Nihad Sirees on Writers in Syria: ‘What Should We Talk About?’

Over on Qantara, there’s a discussion with Syrian writer Nihad Sirees the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in April. At ADIBF, we talked about Sirees’s current and future writing projects, the community of authors meeting in Syria, about the effect of war on writing, and his hopes for the future. 

The longer interview is on Qantara. Here, a few excerpts and outtakes:

Photo credit: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
Photo credit: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

ArabLit: Are you willing to talk about your new novel?

Nihad Sirees: No.

AL: Well, when did you start working on it?

NS: I started after the incidents began in Syria. First of all, I felt that something had changed in our society. We didn’t use to live like that. We were proud of our society, of our cities, of our history. We talked a lot about history in our novels, stories, and plays—for example [the playwright] Saadallah Wannous. He talks about history, but he means nowadays. And all of us we do that. So I started to think that my next project must be something different. I found myself writing something different from my previous novels.

On the writers still meeting in Syria:

NS: The minimum of writers and intellectuals still meet sometimes. But as I know, because I lived it before I left, for everywhere we sit and we meet, after a while—after days or weeks or months—we feel that this place is not safe any more. So we have to think about some other places. Other cafes. But we had other difficulties. For example, we were ten writers. We had to change the café where we met every day. But, for some of us, the road from his apartment to our meeting was not safe any more. So it started to be dangerous for him.

This started happening before I left, but it wasn’t as clear as it is now. It happens frequently. I hear from them, that every week, or at least month, they have to change their places. So it is now difficult to meet.

And we have other difficulties. What should we talk about? Now, to talk about literature or art, this is fantasy. What should we talk about? … They will talk about what they heard about the war, what they witnessed about these horrible scenes.

Also, it is not safe at all to talk clearly, openly, and very directly. You cannot say names or exactly what happened. In Syria, if you want to continue living, that means you have to remain silent. Or else you have to say things that will please the government.

And maybe this is why I needed to leave—because I can’t say what my conscience wants me to say. I want to say something I believe in.

On the writers who remain:

NS: Of course, they are there. And they suffer. But what are they doing? This is now a problem, because they can’t write literature any more. Because, first of all, at any moment, the the electricity could be cut off and the needs of living are very demanding: to bring food, to buy something, and at least to take a shower before sitting down to write. No fuel, no electricity, and sometimes no water.

And about what the world should know about Syria:

NS: Any audience in Providence, [Rhode Island], they’ll say: ‘Leave your books, tell us what is happening in your country.’ But I want to say: It’s still not late to help these people, to help this country, so that it doesn’t become worse and worse.