June 28, 2018
Dagbladet: Yazbek’s Blue Pen “crafts an original voice” “foreign and innovative imagery”

Dagbladet: Yazbek’s Blue Pen “crafts an original voice” “foreign and innovative imagery”

Published by Dagbladet, May 11, 2018

The girl that is tied up 
Syrian Samar Yazbek expresses the horror of war in a novel that resembles a strange fairytale.

Do not imagine it is a novel you are reading,” says Rima in Syrian author Samar Yazbek’s third book translated into Norwegian. The young Rima addresses us in a meek but direct manner from the very first page. She brings us along on something of a strange adventure about the little girl who has to be tethered by her mother because she cannot stop walking. One story after another are chained together in the novel, that gradually comes to create a harrowing portrait of what it feels like when everything familiar dissipates and the horror of war takes its place.

Yazbek is an author, journalist and activist, and she fled Syria after having been apprehended repeatedly and received death threats for her criticism of the Assad regime. She now resides in Paris, protected behind doors and access codes, and it may perhaps be easier than she would want to imagine Rima’s closed off existence. Rima tells her story from a basement in Ghouta outside Damascus. Outside everything is bombed to smithereens. Rima is awaiting rescue. Ill and tied up, she records her stories, telling us how she ended up there.

She recounts her childhood with her mother and brother. Her father disappeared when she was only four years old. Around the same time she stops talking. She is a quaint person, who is not allowed to attend school and her mother ties her up with a rope during the day – simply so that Rima would not wander off. The nightmare begins one morning as they are on their way to visit someone. Her mother is shot at one of the checkpoints. This is followed by weeks on the run, while the bombs are falling and the militias terrorize the population. The hunger is gnawing, but the fear is worse. It becomes “like an organ in the body“.

It is a circle with no beginning and no end. Hunger comes to an end. When you are finally fed, it is hard to imagine how it used to feel. But fear remains as a circuit, as a circle within you. It connects the feet and the heart, and the thighs are the nave. It twirls around and inside you and eventually settles in the lower abdomen. In my case, it trickles forth in a warm stream called pee.

Yazbek has crafted an original voice. It is direct and a little naïve. “Do you know what love is?” Rima asks. “It is when I get a cramp in my belly. It starts to the left of my chest like a burning pin or needle, yes, just like mom’s knitting needle.The imagery throughout the novel is always—like in this quote—foreign and innovative. Time can be experienced as a “winding path on the top of a cloud” or like “a big parachute“.

The story is told in several stages, interrupted by digressions and the frequent “But that is another story, one that I’ll tell you later“. The contrast between the mild and rather odd way of storytelling and the awful and brutal reality in the novel is powerful. Rima plays everything down, she opens up the story and makes it accessible to us. As her circumstances deteriorate, the text becomes denser, but also more powerful because the style reflects the inhumane situation Rima finds herself in.

The novel is not painful. Not until the gas attack on the civilian population occurs. They escape up on the rooftops, because the gas lingers along the ground. Then the airplanes come and bomb them. In the clinics, the women are the first ones to perish. The toxic gas seeps into their clothes, which will have to be removed and their bodies hosed down. But it is sinful for a woman to take off her clothes, so the hijab and dress stay on. Rima hears the screaming, sees the foam frothing out their noses, the orange substance seeping out of the corners of their mouths. One of the women won’t leave her three small deceased children. It is a horrendous read, but also a cushioned experience compared to what the Syrians go through. This is real; it is not just fiction, just like the quote in the beginning indicated.

Two of the author’s techniques are worth noticing. It is not a coincidence that it is Rima’s tongue, speech and legs that are under attack. Is it possible to say anything accurate about war? Is anyone even listening? Rima cannot comprehend what is happening. Nevertheless, she has an answer to how it is possible to live like this: to roll up into a ball on the ground together during a shower of bombs that kills of everyone she knows. “People do not get the chance to think about what is happening to them,” Rima writes. They are constantly pushed back, but Rima just wants to walk and walk.

It is very effective when Rima addresses the reader directly. It highlights and brings into focus the distinction between us and them, the ones suffering in there, and us safely on the outside. However, Rima does not have a political agenda. She just narrates in order to survive and be heard. “The story of mother, who disappeared. The story of the bald girl, who disappeared. The story of my brother, who disappeared.” And the reader is left desperately hoping that this will not be the story of young Rima, who disappeared. Read in Norwegian