x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Nihad Sirees has emerged as a clear voice out of Syria's chaos

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: The acclaimed authors will discuss writing in the midst of revolution at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

More than two years after the Syrian uprisings began, news tumbles out of the country in contorted bundles. While other nations caught up in the tumult of the Arab Spring have moved on - with varying degrees of success - to a new chapter in their histories, the conflict between Bashar Al Assad's Syrian regime and those who oppose it appears to relentlessly retread the same page. Many lives have been lost, many more have been devastated and yet resolution appears remote.

Amid the fog of revolution many voices have hollered, often with piercing clarity. Author Nihad Sirees has emerged from that chorus, delivering a work of import and gravity whose words jumped off the page to gather critical acclaim and international attention. He will appear on stage together at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Friday evening to discuss writing amid the revolution.

His novel The Silence and the Roar, written in 2004, was translated from Arabic by Max Weiss and published earlier this year by Pushkin Press in the UK and by Other Press in the US. The book was one of six to receive a 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation.

Currently the international writer in residence at Brown University in Rhode Island, Sirees left Syria in 2012 but his novel offers an unvarnished, Orwellian vision of life under a 21st-century dictator in an unnamed Arab state. More than that, it appeared to foretell the roar of revolution in his home country.

"This is a land of kowtowing state functionaries and sadistic security," wrote Malcolm Forbes in his review of The Silence and the Roar for this newspaper. He later described the book as "wonderfully vivid and depressingly realistic". For his part, Sirees says that "literature comes early to tell stories about what may happen in the future".

Sirees says he stayed in Syria in the first flush of the uprisings.

"I was witness to its peaceful way and of the violence of the regime against it. Later, the roar of the war dominated the scene and our voices became lower and lower, so I left. It is heartbreaking to see from distance how the people suffer and how this war destroys geography [and] history."

He says that it is too early to expect great novels to emerge from such terrible realities. In a parallel example from contemporary history, it took years before any important novels emerged from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"There is no role for the fiction at this moment," he says. "What is happening now is beyond the imagination. The media is full of images from this war.

"Now, all writers must tell their opinions directly through essays and columns or to talk to the people through the media.

"I feel responsible to tell the truth and explain what happened.

"I want to say that the regime faced the peaceful demonstrations with violence and shootings which, led us to this war."

The discussion is sure to be one of the fair's most compelling sessions. It also might be led by Sirees deconstructing the title of the debate.

"It gives an impression that the writers are there by chance or they don't belong to the circumstances which led to this war," he says.

"Writers in Syria are not in crossfire, they are engaging in the different political ideas which are battling now and opposing the war at the same time."

Writers in the Crossfire: An Evening with Nihad Sirees, followed by a book signing, is from 6.45pm on April 26 on the ADIBF discussion sofa.


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