural heritage is still being plundered to this day, whose artefacts – that is Iraq’s memory and by right of clay that of Iraqis — are being dragged away in private collections or museums. A memory is slowly being erased.

“The Euphrates is enraged. Neither the fire, nor the prayers, will extinguish that wounded wrath.”*

The cultural heritage of Syria has now joined the list of plundered ground, but the memory of its ancient or recent past is not yet effaced.  To talk as memory holders, as individuals and ordinary Syrians living a war, the Southbank Centre — in partnership with Pushkin Press, Literature Across Frontiers, English PEN, and Banipal — invited three Syrian writers, Nihad Sirees, Golan Haji, and Robin Yassin-Kassab to present their work and to talk about their views on the current situation.

Each writer paced the evening by reading an excerpt of his work, and the evening opened, middled and closed with Golan Haji reading his poems in English.

“Victims of a Map…”*

Golan Haji, poet and pathologist, recounted how he came to write ‘Soldiers in a Madhouse’. After visiting a military hospital which held mentally ill soldiers, he came to fully realize how soldiers are also victims, and they, upon committing crimes themselves, inevitably engender more victims. It is an insight also present in Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar. Fathi, the protagonist, encounters an engineer responsible for the photocopying of the unnamed dictator’s portrait. The faulty machine produces a blotch on the photocopied face of the dictator and this lands the engineer in jail, to be tortured for six months. He is later freed and placed in the same post.  Asked about this character by a member of the audience, Nihad Sirees told us that this event was based on a true story.

“And I am Fate, I am the way. I shake the sea. My death is a ship, and my remains an alphabet or an imminent explosion.”*

Robin Yassin-Kassab. Photo credit: English PEN.
Robin Yassin-Kassab. Photo credit: Rosie Goldsmith.

Pondering on the role of the writer, Robin Yassin-Kassab, an entertaining speaker, warned readers to not reduce a novel by looking in the writer’s work for a single message or a reductive political statement.

Yassin-Kassab was also thinking of Iraq. The excerpt from his novel, The Road to Damascus, he chose to read was about London, Baghdad, stones, and accidents: “The next day they arrived in London. It astounded Marwan. Stately-solid, autonomous, indifferent, history bowed before it. He tried to compare. More prosperous than Baghdad but harsher, tidier but more desolate, it revealed Baghdad as a ramshackle shapeshifter, built in haste for a shuddering moment, all its writing and dirt showing. London, in contrast was sculpted and seemed like a fortress, for permanence, with its rolling acres of pavement and wall and its tunnels underground channeling sewage, rats and trains, everything functional enclosed coffin, tight and buried again in stone. [.… ] Even its dwarfed and cowed inhabitants, who seemed to be there by accident. Was that it? Baghdad was an accident that happened to its people, but the people here were an accident happening to London.”

“From our thousand-year-old sleep, From our crippled history, Comes a sun without ritual, to the country that’s dug into our lives like a grave […] A sun that kills and destroys, Appears over the bridge.”*

Time, perceptions, places and our projections very much formed the tissue of the conversation that ensued.  One of the most discerning remarks about Syria’s future was Golan Haji’s, who said “A dictator doesn’t distinguish between history, the present and eternity, it is all one package. Now it is all open again.”

*Author’s note: The lines quoted here were not part of the event “Syria speaks”. They are lines of poems (“Four songs for a bundle of reeds,” “Charms for the cities of Al-Ghazali” and “Prophecy”) by Adonis whom I couldn’t help thinking about. Not that I like Adonis much, but the anthology Victims of a Map published by Saqi (which contains Prophecy) and translations of Adonis’ work by my former teacher Kamal Abu-Deeb kept hovering around the Purcell Room. Or perhaps it was the lighting.

Sarah Irving [] 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.

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