Saturday, May 16, 2015


The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

How easy it is to destroy what has taken so long to build! The ruins of Syria--the impulse toward destruction is irresistible. History: the struggle of a few to build something they are condemned to see blown to bits by the fanatics while the indifferent look on. 

“The split in America, [and elsewhere] rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythical world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”  [Chris Hedges, American Fascists]

"O soldiers of the Islamic State, be ready for the final campaign of the crusaders. Yes, by Allah’s will, it will be the final one. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market." [Public statement of ISIS, 2014]

"Mythical world of intuition"--this is surely the world of, among others, ISIS and its enemy Bashar al-Assad, the optometrist turned Leader of Syria.  The Arab Spring came late to Syria. "Bashar al-Assad, helped by the nasty reputation of his security services, looked as thought he would survive...What changed everything was an incident which threw into sharp relief the untackled problems of his security state. At the beginning of March 2011, children aged nine to fifteen wrote graffiti on the wall of their school in the depressed southern town of Der'a calling for the fall of the regime..." It was this simple act--and the later arrest, detention, and probable torture of these school children that brought the Arab Spring, at long last, to Syria. Assad's mythical world met reality in that year, and the unraveling of Syria began in earnest. [John McHugo, Syria]

"Where once your eyes met the walls of buildings, a silent plain now extended to infinity. Was it a cemetery? But what beings had buried their dead there and then put chimneys on the graves? Nothing grew there but the chimneys emerging from the ground like monuments, like dolmens or admonitory fingers. DId the dead lying below them breathe the blue ether through those chimneys?" [W.G. Sebald, "Between History and Natural History," from Campo Santo

"To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is a part of environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited." [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, file under 'the treason of the intellectuals']

“Out of the night of history old shadows are appearing which menace their bourgeois complacency. Growing groups of unknown men out of the streets are laughing the unbeliever’s hollow laugh at all those things the democrat has taught the people to hold dear. Worst of all, a figure appears that they had thought was gone for ever over the great scaffolds of the Reformation … The oligarchs and the democrats dread this classic figure more than anarchy – for it is the figure of the Leader …” [James Drennan, Oswald Mosley and British Fascism]

The Silence and the Roar by the great Aleppian novelist Nihad Sirees asks the question: what is the cost of defying a corrupt status quo? The answer, not surprisingly, has it origins in Kafka, in all the obvious places, but also in one of the parables:

"Everything came to his aid during the construction work. Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another. The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers. No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple--or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should. Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone--from what quarry had they come?--for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children's hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers." [Kafka, "The Building of the Temple"]

Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of Sirees' deceptively simple novel, falls unwittingly into the mechanisms of the temple, the Temple of the Leader--and from the moment of Sheen's fall,  The Silence and the Roar becomes a savage satire of all dictatorial regimes, but of Syria's in particular. The first half of the novel certainly invokes Kafka; the second half Orwell--in any case, as Sirees puts it in the afterword (written in 2012 as Aleppo was destroyed), "We must ask, alongside the characters in this novel: What kind of surrealism is this?" 

Or perhaps a better way to approach the civil war in Syria--the formation of ISIS, Assad's deliberate destruction of his own country as a means of denying a dizzying array of rebel groups a nation to aspire toward governing, the exploitation of Syria's misery by cynical forces throughout the Middle East--how did the surreal become the real?

The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss, is published by The Other Press (2013).

George Ovitt (5/16/15)

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