‘Let Me Call It Disorder’: Syrian Novelist Nihad Sirees on Writing in Berlin, Imagining Syria

Celebrated Syrian writer Nihad Sirees is in the United States this week, speaking at several universities as he also works on an abridged version of his Halet Shaghaff for Georgetown University Press:

Nihad Sirees at Duke University.

Yesterday at Duke University, Sirees gave a talk on “Writing under the Gaze of Hafiz al-Asad.”

Sirees spoke extensively about the conditions under which he wrote his award-winning The Silence and the Roar, which was beautifully translated by Max Weiss and published in English in 2013. The novel has also been released in German, French, Dutch, Czech, and Italian.

At the end of the talk, Sirees spoke about trying to write in 2015, in Germany, where he has been living in “self-exile” after being forced to leave Syria in 2012 and, after that, to leave his temporary home in Egypt.

“I left Aleppo, my beloved city,” Sirees said, “which I wrote about in all my writings, and now I have a life away from it. But every day I see how this beautiful city has been demolished.

“I think about the past when I was a boy a or young man, and among these beautiful roads and buildings, and now these buildings were demolished. This makes a conflict within me. I want to take these feelings out through writing.”

Sirees later spoke about how everything in Berlin was new, and how it gave him the possibility of thinking of new subjects for his writing. But at the same time, he was viscerally linked to his past and to what was happening every day in Syria: “Let me call it disorder. It means you live, and you can go to concerts and you can listen to Bach or others. And at the same time you can hear the echoes of bombing.”

These conditions in Berlin are far different from the conditions under which he wrote his celebrated The Silence and the Roar, published in Arabic in 2004, which he also described.

In 2000, Sirees said, “came our new president, after his father [Hafez al-Assad] died, and he was presented to the people of Syria as a reformist. And we became optimistic that something would change in time. And when he [Bashar al-Assad] took the post, he gave us only six months. At that time, many muntada [literary salons] — many many of these salons were established, especially by intellectuals, to sit and discuss problems or theories like democracy or human rights, women’s rights, child’s rights, etc.

“But Bashar al-Assad didn’t like people to sit even just to talk.” People weren’t demonstrating at that time, Sirees said. “Just talking. Also, we started to publish articles at that time, which were more courageous. And I think that it was really green days for our intellectuals. They thought that this was really a spring, so they called it Damascus Spring. And this spring lasted only for six months, and then the agencies captured a lot of intellectuals and put them in jails. And they started to make life for others uneasy.”

Sirees was among those who had organized an intellectual salon, which he ran on a monthly basis until there was a knock at his door. Sirees was already in trouble after the airing of the second part of this TV drama “The Silk Market,” after which censorship committees had “carefully checked the texts I wrote and rejected most of them. After that, I returned to engineering, pulled down the blinds, and wrote The Silence and the Roar.”

With the blinds down, he began to think about “this novel, the Silence and the Roar. Which means the silence for us and the roar for them. Especially after this movement of Bashar al-Assad, [who] started to push people…to the street to demonstrate for him positively all the time, using some loudspeakers and music and marches and many things.”

The book was published in Lebanon and has never been distributed in Syria.

Sirees also talked about the unwritten rules of Syrian censorship, which had not been restricted to books, but impacted even wedding invitations and obituaries. And he was asked, at the end of his talk, whether there was a time he looked back on as a writer, as an “ah, those were the good old days” time to be a Syrian writer?

The 1950s, he said.

Sirees travels to Davidson College today, which is outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. There, on Thursday, March 26 he’ll be giving a lecture on “Writing Oppositional Literature Under Political Oppression in Syria.” Anyone near Charlotte should certainly seize the chance to attend.

On ArabLit:

‘The Silence and the Roar’: On Life as a Silenced Writer  – Interview with Sarah Irving

Two Views of ‘Syria Speaks’: A Lens on Syria Through the Arts – By Sarah Irving and Nadia Ghanem

Author Nihad Sirees: ‘We Are Fighting the Formal History of a Regime’– By Nadia Ghanem

Nihad Sirees on Writers in Syria: ‘What Should We Talk About?’ – By M. Lynx Qualey


Syrian Novelist Nihad Sirees: ‘Creative Writing is Stalled Today’ – From Jadaliyya

Novelist Nihad Sirees on Aleppo Then, Aleppo Now, Aleppo Imagined – From PEN Atlas

The review of The Silence and the Roar

An interview with Sirees – “Politics and Prose”

Writing, Revolution, and Change in Syria: An Interview with Nihad Sirees – Jadaliyya

Sirees in English:

A translation of Sirees’s حالة شـغف (here called A Case of Passion, here A State of Passion) both times by Khaled al-Jbaili.

Daddy Dearest: Inside the Mind of Bashar al-Assad – on Daily Beast

Sirees’s twitter feed (@nihadsirees), often in English.

The Silence and the Roar:

The first three chapters of ”الصمت والصخب” on Sirees’s website.