Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.
Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.
It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.
“These literary works depict the political, social and religious realities of Syria before and after March 2011 in order to draw a more comprehensive picture of Syria’s culture. These cultural details lay the foundation and act as necessary components for the development of the narratives and their relation to the current situation in Syria.”
The need for writing
It would be inaccurate to assume that the literature centering on Assad’s family regime only started with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution. Some Syrian authors and dramatists have always addressed Assad’s politics in their works despite the fact that their criticism was indirect. They employed historical figures and events, constructing allegorical works so that they met the expectations of the censor. For example, some works were crafted to revolve around an event in pre-Islamic, Islamic or medieval Arab history and they exposed the ways the Arab kings ruled the masses. Through the interactions between the masses and the king, the monopoly of power alluded to the current politics of Syria and its corruption. Authors such as Mohammad al-Maghot, Mamduh Udwan, Sadallah Wanus and Zakaryya Tamer did not miss a chance to criticize the Syrian regime. however, there were not any explicit attempts to condemn that regime or its head.
With the outbreak of the revolution, the allegorical style would be abandoned because of the flooding of news of demonstrations, attacks, shelling and most importantly, the daily killing of innocent Syrians. Such incidents brought a radical change to literature. Due to the pace of news coming out of Syria, the media had to handle it in a way that served the needs of its audience, delivering the most up-to-date news without necessarily pinpointing the background of the revolution or taking into consideration the different constituencies that supported the revolution.
Syria’s literary tradition is just part of the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of a country which has faced many difficulties and hardships. Here we profile ten of Syria’s most prolific and influential writers, who have made a name for themselves both nationally and internationally.
Born in Qamishli in northern Syria, of Syrian and Kurdish descent, Salim Barakat’s literary works focus on Kurdish culture and heritage and explore its place in the wider Arab world. A prolific writer, Barakat has published dozens of novels, short story collections, and poetry anthologies, and is distinguished from his contemporaries for the innovative use of style and theme within his writing. He has been credited by literary critics for introducing the genre of magical realism to Arabic literature, with works such as The Caves of Hydrahodahose incorporating elements of the fantastic and mythological – including a society of centaurs – in order to reflect on contemporary culture and society.
Ali Ahmad Said Esber (Adunis)
Ali Ahmad Said Esber, known by his pen name Adunis, is arguably one of the Arab world’s most prominent poets, and has been regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1988. Adunis’ poetry epitomizes modernity and rebellion, building on the historic tradition of Arabic poetry in order to subvert it; his poetry often deals with themes of transformation, exile and reform, and he rejects classic poetic structure and form in order to experiment with verse, meter and prose poetry. He has been internationally recognized, and was awarded the prestigious Bjørnson Prize in 2007 by the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression, as well as winning the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt in 2011.