A censored writer’s capacity for love and laughter is his only recourse against the mind-numbing “roar” of his country’s megalomaniacal dictator.
Country Focus: Syria (Suriyah in Arabic)
The Silence and the Roar
By Nihad Sirees
Translated by Max Weiss
Originally published in Lebanon as Al Samt Wal Sakhab by Dar al-Adab, 2004.
My edition: Other Press, 2013.
Time period: Contemporary
Blacklisted writer Fathi Chin steps out of his apartment only to be engulfed by hordes of people marching in celebration of their Leader’s 20th anniversary. He wants nothing to do with this roaring mob, but when he sees a group of authorities beating a young man, he intercedes. The annoyed officials turn their attention to Fathi and take his ID. The only way for Fathi to get it back is to pick it up at Party headquarters later that day.
In the meantime, he decides to avoid further contact with the marchers by visiting his widowed mother, whose house lies in the opposite direction. She surprises him with the news that she is about to be engaged to Ha’el Ali Hassan, a once low-ranking community leader who gained fame and favor for catching the Leader when he stumbled and nearly fell. Ha’el has since been promoted to head up the Leader’s personal security team. Fathi reminds his mother that he and the Party have butted heads — awkward family get-togethers await, starting with the impending wedding! She shrugs his negativity off and says that Ha’el has enough influence to get Fathi’s writing career going again.
Burdened by the news of his mother’s ironic engagement, Fathi heads over to his girlfriend Lama’s apartment for some afternoon delight. Afterward, Fathi vents to her about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Lama shares Fathi’s dislike and distrust of the Party. She asserts that Ha’el plans to marry Fathi’s mother in order to coerce Fathi into writing pro-Party propaganda.
Armed with that hypothesis and boundless insouciance, Fathi makes his way to Party headquarters to reclaim his identification. This bizarre bureaucratic experience ultimately leads to a face-off with his future father-in-law, Ha’el.
Syrian author Nihad Sirees devotes much of his novel to its two main subjects, the silence and the roar. The silence refers to the silence of censorship, of incarceration, of death, and of the once commonplace, “gentle” sounds that can no longer be heard over the overwhelming roar that characterizes the Leader’s ceaseless political bandwagon, the chants of the brainwashed citizens, the ear-worm pro-party slogans, and the clamorous mandatory marches.
Sirees never mentions either the setting or “The Leader” by name, but I imagine that he drew from personal experience. Syrian authorities banned The Silence and the Roar and harassed Sirees to such a degree that he was forced into exile in 2012.
I found Sirees’ short, satirical book to be illuminating in its depiction of how thoroughly a despot can commandeer his citizens’ attention and virtually eliminate all public expression of independent, unsanctioned thought. When I think of freedom of speech and the press, obscenity and hate speech-related issues come to mind; Sirees reminded me of the First Amendment’s possibly most vital purpose: the permission to critique one’s own government freely and openly. Americans love to complain about their presidents, and that’s a right I’m going to try to remember not to take for granted.
The book’s Afterward, written by Sirees in 2012, is particularly poignant, considering the current state of affairs in Syria: “There is another kind of roar that this author never thought the leader would ever be capable of using: the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities. The leader is leveling cities and using lethal force against his own people in order to hold on to power. We must ask, alongside the characters in this novel: What kind of Surrealism is this? As I present my novel to the English reader, my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.”
“They should be chanting ‘Obscene, Obscene, the Leader is Obscene,’ because he is so obscenely obese.”
“The people shouldn’t look at the Leader’s imperfections.”
“Chunkiness isn’t an imperfection. The chant would be more realistic that way. And besides, I love overweight men. Unfortunately your father was skinny so I could never find anywhere to tickle him.”
“I’m glad my father was thin and passed that skinniness on to me. Do you really wish he had been fat?”
“I wish he had been like the Leader. I think the Leader likes being tickled.”
“How would you know such a thing?”
“Whenever he laughs he keeps his arms down at his sides. That’s how a person laughs to prevent someone from tickling him.”
“You’d better be careful, Mum. A joke about the Leader costs whoever cracks it six months’ hard time.”
“That was less a joke than a revelation. Are they going to throw me in jail for revealing that the Leader is constantly under threat of being tickled?”