Switzerland

Words Of An Exile: An Exclusive Interview With A Displaced Syrian Novelist

"We knew there would be a price to pay for democracy. But no one imagined it would cost so much."

Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees and a Free Syrian Army soldier in Aleppo
Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees and a Free Syrian Army soldier in Aleppo
Angélique Mounier-Kuhn

BERN — “Should we work now or after dinner?” Nihad Sirees was taking this meeting very seriously. Punctual, and with a welcoming handshake and smile, he sat down at Jack’s Brasserie, the Schweizerhof Hotel’s restaurant in Bern.

This is the Syrian novelist’s first Swiss interview. He splits his time between Cairo, the United States and Europe since leaving his hometown of Aleppo in early 2012. After a quick look at the menu, he decides to have the daily special and a glass of wine, which he enjoys even if he does “not know anything about it.”

Let’s be clear: As sophisticated as it may be, Jack’s cuisine will not be essential to this meeting. The imperceptible comings and goings of the serious waiters allow us to converse without interruption. But how naïve was it to think that we could calmly discuss the situation in Syria here, in the middle of all these muffled voices. Enjoying our starters while discussing people losing their jobs, houses being destroyed and loved ones dying? Rejoicing in fresh scallops as we evaluate Bashar al-Assad’s mental health? Questioning the country’s future over chocolate-vanilla ice cream deserts? Impossible. Anyway, Nihad Sirees “really” misses the Syrian gastronomy, especially the stuffed eggplant that his mother cooks with an almost “professional” talent.

Danger in Aleppo

When he chose to leave 18 months ago, Aleppo, now lying in ruins, still had the proud appearance of the ancient city it used to be. Syria’s economic capital was never very active on the political level, and its inhabitants’ daily life was only disturbed once the public services, electricity and water started malfunctioning. But Sirees had already felt something was wrong: “It became dangerous for us writers,” he says. “The government started asking us to write articles and to talk in the media in a way that would suit them. I refused to do that.”

The author, who has written successful books and the renowned TV series The Silk Market, among others, also feared being kidnapped. “The government could have kidnapped me just to be able to blame the opposition. Who knows? Everything became imaginable,” he says.

Sirees moved to Cairo, unaware that his new home would soon become a trap. On July 3, he had business in Switzerland — giving lectures in Bern, Zurich and Geneva — when the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown. Since then, Egypt has closed its borders to Syrians, and the visa that should have allowed him to return there became invalid. His belongings are still there. Today, he is looking for a European country that will welcome him.

Post-exile success

But exile was also an opportunity for the writer. His book, The Silence and the Roar (Pushkin Press, 2013), met with great success. In 2004, the first Lebanese edition sold well in Syria, but illicitly. It was only later that Western publishers discovered and translated it. The book won a literary award in Great Britain and another, recently, in Germany. Sirees will soon travel to the Netherlands to launch the Dutch version.

Full of dark irony, the story’s hero is Fathi Sheen, a writer whose career is going downhill because he refuses to compromise himself in the face of a leader’s cruel and megalomaniac propaganda. “What we have in common, Fathi Sheen and I,” Sirees says, “is our rejection of violence. Laughter and love are our pacifist ways to cope with dictatorship.”

The French translation is a bit more explicit: They talk about laughter, yes, but especially about sex, as a “weapon to stay alive.” The writer blushes furtively and adds, “A leader who regards his fellow citizens as slaves will never forgive them enough for rising against him.” He does not know which side will win the conflict that is devastating his country. “But what I do know is that Bashar al-Assad has been defeated on the moral aspect. Killing and blaming others for it, that makes no sense at all. He should have listened to the people right from the beginning. He should have heard their call for reforms. Instead of that, he lied to them.”

Sirees' daughter and grandchildren stayed in Aleppo, and that causes him constant anxiety. He does not plan to use the war to write a book. “It is too soon,” he explains. “And whatever you write, it will not represent people’s lives. We knew there would be a price to pay for democracy. But no one imagined it would cost so much.”

The tragedy “will change our society, the economy, but also our culture and literature,” he says. “Language itself will also change. Some words will be lost and others will replace them. World War I did lead to Dadaism and Surrealism. Just like in Europe at that time, cities are being bombed, civilians are being killed and chemicals weapons are being used. There are no rules to this war.”

And Bashar al-Assad? Insane or idiotic? In the spring, the author dedicated a chilling Newsweek article to the Syrian leader, entitled “Daddy Dearest.” He depicts how the son, Bashar, had to live and “think within” the totalitarian system he inherited from his father, Hafez. Sick, the writer finally decides. The man is sick.

Check please. We need fresh air. Barely outside, Sirees lights his pipe and takes a salutary puff.

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