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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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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