Teaching Syrian Stories: Between Understanding and Empathy

Washington University in St. Louis professor Anne-Marie McManus has been teaching a semester on Syrian narratives, and shares what she’s learned in the process:

ArabLit: First, could you give us an overview of your syllabus? What were you imagining/aiming towards as you wrote it?

download (2)Anne-Marie McManus: The syllabus includes novels, poetry, film (documentary and narrative), photography, and social/political texts. There were also Facebook statuses (by Aboud Saeed, aka “the Smartest Guy on Facebook”) and YouTube and Vimeo videos of what I’d loosely call post-2011 protest art; most of these are either satires or songs (e.g., “Revolutionary Debke” from Hama; “We Are Coming to Slaughter You” by Bidayyat; and episodes of “Top Goon” by the anonymous group Masasit Matte). The bulk of the materials on the syllabus were produced after 2000, though it includes literature going back to the 1970s. The availability of works in translation restricted my choices for the syllabus, particularly for contemporary works. I used two recent anthologies (Culture in Defiance, available on PDF, and Syria Speaks, an anthology published by Saqi) and various websites (e.g., Words Without Borders, Bidayyat) to flesh out this part of the readings.

In terms of structure, we started with post-2011 protest art and literature then worked backwards chronologically. We moved to the first decade of this century, which is when some of the major Syrian novels in English were produced, then we looked at the formation of the Ba‘ath Party and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria in the 1970s and 1980s. In the final section of the class, which is ongoing, we return to the present.

The idea behind this structure was that I wanted students to come “back” to the present with new tools to understand the ways critique, memory, and creativity operate in Syrian literature and film.

The idea behind this structure was that I wanted students to come “back” to the present with new tools to understand the ways critique, memory, and creativity operate in Syrian literature and film. I wanted them to have a more historically-informed approach to representations of state violence in the 1980s in novels, for example, and to be able to read less overtly “resistant” works of literature as engaged within a broader conversation about language and representation in post-2011 Syria.

AL: What were your primary misapprehensions? What were you already trying to head off at the pass as you constructed this syllabus?

AM: I was concerned that students in North American institutions are encouraged to talk about events in the Middle East – especially the “Arab Spring” – through the language of area studies and geopolitics. So, when we talk about contemporary Syria, we end up discussing Iran’s nuclear program and Hizbullah, or more recently ISIS and US intervention. This regional perspective is not an invalid one for certain conversations. The announcement of US airstrikes inside Syria at the beginning of this semester meant that, more than ever, there’s an ethical responsibility to reflect on the ways Syria and Syrians are represented in the US media and the implications for public conceptions of justified violence. But it was important to me in this course to put that approach on temporary hold – more specifically, to ask students to recognize that the geopolitical approach is only one way of looking at Syria and that it shuts down other, equally important lenses. Literature and artistic production are not exempt from this tendency, whether we’re talking about translation and publication or classroom conversations. For example, I was looking for English translations of work by Salim Barakat, one of Syria’s most respected novelists. All I could find was an excerpt from Jurists of Darkness translated by Marilyn Booth in a Words Without Borders anthology called Literature from the Axis of Evil. As a teacher, I’m grateful this translation exists, but I’m also disturbed that this packaging frames a student’s first encounter with Barakat through the rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration.

But it was important to me in this course to put that approach on temporary hold – more specifically, to ask students to recognize that the geopolitical approach is only one way of looking at Syria and that it shuts down other, equally important lenses.

So I bookended the syllabus with units on contemporary events and kept questions like intervention out of the conversation through the intervening weeks. Wherever possible I chose sources produced by Syrians over works written by North American or European academics, and we talked about translation as a process that has its own economic and political dynamics.

AL: How did you intend to deal with the media lens in the class, and the baggage that students would bring to the texts and films? And how the media lens might shift throughout the semester?

AM: This was a tough one. I knew that students would come into the class with preformed ideas about Syria, particularly these two: first, that it can be analytically divided into sects and ethnicities and therefore can – or should – be divided up politically in the same ways; second, that the only people worthy of their attention are those who oppose the Assad regime.

samaryazbekmainThe first, the sectarian approach, is controversial and difficult to dislodge. Of all the elements in the class, I think this was the one that challenged me most because there are so many moving parts to it. First, we lack a critical theory of sectarianism for Syria, and I hope that one or more of the young activist-thinkers who are participating in contemporary culture and politics will eventually write one. Second, I believe that Syrian activists and cultural producers who identify with the revolution are themselves struggling profoundly with questions of sectarian identity. I’d point to Abounaddara’s short films as one way to access this conversation, which Robyn Creswell has read insightfully as representations of coming-into political consciousness. Other examples are texts on culture, sect, and citizenship by Syrian thinkers like Hassan Abbas, Rasha Omran, and Kheder Khaddour. Third, if you look at early texts from 2011, such as Samar Yazbek’s Woman in the Crossfire, you’ll find repeated assertions of a Syrian unity that is being threatened by the regime’s manipulations. When students read these texts then look to the present moment, they tend to conclude that this was wishful thinking on the part of revolutionaries. And it may well have been. But it’s crucial, if delicate, to acknowledge this reading without sliding into one of two extremes: an account of sects as essential, resurgent identities that preclude “modern” politics in Syria (i.e., an Orientalist/media reading) or an assertion of an equally essential Syrian national unity (i.e., a reproduction of revolutionary discourse).

I decided to approach these questions of identity, representation, and political claims by historicizing the intersection of sect and politics under the Assad regime. So, I used historical materials like Hanna Batatu’s excellent study, Syria’s Peasantry, and Patrick Seale’s biography of Hafez al-Assad alongside literary works like Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, a novel about sectarian hatred that, interestingly, refuses to name any sects.

c-khaledkhalifa_inpraiseofhatred_271x226The second – the idea that only pro-revolution Syrians should be politically legible to us in North America – is more precarious. If I were talking to a roomful of Syrians, I would assume that they have friends or family whose views differ from their own and that they have had the experience of seeing others change their minds or of changing their own minds. Events in Syria probably don’t add up to a revolutionary romance or a morality tale for them, in other words. But students in North America who have been exposed exclusively to media representations of Syria in English have a different view. There is a tendency in the media to romanticize the uprisings of 2011 into a pure struggle for freedom against pure evil. This version of events either discounts or dehumanizes Syrians who support the Assad regime or who have ambiguous or undecided politics. I’m not pro-regime, but I’m also concerned by what this view of Syria encourages US undergraduates to believe: that “we” over here somehow perceive distant political choices more clearly and more righteously than the people who actually live them and their consequences. So, I tried to disrupt this romantic view, primarily through film. After we read Hanna Mina’s semi-autobiographical depictions of poverty under the French mandate, I showed films by Omar Amiralay (Flood in Ba‘ath Country) and Ossama Muhammad (Step by Step) that critically reflect on support for the Ba‘ath party as a “modernizer” of postcolonial Syria. Amiralay’s Flood in Ba‘ath Country (2003) is a fantastic documentary that struggles with the filmmaker’s sense of loss and disappointment as he looks back on his past enthusiasm for the state’s Euphrates Dam project. The point is not apologism, but to ask students to reckon with the layers of historical experience and memory that still inform Syrian literature and politics today.

AL: Can you talk about why you added a unit on empathy and form?

AM: This came about in the second unit of the course. We’d started reading Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, which is a dream to teach. The students came to class with so much to say, and it’s been with us ever since. But while I’d been expecting them to focus on the narrator’s religious sensibilities, the group overwhelmingly expressed their reactions to the novel in terms of empathy. I got curious when I heard statements like “I can relate to the narrator” because the narrator is a woman who revels in sectarian hatred and crows over the idea of throwing acid on unveiled women – slightly taboo stuff for the North American classroom. So, I added a unit on empathy and form as a way to experiment. It was a lot of fun. The idea was to problematize empathy by discussing how it’s conditioned by certain types of content, which are often gendered (e.g., suffering mothers), and certain formal constraints (e.g., interiority in a novel versus a still image). This let the students build on their previous readings on art and politics by paying close attention to medium, form, and genre. So I paired Susan Sontag with photographs from Syria Speaks and Facebook; Jill Bennett’s writing on documentary film and face-to-face encounters with Abounaddara’s shorts; and Lauren Berlant with Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon. And once we had a working vocabulary on empathy and representation, students were more inclined to do close readings of texts and comparative readings across media.

AL: What would you have done differently if you were to run this class again (under the same circumstances or different ones)?

AM: I think that the future version of this class will move away from contemporary events, particularly at the beginning. There’s a sense of closure in the air now when it comes to Syria – that we’re talking about a warzone, not a revolution – and perhaps I’ve been slower than some to acknowledge it. In the summer, when I was planning this course, I was still wondering about questions of revolution and its narrativization. But today I think this is less an opening frame and more a genealogy that has to be excavated from underneath the devastation.

7294321I can imagine two ways to re-do this course: one would be a more traditional “Syrian Novel” seminar that would spend time on the French mandate, the Ba‘ath party before and after Hafez al-Assad, and “the Events” of the 1980s. It wouldn’t be difficult to use the lens of history in the novel as a structuring frame because contemporary history was such a dominant concern for Syrian writers before 2011. I have a bucket list of novels I’d want translated for this course: Fawwaz Haddad’s al-Daghina wa al-Hawa, Mamduh Azzam’s Qasr al-Matar, Manthur Hallum’s Awlad Sakiba, and Rosa Yassin Hassan’s Huras al-Hawa. And, of course, we need Mustafa Khalifa’s excellent prison memoir al-Qawqa‘a in English, though I understand (from your site!) that this is already in process.

I’d call a second, more theoretically-inclined version of this course “Feeling for Syria,” which would engage the questions of ruination and empathy that became so prominent in conversations this semester. I’m not wedded to the idea of empathy in my own work, but I think it’s helpfully unsettling for students who come to our classrooms old hands at debunking Orientalism in texts and media. Let me explain that. Edward Said’s work is so ubiquitous in the academy today that, even though many students haven’t read him, most have a working knowledge of what their literature professors expect. And this is good to the extent that students know how to identify essentialism and zap it with appropriate gestures to alterity, constructedness, and so on. But I think it’s also important to remind students that Said’s theoretical construct isn’t a closed circle. It doesn’t (and didn’t set out to) answer all questions about the traffic in representation between the US and the Middle East. I found this semester that empathy got that conversation on the table. On one hand, students look to affect, critically-conceived, as a productive way to engage alterity – and by productive I mean capable of producing new political solidarities. But on the other hand, empathy for suffering in the Middle East raises major red flags under Orientalism, particularly when it is used to justify military action. So when these lenses came together in conversations about contemporary Syria, I found my students posing difficult, but really interesting questions about representation and asymmetric power.

AL: What really has seemed to work about this class (vs. others you have taught) and what hasn’t?

AM: This is the first time I’ve taught a class that’s so fully engaged in the contemporary, and I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitively the students incorporated online media into our discussions. They were quick to think critically about objects like YouTube videos and Facebook statuses, as well as their translations, alongside more familiar genres like novels and poems. I was also impressed at the way the students embraced our class’ departure from regional geopolitics. This course took place at a time when the media was saturated with representations of ISIS beheadings and “more extreme than al-Qaeda” jihadism, and many of the students came to my class because they were interested in these politics. The fact that I never once felt our “local” focus was a strain on their curiosity is a credit to them and I think a reassurance to scholars who advocate close readings of texts and spaces in the classroom. The last thing that I enjoyed and hope to develop in future classes is having advanced Arabic students work on translations of literary works over the semester and share their projects with the class. It gets students thinking about translation as a process that takes a lot of time and patience, but it also empowers them to discover and share contemporary literature with their peers.

The thing that didn’t work was having students present on contemporary culture and art once a week. They struggled – understandably – to navigate the mass of online materials in English and Arabic from and about Syria, so I think that in the future I’ll curate this more carefully.

AL: What has most surprised you this semester?

AM: As I said above, when I planned the class, I was expecting the question of revolution versus civil war to occupy the students’ attention. But the concept of revolution just didn’t grab their attention – not even a little bit. I’m still trying to decide why that happened.

Anne-Marie McManus is assistant professor of modern Arabic literature and culture at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is currently the Harbison Faculty Fellow. In addition to her research on contemporary Syrian literature, she is working on a book on postcolonial translation in Arabic literatures. She has also published on prison literature, gender theory in the novel, and the circulation of digital literatures. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University in 2013.