December 12, 2023
Samar Yazbek’s interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Samar Yazbek’s interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Interview conducted by Astrid Kaminski in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2 December 2023

Her diary of the Syrian Revolution has made Samar Yazbek known in Germany. Unfortunately, her fight for justice is far from over.

For more than twelve years, you have been a political refugee. Has the meaning of the term “exile” changed for you in the meantime?

This question constantly preoccupies me because I don’t know how to define this word. In a way, we are all strangers to each other; there can never be complete identification. Before I went into political exile, I felt exiled as a writer and as a woman in my own country. Since the digital revolution, the concept of exile has changed: I am abroad, but not really outside my social environment. Unlike the times of Walter Benjamin or Edward Said, news reach second by second, I am constantly exchanging. Nevertheless, the question of where I am and where I come from is still being determined. I am in France, but I don’t come from there; I come from Syria, but I am not a citizen there. I am in a state of torn identity. My head and mind are not where my body is. I live in my writing, which is a home, but as an ideal, not a real place.

Early on, you realized that your writing is not only a refuge but also a tool in the fight for political rights. Was there a specific point at which you became an activist?

That was a long time ago, when I discovered the power of words. When I used them against the oppression of women, against patriarchy. When I discovered that my words elicited reactions. I felt like a sorceress. I could change words with words. I could escape from a gigantic prison with them.

The discovery of the power of words turned you into a sorceress?

Yes, and I still am! I try to bewitch a three-headed monster: religion, patriarchal tradition, and fascism. All three are intertwined in a single dictatorship. In these confusing times, it is difficult to talk about the question of religion – only this much: it has been instrumentalized as a means for both fascism and patriarchy.

You went into exile after being forced to witness the worst torture and finding yourself on death lists several times. Nevertheless, you returned incognito in 2012 and 2013 to testify to the events in Syria. You seemed willing to die for your testimony. What changed?

I don’t know if I was willing to die. My main motivation is guilt. I couldn’t leave other people to die while I was safe. I had also placed my daughter in safety. But I explained to her that I had to go back to Syria. People might call me crazy, but I felt that I had no choice. Susan Sontag wrote about the importance of looking at the suffering of others. This perspective is vital for me as an author and a human being. Why I stopped going to Syria is another sad story. I can’t talk about it well, not in a suitable newspaper format, and also because I haven’t talked about it for a long time.

Your first book about the Syrian Revolution was titled “Schrei nach Freiheit” [In the crossfire] in German. In it, you write that you, in a way, forced you daughter into exile, against her will. She did not want you to be an activist; she wanted to live in Syria. Do you feel guilty towards her?

She is my heroine. It’s tragic. I feel guilty, but at the same time, I am not responsible for the war. I tried to give her a future. I hope that one day she understands and forgives me.

There are intellectuals like the late author Khaled Khalifa, who chose to stay in Syria. His writing, I believe, consciously navigates the borderlands of opportunism. It is a way of writing from within. Do you appreciate this position?

I respect people who stay, just as I respect those who flee, under one condition: not to harm anyone with their actions. I don’t think one position should be pitted against the other. Writing from inside or outside are different positions. It’s a different kind of writing under different conditions. I, myself, could not write what I think if I were in Syria. Remember that Claude Lévi-Strauss was accused of abandoning his colleagues when he went into American exile? I find that unjust. It’s always about building bridges between positions. The truth has more than one face. I loved Khalid Khalifa as an author and deeply mourn his passing.

Like many others, you must have been horrified by the suffocation of the “Cry for Freedom” in Syria and the little international support the peaceful revolution received. Only in November 2023 did the International Court of Justice demand that the Syrian regime stop torture, and almost simultaneously, the Paris Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against dictator Assad. How important is this to you?

I must confess something: I have lost hope. I had to realize this a few years ago. I have talked and worked with various people from politics, diplomacy, and culture. I no longer trust the international community. I no longer trust their commitment to truth and justice. Nevertheless, I think that while the world may not change now, it will change someday. What happened in Paris points in that direction. It is good that we are cultivating at least a corner of justice and truth.

I have heard you speak of hopelessness before. In a conversation with the French author Mathias Énard, you mentioned that you had even lost trust in people themselves. But what drives you then – the belief in language?

No, it’s something else. You see, the world has abandoned us, the peaceful revolution. But I don’t want to be a traitor. Not to my own convictions. Not to justice. Not to my friends who were killed because of the fight for justice. The pursuit of justice is a part of me, and I cannot live without myself. Nor without what was taken from me in Syria: my reputation, my dignity as a woman, my work. And I want these struggles that I and many others have endured and continue to endure not to be in vain. So that women of a new generation can live in a democracy and not have to suffer the same as we did.

You founded the feminist organization Women Now For Development in 2012. It is based in Paris, also supported by many German sponsors, but focuses on Syria. What projects are being implemented?

We also have branches in Berlin, Lebanon, and Turkey. It’s a dream: a large feminist network – an organization that provides protection, education, and empowers woment. The situation in Syria is so unstable that the women working with us must have unwavering idealism. Unfortunately, we cannot build large schools; we have to find other ways.

Two of your partners in the organization were the activists and human rights lawyers Razan Zeitouneh and Samira al-Khalil. They were abducted ten years ago, and no one has ever heard from them again. How do you cope with all these terrible experiences – does seeking psychological support help, for example?

I feel the responsibility to always remember them. To carry on in their memory. Imagine: these people fought so brilliantly for us women for so long! I used to Skype almost daily with Razan. It’s unspeakably painful that she’s gone. (…)

You have written a documentary book with nineteen women portraits that has not been translated into German yet. These are texts one should not read before going to bed. The violence these pacifist women were subjected to is beyond imagination. The book is an archive of both horror and unshakeable resilience, intended to wake up the world. However, what does it mean for the women portrayed themselves?

I think it means a lot to them. It is a document of resistance. Many wanted to turn these women into victims, but they tried to be stronger than the horror inflicted upon them, and to which they bear witness. I have no words for what they have gone through. They are resistance fighters, freedom fighters of incredible significance. I agree with your advice that it is not good to read these portraits before going to bed. At the same time, I think it is a book that can give hope. Hope for the strength of women in the Arab world, and also hope for positive humanity. My plan for the next year is to build on that and expand the archive of memory.

We have talked a lot about your documentary writing. However, your literary writing is at least equally important to you. Your latest novel has already been published in Arabic and French in 2021 [sic! 2023], and it is expected to be released in German next year. My impression is that you were able to free yourself stylistically in it from documentary writing. How do you experience the influence of one on the other?

An important question for me. When I started my activist writing, I distanced myself from myself. That was the moment when I went into literary exile. On the other hand, in recent years, I have read a lot in English and French, improving my language skills. Through these activities and the longing for my own language, I feel my access to literature even more intensely. I have changed as an author, I would almost say that I feel like a poet. I wrote this latest novel, “Maqâm al-Rih” (The Winds’ Abode), by tasting the words. And I turned to nature.

You write in Arabic but are widely read in other languages. Your two recent novels are currently being translated into German for the Unionsverlag. How do you see the difference in reactions from the Arabic-speaking audience compared to the non-Arabic-speaking audience?

I have had much success in non-Arabic-speaking countries. For example, when the war in Syria began, I experienced a lot of interest and attention in Germany. However, it was less an interest in me as an author and more as an object of political interest. People read my books to understand what was happening in Syria. In the Arab world, on the other hand, I am primarily perceived as a literary author. In Europe, the interest in Arabic literature and knowledge about it are still quite limited.

You have already mentioned: You have turned to nature. In your current novel, it’s about the relationship with trees. Turning to more-than-human life is currently an exciting literary trend. How did your connection to trees come about?

It wasn’t the trend of climate books that brought me to it. There was a time when I moved away from the media and instead walked a lot, spent a lot of time in the forest. An old fantasy re-emerged: I want to be a tree. The madness of this idea! So, I created a character who can communicate with trees, an ideal alter ego in this relationship. The tree became a symbol of everything desirable: to be strong, quiet, alone, but through roots and symbiotic relationships, in exchange with other beings, peaceful, far from terror.

The partner of your protagonist is an oak. Since the novel is set in Syria, it must be Quercus libani, a so-called Lebanese oak? Is it your favorite tree?

Yes. But the choice also has to do with an animistic component of the Alawite belief – it’s very layered. Ali is a soldier, a potential murderer. However, I wanted to show another side of his inner self, I wanted to create a split in the person between perpetrator and victim. I wanted to give him the opportunity to seek peace somewhere. I think if we ever recreate our world one day, it must begin with a tree. In the formerly predominantly Kurdish-inhabited region, a kind of war is currently being waged against trees. In the very fertile area of Afrin, which is occupied by Turkey, more than 10,000 trees have reportedly been cut down this year, according to North Press. When it comes to gardens and trees, Syria was once a rich country, especially in the north. The war is directed against all life, against communities. They destroy schools, shops, hospitals, and ultimately trees, the natural resources, and thus the future.

I certainly don’t want to diminish your tree idealism, but what trees have in common with humans is that they want to spread. They don’t care about the plants that die in their shadow. I know this is an anthropocentric view, but the instinct to spread could be a problematic universal law, and the tree is no exception.

But it has dignity. And it has a very special connection to the sky, to the light. For me, it is a strong symbol of the future. I still want to become a tree.