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The silence of contemporary Syrian literature.


There is, of course, no such thing as Syrian literature. Certainly, citizens of the modern nation-state of Syria write literature, but to claim that "Syrian literature" exists in the same way that, say, Russian literature or German literature exists is misleading. First, it implies that there is a language called Syrian. Syrian literature is, for the most part, written in Arabic and is part of a literary family that includes all literature written in Arabic. Second, anyone familiar with the Middle East will be quick to point out that "Syria" itself is a complicated label. From ancient times until the early twentieth century, the term has been used loosely to describe a region that, in addition to the land defined by the borders of Syria today, included historical Palestine and the area of modern Lebanon (which two places also had their own names), Jordan, and the northwestern parts of the Fertile Crescent (now belonging to Turkey). Syria's present borders were carved out of the former Ottoman Empire by Britain and France in the SykesPicot agreement of 1916 in a manner corresponding, not with local goals or sensibilities, but with the imperialist interests of European powers. This turns out to be not that unusual for Syria, a strategic crossroads frequently fought over by powerful neighbors. Its periods of independence, whether in its modern borders or larger ones such as those of the Damascus-based Arabo-Muslim Umayyad Empire, have alternated with periods when Syria was a province or cluster of provinces included in a larger empire ruled by people based elsewhere: Assyrians of Mesopotamia (who probably gave Syria its name), Pharaonic Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and, in the Islamic era, the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Ottomans of Anatolia -- to name but a few.

Syria has not, historically speaking, had a great deal of ethnic homogeneity; a vast number of ethnic groups have comprised this region's population. Syria has also been a place where many religions and religious sects have been born and have flourished, skirmished, and lived as neighbors. The majority of the people of Syria today are Arab; a Syrian may also be Kurdish, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, Daghestani, Turkish, Jewish, Assyrian. Sunni Islam is the majority religion, and Syrians are also Christian (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite, Church of the East, and others), Druze, Ismaili, Alawi, and Jewish. One constant from ancient to modern times is that the cities situated along a north-south axis in its interior -- Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus -- have always formed the inner core of whatever was designated as Syria (Meisami, 746). Eastward-turned, desert-facing ports of overland trade, they form a strip parallel to the westward-facing ports of the sea -- Latakia, Banias, Tartus -- on Syria's slender coastal plain. This central strip extends on the southwestern end to the Hauran plateau and the cities of Suweida and Bosra (nearing Irbid, Amman, and Nablus), and at the other, northeastern corner, it includes the Euphrates-watered Jazira region in the northeast and joins with Iraq to form, altogether, the Fertile Crescent. The Syrian Desert, with its oasis cities such as Palmyra, rounds out the area traditionally known as Syria.

What purpose does it serve, aside from that of an unbecoming and narrow Syrian chauvinism, to speak of Syrian literature? It is helpful, here, to point briefly to Egyptian, Palestinian, and Lebanese literatures by comparison. As in the Syrian case, each of these literatures is intrinsically part of the Arabic cultural world. Yet no one disputes the fact that "modern Egyptian literature" makes sense as a category that enriches our appreciation of the works therein considered. The soundness of gathering the literature of Egypt into one sheaf is as self-evident as the Nile. (Is there an Egyptian novel without the Nile running through it?) Geography gives Egypt cohesiveness. Modern Palestinian literature coheres around the catastrophic wrenching of the Palestinian people from their historical homeland in 1948. Having a literature is crucial to the survival of this uprooted and embattled community. Or, take Lebanese literature today: the prolonged civil war of 1975-90 wounded Lebanon, and the wound became a well of words. (1) Syria lacks the geographic cohesiveness of Egypt and has been spared the Palestinian and the Lebanese traumas. Nevertheless, it does enrich our understanding to bundle together the literature of Syria; such a harvesting allows us to become aware of patterns and to experience esthetic pleasures otherwise undetectable. That may be the only good reason -- and it is a sufficient one -- to endeavor theorizing Syrian literature.

What are we talking about when we speak of contemporary Syrian literature? A survey of the Syrian literary landscape in the last quarter-century or so is in order here. In the 1970s, Arabic literary modernism reigned triumphant, with Syrian-born poet and literary scholar Adonis (b. 1930), who adopted Lebanese citizenship, as one of its influential theorists. Yusuf al-Khal (1917-87), another pioneer of poetic experimentation, is, like Adonis, of Syrian origin but often assumed to be Lebanese. Certainly their chosen country of affiliation is important, and so, for our study of patterns in Syrian literature, is the fact that they began in Syria and left it. (Adonis was imprisoned for political activities in 1955 and left thereafter.) From this, it will be clear that what is meant here by "Syrian literature" is not necessarily the same as "literature from the Syrian Arab Republic." The prolific Nizar Kabbani (1923-98), who was a language innovator in his own right without fitting neatly into any school, (2) was in the 1970s at the peak of his powers as a poet of eros and political protest, having riveted the attention of the poetry-listening and poetry-reading public since the 1940s. Muhammad al-Maghut (b. 1934), who began in Adonis's circle and helped establish the prose poem as an Arabic form, is another major figure.

Perhaps Syria's greatest poet of the neoclassical school, which held sway earlier in the century, is Badawi al-Jabal (1907-81); his collected poems were published in 1978. Prominent in earlier literary movements but still present in the last quarter of the twentieth century were Nadim Muhammad (1910-94) and Umar Abu Risha (b. 1908). Huda Na'mani (b. 1930) is a poet of mystical bent who has lived outside Syria much of her life. Saniyya Saleh (1935-85) was a modernist prose poet. Mamduh Udwan (b. 1941) is a poet and dramatist living in Syria. The poet (and novelist) Salim Barakat is associated with the Palestinian literary journal al-Karmel, having been forced to leave Syria in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Etel Adnan may be counted as being from Syria and Lebanon simultaneously, writes in French and English, and figures in Middle Eastern as well as Arab-American anthologies. Muhyiddin al-Ladhiqani emigrated after persecution for one of his writings in 1971 (Human Rights Watch, 126). Syrian poet Nouri Jarah (b. 1956) launched a literary journal, al-Qassida, from London in the 1990s, publishing Arabic poetry and arabophonic translations from Asia and Africa, contesting what he sees as the westward-oriented poetry scene of al-Khal and Adonis (Aljadid, 1999, 34). Lina Tibi, in London, is one of many emerging Syrian poets.

The short story is an important genre in the Arab world, perhaps because it is compact enough to be published in daily newspapers or weekly magazines and thus can be read without much expense. Some Arabic literary critics find that it is becoming as important as poetry -- quite a coup in the Arab world, where poetry has always been the privileged genre. Syrians are acknowledged as having made major contributions to the modern short story. The cynical and uncanny stories of Zakaria Tamer (b. 1931), jewels of precision and craft, have gained global acclaim. Abdal-Salam al-Ujayli (b. 1918) is an acknowledged Syrian master of this genre (and has worked his entire life as a full-time physician in his hometown, Raqqa). Widad al-Sakakini (1913-86) was born in Lebanon but spent most of her life in Syria, writing of life in Syria in the realistic, straightforward manner of Ujayli. She and Fuad al-Shayib (1910-70) authored what are reckoned the first modern Arabic short-story collections in 1945 and 1944 respectively. Muzaffar Sultan (b. 1913), Sa'id Horaniyeh (1929-?), Faris Zarzur (b. 1929), George Salem (1933-76), and other Syrians contributed to the development of this genre.

Ghada Samman (b. 1942) has had a powerful voice as the author of short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and, most notably, novels, her tone brisk, urbane, sardonic. She is both a high-profile novelist and one of the best-known feminists in the Arabic-speaking world. Samman arrived on a Syrian novel scene already strong with Hanna Mina (b. 1924), prolific since the 1950s. Mina frequently treats themes of class conflict and political change, his early works being considered novels of social realism. Novelist Shawqi Baghdadi (b. 1928) is also associated with the socialist-realism school. Ulfat al-Idilbi (b. 1910 or 1912) has been an active short-story writer since the 1940s, and in the 1990s published novels that are some of her best works. Walid Ikhlasi (b. 1935) is probably Syria's most prolific fiction writer, with over forty books; some of his novels have been adapted for the screen, as have Idilbi's. Hani al-Rahib (b. 1939) and Haidar Haidar (b. 1936) are well-known novelists. The former has suffered beatings from the Syrian state police as well as exile and other state harassment, whereas the latter has lived and worked in Syria since the mideighties; one of his novels recently provoked an uproar from the religious right in Egypt. The novelist Colette Khoury (b. 1937) lives and works in Syria. Samar Attar (b. 1945), who began as a poet in Arabic and now writes prose in both Arabic and English, published two novels in the 1990s, translating them into English herself. She lives in Australia. Salim Barakat (b. 1936) is another Syrian novelist living in the West.

The late Sa'dallah Wannous was Syria's leading dramatist. Drama is frequently adapted into television and film, and we may glance there: Nabil Malih, Usama Muhammad, and Muhammad Malas are some of the notable Syrian filmmakers. It would be interesting to make a case for including Hollywood-based filmmaker Mustafa Aqqad, who is certainly Syrian although he is now American too. His horror-slasher films are very "Hollywood," while the topics of his epic sagas such as The Message, about the Prophet Muhammad and the dawn of Islam, reflect his interest in topics related to his Islamic and Arab roots.


"Smash our pens!" the Syrian poet Khalil Mutran wrote early in the century from the relative freedom of Egypt, having fled Syria to escape punitive Ottoman measures against proponents of Arab nationalism. "Will smashing them / prevent our hands / from carving on the stones?" (Jayyusi, 82), he asks, which shows that bad government has been good grist for poetry for many decades in modern Syria. Censorship policies pursued by the French Mandate authorities continued the Ottoman tradition of harassing and exiling offending writers; they banned Khalil Mardam and condemned Khairuddin al-Zirakly to death (in absentia) in 1920. Independence in 1945 saw an improvement and growth in civil society, but only briefly. The coup that brought military rule by Husni al-Za'im in 1949 and the military coups that followed him in rapid succession tightened state control of cultural institutions. Another few years of lively and meaningful political contestation followed the series of military governments, but in 1958, Syria's three-year union with Egypt again increased state censorship powers.

The periods of relatively free and diverse public contestation, however brief, are important because they establish that Syrians do indeed understand and have a collective memory of the political freedoms they lack today. President Quwwatli's remarks upon giving up power to the union with Egypt in 1958 attest to the political sophistication and participatory expectations in the country: "You have liberated me from the ingratiating honor of being the head of five million inhabitants all of whom consider themselves politicians emeritus," he said to Egyptian president Nasser. "Half claim for themselves the vocation of leader. One-fourth believe themselves to be prophets; ten percent at the least take themselves to be gods" (quoted in Wedeen, 143). Heirs to unbroken urban and mercantile traditions that go back thousands of years and have outlasted brilliant empires, denizens of several of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities that have seen the rise and fall of the world's most powerful dynasties, and keenly cognizant of the dizzying layers of civilization beneath their feet, Syrians have a measure of urbanity about politics.

In 1963, the Ba'th Party took rule of Syria. With it came the rise of a police state with great repressive powers, achieved in part through the 1963 declaration of martial law that has not been lifted once to this day. After successive purges of various wings of the party, including its founders, Hafez Asad consolidated his hold on the state in 1970. Political participation by Syrians was severely curtailed; it was limited to rubberstamp activities in Parliament, Ba'th Party organizations, and a few government-sanctioned other parties, closely monitored. "Asad did not wholly stifle political activity," his biographer Patrick Seale says, "but confined it to in-groups such as the higher echelons of the party, the army commanders, and the security chiefs, all ultimately dependent on himself. Those outside these privileged circles soon learned they could go about their business without undue fear or constraint so long as they accepted that politics was not their domain" (179). The Ba'th increased the censorship powers of the state. Article 4b of the state of emergency straightforwardly permits the state "to control newspapers, books, broadcasting, advertising, and visual arts -- in other words, all forms of expression and announcements before publication. It may also stop, confiscate, and destroy any work deemed to threaten state security, or close down offices and places of printing" (Human Rights Watch, 109).

Internal political developments in Syria during the last thirty years with bearing on censorship include purges by the ruling Ba'th Party of other parts of the party itself in 1967-71, and the rise of an Islamist opposition movement among Sunni Muslims from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, which encouraged the emergence of other opposition. Oppositional Syrians of various stripes took control of many professional organizations in the late 1970s for the first time since the Ba'th had taken power. The Islamist opposition armed itself enough to pose a military as well as political threat taken seriously by the regime. Dissent underlined the open secret of the sectarian nature of the Ba'thist regime, which was largely dominated by people who shared the Alawite ethnic-religious background of Asad; to dilute this criticism, the regime moved several Sunnis into visible positions.

To be sure, other political developments during Syria's recent history besides the internal ones have bearing on the issue of censorship, human rights, and writing. Hostile external and regional political conditions have created a siege mentality in Syria that has helped justify deprioritizing human-rights issues. This is not unique to Syria; across the Arab world for years, governments have been able to shift attention from their own lack of democracy by pointing to the outside threat, which is indeed a real one, posed by the belligerence and expansionism of Israel. Any dissent could be attributed to conspiracies of external enemies; the writer's duty was the service of the nation. However, whereas this argument began to be more questioned in the post-cold-war 1980s by intellectuals in the Arab world who started demanding increased accountability from Arab leaders for their human-rights transgressions, in Syria it has held fast.

The Asad regime's struggle to put down widespread insurgence culminated in the crushing of rebel forces in Hama in 1982, followed by the punitive massacre of thousands in the city that had given the insurgents refuge. The damage to the city was such that, as late as 1991, Human Rights Watch reported that "virtually every facade is pockmarked with shell holes and people live in the remains of their houses" (21). With "a third or more of the city's housing completely destroyed, between sixty and seventy thousand were left homeless.... One credible report states that eighty-eight mosques and five churches were destroyed, along with twenty-one markets, seven graveyards, seven public bath houses, and thirteen residential neighborhoods" (20). To come to the loss of human lives, the opposition's figure for the number massacred is 22,000, while "the most credible analysts put the number at between five and ten thousand people" (Human Rights Watch, 20). Hama's population at the 1981 census was 177,208, which means that, taking the lower estimate of casualties, between three and six percent of the city dwellers died in this event; many times that number were wounded. If the victims of violence in Hama during the entire month of February 1982 are included, "no fewer than 25,000 civilians lost their lives" according to Akram Hurani, a leading figure in the secular, socialist opposition and a Hama native (Batatu, 274). The ensuing government crackdown on dissent of all ideological stripes imprisoned many more and changed the tenor of life for all Syrians. Moreover, the 1982 Hama massacre was only part of a long chain of events beginning about a decade earlier, including massacres at Jisr al-Shughur, Ma'arra, Idlib, the Palmyra political prison, Sarmada, Aleppo, and in Hama itself prior to the big Hama massacre. These events reverberated through the 1980s and 1990s; their effects linger with Syrians in the third millennium.

Regime officials maintain that there is no such thing as a "Hama massacre." There were a few armed criminals, terrorists, agents of foreign governments in Syria's midst, the line goes, and the state eliminated them. Now, while the main force of the rebellion against the Ba'th came from the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative religious party based mainly in the Sunni middle classes, and while many Syrians did not agree with its ideological orientation, the scale of the insurgency reflected a more widespread dissatisfaction with Ba'th rule. The extent of the government violence at Hama, and the mass punitive executions of residents of the city, even those without ties to the rebels, was enough, at any rate, to horrify even those unsympathetic to the rebellion.

Mass violence committed on Syrians by their fellow Syrians has not occurred since the Christians of Damascus suffered massacre at the hands of mobs of the city's Muslims in 1860 (despite the efforts of Sheikh Abdal Qadir al-Jaza'iri to protect the Christians from his coreligionists). The numbers killed at Hama are far higher, although this does not decrease the atrociousness of the 1860 carnage. The Hama massacre is one of the top traumas of the twentieth century for Syrians. The first was the Turkish repression, for which the public hanging of twenty-one Arab nationalists in Damascus and Beirut in 1915 serves as an effective symbol. After the brief euphoria of Arab nationalist King Feisal's triumphant 1918 entry into Damascus, Syrian independence forces were crushed in 1920 by the entering French colonizers, who also wiped out a revolt led by Syria's Druze in 1925-27. Midcentury saw the defeat of Syria's troops by the Israeli army taking over Palestine in 1948; the penultimate blow of the century was the 1967 snatching of the Golan Heights from Syria by Israel, which also seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Sinai in that war. The devastation of 1948 and 1967 touches every life in the region. Hama was Syria's nightmare alone.

Contemporary Syrian literature contains no account of the Hama massacre, as far as I can ascertain. Syrian literature has treated Turkish tyranny, British perfidy, the French onslaught, and the Israeli aggression. Syrian writers have written courageously on the Turkish massacre of the Armenians (Hanna Mina) and the plight of the Kurds (Salim Barakat). The silence on Hama is notable, given the sophisticated levels of political consciousness present among Syrian writers. An episode of this magnitude in a country's third largest city does not just pass unnoticed by the country's major poets and novelists, no matter what their ideological leanings. A book or two on the Palmyra prison massacre and the Hama massacre, of the pulp-fiction sort, were spotted briefly in Iraqi and Jordanian bookstores during the 1980s. But in the literary journals, in the publishing houses, in the novels, short stories, screenplays, and poems of Syria's many writers, the Hama massacre is markedly absent.

Syrian silence on Hama, and on political repression under the Ba'th in general, is not hard to explain, given the plight of Syrians under authoritarian rule. The livelihoods of many excellent writers depend on state agencies. Hanna Mina has worked at the Ministry of Culture; Walid Ikhlasi is a member of the People's Assembly; Mamduh Udwan works for the Ministry of Information (Jayyusi, 463); Colette Khoury is a consultant for the Ministry of Defense. There are many other examples. Mina tried to support himself as a barber early in his life before becoming a professional writer, and some writers hold non-governmental jobs or have enough family wealth to be independent; but the fact is that "most of the jobs which will permit writers to pursue their craft are to be found in the area of the state cultural bureaucracy -- as editors of newspapers, journals, and the like -- positions in which they can often be easily controlled and from which they can be dismissed with equal ease" (Allen, 220). This may apply to most Arab countries, but is truer in countries with leftist governments, such as Syria, because the private sector is smaller in such countries. Even if financially independent, a writer needs to be published to have a meaningful vocation. (It is possible that Syrians have written a great deal of literature on Hama and the events surrounding it; who knows what reams of manuscripts on it have been penned that will never see the light of day. By writing here, I am, perhaps unjustifiably, assuming publication.) The Ministries of Culture and Information are Syria's largest publishers. A major "private" press is that of the party-controlled Writers Union. One of the largest private publishing houses is Dar Tlas. The founder and owner is book-loving Mustafa Tlas, Defense Minister since 1971. All colleges and universities in Syria are state schools.

The punitive arm of the state is long. In 1985, novelist Hani al-Rahib was arrested, not for anything he wrote, but just for saying at a Writers Union lecture in Damascus that individual freedoms were greater in Egypt than in Syria. He was fired from his job at the University of Damascus, not allowed to travel out of the country for two years, and beaten by the state police (Human Rights Watch, 134; Frangieh, 82). Syria's wrath has extended to Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon. Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lawzi, an outspoken critic of Syria, moved his paper to London to avoid Syrian control after publishing articles criticizing Asad's policies, but was killed when he went back to Beirut for his mother's funeral in 1980. Al-Lawzi's body was found with his writing hand cut off. Syrian journalist Ali al-Jundi and Lebanese journalist Riad Taha were killed the same year in what are believed to be assassinations by Syrian government forces. Generally, "Imprisonment and torture are reserved mainly for intellectuals from underground political parties -- even though they may simply advocate free speech and a peaceful transition to democracy," while other intellectuals and artists are kept in line "through bullying, praise, threats, bribes, fines, promotion (or demotion), and social pressures" (Human Rights Watch, 109). Another means by which the Ba'th regime has kept a lid on dissent is by allowing a certain amount of criticism of the government to be aired periodically. Hanna Batatu describes one such event of 1979, when the Writers Union condemned "the stifling of freedoms and the government's scandalous lies"; by allowing this, "Asad let off steam, played for time, drew critics of the regime out into the open" (271). The much-loved films of Doraid Lahham, several of which were co-written by Muhammad al-Maghut with his trademark satiric wit, are typically cited as exemplifying this sort of condoned criticism.


Contemporary Syrian literature is created under the conditions of repression and censorship that have borne down on Syria from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end, from Ottoman heavy-handedness to Hafez Asad's long dictatorship, with short spates here and there of relatively freer conditions. One would think that such a repressive situation would suffocate creativity, but actually Syria has produced a good many major writers for a small country. Many of the best Syrian writers (Kabbani, Samman, Tamer, Adonis -- who merit top ranking not only in Arabic literature but among the world's best contemporary writing) have been driven to leave Syria, and there is a significant lesson in this. However, a refreshing amount of very good literature is written and published inside Syria. Paradoxically, the heaviness of censorship in Syria spurs some writers to new levels of creative development, as they seek more sophisticated ways to express their art and their truths. There are "two responses to the censorship rules" in Syria, according to Syrian filmmaker Usama Muhammad: "One, to make bad art and talk about nothing, or two, to say what you want to say and make art.... The trick is to find one's own ... language that is indirect, so one can make films about political power, religion, sex, and violence in a metaphorical -- and often more powerful -- way" (Nice, 31). Leo Strauss says of persecution that it "gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines." He adds that such literature is addressed "not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only" (26).

The silences created in the spaces between the lines of contemporary Syrian writing are as ripe with meaning as the lines themselves, and the shapes of these silences are as varied and nuanced as the writers and their styles. The nostalgic, moist-eyed silences of Ulfat Idilbi's narratives could not be more different from the chilling, cynical silences in Zakaria Tamer's stories. The impassioned lacunae in Nizar Kabbani's poetry proclaim exactly what it is they are not saying explicitly, while the poet Muhammad al-Maghut's silence is sardonic, sneering both at the authorities and at himself, at the futility and absurdity of the human situation under authoritarian rule.

Ulfat al-Idilbi is a third-generation Damascene with aristocratic Daghestani origins. Her great-grandfather, a Daghestani notable, was forced to settle in Damascus in the nineteenth century due to the annexation of their homeland by Russia's czar and the deceit of the Ottoman sultan. In prose collections such as Qisas Shamiyeh (Damascene Stories) and Wada'an Dimashq (Farewell, Damascus -- the number of her titles with "Damascus" in them is noteworthy), as well as in her novels, Idilbi's work evinces nostalgia for the grand old era of an aristocratic Turco-Arab Syria. We see in sepia tones its well-run public baths and its abundance of luxury goods laid out in the large, well-ordered homes of prominent families. Several of her book covers show the facades, latticed windows, or gardens typical of beautiful old Damascene houses.

Idilbi's words are what they speak about: stately, regular, thick with the stuff of Damascus, the damask itself; her words are brocaded fabric. If a recent (Spring 2000) World Literature Today review called her narrative technique conventional, brocade does not need to surprise; the pleasure lies in its supple regularity. Hikayatu Jaddi (Eng. Grandfather's Tale, translated by Peter Clark) is highly conservationist in spirit. It is hung on the frame-within-a-frame of the narrator's mother telling the story of how her grandfather related the story of his childhood and origins to her, the mother, when she was a child. Idilbi's form alludes obviously to the Thousand and One Nights narrative tradition. This is nostalgia multiplied by three or four generations and by the narrative structure itself.

Even when an Idilbi novel delivers a critique of social customs on the level of plot, her words belie a love for the tastes and textures of that world and a belief in this world's inherent potential to return itself to harmony, balance, and beauty, rather than a call for constant struggle and change. Dimashq ya basmatal huzn (also translated by Clark, as Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet), may be, on one level, about the suicide of the main character, an insightful but self-abnegating woman of 1940s Damascus, whose act is an indictment of her crass, domineering brothers and a triumph over them. But what these brothers represent is their own crassness and snobbery. The only change required is the removal of the outside evils that harry Sabriya, her arms full of lilacs, and that rain down on Damascus itself. Damascus is the real heroine of the novel, and the strength of Damascus is its ability to turn inward, to fold its wings over itself: "After this calamity [the French bombing of the city during World War II], Damascus became like a humble dove that folds its wings over a fracture and remains silent in steadfast defiance" (96).

The dove image, which derives naturally from the fauna of Damascus and is not a farfetched poetic fancy, keys us to the essence of Idilbi's writing. This dove in its act of feathery retreat and withdrawal strongly implies the primal image of the nest; Idilbi's narrative impulse is a nesting impulse. "The nest, quite as much as the oneiric house," Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space, "knows nothing of the hostility of the world. Human life starts with refreshing sleep, and all the eggs in a nest are kept nicely warm. The experience of the hostility of the world ... comes much later" (103). Idilbi's narrative powers enter at the moment in the story when the warm nest has already been disturbed. French bombing has pockmarked the city Sabriyya traverses in the last pages, as she sets out to put flowers on a grave. Idilbi's lens is focused on the withdrawal of the dove into itself and into the new period of quiet turning and turning that must follow to allow repair of the nest: "The secret of your eternal survival, dear Damascus, is that silence in the face of disaster. You have suffered so much. Through raids and plunder you remain forever" (96). The silence that fortifies Damascus belongs to Sabriyya too: "I will carry on harboring my grief in silence. I will conceal it in the depths of my soul and disclose it to nobody. I will hoard it as a miser hoards his money" (145). Thus does the main character cultivate within her breast the disciplines of Damascene silence, just as a bird uses its breast -- for it has no tools except its own small body, as Bachelard exquisitely tells us (101), with which to fashion its nest. Idilbi's work waters the small, tidy flowers of the inner atrium, what is local and interior about Syria, and mainly Damascus, so much that she may perhaps be considered a regional writer, one who puts her home gently and lovingly into the world's imagination. Idilbi's novels are published with Tlas House in Damascus.

The gesture of the dove folding its wing over itself is a sheltering of self and home from attackers. Muhammad al-Maghut's work is strikingly different from Idilbi's, yet we find there a similar gesture: "Whenever a knock resounds / whenever a curtain moves / I cover my papers with my hand / like a prostitute covers herself during a raid" ("The Tattoo," 21). This time it is no foreign colonizer but the state's own police who threaten. Idilbi's gesture is one that cultivates inner qualities of fortitude and perseverence; the gesture of Maghut's speaker is a political act. This posture of anxiety, the looking over the shoulder by someone who knows he is being watched by the panoptical apparatus of political repression pervading an entire culture, summarizes the condition of the Syrian in the last thirty years of the twentieth century.

A whole subgenre consisting of the literature of the sudden violent knock at the door can be constructed within Syrian literature. Palestinian writers have eloquently given us homelessness and oppression by foreign occupiers but do not excel at the "knock at the door" genre, in which it is one's own countryman who is terrorizing one. We have camped with Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in the airports of the world, and been harried and shot at with Liyana Badr's characters from one sorry shelled building to another, dragging our family behind us. Maghut's exile is neither refugee camp nor occupation; it is the seedy motel of Syrian life, where the security cameras are on all night and you get the feeling the guards can watch you in your room. Paranoia takes hold: "I enter restrooms with identity papers in my hands, / I leave the coffee-bar looking right and left -- / even the little bud looks right and left / before it blooms" ("Fear," 14). Nizar Kabbani strikes a similar note in his poem "Taqrir sirri jiddan min bilad Qam'istan" (Top-Secret Report from the Country of Smotherland) when he says:
 Do you know who I am?
 I am a simple citizen
 who lives in Smotherland
 A citizen whose greatest dream
 is to rise to the level
 of an animal if he can

 A citizen who can't go out
 for a drink on the town,
 so nervous that the State Police
 -- who knows? -- might jump up
 from the darkest places
 at the bottom of his cup

 (Translation mine)

One may object that this description of the citizen facing a repressive political culture applies in exactly the same measure to any Arab state; this is not true. A state of emergency decree that has not been lifted since 1963 does not exist in every Arab country, for example. Specific different conditions of repression pertain in each country, and the differences are important. Among all Arab cultures, Syrian culture has become the one most associated with the posture of paranoia stemming from a realistic fear of a police state with a vast surveillance apparatus and great demands of public shows of allegiance. Only in brutally governed Iraq does such paranoia ring as true as it does in Syria (and after the post--Gulf War falling apart of Iraq, the paranoid cultures of these two Ba'thist states have parted ways, the Iraqi one acquiring new dimensions of intense physical deprivation). Thus, it is all very well that Kabbani calls this place by a fictional name and even specifically says that the repression he describes is everywhere in the Arab world: "Would you like a brief report / on the realm of Smotherland? / It extends from North Africa / to the sands of Petro-stan." And it is true, no activist for human rights need pack up her dossier on any Arab country today. Still, there is no mistaking, in a poem written in 1984, during the peak of the Syrian regime's sweeping post-Hama arrests and massive clampdown on freedoms, that Kabbani's diatribe applies especially pointedly to Syria. In another part of the poem he says he is
 a citizen afraid to pray--
 What if the State Police
 stake out the prayer line?
 They might say I tried to contact
 the Merciful on High
 Worse, they might accuse me
 of perpetrating faith
 --God, what a place

Kabbani alludes indirectly to surveillance of mosque-goers that, while it of course takes place in many other countries with politicized Islamist movements, was particularly pointed and noticeable in post-Hama Syria because the Hama rebellion had had an Islamist orientation. No Syrian poet, regardless of his or her political stripe, can be writing these lines in 1984 without being very well aware of what would be the first thing they would bring to mind for a Syrian readership. Kabbani is published in Beirut, where he relocated and founded his own publishing house in the 1960s; this poem, like many others, came out first in an Arabic daily based in London. Pirated editions of his books number in the millions.

In Maghut's poetry, when we are not in Syria, we are in a place where we stand looking back at Syria, as when he, like so many of his fellow poets and writers, experienced a period in which the government was displeased with him (in the 1980s, when he left Syria for the Gulf with his wife, poet Saniyya Saleh). Syria clings to him, even in the way he describes the advance of white in his hair in "Domestic Duties": "Now my forehead is singed with white / like Damascene jasmines on each bend / of the road" (16). If Idilbi is a writer of the interior spaces and the silences they induce, Maghut is a poet of the Syrian streetscape and particularly of the threshold and the scream that curdles inside the throat upon the threshold. The threshold is the border line between house and world, paranoia inside and danger outside. Maghut's knuckles are scraped raw on the sidewalk, and the threshold is a place viewed with the mixed longing of the outsider looking in, as in "Ila `atabat bait majhul" (To the Threshold of an Unknown House), where the scene is the front entrance of a house near the pathetically dried-up Barada River of Damascus. The threshold is addressed, "You're a stranger lying calmly at our feet / But also a lowdown thief, full of treachery" (24). It is a poem that is nearly incomprehensible without a cultural sense of the external architecture of Syrian houses, because the threshold, like the stoops of brownstones in Manhattan and the wrap-around porches of Southern U.S. farmhouses in mosquito-bitten summer, is thick with local cultural connotation. Maghut's threshold is also the door whence the state could enter at any moment.
 From whom did I inherit this terror?
 this jittery, blood like a mountain panther?
 Whenever I glimpse an official paper on the threshold
 or a helmet from a crack in the door,
 my bones rattle,
 tears race, and my terrified blood
 jolts in all directions
 as if an eternal legion of police
 chased it from vein to vein (21)

Maghut cannot decide if he is in or out; he stands restlessly at the threshold casting his wit, caustic and tender, out to the street and back into the little house, his stubborn, insular country, which sits atop the world's civilization reserves but is determined to be parochial today. Maghut's tone is as sardonic as his landscape is urbane: "Tell my little country, vicious as a tiger, / that I raise my hand like a student, / asking permission to depart or die." Maghut's poems were published in Beirut.

Horrified silence is the void around which Zakaria Tamer's stories are built. In story after unsettling story, terrible things happen, crimes are committed, but the bizarre, hallucinatory quality of the narrative numbs us, forces us to watch people go on acting normally in the midst of horror, as if nothing were

wrong. "The Orchard" (first published in 1973 in the collection Dimashq al-Hara'iq [Damascus of Flames]), begins on a note of whimsy, magic, and love.
 Sameeha used to be a fish in bygone days and lived in the sea. Then she
 became a drop of water in a cloud. The day Sulaiman met her, Sameeha had
 become a beautiful woman and he craved her mouth with its two delicate
 lips. Fire her lips created and music, and offered them up to the world of
 air and light and water. (11; translation mine)

Whimsy evaporates when a group of vicious men overtake Sameeha and Sulaiman in the orchard. They knock Sulaiman down physically, but they also beat the couple, with the brunt of misogyny at its most brutish. If Sameeha were not a whore, goes the logic with which they assault Sulaiman, she would not be traipsing alone in an orchard with him. That's when they grab her by the wrist, knock Sulaiman out, and "Sameeha screams but is not able to become a drop of water in a cloud"; and we know what happens next, though it is not narrated. However, the story's power to horrify is carefully placed, not in the gang rape itself, but in the submission to the fact of this rape that takes possession of Sulaiman.
 When Sulaiman came to, he opened his eyes stiffly, to spy Sameeha spread
 under a heaving man, her clothing in shreds. He hurried to close his eyes,
 submitting to a cold shuddering fright, his body bonding to the matted
 straw beneath it. He concentrated on a wail emitting from a hollow in the
 earth, bitter and blended with a panting, as of animals on the prowl for
 water. (16; my translation)

The numbness that possesses Sulaiman is it, is the evil that lurks in the horrible little heart of a Tamer story. Tamer, without mentioning specific political events, points unnervingly, sometimes with very black humor, to that in human nature which can be trained to numb acquiescence before the assault against one's deepest truth. In the story "Tigers on the Tenth Day" a trainer uses hunger to makes a wild caged tiger submit to the whip, and even, eventually, to like submitting to the whip, against the very nature of its being as a tiger. The tiger is fully "trained" by the end of the short, terse story: "On the tenth day the trainer, the pupils, the tiger, and the cage disappeared; the tiger became a citizen and the cage a city" (1985, 17).

Many of Tamer's protagonists are so far gone in this process that they have become willing participants. In one story, a woman is about to be raped by five men in a park. Wait, she says -- and begs them, not to reconsider raping her, but to allow her eleven-year-old daughter to help her service the five of them. The pimping or prostitution of whatever is supposed to be inviolable -- and, more important, the acquiescence to this -- is a primal scene in Tamer's world. The citizen of an authoritarian state recognizes the metaphor in this instantly. In her recent book on the political culture of Syria and the meaning of Asad's cult, Wedeen describes "the regime's demand that citizens provide external evidence of their allegiance to a cult whose rituals of adulation are manifestly unbelievable" (68). The amount of precious energy ordinary citizens are required to expend on this pretense, even keeping tabs on one another for signs of adherence to the cult, is an affirmation of the government's power, even though everyone, including the government, knows that everyone else is dissimulating. Wedeen relates a story that reached her about the beating and discharge of a young army officer she calls "M," an incident that purportedly happened a few days before the story was narrated to her. The anecdote -- or "meaningful fiction," as she calls it -- goes thus:
 A high-ranking official visited the young officer's regiment and ordered
 the soldiers to recount their dreams of the night before. A soldier stepped
 forward and announced: "I saw the image of the leader in the sky, and we
 mounted ladders of fire to kiss it." A second soldier followed suit: "I saw
 the leader holding the sun in his hands, and he squeezed it, crushing it
 until it crumbled. Darkness blanketed the face of the earth. And then his
 face illuminated the sky, spreading light and warmth in all directions."
 Soldier followed soldier, each extolling the leader's greatness. When M's
 turn came, he stepped forward, saluted the visiting officer, and said, "I
 saw that my mother is a prostitute in your bedroom." The beating and
 discharge followed. Commenting retrospectively on his act, M explained that
 he had "meant that his country is a whore." Like state ideologues, M plays
 off an allusion to the etymological relation between umma (nation) and umm
 (mother).... His country, he implies, has sold itself to a corrupt
 military; Syria has become defiled. (67, 70)

The telling part in the narrative is M's standing and watching: "His self-announced voyeurism suggests his awareness of his own complicity" (70).

Like this short story in the raw from Wedeen's source, Tamer's stories are written in a way that leads us over and over to that dark place at the center of the citadel where this primal scene is taking place before the silent acquiescence and fascination, even, of the witness. Far from us now is Idilbi's little nest that only needed a wing folded over it. With Tamer, the innermost nest is exposed and defiled; there is no wing or will to cover the shame, and all the birds are in cages of their own complicity. Tamer constructs the stories so that the ugly shape of our complicit silence becomes evident. We flinch. We can no longer pretend the silence is normal, rationalize it away. His works, now printed in London by Riad Al-Rayyes Books, have long been officially banned in Syria. This, of course, only makes Tamer's words better read, in that it gives them the benefit of a more select and alert circle of readers who get them under the table.


Contemporary Syrian literature is created in the crucible of a tenacious authoritarianism. Manifold silence, evasion, indirect figurative speech, gaps and lacunae are striking features of Syrian writing, habits of thought and wary writerly techniques that have developed during an era dominated, in Syria more overwhelmingly than in other Arab countries excepting Iraq and perhaps Libya, by authoritarian governments with heavy-handed censorship policies and stringent punitive measures. Idilbi's silences are sweet and sad; Maghut's are bitter, sarcastic, choked; and silence that is at once terrified, mesmerized, and complicit is Tamer's specialty. Syrian literature today is jittery with what it cannot say, and that is its genius. The ultimate silence of contemporary Syrian literature is its collective silence about the Hama massacre of 1982, "a bloodbath without parallel in the history of modern Syria" according to the late Hanna Batatu, a sober and distinguished Syria scholar (269). (3) That a trauma of the magnitude of the Hama massacre is nowhere to be found in contemporary Syrian literature is stunning and, of course, impossible; Hama, being nowhere in Syrian literature, can be read in it everywhere.

What will happen under Asad the son? The manner in which power passed to the son in what is supposed to be a republic, not a monarchy -- the Constitution was amended at breakneck speed to make his assumption "legitimate" -- is cause for skepticism. Bashar Asad has released hundreds of political prisoners, some from decades of imprisonment without trial. He has ordered newspapers to tone down the panegyrics to the president. He seems to want to make Syrian society more open. Asad pere also began his rule with similar pardons and release of prisoners. At the time of this writing, neither the state of emergency nor the constitutional powers allowing arbitrary imprisonment have been repealed, although promises are being floated about lifting the state of emergency. Bashar's current support for opening Syria to new communications technology -- satellite television, the Internet -- will create a level of cognitive dissonance that is already putting a strain on the culture of carefully cultivated silences and of mental acrobatics around the doublethink authorized by the state. Some Syrians, accustomed to protecting themselves against the dangers of free speech, have already recoiled with vertiginous fear. (This is evident, for example, in the mixed reactions of Syrian viewers to Al-Jazira, the acclaimed Qatar-based Arabic news channel which beams into Syrian homes via satellite news analyses and policy debates far more daring than what Syrians are accustomed to hearing aired publicly.) Other makers of Syrian culture have leapt into the new apertures boldly to widen them. Ninety-nine Syrian writers, including many mentioned in the survey above, courageously signed a petition on 27 September 2000, demanding the broadening of human rights in Syria. They published it, not in Syria of course, but in Lebanese newspapers. In January 2001, a thousand writers signed a petition reiterating these demands, and what is being called the "Movement for Civil Society" is taking the form of informal discussion groups, muntadayat, springing up in the homes of intellectuals, writers, and artists. The government has so far played a game of loosening the leash a bit, then jerking it back, such as when a government decree in March 2001 cracked down on the muntadayat, demanding that names of people intending to come to such meetings and the topics to be discussed be submitted in advance so that the required license to assemble could be properly obtained before every meeting.

What is encouraging is that, despite the suspicious eye of the government on them, these sorts of initiatives from below are increasing. Perhaps a new spirit is moving in the land. Will Syrians begin to converse in these new cultural spaces, and will they be unafraid to let their voices rise? Or, like Rappacini's daughter in Hawthorne's tale, has the Syrian body become so accustomed to the poison -- silence -- that the antidote would kill?

(1) Elise Salem's book Constructing Lebanon, due next year from the University of Florida Press, will study the idea of Lebanon in the past hundred years of Lebanese literature.

(2) On Kabbani, see my essay "Politics and Erotics in Nizar Kabbani's Poetry: From the Sultan's Wife to the Lady Friend," WLT 74:1 (Winter 2000), pp. 44-52.

(3) Hanna Batatu's book, which has an elaborately boring academic title that disguises its extremely lucid political content, is dedicated "To the people of Syria."


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Amnesty International. Syria: Torture by the Security Forces. New York. Amnesty International Publications. 1987.

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Maria Jolas, tr. New York. Orion. 1964.

Batatu, Hanna. Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1999.

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Kabbani, Nizar. Al-a'mal al-siyasia al-kamila [Complete Political Works]. Beirut. Nizar Kabbani Publications. 1993. Volume 6.

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--. The Fan of Swords. May Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye, trs. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed. Washington, D.C. Three Continents. 1991.

Meisami, Julia Scott, ed. Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. 2 volumes. New York. Routledge. 1998.

Nice, Pamela. "Finding the Right Language: A Conversation with Syrian Filmmaker Usama Muhammad." Aljadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture & Arts, Spring 2000, pp. 10, 25.

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MOHJA KAHF is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her book Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, came out in 1999 from the University of Texas Press. Her translations of Nizar Kabbani's poems have been published in Grand Street and Banipal: A Magazine of Modern Arab Literature (London).
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Author:Kahf, Mohja
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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