From the Archives: Shahla Ujayli on Getting Raqqa Back Through Writing

In April of this year, Shahla Ujayli’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel Summer with the Enemy came out in Michelle Hartman’s translation. ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey talked to both Ujayli and translator Hartman about the book:

Hartman also brought Ujayli’s A Sky So Close to Us to English, and she said of this newer novel, over email, that “it is always the combination of a broad historical sweep with careful attention to minute detail that are the backdrop for the intense psychological explorations of women characters that draw me to them. I feel privileged and lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such a deep and engaging literary text in Summer with the Enemy.”

This conversation first appeared last summer.

Can you describe your emotional connection to Raqqa? How did you feel about the city as a child, and how do you feel about the city now? 

Shahla Ujayli with A Sky So Close to Us in English and Summer with the Enemy in Arabic.

Shahla Ujayli: It is not easy for me to summarize in these lines my emotional relationship — with all its fluctuations — with Raqqa! There is not one Raqqa. There is the city in which I lived, and there’s the city I heard about in stories from family, neighbors, friends, fellow citizens. And there is a different tenderness in the history I’ve read in books, blogs, and documents, which I’ve also seen in museums and reflected in the eyes of tourists from around the world. All of these faces or strata of one city form an emotional relationship, and this is what I’ve tried to present in Summer with the Enemy. I tried to communicate with all these strata, presenting different and contradictory emotional attitudes toward the place, distributing them among the characters. I used to feel that the city oppressed us, because it was marginal and simple, and far from the center, and it didn’t have the weight of Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia, or Homs in the balance of power, so that our chances as citizens in everything were less, and there was a clear discrimination against us, a neglect of our share of economic and social service, while we were still under the state’s control.

Sometimes I felt that we were unjust to the city, with our internal ideological and clan struggles, which the authorities worked to preserve, accompanied by ignorance, poverty, and bullying. Since my childhood I’ve been very passionate about the city, the people around me, and their stories, and I try to understand their positions and understand their behavior without being influenced by the opinion of anyone around me.

I enjoyed my days there, the moments of my childhood and youth, and my relationship with nature, history, family, and neighbors. We created everything with our own hands and our modest abilities. There is no doubt that my personal circumstances helped me in that. Our house was open to all, and it attracted educated guests from the whole world, due to our family’s cultural, social, and political situation.

Now I find that everything that we did in Raqqa in our childhood and youth was great, and that we were culturally and socially in a state of modernity that fit with our identity, more than anywhere else in Syria. At home, we were three girls in a male-dominated community. Our schools were mixed, and our friends in the neighborhood were the same as our schoolmates, as well as at parties and events. We used to read a lot, go around on our bicycles, shop for groceries, bread, and the necessities of the house without needing anyone’s help. I walked daily on the bridge over the Euphrates, and went to the gym run by my cousin, and every evening I rode a horse in the equestrian club that opened with small means and great effort. We swam in the river, the temperatures in the summer reaching fifty degrees, and there was no swimming pool in the city where girls could go. But we were fortunate that my father made a swimming pool at home. We walked to the cemeteries on Friday, or the shrines of the saints, or the ancient wall, because there were no other places to walk; there is only one park, and it wasn’t safe to visit alone. There was no theme park, no café that was frequented by women, no playground. Everything is difficult but with persistence and work we got there in the end.

Imagine that, until the mid-nineties, there was no taxi in the heart of the city. Either someone who owned a car drove you, or you were deprived of your desire, or you walked long distances in the heat or rain and mud, or toward places we were not allowed to go to. My father was rarely willing to drop me off somewhere, because he was always busy, busy building the city, preserving its urban integrity and identity; he was the first architect in it, and my mother was busy managing a large house and many guests.

My feet led me to the stage, and I acted in Al-Tala’a group, which was like a scout troop, and I learned about the basics of drama, and I traveled with them to distant Syrian cities and villages, and attended the daily practices of a famous folk dance group, and I planted the roots of art, music, rhythm, and beauty … When I look at all of this today, I find that we in Raqqa were innate friends of life, of the environment, of knowledge and culture.

I love the city yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I will always love it, and nothing can heal the wounds caused by its ruin, and nothing can compensate me for the loss. Her loss changed my facial features, and it wounded my emotions. I became cruel, lost the meaning of cheerfulness, sympathy, safety, and confidence. My father built the city; he built it from our time, our nerves, and our childhood; he was kept busy by it; we took responsibility for it. All people in Raqqa held their children responsible for the city, the responsibility for moving it from the margins to a better location. They always said to their children: Raise up the name of Raqqa. After that everything collapsed, the city fell, and people died …

The fate of slavery taught me the games of history; how a marginalized city of no importance in the calculations of the ruling authorities or the world moves to become a stage for the struggle of international powers, and its people become penetrable human shields.

Raqqa is no longer the city I knew; I belong to a place that no longer exists. I try to get it back through writing.

Michelle, why did you decide to translate Summer with the Enemy? What drew you to the book (and made you want to stay with it through the process of translation)? What aspects of it particularly resonated with you?

Michelle Hartman: I had translated Shahla Ujayli’s previous novel, A Sky So Close to Us, and felt really close to that book and her writing style. Thus, when the opportunity to translate it came along, I jumped at it! But as I read it, and reread it, I really found the uniqueness of the novel as well, though her style is consistent through both works. It was not, however, easy and as I worked on it, the layers of it presented challenges. Also, there is a lot specificity and detail that is very technical—particularly the sections on astronomy—and this made it very difficult. But I like a challenge, There was never a possibility I would not stick with it. What resonates the most with me still is the depth and complexity in the exploration and  portrayal of human emotions. I also very much appreciate the multigenerational depiction of women’s lives.

Shahla, what kind of research did you do for the book?

SU: I returned to a study of the history of the city. I read through old and new history books written by Arabs, Arabists, or sometimes by researchers from Raqqa itself. There is no doubt that my relationship with historical research and seminars on Raqqa is old and uninterrupted, and since the days of my studies I have been presenting research papers on it, whether about its history, literature, or philosophy.

I joined a training workshop in astronomy and physics, in order to be able to read the sky, and to know the keys to this universe with its star clusters and constellations, in order to work on the characters of al-Battani and Nicholas. Of course, this not only provided knowledge I could use in the work, but also gave me a new linguistic repertoire to use in my writing.

I also studied cinema for a year, in order to raise the level of my imagery, because a writer can exhaust his pictures or repeat themselves, particularly as I am far from the movements of the place and the changing relations within it; so I needed imagination. The cinema renewed my language and my thoughts. I read a lot about the start of the Second World War, about countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and cities like Frankfurt, Cologne, Warsaw, and Prague. I learned about their history, present, music, and churches.

If a writer wants to make a character walk on a bridge, he must know the history of the bridge … I researched fashion, the manufacture of weapons, tanks, planes, and battles … it was a lot of work and a continuous one. There are things that I have read about in my life, but documenting and returning to them is not easy. I visited most of the sites that I wrote about, sometimes by chance, and made long calls to my father in Syria in difficult conditions for communication, and also called my friends in Germany to talk about a small detail, a site, type of flower or food . . .

Shahla, in Summer with the Enemy, most of what we experience of Raqqa is in the past, and there is a relatively short part about Lamees’s escape from Daesh. Why does the novel focus mainly on before Daesh and after Lamees is in Cologne, and not the time of Daesh? 

SU: I was not directly concerned with ISIS in this novel; I was running away from it, toward the beauty that preceded its existence, then toward a life of trying to escape from it, and from what it caused in terms of death and destruction. I wanted to explain the dramatic transformations that occurred in the city because of ISIS and other groups, or because of those who were the reason for their entry into the city. I talked about ISIS after a fashion in A Sky So Close to Us.  

What concerned me were the short and poignant passages that I put in Summer with the Enemy. There is a journey toward the escape from death, between home and refuge, and I gave a snapshot of it in a decisive scene, which is much more important than a long narrative, and this produced its cinematic qualities.

Michelle, have you been to Raqqa? There is a really wonderful warm alive portrait of Raqqa in the novel… Did you spend any time looking at old photos / videos when translating? There was also a lot of smell… When you are rendering the sensory do you have any special process?

MH: I did not list the portrait of Raqqa as particularly resonating with me, but it did! I have indeed been to Raqqa—back in the 1990s—and it is one of the first things Shahla and I discussed when we first discussed translating her works, years ago. I am pleased that the portrait of Raqqa comes through in the translation because it is one of the most compelling and important elements of this novel. The process for trying to capture this, I think, for me really did involve remembering and placing myself (as Lamis, her mother, her grandmother and so on) in the locations described and evoking what that feels like, looks like, smells like. I have many many pictures (the old-fashioned printed kind, not digital!) of my visit to Raqqa and I did look back at them, how did you know? I also read extensively about what has happened in Raqqa since then, looking at images and looking up places mentioned in the book—in Raqqa and also beyond.

Shahla, in A Sky So Close to Our House, we are at a remove from Raqqa, in Amman… but here you have taken us closer, deeper into the life of the city. Was this a conscious choice?

SU: Yes, I was fully aware of that. The world must know the city’s true tenderness, which has been distorted by war, terrorism, the media, and the world’s major powers. The future generations of Syrians and the people of Raqqa must know the Raqqa in which we lived, and which no longer exists, so that everyone will realize the gravity of what they have committed and their crimes, that the occupiers and destroyers did not come to a land without people or without history or life, they did not come to barbarians. They destroyed an ancient city full of life, people, culture, art, sacrifice, rituals, wealth, and openness … They killed its people and displaced them in exile. I want that crime to remain unforgivable and forever a stain on the brow of the world.

Also: Ujayli’s Almultaqa Prize-winning short-story collection A Bed for the King’s Daughter appeared this year from University of Texas Press in 2021 in Sawad Hussain’s translation.


5 Questions: The Literary Loves of 2019 IPAF Shortlistee Shahla Ujayli

‘A Bed for the King’s Daughter’: Finding a Home for Arabic Short Stories in Translation


The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper” by Ujayli, translated by Alice Guthrie

Dead Man’s Hand,” by Ujayli, translated by Sawad Hussain