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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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