Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Literature in Conflict: Syrian Writers Abroad

by Keene Short
Syarian-born writer Mohja Kahf

The civil war in Syria has driven millions of Syrians into forced migration and diaspora, creating a large-scale refugee crisis in Western Asia and Europe. The conflict emerged after the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and early 2012, when Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracked down on the Syrian population through censorship, arrests, and eventual military tactics. However, just as the Assad regime did not wake up one morning and decide to oppress its population, the population did not wake up one morning and decide to resist. The current struggle follows decades of resistance against authoritarian regimes in Syria, and writers have always been a part of that resistance.

Nihad Sirees, for example, is a Syrian novelist, born in Aleppo in 1950. The author of seven novels, including The Silence and the Roar which is currently banned in Syria, Sirees fled his home country in 2012, and now writes from Berlin, Germany. He has also authored several plays and written for television.

Similarly, Zakaria Tamer, born in Damascus in 1931, fled Syria much earlier in the early 1980s, when President Hafez al-Assad’s military conducted a massacre against Islamists during a period of authoritarianism and civil unrest mirroring the conflict today. Tamer used his writing to denounce the regime before departing to England, where he continued to write for and about his home country. He is the author of numerous short story collections, including We Shall Laugh and Breaking Knees. A short sample of his writing, "For Every Fox, an End," can be found here.

Writers in diaspora can connect places and themes across the globe. Palestinian-Syrian poet Ghayath Almadhoun is a best-selling author in Belgium. Similarly, Syrian-born author Mohja Kahf, whose work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, grew up in the United States after her parents migrated in the early 1970s. In her writing she explores life as a Muslim woman living in the west. She now teaches English at the University of Arkansas. Samar Yazbek, a journalist from Syria, writes about crossing theSyrian border to report on the conflict in her memoir The Crossing, after years of exile in Paris for her opposition to the Assad regime long before the Uprisings.

Dima Alzayat, whose short story “In the Land of Kan’an” appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of Prairie Schooner, is another Syrian-born author raised in the United States. Apart from her own writing, she also works as the social media manager for Salam Neighbor, a film campaign to benefit Syrian refugees.

Political strife has risen and fallen in Syria since the 1960s, decades after French colonial occupation ended in 1946. Hafez al-Assad eventually seized power in 1970; his policies sparked tension with Islamists and other factions, culminating in riots and massacres during the 1980s. Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000. Initially a peaceful regime compared to the brutality of the 1980s that forced a first wave of Syrians to flee, Bashar al-Assad’s tactics became increasingly authoritarian. The Uprisings and civil war pulled apart the regime’s peaceful facade, exposing a brutality similar to that of other regional dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Writers may not connect to places more than the rest of us, but they have the power to express the meaning of those connections. Writers in diaspora are often torn between places, one of safety and the other of heritage. Like the millions of refugees fleeing Syria now, Syrian writers abroad must navigate the relationship between a cultural community and the home that that community can no longer occupy. Syrian and Syrian-born writers in the U.S. and Europe rise to the occasion through a rich variety of poetry, fiction, memoir, and theater. For audiences seeking to know Syria better, they offer invaluable insights, experiences, and voices. They have already contributed a vast canon of Syrian literature despite decades of conflict.