December 12, 2023
Samar Yazbek to Dagens Nyheter: “an make you imagine things, put yourself in someone else’s life and maybe even forgive”

Samar Yazbek to Dagens Nyheter: “an make you imagine things, put yourself in someone else’s life and maybe even forgive”

Published in Dagens Nyheter, 29 October 2023

The Syrian writer Samar Yazbek saw it as her duty to document the war in her homeland. But it came at a cost. Now she has left her “mental exile” and returned with the novel “The Winds’ Abode”.

“I can fight forever, but I need a home. My words are my home”, says the author, who is in Sweden for the Book Fair. In previous interviews with Samar Yazbek, a recurring topic of discussion was that she smokes heavily, preferably indoors. She has stopped that now.

“I only take one a day”, she says and picks up a small packet of slim, French cigarettes from her bag. Yazbek has also left central Paris for a suburb near greenery and a river. She mainly eats vegetarian, tries to take care of herself. Perhaps it is part of the spiritual journey that the Syrian author has made in recent years. “The Winds’ Abode” is her fourth book translated into Swedish, the third novel. The latest book came out in 2019, “Nineteen women – stories of Syrian resistance” and it was a tough one to write.

“I have spent a lot of time documenting the war. I saw it as my duty to sacrifice myself to do so, but it came at a cost. To describe the violence, the rapes, the torture. It was hell. I thought, “it’s okay, I can do this for the truth”. But suddenly I realized that it was like death for me”, says Samar Yazbek.

“The Winds’ Abode” began as a poem and became a novel about the young soldier Ali, who never wanted to fight for the army, but still ended up there. In the opening of the book, he is lying under a large tree and has just been hit by an exploding object. He doesn’t really know if he’s alive, or if he’s dead. While trying to figure out if his body parts are still attached, he is hit with flashbacks from his life. From growing up, where the old president died and was replaced by his son. How it made everything change in the quiet village. “The Winds’ Abode” is Samar Yazbek’s latest book in Swedish.

“I wrote about Ali because I wanted to come back home to my words, break my exile. You can say that literature exists only for pleasure – yes, it does, but there is something else in literature as well. It can make you imagine things, put yourself in someone else’s life and maybe even forgive. Literature builds bridges and provides the opportunity for empathy. I think so”, says Samar Yazbek.

She is sitting on a sofa in her Swedish publisher Ordfront’s premises in the middle of Old Town, a few days ahead of the Gothenburg Book Fair. In the past, Samar Yazbek did interviews with the help of an interpreter, but now she relies on her English and when it doesn’t work, she switches to French. She writes in Arabic. There has never been any other option, although for many years she felt almost like a stranger to her mother tongue.

“I’m happy now, because it feels like I’ve come back to the language. I was far from it even though I was writing in Arabic, it didn’t feel like before. With this book, I have come back to my old self, as a writer”. The new novel is told from the perspective of Ali, a barely grown boy who during his upbringing was brutalized by both his father and his teacher. He did not want to go to school, he only wanted to be among the trees.

But the main characters are actually two women. Ali’s mother Nahla and an elderly woman called al-Hmayruna who saves Ali’s life at birth.

“I want to give some truth to these women. Ali is not my hero, these two women are my heroes. And these two women create Ali. Nahla works hard as a day laborer and takes constant beatings from her husband, until one day she stops talking to him and takes over. Al-Hmayruna is seen by the residents of the small Syrian village as a madwoman, she dyes her white hair red and spits in soldiers’ faces without blinking. Because of her age and gender, they think she is harmless, and let her be.
Women create life. But at the same time they are invisible and hidden. They are like Nahla. You think she is nothing, but in reality she is everything”, says Samar Yazbek.

The village she writes about is Alawite, just like her own family and like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. In the beginning of the war, Samar Yazbek, a well-known journalist and presenter in Syria, reported critically in the Syrian media. After being arrested several times and at one point dragged through an underground prison under the threat of police officers, she left her homeland. The last time she was back was in 2013, when she smuggled herself into the country.

“I hope I will be able to go back”, she says. She does not want to talk about her daughter, protecting her privacy. Nor does she want to talk about the relatives who remain in Syria.

“I have hurt them enough”, she says.

In addition to writing, Samar Yazbek is the founder of a women’s organization, “Women for Development”, which supports girls and women in Syria and Lebanon. In late September, it drew attention to protests going on in southern Syria, the same protests that have led the Jordanian king to suspect that al-Assad is losing his grip.

“We are back to the beginning of the Arab Spring, where people are demonstrating because they are suffering. They don’t have the means to put food on the table”, King Abdullah said last week. Samar Yazbek doesn’t know if he’s [Asad] losing his grip. “In that case, he may have chosen to lose it. But that’s another thing I don’t want to talk about”, says Samar Yazbek.

Why not?

“I gave you an answer, maybe he is losing his grip, or he wants to. I don’t know. Al-Assad is a murderer, he has killed so many people. Do you think he is a good person? No. I admire many people in Syria. Those who are trying to do something. I’m very happy about the protests, but I’m also scared.”

The atmosphere in the room becomes so oppressive that photographer Alexander Mahmoud feels he has to go out for a while. (…) We change the subject. The war in Syria has been going on for twelve years, but the world’s attention has failed, says Samar Yazbek.

“It is not the people’s fault. It is the fault of the media and the fault of neoliberalism. There is only room for one war at a time. This is our new world. It’s not your problem and not my problem, you understand? That’s our system. The political and the economic. There is only stage space for one war at a time in our new, horrible world”, as Samar Yazbek calls it.

“We forget the victims, because there are new victims. Of course, people have forgotten Syria now, because now we have Ukraine. And then comes something else.”

Samar Yazbek has left journalism, doesn’t enjoy documenting anymore. She doesn’t know if there will be more novels with Syria as a starting point, you can’t decide that in advance. But she knows she has found a new peace. She is still in bodily exile, physically separated from her homeland, but Samar Yazbek is still home.

“Literature has made me free, free as in having the opportunity to think, live and create a new world. The freedom I am referring to is that of my mind. I am free in myself. When I write, I’m just me, the girl who likes to play with words.”