This novel is set an in an unnamed country, led by an unnamed Leader. It’s no stretch of the imagination, though, to think that the country is Syria, and that the central character is the author, Sirees himself. Sirees is in exile, chased out of Syria for daring to encourage people to think, for questioning the history and propaganda created by the Assad regime, both that of the late Hafez, and that of his son, Bashar. Sirees was once the praise of Syrian literary circles, hosted a radio show and produced one of the most popular television series in the Arab world. But, he used his platforms to tell the truth, to question authority and for that, he was chased out. Today, he lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is a visiting professor at Brown University.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Nihad Sirees about his book, and about the situation in Syria. We spoke first about how Syria has ended up where it is today, torn apart by civil war, tens of thousands dead, millions displaced and how the regime reached the point of killing its own citizens to silence dissent. Sirees wrote a moving piece in Newsweek recently, called “Daddy Dearest,” where he traced the line of regime oppression in Syria, starting with the free officer revolution in 1961 and leading to the seizing of power by Hafez al-Assad in 1970. Relying on the popularity of Arab nationalism, Assad washed away a Syria noted for a parliamentary democracy that had bridged sectarian divides to bring about the model envisioned by his Ba’ath party.
Sirees told me of a glimmer of hope that Syria had had when Bashar al-Assad was called back to Syria from the UK, where he had been studying to become an ophthalmologist. Bashar, Sirees tells me, “was out of the machine,” and after his father died, tried to bring about change, however slight. He cooperated with intellectuals, consulted with economists, philosophers and writers and acknowledged those outside the circle of the regime. “The change was very little, but we felt it. We started to hear a new sound start to echo.” But, it was not to be. Since the day he had returned to Syria, Bashar had been entrenched in, surrounded by, the regime of his father. He had become the Leader, he was taught to become “accustomed to playing with the masses, to toying with them,” as the character Sheen describes it.
By 2011, the people of Dera’a dared to speak out against the regime. In response to the people questioning the regime, the military was used to enforce the status quo and the civil war was sparked. “They were not looking for a revolution,” Sirees tells me, “just answers.” Intellectuals were taken to prison, books clubs were outlawed, discussion groups broken up, Sirees’ office and home were raided in response to his hosting people to discuss the situation in the country. Security services infiltrated groups of friends and colleagues, and “we knew we were watched. When we spoke on the phone, we knew someone from the regime was listening. They (the regime) had decided at that time to save the regime, not to save Syria.” It was in that moment that Bashar became the Leader of Sirees’ novel, adopting the belief that democracy would bring down the regime, that “a million people must carry a million pictures (of the Leader)” to use Fathi Sheen’s words. “Now that’s reassuring. He believes this is the way the masses show their affection” regardless of whether they do it freely, under threat of arrest or with guns pointed at them, just of out the sight of the cameras capturing the moment for tonight’s newscast.
We spoke of how the war in Syria has spiraled out of control. “The Leader,” Sirees explains to me, “believes that if the people, even a million, are in the street to speak against him, instead of for him, then they deserve to be dead.” The regime no longer sees these people as part of the country, they are now the enemy. Sirees makes the comparison to a runaway slave, that the master is obliged to hunt down the runaway, and often to kill him, to assert his authority.
And, of course, there are actual outsiders who see their own opportunity in this situation, foreign fighters, religious warriors and others who seek to use the chaos to their own advantage. When I ask about the rise of the Islamist Nusra organization, Sirees chides me, “we are a faithful people in Syria, and when it looks like no one cares about us, we fight in God’s name, because he will stand with us when no one else does.” But, these radicals are armed and are able to stand against the regime, thus they are popular to a people hungry for the tools to fight their oppression. This does not mean, he tells me, that Syria will become another radical regime; the fight is not between Islamists and the regime. This, he tells me, is the image that the Assad regime wants to project. Sadly, he believes that there is another war coming in Syria, that once the Assad regime falls, Syrians will have to fight again to retain control of their country.
Syria, however, will rise again, Sirees tells me. Intellectuals and moderates will return from exile, himself included, to build the new Syria. “I am,” he reminds me, “a civil engineer by training. I’ve been retired for a few years, but I am ready to go home and start that work again.” His optimism is infectious, and is projected through his character of Sheen. Author and character are faced with tragedy, the roar of the regime, but remain hopeful. It is in reading The Silence and the Roar and in speaking with Sirees, that you can see a glimmer of hope for the future of Syria, despite what the morning’s headlines may tell you.
I asked Sirees if he is working on another novel. “No,” he tells me, “I am in exile and I cannot write here. I must be home.” He will soon continue his exile with travel to Dubai and Cairo in the coming months, but sees his return to his home in Aleppo as unavoidable. If for no other reason, the war in Syria must come to an end and return this gem to his writing desk.
By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist