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A Scream Has No Alphabet: An Interview with Aïcha Arnaout

Born in Damascus, the poet and novelist Aïcha Arnaout has lived in Paris since 1978. We have had quite a few conversations over the past few years, often at the Marché de la Poésie, an annual event that takes place in early summer on the Place Saint-Sulpice, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Last March, she became totally engaged in the Syrian revolt, working day and night to send news updates and attend meetings in support of her people. We no longer meet at readings, only at rallies and evenings centered on current events in Syria. She replied to my questions shortly after another of those evenings where a young woman had sung a cappella in Ugaritic and Syriac, as a tribute to the Syrian protesters, moving the audience to tears. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Cécile Oumhani: After the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions, did you expect demonstrations would start in Syria too?

Aïcha Arnaout: No, I did not. For half a century, Syria had been ruled with an iron hand. No one could talk, no one could move. In short, no one had a right to have an opinion of her own, as there was permanent repression of the opposition and relentless propaganda. Under the reign of the two Assads, Syria had become a Jamlakya—in Arabic, a “monarchic republic.” The word was coined when Hafez al-Assad was preparing his son Bassel to become heir apparent to the presidency. Any attempt to revolt was quelled in cold blood.

With this terrible history of arrests, detentions, torture, rape, and murder, you will understand why I did not dream the lungs of Syria could ever breathe free, how the gag that sealed its lips could ever be ripped to pieces.

During the Tunisian revolution, I was alone in the countryside, in my winter retreat, following this fascinating uprising against tyranny, and I did not think of Syria then. When Egypt’s turn came, I was simply carried away, as if I had taken some magic potion, even though I still worried. I called an Egyptian friend on the phone several times a day. Despite the atrocities at the time, he was filled with hope. I could hear it in his voice. He would say: “Syria will follow soon.”  I would answer: “Enough illusions, this is impossible; this won’t happen for many years.” Determined, he would insist:  “You will see, it will come very soon.” I can still hear his voice today.

Those days at the beginning seemed unreal, as if I did not exist anymore.  I felt I had been hypnotized and transported to a dreamlike sphere, beyond time and location.  Then all of a sudden, I felt I was being reborn.  A little over a month ago, I said to a friend that the Syrian revolution had given birth to me. And there is no chauvinism in my speaking of a “great people”—far from it. Indeed I was born in Damascus of immigrant parents. Yet my fate is linked to the fate of these people, and my blood is related to theirs.

Bouazizi inflamed the Tunisians’ desire for freedom.   Egypt, still reeling from the murder of Khaled Saïd last year, ignited. Then the Syrian regime arrested and tortured a group of children, and that barbarity and brutality triggered the Syrian revolt.

From outside, these are like separate sources; but looking from a different angle, we realize there is a seismic wave running through the ground beneath the feet of despotic regimes. The fires of rebellion are sweeping across all Arab countries right now. 

CO: What is going to happen in the next few weeks, as protesters, peacefully asking for the fall of the regime, for democracy, are being repressed with unheard-of cruelty?

AA: Despite the hopes inspiring new visions for the future, we face the unknown. The peaceful determination of the Syrian people and its cohesion, beyond any ethnic or denominational divides, will pave the way toward optimistic horizons. We are now demanding the fall of the government, all of us, inside and outside the country. We want those who perpetrated crimes against humanity to be tried. The toll of the past four months is heavy: 1,800 dead, including a hundred children; 16,000 imprisoned; 15,000 refugees. Countless numbers of people have “disappeared.”

The Syrian people are determined to see the revolution through to the end, with peaceful demonstrations and general strikes. They are coordinating committees in all cities. During the first month of the revolt, we saw protesters go out with their shrouds on their shoulders. Now they no longer take them, as those who die for a noble cause can be buried without shrouds.

The demonstrators for Bashar, organized by the regime, are his supporters and plainclothes security forces, as well as students and civil servants, who are forced to display their support for Bashar or risk losing their jobs or being sanctioned in their studies.

CO: What are the specifics of the Syrian uprising?

AA: The Arab Spring uprisings are inspired by the same desires; the only differences are local. The Syrian revolution was triggered by the Assadist regime’s brutal torture of a group of children. Imitating the Tunisian and Egyptian slogans they saw on unofficial TV channels, they scrawled “down with the regime” on the walls of their school. The children were arrested and their nails pulled out. Those savaged little fingers turned a new page in Syrian history.

Despite the regime’s violence, the Syrian demonstrations are peaceful: the marchers meet gun barrels and tanks with empty hands, rifles with olive branches.  Meanwhile, while occupying cities and murdering protesters, the regime claims to foster reform using the media to discredit the revolt and justify the government’s response, and calling for dialogue with the so-called opposition, in an attempt to clear itself at home and abroad among those who are still trying to make sense of the situation in Syria. 

CO: Because the demonstrations generally start in mosques, some suspect these protesters of being fundamentalists.

AA: In Syria, any gathering in the street has been forbidden since the state of emergency was proclaimed, with the exception of two places: stadiums and mosques. All sports matches have been canceled since the revolt began, but the regime could not close the mosques. That’s why you will see crowds of demonstrators walking out of the mosques every Friday. I have several Christian and non-practicing Muslim friends who go to the mosque to be able to demonstrate. At the moment, the spirit of protest is gaining such momentum that crowds have started demonstrating daily without necessarily going to the mosques.

CO: You live in Paris, yet you are very involved in everything that is going on right now. How do you coordinate your action with what is going on inside Syria? A lot has been said about the role played in other Arab revolts by the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. Is it the same in Syria?

AA: Those paying the price for freedom with their lives must have the right to speak. To know what is going on, my friends here and I keep in touch with our friends over there, directly and indirectly. The means of communicating you mention are fabulous indeed. They have changed the world. Indeed they have become an indispensable tool for our revolutions. Still we must never forget that the Syrian regime has turned the country into a vast prison where it operates behind closed doors. It is besieging cities with its tanks and armored vehicles. It is turning off electricity and the water supply, controlling phone calls, and cutting the Internet, hacking some sites and Facebook pages, blocking YouTube and other services. A month ago, I heard that security agents and intelligence services were arresting Web site owners and torturing them to access their passwords and use them to change the data on their sites and pages. They have an army of people hacking and adding indecent and aggressive comments. I can now recognize their style. On the other hand, we can see the young of the revolution learning to retaliate and hack official sites in return. There is a virtual fight going on, unarmed and with masked faces.

No journalist is allowed to cover events behind these huge closed doors. The population has decided to try to make up for the absence of the media by developing their own on-the-ground journalism. These inexperienced reporters using the means at hand have changed our vision.  The use of mobile phones means that photographs can be distributed throughout the country. We are witnessing a new phenomenon and the Syrians are achieving something huge at the risk of their lives.

CO: What do you think of the way the rest of the world is reacting to the situation in Syria? Stereotypes and a lack of knowledge concerning the Arab world are still common and hinder a stronger expression of solidarity.

AA: I once said that the world had blinkers, not only regarding the case of Syria, but also about other people fighting for their freedom and independence.

The Syrian people find themselves alone. The local committees throughout Syria are calling all the countries in the world and international organizations to implement strong sanctions and totally isolate the Syrian government, end any contact until it steps down. The Syrian people categorically refuse any military intervention of any kind.

CO: What is the role of poets and novelists in the present situation?

Writers should stand up for humanity, justice and the universal principles defining the rights of each living being to dignity, respect, and well-being. I am of course not referring to the subjects they deal with, but to their positions regarding the world, their ideas. They are free to choose any subject. The invisible driving force in their works will bear the marks of their principles. While Picasso was working on “Guernica” and expressing his anger, Matisse was painting still lifes, soothing spirits tormented by the war. Both painters shared the same views.

In the present tragic situation, poets and writers should stand by the side of the Syrian people. They should do their best to become available for those historical moments, through their writing or other forms of action. Of course this depends on each writer or artist’s personality, style and choices.

The Arab Spring offers a great variety of experiences, new and intense emotions. It is an opportunity for other forms of creation, in unison with the people. In the case of Syria, this has led to innovation. People have composed expressive songs; they have written poems directly inspired by events. Young people, in particular, have made marvelous use of grim humor and a mischievous vocabulary, experimenting with new forms of expression.

I cannot understand how some can remain silent in this turmoil. Even if they choose not to write, at least they should not hide behind an opaque wall, as if they were busy analyzing figures on a page of calculations. This is a historic moment, a moment when speech is golden.

CO: What are you writing at the moment? Can we write a revolt when it is still under way? Does this context lead you to opt for what we call in French “une écriture de l’urgence” (writing as a matter of urgency)?

AA: I write screams, sudden ideas, sentences scattered on dozens of pieces of paper I leave on my desk, sentences beside phone numbers, daily numbers of casualties, notes of all sorts, lists with the names of the people who have been arrested, who have disappeared. I spend most of my time in front of my computer screen, writing e-mails, making and receiving phone calls. I send and receive a huge number of messages every day; I attend meetings and engage myself in activities around them.

I sometimes write as a matter of urgency only to realize the following day that the Syrian people have already gone much further than I have. I find that what I wrote the day before has become ridiculous, obsolete.

I can’t tell you how much time I spend watching protesters, individuals whose faces I compulsively observe and memorize. It seems my eyes absorb the color of their clothes, the light on their bodies. I recognize all these strangers one by one. I address them, telling them how much I love them, how much I admire them. I cry, overcome by a strange mix of joy and anger to see them on the other side of life, without my being able to join them.

I go on listening to them, speaking to them, knowing they can’t hear me and will never recognize my voice. These are special moments and they captivate me.

It is the urgency that calls me, not just the need to produce some writing as a matter of urgency. I have written three poems I regard as screams, one in Arabic and two in French. But at the same time, I am engaged in other things that are more concrete, even though they are only tiny drops compared to what Syrians inside Syria are engaged in. I keep thinking how they have begun their fifth month with even more determination, still as peacefully, although they know the price will remain exorbitant.

CO: You write in Arabic and in French. Does the present situation lead you to use one language more than the other?

AA: Not at all. A scream has no alphabet. It is the same in all languages. It only depends on the first flash reflected in my neurons.  Even when I speak to the Syrian protesters, I sometimes do it in French, a language they might not even understand.

CO: Could an international movement of artists, writers, and filmmakers play a role at the moment to back the present uprising?

AA: It is important to show the others they are not all alone and that we share their grief and aspirations. This is a source of moral energy, something physical. Yes, solidarity with the Syrian people should be expressed in different ways, those that suit each of us. In fact this is as if we were signing for a common fate at the level of humankind. We all have to act as a matter of urgency in the present situation and such a movement concerns all human beings whatever their beliefs and ideas.

Let’s begin with Syria and rethink our world.