On Literature

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Revolutions Change Everything
    The Fragility of Writing in Our Times

    The Arab revolutions, and the Syrian revolution in particular, have changed authors conception of themselves. For some, the change has been so great that they find they can no longer write. This is the experience of Dima Wannous, one of the outstanding authors of Syrias younger generation. While aspects of literature that were previously taken for granted are being called into question, its still almost impossible to gauge what the new developments will bring. A report from an author on standby.

    For me, writing means finding a space in which to live. Writing turns that space into the reality we desire, while reality itself becomes a fantasy or a nightmare from which writing helps us wake up. Writing is an escape. Creating characters enables us to live with them because in life we meet people who deserve to be characters in novels. In Syria writers have not aimed at a broad readership, but rather at an elitist one. So it is hard for writing to have a specific function outside the context of personal pleasure or of trying to survive in a place where citizens, even human beings, are not recognised. No sense of belonging protects you, nor any sense of being. Writing reminds you that you exist, as an entity with your own ego, and it helps to create an identity in a place where independent identities do not exist.

    Them reading me

    I have never written for a particular readership. I haven’t written for friends or readers. Before the revolution I used to write for myself, in the sense that I wrote so that, in that imaginative space, I could find an extension of my existence. It may have been a private, egoistic act, but it was also an act of rebellion against the place, the times, my surroundings and the country that I was born in and that I had rarely left. If I happened to imagine people that I wrote for, they would only be people who were associated with the Syrian regime or who worked in the regime’s institutions with infuriating servility and who had turned into clones of each other, a generic type that had the same characteristics, behaved in the same way and had the same limited range of physical gestures. I imagined them reading what I and others were writing. I imagined them getting angry at what they read and I enjoyed the idea of making them angry and messing with their false sense of confidence. There was also a desire, it’s true, to say to them, ‘There are Syrians who are living with you and among you under duress but who aren’t necessarily like you. They live with you without identifying with your system of morality, behaviour and politics, and if they were forced to meet you, they would find out about you and write about your lives and your corruption. They would challenge your way of life, which depends on them not existing. Yes, they exist, because most Syrians are marginalised and excluded from public life, repressed, deprived of free will and freedom of expression.’

    So writing became an assertion of the self in an attempt to restore it to its natural place as a separate entity with a different way of expressing itself, with different desires, a different temperament and different dreams. There’s also another recurrent aspect that it is useful to remember in this context. In Third World countries that live under totalitarian, dictatorial regimes, military or religious, writing has long constituted a real history that has not been touched by censorship or mutilated by editors who invent for the citizen another memory that is to the editors’ own liking and suits their own interests. In those countries, school textbooks on history, and books on Arab nationalism or even geography, are tailored to the wishes of the regimes and not based on the true facts. They invent history and impose their own divisive geography on countries. So novels and literary or political writing are a fair and necessary response to these inventions. That gives them an importance on the one hand for their creative, intellectual, historical and documentary value, but on the other hand it prevents them from evolving in other aspects, such as language, expression and imagination, which become confined in many cases to direct politics and ideology.

    The inability of writing

    Personally, I lost my ability to write literature after the revolution. That inability has been annoying but also healthy. Firstly, the people I imagined reading what I wrote and getting angry have been punished, if only to a limited extent, but a generation of young Syrians have come out onto the streets, not armed with literature or novels but with courage and rebellion and a refusal to obey. They have come out bare-chested, indifferent to the possibility of dying. They have come out on our behalf and their own behalf and on behalf of every oppressed Syrian who dreams of freedom, democracy, political pluralism and dignity. By coming out of their houses into the street, and by giving voice to their suffering, they have exposed the fact that literature has failed to fulfil its supposed function as an agent of change. They have exploded all those delusions that Syrian writers and creative artists had about the importance of literature as a real leader of the masses, as a theorist and as a vehicle for the concerns of the masses. In fact, in my opinion, literature was not that important, because the people who came out of their houses mostly did not read those books and, before or after the revolution, they had not heard the names of members of the cultural elite or those who had been detained or tortured or who had sought refuge in exile in the time of Assad the father and the son. Besides, Syrian intellectuals, writers, creative artists, activists and opponents of the regime did not lead the demonstrations that called for freedom and dignity and then for the downfall of the regime. The elite were in the rear, coming out behind the people, catching up with them and trying to join their gatherings. It was young people no older than twenty who were the leaders in these demonstrations. They were the organisers, the theorists and also the unknowns who, when they died, became mere numbers. These people did not come out seeking fame or a worldwide stage, as did many writers and activists who used the revolution to fulfil their dream of escaping the prison that was Syria and reaching the outside world. These young people are the ones who deserve to be written about, whose stories and rare courage we should narrate.

    In an attempt to do them justice I decided to write the stories of those I met in Beirut, which is so close to Damascus and yet at the same time unbearably far. I met a number of them, and I listened to their accounts of events, which are extraordinary for their content, for the moral values they reflect and for the precocious awareness of those who told their stories. I had stories published about women who had witnessed their houses collapsing under barrel bombs and who had looked into the eyes of husbands who had been killed in demonstrations or under torture. I wrote about young people who had gone through a living death, breathing and with their eyes open, in a branch of the security services called the Death and Madness Branch. They emerged from it by a miracle, ravaged by skin and chest diseases during their brief stay in a room, designed for four people, into which dozens had been crammed. They saw bodies falling apart; they smelled the putrid smell of rotting wounds and deep inflammations. When they were there they hoped that others would die so that they could have an extra lungful of air or an extra portion of food. Yes, I wrote about them and had their stories published, and then suddenly I stopped and a profound question loomed in front of me on the computer screen. I was writing about heroes whose identities were unknown. I was plagiarising their heroic deeds and changing into a pretentious, deceitful heroine. It was precisely at that point that my inability to write came to life, acquiring eyes and hands and feet. It took hold of me and paralysed my imagination. What kind of imagination could it be compared with these stories, which a short while ago we thought we could find only in novels or in science-fiction films?

    Reality outdid imagination

    A strange phenomenon has emerged from my inability to write subjective literature. Before the revolution, I used to resort to my imagination in order to survive a reality that was bitter, frustrating and miserable. Through imagination I sought my own private world as a haven where I could breathe. After the revolution, that imagination became reality. In other words, the world that I created through writing and in which I enjoyed living became the reality; so what kind of imagination and what dreams could I seek now? Everything was confused, and imagination became an inactive area with a trace of pretension compared with the horror that was taking place in front of our eyes. Reality outdid imagination and disrupted the usual scale by which the human mind measures plausibility. Our minds and our memories were confused, so what could we write, what could we write about, and who should we write for?

    These questions did not arise before the revolution, at least as far as I was concerned, because we had stability, however negative, oppressive and deceptive that stability might have been. It was, nonetheless, stability, and it turned writing into a pleasant form of rebellion, a departure from the familiar and an attempt to stand apart from one’s surroundings and from the routine of daily life, from rituals, conventions and taboos. How can writing now be all of those things together? Against what reality can writing rebel when dozens of Syrians are being killed every day in bombings, in prison cells and in refugee camps from cold, hunger and the psychological and physical damage that has been inflicted on millions of people? Are the feelings of a Syrian writer today equal to the feelings of the unfortunate Syrians for whom death is a constant presence? Is the suffering and the pain equivalent? Even if we assume that writers are committed to the idea of a moral duty imposed by their profession – a duty to write about people’s suffering and convey their pain and their concerns – in fact what happens is completely the opposite. It is the Syrians inside Syria and Syrians who are refugees or displaced who convey the sufferings of all Syrians, whether they are writers, creative artists, or people who are unknown. It is the pictures of the people tortured to death that CNN and the Guardian newspaper released about a year ago that conveyed the reality, without addition or exaggeration. We have swapped roles. Most Syrian writers now live abroad and enjoy at least the basic necessities of life. They live in houses, however small those houses might be. They have roofs over their heads that are not in danger of being bombarded and are not likely to fall on their heads at any moment. Most of the intellectuals and the elite do not see from close up what is happening in their country, so how can they write about what is happening? Is it fair to steal the stories of those heroes and write them up in cafés or at home, and shed tears and then go back to the ‘normal’ lives that most of them lead?

    Even in the case of the Syrian cinema we have seen experiments by talented and respected directors who have been living abroad since the first months of the revolution. They have made films that have been acclaimed and won prizes at fancy international gatherings, without the directors having shot their films even in liberated parts of Syria! They have made their films in the countries where they have sought refuge. Those films have been based either on the testimony of people who have fled the destruction and the shelling and become refugees, or on putting together clips from YouTube that were filmed by non-professional activists or citizen journalists and then leaked to the Arab or international media in order to reach the largest possible audience of viewers and decision-makers. These activists, who are the real heroes, pay the price for staying inside Syria and exposing themselves to danger, and they do not dare to reveal their real names. This means they lose the right to appear in public and exhibit their work. In return, directors abroad use this footage and tour the world and festivals to applause for them and their films.

    Language and writing habits

    Going back to the act of writing, there is a very important and essential point relating to social media. In the four years since the start of the revolution, Facebook, for example, has changed many concepts that were associated with the act of creative writing. The first change was in the speed at which information arrives and what this means in terms of mental overload and the accumulation of contradictory information, some of which is true but much of which is based on wild hopes and dreams. Everyone has a piece of information and everyone wants to come out with a statement or a story or an experience that they or someone else has had. Besides, the individual experience has overwhelmed and run rings around what is shared. With the accumulation of frustration and despair and the fading of hope, the virtual world has become a place for self-revelation, personal disagreements and the exchange of narrow points of view rather than a place for useful public debate that explores future solutions for a form of coexistence that grows more and more impracticable day by day. Here, of course, I’m talking about the Facebook pages of Syrian writers, creative artists, intellectuals and people involved in public affairs. Nor can we treat the question of language in a merely cursory manner. Profound changes have taken place in language – in the shape of words and in the aesthetics of writing – and concise writing has taken the place of writing at length. Many intellectuals have started using the language of ordinary people, rather than ordinary people adopting literary language. That is due to the gap that for forty years separated the small elite from the street, which was seen as frightening and powerful and much more of a presence than the cultured minority. This has forced the elite to make concessions on the linguistic front in a belated attempt to reach out to the people who are invading social media forums more than ever before. Colloquial Arabic has replaced standard Arabic, and very often colloquial words that are inappropriate and unrefined, and that do not observe the rules for creative and literary writing, have found their way into standard Arabic. So the question arises: what kind of literature will this revolution produce in the many years to come? And what type of writing is needed today? Should it be elevated literary writing, or chronicles of daily occurrences written in colloquial language that is close to people and does not go over their heads? Can this type of colloquial writing form a corpus of material for the future or a heritage that researchers and academics will refer to?

    In short, I find myself unable to write and my imagination isn’t functioning. I make do with watching and trying to take in what is happening. I anxiously follow the news, the stories and the cruel and gruelling experiences that the majority of Syrians are going through. But I am not part of the majority and I do not claim to be part of it. I will not write about people if I have not lived among them, if I have not felt the same fear or heard the same sounds of bombing or weeping or screaming at the emptiness around them. I will not write about a country I have not visited for more than a year. It’s true that I haven’t visited it because I can’t, but in this case my imagination seems to be inadequate. I can’t imagine the sufferings of others and write about them when I have chosen to leave, when I could have sacrificed my son and my family and stayed in spite of the fear and the anxiety. I know that what I say may be cruel and may be masochistic, but I insist on accepting the fact that my imagination is deactivated as long as I am far away and as long as my writing is based on imagination, and not on a lived reality that smells of death and fear and the clouds of smoke that drift over poor Syria, which is besieged and occupied by more than one enemy and more than one political or extreme Islamist faction.

    I will spend a long time looking for another space in which to live outside the world of writing, until I can go back where I belong, to where I long to sleep.
    Dima Wannous is a well-known Syrian TV journalist and writer. Her book "Dunkle Wolken über Damaskus" [Dark Clouds Over Damascus] on the pre-revolutionary period in Syria has been published by Edition Nautilus in German in 2013 (Translated by Larissa Bender). Dima Wannous lives in Beirut.

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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