December 12, 2023
Yazbek to Svenska Dagbladet: Literature gives hope

Yazbek to Svenska Dagbladet: Literature gives hope

For Svenska Dagbladet, 29 October 2023

Syrian Samar Yazbek has documented the horrors of war. Now she has returned to writing novels. Literature is what gives her hope in a violent world.

Literature has the ability to create understanding. It is the first step towards change.

It started as a poem. It turned out to be a thin novel. Samar Yazbek paints life in a small Syrian village, with scents of wild thyme and tobacco.

“But it’s not about Syria”, Samar Yazbek firmly objects when we talk about her novel, “The Winds’ Abode”, which has just been published in Swedish. In the novel, she writes about Ali, a young man with honey-colored hair who is close to his mother. One day he is forcibly recruited into President al-Assad’s army. We agree that Ali is from Syria after all.

“He could be anyone, from any place in the world”, says Samar Yazbek and adds that the book is about what violence does to people’s lives, and about all those who are forced into war.

Samar Yazbek sits in all black on a couch at the Ordfront book publishing house in Gamla stan. The bells of the great church toll, Stockholmers and tourists stroll by outside the windows. Samar Yazbek knows that right now the world is preoccupied with issues other than Syria.

“I know you have your problems here in Sweden”, she says and adds that she does not want to judge anyone who has turned their eyes away from the Syrian civil war.

It is a new world after digitization, post neoliberalism. And there is a new war in Ukraine. People forget old victims and see new ones. On one level, she has lost hope. The situation in Syria, and in many parts of the world, is so grim. At the same time, she says she is a fighter.

Samar Yazbek grew up in a privileged family in Syria, with good relations with the ruling elite, but chose early on to go her own way. She became a well-known activist and journalist, who was awarded many prizes. When the war broke out, she documented the horrors the civilian population was subjected to. She was arrested by the security services and forced into exile. Samar Yazbek, who among other things founded an organization to support women in Syria,  is now based in Paris.

“I don’t really have a home. I am like a bird”. Samar Yazbek says she will always continue the fight for Syria, democracy and women’s rights. However at the moment, she wants to return to fiction; she explains that from the beginning she is above all a writer.

Is literature a more effective form of resistance than activism?

“Good question. I do not know. But I decided to stop writing documentaries about the horrors of war, and I think I will stay with literature”. She says that we live in a criminal world, where Syria has been cut up like a loot while the dictator al-Assad is about to be rehabilitated.

Her novel character Ali did not want to be a soldier. He tried to stay away from people, and lived in an intimate relationship with nature. At home in the village, he was most comfortable in the world of women.

Ali is also a victim, he did not choose to become part of al-Assad’s army. Samar Yazbek’s next novel will also be largely set in Syria. She hopes to create a space with the readers where they can understand and empathize with “the other”, even if it is a soldier in al-Assad’s army.

“I believe that literature can create empathy and make us understand and perhaps also forgive the other. People keep saying that soldiers are killers, but maybe I can make it possible for people to see that it’s not just like that”, she says, explaining that it took her a long time to write the thin novel about Ali.

But can a novel like this change anything?

Samar Yazbek’s face breaks into a smile. “I think so. Books accomplish something, in different ways, that’s my experience.”

She adds that all her books set off chains of events and new collaborations.

“People understand what is happening, they call me, they do something. My books make a difference all the time, that’s my experience.” Literature gives her hope.

That is why she is also involved in an Arabic literature project based in Qatar, with television programs among other things. Her Swedish publisher Pelle Andersson says that she has become a presenter for an Arabic “Babel”. Samar Yazbek says it’s more than that, and explains that it also aims to physically get books out to people. At the same time, the discussion about reduced reading is going on in her new home country of France, just like here in Sweden. But Samar Yazbek doesn’t seem too concerned.

“That is our global problem after digitization. But I think people will return to literature, because I think they will feel that they are missing a lot of things. One day they will wake up. Maybe it’s just my dream, but I think they will wake up.”