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Posts Tagged ‘Samar Yazbek

 Syria has been hung, drawn and quartered: The Crossing

As she sits at a cafe table in the 7th arrondissement (Paris) – elegant and intense, waving around a Gitane cigarette for emphasis – it’s hard to imagine a more Parisian figure than the writer Samar Yazbek.

Except that she is speaking to me mostly in her native Syrian Arabic (we use an interpreter). And for all her wit and charm, the stories she is telling me are horrifying.

Over the past few years, Yazbek has been an eyewitness to the unfolding chaos and misery in Syria and she can’t stop telling me about it – sentences tumble over one another and my questions are constantly interrupted by her flow.

The drama of the situation is heightened by the fact that our conversation is taking place less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Syrian embassy in the rue Vaneau.

Yazbek was born in 1970 in Jableh, a small coastal town. She also lived in Latakia and Raqqa, now the headquarters of Isis.

When Yazbek was growing up these were gentle and tolerant places. Although provincial, her early years were far from parochial – she recalls her rebellious adolescence reading Virginia Woolf and wishing she was Mrs Dalloway. Such literary precociousness is hardly surprising, given her family background.

Samar was born into an Alawite family, both cosmopolitan and privileged. The Alawites are the small but powerful minority sect that has effectively been the ruling class in Syria since the time of French rule, which finished in 1943.

(The French mandated power over Syria and Lebanon relied on the policy of divide to rule, as most colonial powers, and encouraged minorities to support its dominion. The Alawite didn’t fully cooperate with the French occupation)

The Assads are also Alawite, which means that Yazbek’s revolt against the government is also seen by her enemies as a double betrayal of her religion and class.

For the past few years, I have cycled past this place almost every day on the way to my office, noting the anti-Assad graffiti and the occasional obliteration of the official signage, depending on the Assad regime’s fortunes in the war. The only constant has been the unmarked cars with blacked-out windows that stand guard.

Today the signs are back, declaring that this is the Embassy of the Syrian Republic. As we sit and chat, Yazbek is all too well aware that these are people who would kill her if they could.

This is mainly because of her long-standing opposition to the Assad government before the uprising of 2011 and her activism during what she still calls, with shining eyes, the “Revolution”.

Now she is even more of a target with the publication of her latest book, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. This is an account of what happened when Yazbek returned to Syria, making an illegal crossing from Turkey in 2012.

This was the beginning of several visits – each more dangerous. Yazbek was not only wanted by the Assad regime, but as she travelled through what had once been her native land she became a suspicious character in the eyes of the jumbled-up brigades of rebel factions.

I begin by asking why she put herself in such danger. She looks puzzled.

“I was not frightened for myself. Not at all. Why should I be so? This was my homeland. This is where I had grown up. I spoke the languages, I knew the people. What did frighten me as time went on, and as I made more trips, was the way everything I had once known in Syria was being turned into something else, something I didn’t quite recognise. This had once been a cosy place, a place of traditional loyalties and hospitality. But now the people have been scarred and mutilated. I don’t know whether it will ever go back to what it was. That is what Assad has done.”

One of the problems she faced as she journeyed through Syria was to disguise her origins when confronted by non-Alawites – the Alawites are not only considered as pro-Assad but also as Shia infidels by Sunnis. She learned to shift her accent around whenever she became the object of suspicion: “I am from everywhere,” she said to one surly fighter who questioned her background.

“But this is true,” she said to me. “Above all, I am Syrian and it is only now that the war has deepened these sectarian divisions that were never there in this way when I was a girl. I can still remember when Syria was a true country of the Levant, as was Lebanon, with all religions and groups part of what it means to be Syrian.

Now it is as if you can only be Syrian if you are Sunni or Shia or whatever. From the outside, the Syrian war looks like a battle between dictators and people in revolt – which it is – but from the inside it is like a family conflict, with all the bitter hatreds that you can imagine that come to the surface.”

She reserves special contempt for Isis, whom she describes as an occupying army of foreigners, and then corrects herself and says they are more like a group of thugs and bullies.

In The Crossing, she notes with anger the Yemeni, Saudi, Somali and Chechen faces that man the Isis checkpoints, harass Syrians and have turned a place such as Raqqa into a hellhole. “I can remember how it was,” she says, “and now it is something dehumanising, disgusting. You have a generation that is being lost to this cruelty.”

She is especially angry with young Muslim women who have travelled from the west to join Isis.

“Of course I am a feminist,” she says, “and what they are doing is sending the condition of women in Syria back to some terrible place. But also what they are doing is to ‘Orientalise’ Syria – these young girls are Muslims but they are creatures of the west. They know nothing of Syria and its ways. But they love the fantasy of the virile Arab warrior on a horse with a gun.

This is a cliche and a fantasy and they come because it’s erotic and exotic – they are bored in the west and they need to rebel. But they do not understand Islam or Syria and that they are making things worse for the women who live here.”

One of the most gripping sections of the book is a conversation between Yazbek and the “Hajii’’, a commander of the Ahrar Latakia (Free Men of Latakia) battalion who had spent his life on the move, living between the Turkish-Syrian border and Syria’s coastal strip.

Yazbek and the Hajii are from the same part of world but now they couldn’t be further apart. Depressingly, the Hajii says the conflict in Syria is now a religious war that will last decades and where genocide is a necessary weapon of war. “Are you a murderer?” she asks him. “Yes,” he replies unhesitatingly, this son of a taxi driver. And he will commit more murders. “I won’t kill you,” he says. He tells her to stay away from this “vile war” and he pities the future for all Alawites in Syria.

There are other grim stories.

Yazbek tells of a young man who refuses to rape a girl on the orders of his senior officer. His genitals are shot off as a military punishment. Everywhere Yazbek goes she meets ordinary people whose everyday sense of morality is similarly undone by random but regular encounters with horror. One of the most devastating aspects of the book is that she is constantly aware that, not too long ago, this was a country where people lived ordinary lives.

Her technique is to let people tell the stories themselves, and to this extent the book recalls Anna Funder’s Stasiland, an account of how a country can go mad under the burden of lies and the promise of violence. In Syria right now, however, the violence is not just a threat but an ever-present reality.

Yazbek makes the point that this is only partly about geopolitics – from Isis to US foreign policy, Syria is being used as a laboratory for experiments in how to destroy a nation. On the ground, as she explains in The Crossing, the result is to break human beings, literally and metaphorically, into pieces: “Syria will never be the same again,” she writes in the epilogue. “It has been hung, drawn and quartered.”

The Crossing is not simply reportage or political analysis. It bears comparison with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a work of literature. Yazbek is a superb narrator who knows how to pace her text, craft dialogue and convey a universal sense of grief; this is how she crosses the line from journalism to high literary art.

When I put this to her she blushes and lights another Gitane. But she is not falsely modest. “Certainly I wanted to write literature. For one thing, so much is written about Syria that it is easy to be bored with war stories, but I think as well that only literature can convey the complexity of what is happening there.”

I mention Orwell and Kafka. She admires both but Kafka in particular is a model. “What is happening in Syria is like being trapped down a deep, dark tunnel where you can see no way out. I had hope in 2011 – I believed that we could change ourselves and our lives – and now every time I have been back it has got worse and so quickly. But with massacres every day, on all sides, what can you expect? It’s not politics, it’s not religion – it’s something worse – pure hatred.”

Yazbek has written novels and poetry and was a TV presenter in pre-revolutionary Syria.

In 2010, she was included in the Beirut 39, a group of the best writers in the Arab world under 40 chosen by the Beirut Hay festival.

In 2012, she shared the Pen Pinter prize, with poet Carol Ann Duffy, for her book A Woman in the Crossfire about the early days of the Syrian civil war.

The Crossing is a different kind of book, however – it marks a sea change in Yazbek’s thought. “I want to believe still in hope,” she says, “but now I wonder if I really do believe in it.

I have seen such destruction that it’s hard to believe that anything good can come out of it.

I feel like I have been dropped from a cloud into a deep abyss. My idea has always been that a writer has to write about change, has to be part of change.

That is why I went back to Syria two years ago – it was an obsession. Now I have another obsession – that murder is happening in my country and I can do nothing about it.”

Yazbek is now truly in exile in Paris and she finds it painful. If she ever goes back to Syria, it will be more dangerous than ever before and she is reluctant to chance her arm more than she has to. For this reason, she misses Syria more than ever.

“When I was young, I dreamed of travelling the world. I thought that where I came from was small-town, and I wanted to be glamorous, cosmopolitan and intellectual. I dreamed of Paris for example. But now that I am here, it is beautiful but it is not the same thing. I am in Paris but all the time think of Jableh, Latakia and all those other places.

“I did not choose to be an exile – that is the difference. I did not come here to be an artist but because I was thrown out. That’s something that wounds you. It’s very hard.”

She is now 45 and feels that she has a different perspective on her writing and the terrible landscape that she covers.

“I never meant to write this kind of book or be this kind of writer. But now I can’t get away from it.”

Although it is probably not be what she intended, it may be that Samar Yazbek has written one of the first political classics of the 21st century.

The Crossing, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Nashwa Gowanlock, is published on 2 July by Rider (£20).

Click here to order a copy for £16. Samar Yazbek will be reading from The Crossing on Saturday 25 July at the British Library, London, and taking part in a discussion about freedom of expression in the Middle East, Speaking Truth to Power, at the Free Word Centre, London, on Thursday 23 July.

Andrew Bossone shared this link ‎Hay Festival Beirut
From exile in Paris, Samar Yazbek has written a powerful and moving account of her devastated homeland.
Here, she tells how she risked her life to cross illegally…

“Waiting for my death?”

Being in love finds common identifying characters with the partner, the circle of friends…

Dying seeks to search for common identifying attributes with the living, the existence, how matters metamorphose into ideas, abstract notions…

Why is it that we perceive the living a banal happening? Taken for granted, not related to the realm of the extraordinary, a normal occurrence, the day-to-day struggle to survive, to staying alive and kicking…?

Why as one of our closest friends or relative dies, this event takes on the dimension of a fulgurant instant, an urge to venerate the dead one, to dig deep into the rare moments and ephemeral rare traits…instead of remembering the dominant behaviors that guided the dead in his living…?

Is it our mental shortcoming that values normal behavior as inferior to the rare behaviors at death while relying almost completely on normalcy during the living period?

Is it why we think that mankind value abstract concepts as of nobler level of consciousness compared to the fact of existing and staying alive?

Are we endearing the process of connecting abstract notions to the idea of death, and venerating the dead and “banalizing” the living?

The professionals in igniting civil wars are expert and adept at these mental mechanisms.

I am in serene mood, a mood following a sudden shock, a mood preceding a fast coming calamity, a moment I can sense with all my body and mind…

I hear my heart beats, louder than the bombs exploding around me, louder than babies screaming, louder than mother shouting hysterically: “Stay away of windows. Nobody gets out. The assassins are everywhere, the assassins are surrounding us…”

The same assassins who go door to door, maliciously warning the families that the “other killers” mean to kill every one, including babies…

Everyone is cowed in his shelter, into his shell…The mind is blocked and turning full-speed in closed loops…

Submerged by details that cannot be confirmed or investigated, I am ultimately drawn to a state of indifference” What come will come.

I have no power or means to make a difference, to alter the mechanism of doom

Little by little, the survival giant force in me shake off my lethargy, and the fragile and vulnerable zest for living take stronger roots in me, to remain among the living…

Death is the enemy to keeping at bay: This is not a good timing for death to show up. Death can be relegated at will to a more proper old age…

Is getting out increases the odds of being killed? Or is venturing out of home an opportunity to learn to face fear in the most direct and harsh way? Getting out of home to the street and meeting the masses is a great strategy to vanquish our demons of fear, suspicions, and death

During civil wars, the perception of life and death reverses direction: The living are the rare events to cherish, value and venerate. Death is just a number. After the civil war seems to have ended, a few communities decides to bury the hatchet: All the fallen “citizens” are martyrs. Martyrs for what cause? Mainly from innuendoes that take roots from the deepest recesses of our cultural legacy, centuries of living in ignorance and obscurantism, detached from trading “real stories” with our closest communities.

The Syrian Samar Yazbek wrote in “Cross Fires”: ” I am walking the streets. I look up to locate the sniper and face his eyes. He keeps changing locations on rooftops. Damascus is no longer the same. Fear is no longer attached to respiration. I am coming back home and I intends on linking up with my rights to exercising justice, at the price of my life.  It is a matter of habit, no more no less. I am waiting for death, and I am not carrying flowers to my tomb…”




December 2022

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