Peter Clark reviews

Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official

by Miriam Cooke

Duke University Press, 2007

ISBN-13: 9780822340355

96pp, £11.99, $21.95

Negotiating or rejecting limits on freedom

In Damascus during the 1990s, miriam cooke has written about the constraints on writers during that time.

Syria has for decades had a repressive regime, with an official ideology sustained by Ministries and security apparatus. It has also officially encouraged creative writing, with the Ministry of Culture supporting writers and artists and facilitating publications. The situation was neither monolithic nor static. Writers certainly had to be careful what they wrote and how they wrote, but there were many strategies for survival.

Some writers could not tolerate the restraints and left the country, either temporarily like Hani al-Raheb, or permanently, like Zakaria Tamer. Others stayed, remaining silent or facing imprisonment. But most were in general supportive of many aspects of the Ba’athist ideology – secularism, women’s rights, provision for education and being part of a wider Arab world. But those writers who stayed had to negotiate their position, often with considerable success.

Some writers were able to be creative and had no quarrel with the regime. The writings of Hana Mina and Nadia Khost recorded a grim past from which the Ba’athist governments had liberated Syria.

Others received some patronage or official support. For twenty years the Minister of Culture was Dr Najah al-Attar – now, Vice-President. She had a PhD from Edinburgh, was not a party member but had firm support from the President. She did what she could to open up Syria to international influences, supporting the translation of world literature and personally backing writers. Abd al-Salam al-Ujaili wrote stories that were extraordinarily frank about police and political oppression. I asked him once, “How do you get away with it?” He said, “Do you see who published the book?” I looked: the publishing house was Dar Tlas, the proprietor of which was the long-standing Minister of Defence.

Ulfat Idilbi came from a privileged background yet was in tune with the regime as far as women’s rights and Arabism were concerned. Her writings were adapted for the national television. Others used a code, placing their writings in an allegorical or historical context. It would be quite clear to many that the repressive nature of the regime was being assailed, but they were able to get away with it. Sa‘dallah Wannus made his position quite clear in this way.

Nizar Qabbani wrote passionately about the corruption and oppressiveness of modern Arab regimes. Yet when he came to Damascus to give a poetry reading, members of the President’s family were in the audience, and when he died, he was given, in effect, a state funeral with the Minister of Defence in the vanguard of the funeral procession.

But if you were an ordinary journalist, with no pan-Arab reputation, the situation was trickier. miriam cooke notes writers who were imprisoned and effectively silenced during the 1990s. They were then unknown but their works seeped out. Today, people like Ibrahim Samu‘il are seen as major literary figures. Their celebrity has allowed them some freedom of expression and today there is virtually a genre of prison memoirs.

This volume is a fascinating record of the limits of freedom. There were nuances and subtleties that make it difficult to generalise or to see the situation simply in black and white terms.

From Banipal 31 - Spring 2008

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