Khaled Khalifa, the renowned Syrian novelist, is holding court at Rich Mix, an arts center in London’s East End, his impish eyes and hilarious anecdotes on life in Damascus easing the sombre mood that surrounds most events focusing on Syria.
“Khaled, your books have been banned in Syria, and still you continue to live and write in Damascus, despite the secret police and all the things you can’t say in public,” asks a colleague, Malu Halasa. “A weaker man would have stopped, why do you continue?”
“Because I am very strong man,” he responds. The audience bursts into laughter. He regales those present with tales of his encounters with the Syrian regime. Although his books are banned in Syria, he is extremely popular there, which may have granted him some immunity from the state’s crackdown on dissidents.
Tonight, he tells of the Syrian censorship director, who banned his books but complained that his wife loves Khalifa’s writing and the airport customs officer who found Khalifa’s books in his suitcase but instead of confiscating them, took him aside to ask for his autograph.
The London event, “Syria Speaks,” was just one in a series of events held across the United Kingdom this June 11-16 to promote an eponymous book, a product of two years’ hard work and the contributions of 55 Syrian artists and writers, who explore themes of censorship, repression and immeasurable violence.
This particular event was organised by Saqi Books and the Arab British Centre among others. It commenced with a short film Mortar, shot during a protest in Aleppo, where a young girl’s singing of a pro-revolution chant ended suddenly and violently in shrouded chaos. The film throws the audience right into the midst of the uprising, succinctly capturing the essence of how it all began.
“At the start, the Syrian people went out singing and dancing and the regime responded with mortars,” Zaher Omareen, one of the book’s co-editors says.
“The mortars are what led us to Syria’s current state; not the singing, poetry and painting. The little girl sings and they drop bombs on her.”
Syria Speaks is an anthology of pro-revolution art and literature, a “literary response to the violence,” as Omareen puts it, compiling anti-regime poster art, graffiti, puppetry and even Facebook posts by a young poet from Northern Syria.
There is dark humor in Syria Speaks amidst the description of incredible suffering on the Syrian streets, in the homes and prisons. The collection of honest and brutal depictions pulls no punches in the artists’ struggle to explain the reality of Syria today in all its violence, contradictions and memories.
During the two years of the book’s production, several contributors were arrested, forced to disappear or jailed by the Syrian regime or by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) rebels.
Mazen Darwish, one of the book’s contributors and a prominent human-rights activist, has been missing for months after regime forces raided his office. He is feared dead by his family and friends. His photo hung on an empty chair at the panel’s table at Rich Mix as a reminder of the dangers that activists and intellectuals face there today.
The gravity of the situation and the risks that the book’s editors and contributor faced in its production should not be discounted, but Khalifa nonchalantly shrugged off questions about his personal safety.
“When we wake up in the morning and we go to our work, we can’t understand how this day will end,” he tells the audience. “Every day, we have problems with checkpoints in Damascus, with the secret service, with food and electricity; but they are normal problems. Sometimes I can’t write. Sometimes I can’t sleep.”
Later, he says in an interview that the world makes too much about his books’ being banned in Syria.
“I don’t think they can understand us or our situation, because they don’t deal with state censorship,” he says. “To me, it’s a trivial matter, so what? How can I complain that my book is banned to my friend who has spent 15 years in a state jail? How can I have the gall to say that to his face?”
Robin Yassin-Kassab, a panelist at the event and a contributor to the book, reflected on his time in Syria and the schism between what Syria is and how it is viewed in the West.
“There’s a lot of silliness and orientalism in the way it’s being recorded and described,” he says. “So it feels good for me to be able to write people’s stories.”
Like all panellists at this event, Yassin-Kassab passionately refers to the events in Syria as a “revolution,” not a conflict or a civil war. The word is a form of resistance in itself, an endeavour to re-appropriate the narrative of Syria from the state that banned this word and from the international media that toed the line of the state discourse.
“The regime calls it a crisis,” Omareen explains. “Just using the word ‘revolution’ in Syria will put you in serious danger. Honestly, in all the work we do, all Syrians, whether politically active or not, we are all in danger.”
It was illustrator and panelist Khalil Younes’ first time in London. He spoke about his pen-and-ink series Revolution 2011, in particular his illustration of Hamza Bakour, a young boy from Homs whose jaw was blown apart by a pro-regime RPG.
“I felt it was important to draw him,” he tells the audience. “We need to make some things into history; we need to make these people into icons to remember them.”
Younes also contributed a short story of his lifelong friend who was drafted into the Syrian army and chose to fight for Assad out of fear of religious extremists controlling the country.
Younes speaks with fierce emotion about their friendship and the struggle to find common ground with the enemy’s side. His friend, Hassan, is a good man who helps save children during sniper attacks, but fights on Assad’s side.
The dichotomy of Hassan and the ethical complexity of their friendship is just one nuance in the book’s insight into the turbulent, incomprehensible reality of living with hate and death and finding beauty in a country embittered by destruction.
“We hope that one day this open killing will cease. Sooner or later, we will have to live with each other,” Omareen told me at the end of the night, as fans and Syrian expatriates flocked to the panelists for their autographs and anecdotes about life back home.
“Arbitrary killings are the status quo in Syria, but it’s also fair to say that the people, despite all the daily bloodshed and destruction, they keep on living. We keep on living, we keep on talking; we keep on making art.”