The prison inside me

Meet Samar Yazbek

Well before the Syrian uprising, Samar Yazbek was challenging the existing taboos of Syrian society in her novels. Since the early days of the revolution, she was involved in the pro-revolutionary movements on the ground, despite the daily threats she was submitted to. On four occasions, Yazbek was taken to detention centres in order to “improve her writing” as one regime officer once put it. A Woman in the Crossfire is her diary of the first four months of the revolution, in which she mixes first-person chronicles of her everyday life and exclusive testimonies of various eye-witnesses (doctors, officers, activists). Some of her chronicles were initially published in the Arab press as early as during spring 2011; hence Yazbek was one of the first voices to describe the reality of the Syrian uprising from the inside. Last week, Mashallah News met with her in Paris where she currently lives in exile.

There’s something diminished in you when you leave a country — your country — in a revolutionary state.

When did you start writing the diary?

It started in a spontaneous manner. I was thinking of writing a testimony which slowly turned into a book. The diary describes the first four months of the revolution.

At what time of the day did you write? Did you have a fixed schedule?

I usually write in the morning. I didn’t write every day, only when I felt the urge to write.

Did the writing process help you analyse your own feelings and the ongoing events in general?

Of course, it helped me to distance myself to what was going on. They say that writing makes the pain go away. Paradoxically, I discovered that this writing made my pain grow stronger.

You often mention in the diary how blurry the frontiers between reality and fiction are; how reality often looks like a screenplay, a ferocious fiction. Would you say that this type of political environment makes fiction irrelevant?

The political environment didn’t necessarily make fiction irrelevant. What I was trying to say is that the horror I saw surpassed any kind of fiction imaginable.

Paradoxically, I discovered that this writing made my pain grow stronger.

Would you say it’s an instinctive survival reflex to imagine the reality of the present as a nightmare, as something unreal?

Of course we tend to turn the reality into a fiction to make it more endurable. But when I compare reality to fiction in the book, it’s because the real horrors I saw went beyond what I could’ve imagined as a fiction writer. To instinctively reduce it to fiction was a way to deny the scale and extent of the real horror going on; that of a state killing its own people.

At one point you mention the silence of Syrian intellectuals. Could you elaborate on that?

My book is about how the revolution starts, not what’s going on now. Indeed, back then many intellectuals were silent simply because they didn’t understand the situation. They were shocked and perplexed like myself. Now, things have changed a lot. Some of them are intervening and taking a stand.

“The murderers and I come from the same city and some of their blood flows in mine”. Many times in your diary you describe the pressure you undergo as an anti-regime Alawi writer, the social stigma that’s associated with your Alawi identity.

First of all, you have to be aware that the regime is not an Alawi regime anymore. Second, I’m not Alawi, I’m Syrian. I refuse to see my identity reduced to a religious community. Of course there are other Alawis who are as active and as against the regime as myself.

“They won’t arrest me but they’ll drive me to madness.” Was this a purpose the regime had in mind?

It wasn’t in their own interest to let people know that there’s an Alawi writer in favour of the revolution. So of course they tried to intimidate psychologically and socially by spreading rumours about my reputation.

Did you feel at some point that you were sliding towards madness?

As much as it was an intense and complex period, it was also a temporary one for me. My nerves were put at test several times, but I never felt or feared to become mad. On the contrary, I felt stronger and stronger, and I feel even stronger now here in Paris because I know I’m being helpful to the revolutionary movement. At the same time, I keep thinking that I should’ve stayed. There’s something diminished in you when you leave a country — your country — in a revolutionary state. What hurts me more, psychologically, is to know that I’m here safe and that the others are risking their life every day.

What’s your role as an activist, here in Paris?

I regularly travel and organise seminars and lectures to convey the real image of the revolution. I’m also establishing an organization in France to provide financial help, psychological aid and emergency supplies to Syrian women. We’re also building a case with other activists about the Hula massacre, a case we intend to take to The Hague. The idea is to document the rapes, murders and disappearances that occurred in this village. Hula is a perfect example of how the regime instigates confessional violence between Alawis and Sunnites. This is why I’m specifically preoccupied by it. I want to know what’s going on for real on the ground, how we can help these people — things that media can never cover.

You were traveling inside the country during the first couple of months of the uprising. Would you say it is the only way to collect accurate information?

I visited three different places: Banyas, Daraa, Jebleh. The rest of the diary is filled with other people’s testimonies, eye-witnesses, and so on. I’m absolutely sure about the accuracy of the testimonies because these people were on the ground. For me, it was very important to collect them. To many Syrians, the diary might seem very uninformative, because they’ve been living through these situations every day, but for the people outside, I think it was essential to document the course of the events.

Are other writers currently doing the job you were doing during the first four months of the uprising?

Many of them, yes. More testimonies are going to be published.

We lived inside boundaries that we were creating ourselves, trying not to say more than what we were supposed to say.

We lived in fear. Not fear in the familiar sense of the word”. Could you describe this very specific feeling that occupies every other page of your diary?

As Syria has been a dictatorship for a while, we were used to live in fear. We lived inside boundaries that we were creating ourselves, trying not to say more than what we were supposed to say. But the fear I’m mentioning in the diary is a very different one. It’s as if you had been hearing all your life about a monster, and suddenly the monster comes out and you have to face it. To face murders, killings, arrests, criminality in a very immediate sense.

Knowing that you could be killed at any time by a sniper during the demonstrations, it’s hard to understand why so many people would still go and demonstrate on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

This very question that you ask is my current existential question. It changed my life forever. When people go ahead for their freedom knowing that they’re risking death, you’re necessarily brought to ask yourself metaphysical questions. When Syrians went out to rebel, their demands were very simple: freedom, justice and democracy. They were pacifist. For months they’ve been killed, and they would still go out every day and remain pacifists.

What about the current violence which started to spread among the pro-revolution ranks?

The violence that you see now on both sides was instigated by the regime. People’s houses have been burnt, their sons have been killed, their women have been raped. They were forced to use violence. They’re now trying to defend themselves, that’s all. The whole world including the UN has been unable to do anything until now. Every day we have a massacre, and every day this massacre gives birth to another massacre. It keeps multiplying. During that time, everybody’s watching and nothing is done. But the minute Bashar el Assad’s regime falls, I’m sure that this violence will stop.

When Syrians went out to rebel, their demands were very simple: freedom, justice and democracy. They were pacifist.

Samar Yazbek book

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