Samar Yazbek: ‘Syria has been hung, drawn and quartered’
Article • Publié sur Souria Houria le 25 septembre 2015
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 back into Syria…
As she sits at a cafe table in the 7th arrondissement – elegant and intense, waving around a Gitane 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.
“I wanted to believe still in hope”: Samar Yazbek near her home in Paris this month. Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer
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. 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 rebels.
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.”
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, she says, 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; she 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 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.
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 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.