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Unsurprisingly, frayed emotions and destroyed lives dominate the latest writing from Syria. Waiting is a collection of love poems by the human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi Safadi, written for her husband Bassel Khartabil Safadi, a prominent Syrian Internet activist in prison since 2012. Breaking Knees: 63 Very Short Stories from Syria, the tenth short-story collection by the country’s best known practitioner of the genre, Zakaria Tamer, launched at Free Word Centre last month, is a primer on the entrenched violent roots of repression that has all but destroyed the country today.
The two collections differ in the generational approaches of their authors. In a download edition from Apple or Lulu, Ghazi, 34, describes the anguish of missing her husband who, since his translation of her poems into English, disappeared from Damascus’s Adra prison in October last year. Breaking Knees, translated into English from the Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi in 2008, first appeared when the author was 77 years old. In this new edition published by Periscope, political, sexual and religious violence infect the most ordinary of relationships in sequentially numbered short stories, some of which are only as long as a paragraph.
In No. 55, rape is not only the punishment of women who step out of line in a village. It is also used by a gang of heavily moustached invaders as a tool of control and humiliation against the men living there. The story would be too disturbing to read if not for Tamer’s compelling economy of language and tone which occupies the ground between folk tale, parable and urban myth. Despite his subject matter, sometimes a talking apple or mealy-mouthed newborn baby provides much needed comic relief.
How women wait for a detained loved one is another common thread between the two collections. There is an implicit understanding by both authors that Syria’s incarcerated are routinely tortured, but neither bothers to explain or go into detail about something so ubiquitous throughout the ‘dungeons’ – a word Syrians use to describe the plethora of prisons manned by many different branches of the military and secret police, which operate their own security detention centres in the country’s cities and towns. The extent of institutionalised torture during Syria’s hijacked spring was revealed in 2014 by the
Caesar photographs, a leaked documentary archive showing the dead and maimed from a garage that doubled as an impromptu morgue next to a military hospital in Mezze, the same district as Bashar and Asma al-Assad’s presidential palace. Regime bureaucrats intent on fulfilling the strict mandates of an obsessive state have in effect provided the evidence of the Assad government’s war crimes.
During the early days of the 2011 revolution, Ghazi was working on a case of a friend of Bassel Khartabil Safadi. She met and fell in love with Syria’s best-known open-source software developer, who worked with Creative Commons, among others. Khartabil – or as he is known in the cyberspace Bassel Safadi – was pivotal in publicising the country’s nonviolent demonstrations and for the conceptual thinking behind MIT Media Lab, Mozilla and other’s archaeology project, NewPalmyra, 3D online reconstructed models of the ancient Palmyra ruins that Daesh or Islamic State began destroying last year. In 2012, he ranked 19th in a list including Aung San Sui Kyi and the US economist Paul Krugman as one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Top Global Thinkers.
The couple had planned to marry a year to the day that they first met in 2011, but by March 2012 Safadi had been detained by one of the security services and was held incommunicado in the country’s labyrinthine and secretive penal system for nine months. In December of that year he resurfaced and was charged with ‘harming state security’ and sent to Adra prison in Damascus. Eventually, in 2013, the couple were allowed to marry inside the prison, earning them the nickname ‘the bride and groom of the Syrian revolution’.
Ghazi began writing poetry for her husband the first time he disappeared in 2012. The poems exhibit the longing of a woman whose happiness has been stolen from her. Despite the emotionally charged tenor of many of the poems, as a human rights lawyer Ghazi has a pragmatic understanding of her and Khartabil’s situation. The very moving ‘It happens’, written in 2013, captures both the heights of her despair and her stoicism. In the end, small things – like a perpetually empty bed – undoes her (and the reader as well). In ‘My Revolution’ she draws parallels between her love and the social and political uprising that rocked the country in 2011, closing with the promise: ‘Your love will not be worthy unless it is my revolution…’ In prison, Khartabil translated these poems, and the 27 others in Waiting, into English.
Syria has a tradition of poetry smuggled out of its jails. The poet Faraj Bayrakdar, jailed for 15 years – 7 years of which he was not charged – wrote his verse in miniscule lines on cigarette papers. That Ghazi’s poems appear in English is a miracle of logistics and sleight of hand. One can only hope that they are not the reason why Khartabil disappeared once again in October last year into one of the regime’s secret dungeons. No one – not even his lawyer and wife – knows his whereabouts. Since then, there have been unsubstantiated but persistent rumours of his death.
In Breaking Knees, those who have been abused take their lead from their abusers. Now 85, Tamer was one of the first Syrians to write about this murky world. He is also one of the few older generation Syrian writers, which includes the novelist Khaled Khalifa, to address the oppression of women in his fiction. When Tamer left his country in 1980 he was already known for his short stories for adults and children, as well as for his journalism. Now he maintains an active presence on Facebook where he chastised Johnny-come-lately-writers who now support the revolution despite keeping silent during years of dictatorship.
Unlike their author, Tamer’s long-suffering characters were cowed into submission long before the country’s 2011 revolution. Meanwhile Ghazi readily admits that she has caught her husband’s ‘madness’ – i.e. passion – for a free Syrian society and, against the odds, envisions his release. From their unique points of view, both writers have intimate knowledge of their country’s darkest, most shameful secrets, yet they still dare to dream about a better future for Syria and the people they love.
Malu Halasa is a writer and editor in London. Her books include Syria Speaks – Art and Culture from the Frontline (London: Saqi Books, 2014); Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations (2009); The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (2008); Kaveh Golestan: Recording the Truth in Iran (2007); Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images (2004) and Creating Spaces of Freedom: Culture in Defiance (2002). Last year, Malu finished her first novel, Mother of All Pigs. Her essays, publications, exhibitions and lectures showcase the culture and politics of a complex and changing Middle East.
Click here to listen to Zakaria Tamer speak at Free Word Centre, where he was in conversation with Malu Halasa and Alice Guthrie to launch Breaking Knees; you can also read story 55 here, and you can read ‘It happens’ by Noura Ghazi Safadi here.
From the ‘About’ section of Waiting by Noura Ghazi Safadi:
‘Waiting… is a prose book by Noura Ghazi Safadi, a Syrian human rights lawyer, born in Damascus in 1981, written to her husband Bassel Khartabil Safadi over a three year period from 2012–2015, while he was imprisoned by the Syrian government in Damascus.
Bassel Khartabil Safadi is a Palestinian Syrian free software developer born in 1981. On March 15, 2012, Bassel was detained in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. Until October 2015, he was being held at Adra Prison in Damascus by the Syrian government. His current whereabouts are unknown. There were rumours that Bassel was sentenced to death, but the credibility of this information has not been confirmed.
Bassel translated this book into English while serving time in Adra prison.
The cover design was created and donated by Mr. Youssef Abdalki.’
Waiting was produced by the #FreeBassel campaign, Dana Trometer and Christopher Adams.
On Saturday 19 March 2016, a worldwide street protest is taking place to ask #WhereIsBassel? The London event begins at 2pm at Marble Arch; see the event page for more information. You can download resources here.
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