Writing a War: How Syrian Literature Observes and Condemns the Civil War

Photo by Aladdin Hammami on Unsplash

When the Syrian population first took to the streets in March 2011 in a bid for democracy, the protest movement was seen as a hopeful sign for an end to the reign of the Assad family, who have governed Syria since the 1970s. In March 2021, not much of this initial hopefulness is left amid the showers of bombs, the ruins of cities like Damascus or Raqqa, and the incessant fighting between the government and opposing rebel groups.

In a crisis as complex as the Syrian civil war, the issues that still receive international attention are dominated by statistics and high politics: the number of fatalities over the course of the conflict; the migratory routes of masses of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs); the complex geopolitical questions of international alliances with the regime or the rebels. A nation like Syria, marked as the second least peaceful country by the Global Peace Index, is being reduced to its problems from an outward perspective.

Yet it is a country that is still inhabited by an estimated 18 million people, for whom life has continued despite the political and societal turmoil of the last decade. Their lived reality of the civil war has gone largely unnoticed — yet this does not mean that it has not been documented. As much as journalistic coverage is important, it is especially in literature that crises and conflicts — and their wider effects — are observed, witnessed and voiced. According to research for the so-called “Project Cassandra” by the University of Tübingen in Germany, which investigates the relationship between literature and conflicts, literary texts act as a “reflection and “‘storage media’ of collective emotional experiences”, thus “recording emotional and mental underlying dynamics” in conflict regions. This can also be applied to Syria.

Syrian literature is still, even within the field of Arabic-language literature, more of a niche subject. For one, this is due to the relatively small number of Syrian intellectuals who can write and, most importantly, publish freely. However, most importantly, as Mohja Kahf writes in his article “The Silences of Contemporary Syrian Literature”, restrictions on the freedom of expression have been an issue for several decades before the revolution of 2011, and have therefore had a lasting and deterring effect on the publishing and literary sector:

“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 Assad's [Bashar al-Assad’s father] long dictatorship, with short spates here and there of relatively freer conditions”.

Since the brutal repression of the uprisings in 2011, censorship and limitations to the freedom of expression have arguably become more brutal than ever before. And yet, the critical voices that document and condemn the political situation in Syria have not been silenced altogether.

The works of Samar Yazbek are testament to that. Being one of the most important female contemporary authors from Syria, her political exile in Paris and thus her physical distance from her home country have not deterred her from continuing to fight for freedom for the Syrian people and for the remembrance of their suffering.

Before the revolution in 2011, Yazbek had already established herself as part of the intellectual activists of Damascus that opposed the Assad family. With the beginning of the civil war, she was detained by security forces and interrogated several times, which ultimately led her to fleeing the country in order to escape an even worse fate. She secretly returned however in 2012 and 2013 to investigate the impact the war has had on the Syrian population and in particular women. Women’s rights and their situation in Syria would become a leading theme in her writing as well as her activism, the latter manifesting itself particularly in her exile in Paris, where she founded the organisation “Women Now For Development” for a free and safe existence for Syrian women.

Her 2018 book 19 Women: Tales of resilience from Syria is a striking collection of personal accounts from women across Syria, whose testimonies form a mosaic of experiences across Syrian society throughout the first few years of the civil war.

The first account for instance focuses on Sara, who was 21 years old when the revolution began and who witnessed the clashes between armed forces and protesters directly from her home. The young woman joined the opposition movement, retelling with simplicity her active role and the struggles of the revolutionaries as part of the collection of testimonies gathered by Yazbek. These testimonies represent first-hand experiences of the political turmoil that characterised the first few days and weeks of the revolution in mid-March 2011 — itself a part of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings across several countries in the Middle East.

Like in Tunisia or Libya, the Syrian protest movement expressed its desire for democracy and an end to the political domination of the Assad family. With this first testimony, 19 Women also shed immediate light on the place of women in Syrian society, as young university students like Sara played a crucial role in the organisation and activism of revolutionary efforts against the regime. However, with the revolution having failed between 2012 and 2013 following brutal repression by the regime, her account also symbolises the fate of countless other Syrian women in becoming a refugee and having to rebuild her life in Europe.

Yazbek’s other important literary narrative, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, also captures the first years of the uprising and the conflict from a female perspective — this time her own. In an essay for The Washington Post,  she explains that she is “two women”: Yazbek the novelist, who wants to escape from “Syria’s circles of hell”, and Yazbek the ‘revolutionary’, as she calls herself, “who has several times since then [March 2011] furtively crossed the border back into her country, is steeped in the smell of blood. She wipes the dust off the corpses of children disfigured by violence, stops to wring out her heart, then carries on.” This internal conflict between the determination to document and the duty to fight for justice for her people is reflected throughout her work.

It comes as no surprise that her texts have therefore mostly been banned by the regime. Measures such as these demonstrate the very real threat that literature poses to authoritarianism. While history might not necessarily always repeat itself, it must be remembered that censorship and banning of literature have been a common practice in authoritarian regimes regardless of their historical and geographical situation.

Political criticism is however not at the heart of every contemporary Syrian author’s work, as some consciously shy away from commentary on the situation and criticism of the regime under Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party, the main political party supporting him. However, the effects of the war on the civilian population unable to flee are as wide-ranging as its political consequences. As such, some authors work through the lived reality of the war and the collective trauma that it often entails.

Khaled Khalifa, one of the few intellectuals still living in Damascus, has done so in several novels, among which is No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, translated into English in 2016. The images of death are present from the first page onwards. Indeed the narrative starts with the phrase “On the way home, I repeated to myself that, at sixty-five, my mother was too young to have died”. In what is potentially a discreet nod to the beginning of Albert Camus’ The Stranger — which commences with “Today, mother died”— the evocation of the narrator’s mother’s death is fundamentally symbolic in this work. With her death also die the past and the sense of security provided by maternal love — and it is left to the reader to apply these implications to a larger, potentially political scale. Aside from a metaphorical interpretation, the mother’s death is also just that: the death of a loved one, a reality far too current in the context of war.

His subsequent novel Death is Hard Work, published in 2016, can be considered an even more poignant account of the war, and is made distinct by the intimate impact the conflict is shown to have on civilian’s everyday lives.  The novel traces the story of three siblings, who attempt to fulfill their dying father’s wish of being buried in his native village, by travelling through land ravaged by the war.

Again, it is the death of a parental figure that sparks the narrative and that could be interpreted as a symbol for the death of a fatherland and of a nation. And again, death and violence remain present throughout the novel, which depicts life amidst the brutality of war without hesitation, but neither with excess.

The road trip that awaits the main characters is far from ordinary. The story has a sometimes tragic, sometimes morbid character, as the three siblings pass countless military checkpoints which stretch the usual journey of a few hours between Damascus and their father’s village of Anabiya into a trip of several days — all the while with their father’s decomposing body in the back of the vehicle. The fact that their father had been a leader of one of the rebel groups opposing the regime makes passing each checkpoint even more complicated and dangerous, and the stress of the journey exposes cracks in the interpersonal relationships between the siblings. The smell of the corpse attracts wild dogs while they stop for the night and shortly before reaching their native village, the two brothers in the trio, Bolbol and Hussein, are stopped by an extremist group which force Bolbol to undergo a religious conversion.

In light of the influence of terrorist group Islamic State in Syria, the novel does well to reflect on some of the realities of life for Syrian civilians, many of whom were forced to join the group, tortured or killed in the regions controlled by IS troops. Khalifa portrays with accuracy the horrors of civilian life having to continue in a country fractured between various rebel groups, the government and radical organisations.

Poetry also plays a crucial role in remembrance and political expression, as its lyrical form allows the author to represent an entire nation’s plight through his words and emotions. This is especially the case in the poetry written by Salim Barakat. Of Kurdish-Syrian descent, Barakat occupies a place apart in the literary landscape of Syria. His creations are renowned for their fantastical, powerful language and explore in particular the Kurdish culture, its history and origins. Living in Sweden since 1999, Barakat has nevertheless incorporated the Syrian conflict in his work, revealing a strong emotional connection through his writings despite his distance from his country.

His poetry collection Syria, and Other Poems, published in 2015, captures the emotions associated with the suffering of the Syrian nation and pairs it with nostalgia for the Syria that once existed. The poems without titles form a succession of images of past and present, with death being a recurring notion among them, just as in Khalifa’s literary work.

We find lines such as “And the men migrate towards the justice of monstrosity” or “[…] No god / except for / the gods / of the scream”. Despite its simplicity, this language has a monumental effect on the reader, expressing the emotional dynamics of the conflict more precisely than a novel or journalistic report could. Even more poignantly, Barakat does not veil his criticism of the regime’s brutality: “[…] The murderers are / Pleased / To see / Their names / Engraved / In the collapse of nations, oh country.”

As the fighting between rebels and the Assad government completes its tenth anniversary this year, there is little hope that the conflict will resolve itself anytime soon. Yet despite this situation and the obstacles of censorship, military conflict and fragile infrastructure, Syrian literature continues to document and condemn the war; indeed, just as the Syrian nation has a history of political oppression, so does its literature have a history of unceasing resistance.

In the early twentieth century, the Syrian poet Khalil Mutran wrote in response to the conflict between the Ottomans and those in favour of Arab nationalism on the territories of what would become Syria: “Smash our pens! / Will smashing them / prevent our hands / from carving on the stones?”. A century later, it is perhaps not so surprising after all that writers such as Samar Yazbek, Khaled Khalifa or Salim Barakat seem to have vowed to continue in the spirit of their literary predecessor.

Works cited:

Khaled Khalifa, No Knifes in the Kitchens of this City, 2016 [French edition]

Khaled Khalifa, Death is Hard Work, 2015 [French edition]

Salim Barakat, Syria, and other Poems, 2015 [French edition]

Samar Yazbek, 19 Women: Tales of resilience from Syria, 2019 [French edition]

Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, 2012