A Day in the Life of a Syrian Writer

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Close in its structure to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Syrian writer, Nihad Sirees’, sixth novel The Silence and the Roar also shares a number of plot similarities.  Fathi Sheen, a thirty-one-year old banned writer, records what happens to him on the day of the celebrations of the Leader’s twentieth anniversary of coming to power.  Although Fathi says that most days he stays in bed, on this particular day he stands on the street and watches thousands of the demonstrators march by, each one carrying a placard with an image of the great Leader. During the celebrations, people are often trampled to death.  Others are beaten by security officials if they attempt to sneak away.  Fathi himself is harassed because he is expected to be marching with everyone else or at least watching the event on TV.   His identity card is taken away from him by officials and he’s told to pick it up at the security headquarters later that day.

Somewhat later, Fathi decides to visit his mother—a vacuous woman, not interested in politics, and widowed a few years earlier—only to discover that she intends to marry Mr. Ha’el, one of the Leader’s henchmen.  Fathi asks her, “How can you marry someone who mistreated your deceased husband, who even now is messing with your son and keeping him from writing?” (49)  Before he was censored, Fathi had a TV program that focused on writers and writing.  He lost the program because he refused to hold a contest that would ask writers to pen stories or poems about the Leader’s accomplishments.  We have seen this all before, in countries besides Syria, where the cult of the dictator demands that all events and all media coverage must focus on the Leader’s extraordinary achievements.

The events of the day provide their ups and downs for Sirees’ main character.  He’s happy to see his mother, until he learns of her intentions.  Worse, she expects him to give her away at the wedding later in the week.  He visits his lover, who is totally dedicated to him, except that she is married to a businessman who refuses to divorce her even though he has taken a second wife.  Numerous times Fathi has to take to the streets in order to continue his movements throughout the day.  But the streets are full of danger because of the celebrations for the leader.  Deaths by trampling are so habitual that little attempt is made to aid the suffering.  The noise on the streets, the roar, is so deadening that he is constantly reminded of his own situation: that of a silenced writer.

Late in the afternoon, he attempts to save a woman who has been trampled by the ecstatic mob.  Although he and another man manage to get her to a hospital, the situation there is Kafkaesque because the doctor he encounters is so overwhelmed that he’s on the verge of a breakdown.  The doctor tells him, “Human beings have absolutely no value whatsoever.  Today they brought in more than silenceforty-five bodies, people who were killed by trampling or suffocation in the crowd or errant celebratory gunfire.” (108)  The doctor asks the writer to give him one word to help him understand the situation.  First, Fathi says “tragedy,” knowing that the word is inadequate.  Then he says “surrealism,” and the doctor responds, “Surrealism, yes, surrealism.  That’s it….  I feel much better….  We can’t call what’s going on here anything else.” (109)

As the day turns into night, Fathi makes his way to the state security headquarters, ostensibly to retrieve his identity card.  It is the scenes that follow that will remind the reader of K’s attempts to reach the castle, in Kafka’s novel of that title.  Inside the headquarters, it becomes impossible for him to understand what is about to happen to him.  He’s tortured, thrown in a cell that is completely dark, then taken out again and—as if all these activities are to confuse him, to catch him off guard—suddenly treated quite humanely.  And then, finally, he meets his nemesis, but what happens in that scene (and in the novel’s conclusion) you will have to discover in your own reading of Nihad Sirees’ disturbing book, a study of totalitarianism in the mainstream of political novels through much of the twentieth century and now, sadly, in the twenty-first.

In the meantime, let it suffice that Sirees fled Syria and currently resides in the United States.  In a recent Author Profile in Publishers Weekly, Louisa Ermelino had this to say about this important Syrian writer: “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 the 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.’”

In the Afterword, Sirees remarks: “I wrote this novel about the dictator whose opponents cannot find any other way to stand up to him but through love and laughter.  It is with love that the hero of the story acquires the strength to stand up and confront silence; with laughter that he tears off the frightening halo with which the dictator has surrounded himself, and then subsequently dares to confront his minions.” (158)

Not a pretty story but quite a compelling read.  The smooth translation from Arabic (the book was originally published in Lebanon) is by Max Weiss.

Nihad Sirees: The Silence and the Roar

Trans. by Max Weiss

Other Press, 160 pp., $13.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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