A banned writer in an unnamed city on the 20th anniversary of the assumption of power by the unnamed despotic ruler in an unnamed Middle Eastern country... This is the setup for banned Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’s powerful, prescient novel The Silence and the Roar (Other Press, March). Originally published in 2004 in Beirut, Lebanon, by Dar al-Adab, the book is Sirees’s first full-length work to be translated into English (by Max Weiss). It particularly resonates at this moment in history, considering the political conflict in Sirees’s native country, and in his native city, Aleppo, the setting for most of his stories.
In The Silence, the writer Fathi Chin steps into the chaos of the streets and is swept up into the crowds. The noise and heat are oppressive, and his efforts to get to his mother’s house precipitate potentially dangerous and absurd situations that give Fathi cause for reflection on how culture is manipulated in the service of the state: “Music is not for savoring... Music must play its role in stirring up the masses; roaring marches... keep them from committing the crime of thought; slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry.”
The subjects Sirees presents are serious and thoughtful, and while all his books (there are seven) have a political base, he makes his point with humor and irony, along with a healthy dose of sex. “Sex helps people to feel strong, to feel courageous,” he says. “It’s revolutionary. It’s a way to break the rules.” His female characters are strong: Fathi’s widowed mother, determined to enjoy her life, to stay attractive despite getting older, to remarry; and Fathi’s girlfriend, Lama, who left her unfaithful husband and “doesn’t have a single imperfection on her entire body that she could be afraid of revealing to her lover....”
Government disapproval of Sirees’s writing began with the 1998 television drama The Silk Market, which described the complicated political upheavals in Syria in 1956–1961 and the rise of the Ba’ath party. Since then his novels have been published outside of Syria, as was a television drama about Khalil Gibran produced in Lebanon that Sirees wrote while he was a guest at the University of Iowa’s International Writer’s Program in 2005.
Sirees is elegant and modest, and he insists that his English is not good, but it is. He writes in Arabic: “A beautiful language, rich and expressive”. He compliments his Silence translator for finding the perfect English words, and the play of language comes through in the translation. But while his language is precise, his view of life is charmingly easy. He is “62 or 63” years old. He’s a civil engineer by trade. “I had to find a way to make money. Writers don’t make money, especially there [in Syria]. I had to be practical.” But he adds that “it was a nice experience working as an engineer. I liked the people. It helps writing to be in the world; it’s not always a good idea to sink into the poetic.”
So at “30–32,” when Sirees already had his family, he began writing. “It was really hard to be away in my mind. I didn’t want to hear about troubles. I needed my mind clear.” The answer was his private office at work where he would go after finishing his morning tour and sit alone and write “without my wife to disturb me.” He laughs at the idea of the privacy that wasn’t possible at home. In 1987, after four years, he finished his first book, The North Winds, a novel about the end of the Ottoman Empire in Aleppo and the changes in society there. Sirees believes history is told through the social life of the people, not through the story of its leaders. “It was a huge book and I couldn’t find a publisher for it so I went to the Ministry of Culture, the official publishing house in Syria.” As Sirees tells it, they said, “Okay, we’ll publish it but we have no paper. We have to wait for the paper.”
While he was waiting, he wrote a second book, The Cancer, and when a friend asked him to host a Tunisian publisher in Damascus for a bookfair, he took the man around Aleppo and told him the story of the novel waiting for paper and the second finished novel. The publisher asked for the book, read it on the plane home to Tunisia, and called to say he wanted to publish it. And a literary career began.
Sirees retired as an engineer in 2008, after 30 years, and he presently publishes in Beirut. “It’s more secure for me; there’s no need to wait for censorship approval. If they like the book, they send it to the printer.” The casualness, the lack of anxiety, manifests again when Sirees comments that he doesn’t really know how the books are selling. The publisher sends him notice when a library order comes through. And now? He has said he’s not writing fiction. It’s too difficult in the light of the situation in Syria. “Who has time to read fiction?” he asks. “Most readers are preoccupied with the news.” He was to finish his novel before the New Year but couldn’t.
The Silence and the Roar is banned in Syria, but Sirees says that while it isn’t on the shelves, if you ask for it, booksellers will get it for you. Libraries have smuggled it into the country. “I didn’t mention the name of a leader or the country, but if you know Syria, you will recognize it. I did not call the city Aleppo but every description... this is Aleppo. I escaped the wrath of the regime because it was not specific.” The upheaval in Syria, he says, was not like Egypt. “People did not go into the street to topple the regime. Economically people were not suffering, no one thought there would be a revolution. It was the government’s fault in handling an incident in March 2011 where some young boys, 12–13 years old, in a forgotten city in a tribal region near the Jordanian border, were playing and drawing words on the school walls, copying slogans about revolution that they saw on TV from the coverage in Egypt.” The boys were arrested, taken to jail and mistreated. When the elders of the town went to intervene on behalf of the families, they were abused and humiliated. “The people rose up,” Sirees says, “angry about their children. In reprisal they burned a government building and the government sent the army, who started shooting, and step by step, city by city, village by village, the violence and demonstrations were sent from mobile phones and to YouTube. No one thought about revolution.”
Sirees, who left Syria for self-imposed exile in Cairo in January 2012, got an e-mail from Brown University about its program that invites writers who “face personal danger and threats to their livelihood in nations around the world.” He’s currently there in the Literary Arts Program. “I was lucky because I didn’t know when my book would be released, but now I am here and the book will be out in March and this is very good,” he says. He’s also aware that current events have brought this novel to the West, but notes that events often bring attention to literature. “I am happy to be translated,” he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be published in England and in the U.S. [The Silence has also been translated into French and German], and I hope the book will be valued not only because of politics but literature and culture as well.”