The Epoch of Human Shame: An Interview with Samar Yazbek

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rp_sy1-150x150.pngInterview by Will Forrester for PEN Transmissions, December 8, 2021

I think that if I could go back to those days, I would do the same thing all over again. I never regret going back to Syria – being there at the frontline, and in the middle of the war – nor do I regret leaving.I always tried to stay alive, but with my personal condition I had to do what needed to be done, despite the fear. By that token, in returning and sharing in death and people’s pain, through my discussions with them and with the fighters, I gained a greater understanding of the Syrian issue. Yes, fear was my hero.

Yes, I saw Syria’s future the moment I went back in 2012. I saw that we were embarking upon the country’s division via an international struggle to loot its wealth, gas being one of the most important parts of this. What frightens me most ten years on is the utter indifference to what has happened, as the international community keeps repeating what it terms “political realism” around the rehabilitation of Bashar Al-Assad, ignoring the war crimes that have been committed in Syria…

Something particularly compelling about Planet of Clay, your most recent novel, is the voice of the central character, Rima; that the narrative – one both of witness, and of lyrical fantasy – is delivered through the voice of a young girl, and indeed through the voice of a non-verbal individual. Could you talk to me a little about Rima? About why the voice of the novel is a girl’s, a child’s, a silent one?

Rima isn’t just a girl in the context of the novel. She talks about her childhood, but also about her adolescence, about growing up. In the novel she is a young woman, and a child, and the woman she will become in the future. The idea of her being silent and tied up emanates from the nature of the society in which she lives. It is a symbol of the story of most women in the Arab world. She is silent as an act of protest against the world, which doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t want to hear her or even to see her. She doesn’t want to stop walking because she wants her freedom. Rima is a fantastical, complicated, and confusing character, who is more than just a story about a girl in the war.

This is also one of the problems we see throughout the West: How does the other world see us? It doesn’t see the nature of composition and the novelistic labour that went into constructing the text. Instead, it sees politics, and it wants to speak about politics. This is how the West sees us: as political topics, even in our literature…

In Arabic, the novel is called Al-Masha’a. ‘Al-Masha’un’, or ‘The Walkers’, were Aristotle’s followers. Rima doesn’t stop walking because she is also claiming freedom of thought.

The form/genre of Planet of Clay felt, to me, like it had come from the same breath as the characters and plot and language – that these things were all born in the same moment, tightly braided together. I sensed that this had something to do with the radical force of imagination, and that it had something to say of both the ways in which storytelling and literature and the imagination are besieged by conflict, but also about the sustaining force of stories, literature and the imagination in contexts of conflict. Would you agree with that? Can the “literary” do something to bespeak these contexts in a way that the “documentary” can’t?

Literature has a magical power. This power rests in reinterpreting the world from a different aesthetic viewpoint and originating a more sensitive relationship with the outside world. In my project of documenting the Syrian war through books like A Woman in the Crossfire and The Crossing, or even Nineteen Women, I tried to convey the reality of the experience of war and revolution…

But my relationship with my novels is a different matter. When I write a novel, I am thinking of literature specifically: I consider the language, the construction of the phrase, the artistic and novelistic composition, producing a different linguistic narrative. My focus is the power of the imagination, and the words’ power in giving the text its uniqueness. This is my primary concern, and the themes, how to convey fact, all the other things, come afterwards…

There’s a moment full of horrific complexity in Planet of Clay: the moment in which, after the chemical attack, women die because their hijabs and clothes have been permeated by the chemicals, but the men will not remove them because it is haram. It feels like so many things are being said here – intersecting things, complex things, nuanced things. Would you be able to talk about that a little?

This is one of the scenes that I worked on the most. Deleting and rewriting it was exhausting. It is a scene based on confirmed evidence, told to me by a number of women who witnessed and survived the massacre in August 2013, one of whom was a lawyer and my friend, Razan Zeitouna. It gives an idea of the position of women in the war, and opens a wider window onto the multifaceted and complex violence that women face, and which Rima, in some way, was the fantastical character capable of narrating. She would not be able to narrate it if her strangeness was less…

The truth is that women die in this scene because the men decide not to remove their clothes – it is considered haram, and it goes against their religion and their shari’a (so they say). It was one of the most difficult scenes. Of course, the sensitivity of the scene here is that if the women’s clothes had been removed, the sarin gas would not have penetrated their bodies so quickly, and they might have lived. But the women are left to die….

How closely did you collaborate with Leri Price, the English-language translator of Planet of Clay, as she was translating?

For me, Leri isn’t just a translator. Leri is my writing partner in English. We discussed phrases, concepts and technical terms, even some words that were written in ‘amiya (spoken Syrian Arabic). There was a great cooperation between me and her, but she doesn’t need me much. Her relationship to Arabic literature is outstanding. I trust her, and after discussing I leave her with the freedom to make her own choices…

I started by asking about fear. I’d like to end by asking: what gives you comfort? What gives you hope?

Fear, for me, is the term I am trying to understand now – in the dilemma of human existence, and because I think that I am still living in fear. I witnessed a revolution and horrifying war. I have come right up to the cruelty and savagery of the human being. I know it in all its states, and I am aware that I have lost a lot of hope…

I don’t think of hope very much, and I am not optimistic about what is happening in this new world, which has witnessed the birth of a humanity with unclear features. My relationship with hope is simple: it is to work against the indifference of others to the pain of victims. For myself specifically, I have hope that through my words and my writing, novels and otherwise, I can give meaning to words, such as saying that we have been fighting for justice, and democracy, and freedom for the Syrian people…

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