Not a Universal Story, a Flexible One

M. Lynx Qualey
February 4, 2013
Comments 1

When reviewer Sarah Irving read Nihad Sirees’s The Silence and the Roarshe saw Palestine.

This is not particularly surprising; I imagine Sarah, who has written a biography on Leila Khaled and a Bradt Guide to Palestine, sees analogies to Palestine in lots of places. Sirees’s novel is clearly set in Syria’s streets, homes, hospitals, and government buildings, although he doesn’t ever mention the country’s name. Yet names don’t matter. Even if Sirees weren’t from Aleppo, it would be clear everywhere in the book.

The novel follows Fathi Sheen, a silenced writer, one whom the unnamed regime has ordered to stop his words. He walks out of his apartment one morning into the roar of a march in praise of this same regime and its (unnamed) Leader.

Fathi is menaced by these two states throughout: On the one side, there is the roar of unquestioning belief, the shouts and echoes of those who support and create the regime. And, on the other, there is the silence of censorship, of self-censorship, of speaking when no one cares to listen. There is also “the silence of the grave,” as one security agent threatens at the end.

But there are other places, too. There is the love (and lust) Fathi feels for his girlfriend, Lama. There is humor — perhaps most important of all, for derailing both the silence and the roar — and there is the quiet that Sheen desires, in which one can hear “the soft sounds of nature, like those made by the breeze when it blows through trees with hardy, dusty leaves.”

Sheen’s story is perhaps not an easily “universal” one, in the same way we could say of a love story, “Oh yes, this is universal.” (Although we could be wrong about that love story, as each telling of love has its cultural context and meanings.) But, if not universal, Sheen’s story is flexible: His vision is big enough to reach out and encompass other places, other times.

Sarah, who has a special interest in Palestine, saw an analogy to Palestine. I, who had just made a temporary move to the U.S., saw in Sheen’s “silence” also the silence of alienation, and in Sheen’s “roar” also the roar of a consumerist society, the blare of a thousand-thousand fashion magazines and a thousand-thousand televisions all playing the same crime-and-torture show.

The wonderful thing about Sirees’s small book — which has been given a wonderful, invisible-ninja translation from Max Weiss — is that while it is absolutely and specifically about Syria, Sirees has made it large enough to incorporate your story as well.

One thought on “Not a Universal Story, a Flexible One

  1. Marcia, lovely to see that you are part of KR’s blogging team. I loved your review of Sirees’s book and your review of the review–this is an area of literature and the world that I don’t know much about, except that there’s much passion and confusion on all sides. You manage to acknowledge, understand, and sidestep all that. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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