Reading Syria in Miniature: Plays, Stories, Poems

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous died in 1997, fourteen years before demonstrators and police clashed in Daraa: 


Yet his work — of course — remains part of the fabric of Syria, as Syria is part of the fabric of his work.

Wannous, Zakaria Tamer, Adonis, and others are still being called upon in an effort to miniaturize and understand what’s going on in Syria: what’s happened, what will happen. Wannous, although he didn’t live to see our century, remains one of the most reliable-feeling oracles.

In Matthew McNaught’s “Yarmouk Miniatures: Saadallah Wannous and the War on Stories,” McNaught takes us through characters and characters, seeing Syria by the light of Wannous and vice versa. He also moves between Wannous’s theatrical works, his artistic hopes, his disappointments, and “reality.”

Here, McNaught pulls from a discussion with his Arabic language-and-literature tutor, Mazen, after Mazen has fled Syria:

For a while, friends still in Yarmouk [refugee camp] would occasionally check on the flat. One time, they found that an armed group was occupying it and holes had been knocked in the walls to shoot from. Shortly afterwards, they found it abandoned. All his books had been burned. “Why would they do that?” I asked, and for a split second had visions of a Wannousian scene: bearded extremists stumbling across the books, denouncing them as heretical texts and burning them in a big pile. “For warmth,” said Mazen. “It was winter, and the siege had been going on for months.”

McNaught is certainly not the only one looking at how literature reflects and is reflected by contemporary events, and how they may change one another.

In Robyn Creswell’s “Syria’s Lost Spring,” on the NYRBlog, Creswell explores Syria through literature, particularly through the non-engagement of the nation’s most famous poet, Adonis, and through the very-engaged collection Syria Speaks, ed. Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen, and Nawara Mahfoud. Who is clear-eyed? Who is the oracle and whose vision is occluded?

And, at Asymptote, Mona Kareem translates fourteen poems from Dara Abdallah’s Loneliness Spoils Its Victims.

The poems are by turns thoughtful, chatty, anxious. It’s as though we’re sitting in a small room, alternately smoking and looking out a grimy window onto a scene that we can no longer understand, from which we can’t get the proper distance. From “Fading Dimensions”:

He tells himself: “Shit! It no longer works.” He has lost his ability to measure distance, the depth of matter, and the thickness of things. I was watching how he was watching himself. And how he suffers from a “lack of distance,” “his unbearable heavy lightness,” and his senses that are no longer senses.

Also, from the ArabLit archives:

Teaching Syrian Stories: Between Understanding and Empathy, an interview with Anne-Marie McManus