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This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

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.

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Book Review: Adventure Stories of Great Writers

By Mitali Chakravarty

Adventure Stories of Great Writers

Title: Adventure Stories of Great Writers
Author: Dr Usha Bande
Publisher: Kitaab

Adventures Stories of Great Writers is a collection of episodes from the lives of well-known writers across the world through different periods in history. These vignettes from the biographies focus on adventures faced by twenty such persons transcending borders and nations. The different stories touch upon the lives of great writers like Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Knud Holmboe, Washinton Irving, Herman Melville and T.E. Lawrence ranging from a variety of countries including Denmark, India, America, England, to name a few. The stories are set on the rough seas around the world, including the Arctic Ocean, where Arthur Conan Doyle was thrown off his ship among frozen chunks of ice in the cold waters; in the deserts of Arabia and Africa where, T.E. Lawrence fought for the Arabs and which Knud Holmboe made into his own home; in India, where John Masters battles a deadly man hunting tiger; in apartheid ridden South Africa, where Gandhi learns never to give in to injustice… Transcending borders, religions and creed, the common thing that strings these stories together is perhaps best expressed by a quote from Rabindranath Tagore at the start of an episode from Gandhiji’s life:

“Power said to the world, ‘you are mine’.

The world kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the world, ‘I am thine’.

The world gave it the freedom of her home.”

Most of the episodes reflect compassion, kindness and love for mankind. Some depict indomitable spirit, courage and boldness while some focus on the spirit of adventure and innovative solutions to get out of situations that seem impossible. Conviction in one’s beliefs, the energy and the determination to push through to achieve one’s objective and to make changes that were felt to be necessary are also highlighted by these vignettes. All these episodes go to show what has been summed up by a quotation from Swami Vivekananda at the start of a chapter on Sir Winston Churchill:

“The history of the world is the history of

a few men who had faith in themselves.”

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The Best Books on Sri Lanka Recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Editor’s Note: fivebooks.com took this interview in 2009. They call it one of the saddest interviews on their site in which Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan activist, takes readers down the years tracing the best books written about and during the civil war and its many injustices.


So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna.

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Excerpts: Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal by Sagar S.J.B. Rana

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Chapter Three

The Nepalese and the Holy City

‘Banaras is not only a city, but a culture in itself — those who can sense and be part of it can experience its revealing consciousness,’ said Kamal Gupt, a local scholar. Brahma, the Creator of the Universe in Hindu mythology, is said to have remarked, ‘You balance all the heavenly deities on one side and Kasi on the other, and the gods will be lighter.’ The celebrated poet-seer Vyasa established his hermitage here. Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitamanas here. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath nearby. Kabir, Ravidas, Ramanand, Munshi Premchand, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Laxmi Prasad Devkota and a host of other great philosophers, and men and women of the arts and letters found inspiration in this holy city.

The connection of Nepal with Kasi is as old as history itself. Some of the rarest texts of the Skanda Purana preserved in Nepalese palm-leaf manuscripts, dated AD 810, are available in Kathmandu. It is ordained by the scriptures that the practice of yoga and even merely spending one’s last days in Kasi, will lead to moksha. Even before the history of these cities were recorded with exactitude, and until the mid-twentieth century it was the ardent desire of most Nepalese to visit Kasi at least once in a lifetime or better still, to ‘attain deliverance from the body’ in Kasi.

Kasi has always been the centre for Nepalese pilgrims and priests, but it also sheltered those exiled from the country. ‘Some days after Jung Bahadur took control of governance, he asked King Rajendra to choose a destination for him and the queen to settle down, outside of Nepal. The king replied, ‘there are many places of worship and for meditation in Kasi. The holy River Ganga flows and the God of Gods, Lord Vishwanath is there. Many Nepalese people have lived in Varanasi for generations. That is where I wish to go’. This is how in 1846, King Rajendra and Queen Rajya Laxmi came to live in Varanasi with their large retinue. My great-grandfather, the Raj Purohit and his son, my grandfather were part of that retinue’. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, fondly remembered as Kishunjee, was born at an outhouse of the palace the royals built. He followed the footsteps of the family helping his father in the performance of religious rites in Banaras and Ramnagar, a town located in north Bihar across the Chitwan district at the palace of Mahendra Bikram Shah, alias Ram Raja. But once his elder brother, Gopal and he joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the 1940s, they were absorbed by the revolutionary spirit that engulfed India and joined the movement against British rule in India and the Rana oligarchy in Nepal.

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The Representation of the Syrian Revolution in Literature

“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.

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10 Syrian Writers You Should Know

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.

Salim Barakat

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.

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Lu Xun: What is Revolutionary Literature

“Only when revolutionaries start writing will there be revolutionary literature.”

Editor’s Note: A speech by the Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) delivered in 1927 at the Whampoa Military Academy (re-presented in lithub.com). Known for his short stories and trenchant essays, Lu Xun is considered to be one of China’s greatest modern writers. In 1926, he had to flee the country after protesting against the killing of some students in a demonstration. What he says in this speech from his book Jottings Under Lamplight (HUP) is as applicable to nations and regimes today as it was in the early 20th century.

……

I thought: Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people. Oppressed people who say a few things or write a few words will be killed. Even if they are fortunate enough not to be killed, and shout out, complain of their suffering, and cry out against injustices every day, those with real strength will still continue to oppress, abuse, and kill; there is no way to deal with them. What value does this literature have for people, then?

The natural world also works this way. When a hawk hunts a sparrow, it is the hawk that is silent while the sparrow squawks. When a cat preys on a mouse, it is the cat that is silent while the mouse squeals. The result is still that those who cry out are eaten by those who remain silent. If a writer does well and writes a few essays, he might garner some fame for himself in his time or earn a reputation for a few years. This is like how after a memorial service, no one mentions the feats of the martyr; rather, everyone discusses whose elegiac couplets are best. What a stable business this is.

However, I’m afraid that the literary specialists in this revolutionary place are always fond of saying how close the connection between literature and revolution is. For example, they say literature can be used to publicize, promote, incite, and advance the revolutionary cause, and thus bring about revolution. Still, it seems to me that this sort of literature has no strength because good literature has never been about following orders and has no regard for its effects. It is something that flows naturally from the heart. If we write literature according to a pre-selected topic, how is that any different from the formal prose of an imperial examination? It has no value as literature, not to mention no ability to move people.

For revolution to occur, what is needed are revolutionaries; there is no need to be overly anxious about “revolutionary literature.”

…..

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Excerpts: Behold, I Shine – Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha

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Chapter Six
MAINE NAZIRA, AA KHA?
Memory as Women’s Resistance

Parveena Ahangar holds many sobriquets — from Iron Lady to Mother of Kashmir — but she is best known as the founder and chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) — which makes her one of the most prominent Kashmiri women in resistance.

It was on a May 2011 morning, with needle-fine rain falling incessantly, that I was first taken to Parveena’s home by the young journalist Junaid Rather. The grey sky had drained the landscape of all colour creating a mood of melancholia. Parveena, dressed in black, sat huddled with a kangri. She was unwell but strained her voice to recount her story. It was a tale she had been compelled to tell and retell and yet it had not lost its poignancy.

Parveena spoke of the 1990s. Her son, the seventeen-year- old Javed Ahmad Ahangar, had passed the tenth class and had gone to his uncle’s house in Batamaloo where he hoped to pursue further studies. For some days, Parveena was plagued by forebodings, natural perhaps in an era when crackdowns were rampant, but she was particularly disturbed by a black dog in her dreams.

It was the early hours of 17 August 1990. In the morning there was a knock at her door. Parveeena was told that her son, along with three other boys, had been picked up by the National Security Guard personnel and taken to the Hari Niwas interrogation centre. Parveena suspected that the troops were on the lookout for a militant who had the same name as her son and that they picked up Javed, who had a speech impediment, because he had failed to answer questions with alacrity.

More than twenty-six years later, the second-hand accounts of the anguish and terror that her young son underwent before he was taken away, still haunt Parveena. ‘I heard he had been stripped. That he was calling out for me and that he desperately wanted a glass of water.’

In the early days after her son’s disappearance, a distraught Parveena see-sawed between the hope that her son was alive and would be released, and the reality that he had failed to appear even as the other boys were set free. Finally, surfacing from extreme sorrow, she took the first step in the long odyssey of a mother in search of her son and a woman in pursuit of justice.

After an FIR was filed at the Shergari police station and persistent inquiries were made at the Batamaloo branch, Parveena was informed by the Deputy Inspector General that her son had met with an accident, was in the army hospital in Badami Bagh, and would soon be released. When there were no signs of his discharge, she approached the Director General of Police who, in turn, directed her to the Superintendent of Police, in charge of allowing family members to meet detainees. He provided a vehicle for her to visit the hospital. There, an exhaustive search yielded no results. It says much of her early political acumen that she saved the pass she had received at the hospital. This was later proof to show the way a cover-up had been attempted.

Finally, Parveena received crucial information by way of a witness who knew her son. Apparently, he had seen Javed getting beaten by three men near Hari Niwas. This witness went on to offer his testimony when an inquiry was ordered by thecourt.

What followed was a lengthy court battle over more than two decades in which four petitions were filed. Significantly, despite a court inquiry and report in March 1992 that indicted the alleged perpetrators, the Ministry of Home Affairs refused sanction for prosecution. In 1999, MHA indicated a charge sheet should be filed and sanction could be sought again. But till date no sanction has been given.

Even as legal proceedings dragged on, Parveena hunted for her son, personally, visiting jails and camps in Kashmir, Jodhpur, Hiranagar, Meerut and Delhi (Tihar) and the dreaded interrogation centres like Papa I and Papa II.

While she did not recover her son, she did get a profound understanding of the world of enforced disappearances and the institutionalized denial of justice and custodial violence. Parveena recalled, ‘I met so many parents whose sons had suffered enforced disappearances after they were taken away by security troops. I met wives whose husbands had left home and never returned. And I realized that I was not alone.’ Empowered by this discovery, Parveena began organizing the families of the missing. They met frequently at a friend’s place, in her kitchen and discussed a line of action—for both justice and social welfare. In 1994, the APDP was formed with the help of human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz.

Soon after this first meeting in Kashmir, I met Parveena in Mumbai where she had come to address a press gathering. I realized why she was called the Iron Lady. Looking pointedly at the audience, she asked why there were separate laws for crimes by Kashmiri civilians and those perpetrated by the army and why those responsible for enforced disappearances and custodial deaths were being granted immunity under AFSPA?

***

Excerpted from Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha, published by Rupa Publications India.

***

Set in Kashmir, Behold, I Shine focuses on the struggle of women and children in Kashmir, on what it means for them whose children are missing, who live the lives of half-widows; on what it means to stand up to authority, to ikhwanis and to the horrors unfolding everyday in their lives. It brings into focus activists like Parveena Ahangar who go through insurmountable losses yet fight back to start human rights organisations that help other women like her to fight for their rights. Behold, I Shine puts together the narratives of such women and their spirit in fighting against multiple odds.

About the Author:

Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist, published in the Himal Southasian and the Times of India and has reported extensively from Kashmir.


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Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

By Monica Arora

Exit WestTitle: Exit West

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 229
Price: ₹ 599

To Buy

Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.

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Celeste Ng: By the Book

“I try to read omnivorously, because I never know what’s going to spark a new idea. Often the things that I least expect to seize my imagination end up being the most productive.”

The author of, most recently, “Little Fires Everywhere,” often returns to “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “Right now, I see it as an exploration of the complexities of good and evil and how easily one shifts into the other.”

What influences your decisions about which books to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

Friends. Taste is idiosyncratic, so I don’t love everything people recommend me, and I don’t love everything my friends love. But if a friend adores a book or thinks I will, there’s always something in there that’s interesting and worth thinking about and discussing.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was reading about life in the Soviet Union, looking for information about samizdat for novel research, and learned that people shared banned music by cutting old X-ray film into circles and making records out of them. They called them “ribs” or “bones.” I’m fascinated by the ways people under repressive regimes still manage to share information — and joy.

What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?

I read with my 6-year-old son every night, and frankly, with the state of the world, it’s a relief to turn to children’s literature. We’ve been enjoying some classics like “The BFG” and some new books like Abby Hanlon’s “Dory Fantasmagory” and Shannon and Dean Hale’s “The Princess in Black” series, which make both of us laugh. And picture books — especially really thoughtful, beautiful ones like Aaron Becker’s “Journey” trilogy, Carson Ellis’s “Du Iz Tak?” and everything by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen — are a balm for the soul. They give me hope for the next generation.

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