The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees – Book Review

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Pushkin Press, 2013.

One of only a handful of books by Syrian authors to be published in English over the two-year-long duration of a popular uprising that continues to addle the writers’ native land, The Silence and the Roar by veteran Aleppo-born civil engineer turned playwright/screenwriter/novelist Nihad Sirees merits close attention as a striking portrayal of one man’s defiant journey through two ends of a city while he attempts to shake off the constricting influence of a totalitarian regime in an ‘unnamed’ country, one that aims to strip away every last shred of the nation’s individuality – his individuality.

Originally published in Lebanon in 2004, this short but engaging volume cannot be said to have been written in response to the current Syrian uprising against the fascist rule of Bashar Al-Assad. Rather, it serves as one of many portrayals of the life of an individual in the context of a pervasive, choking Big Brother-vision of a dystopian nightmare. If the epithet  ‘dystopian’ seems far-fetched, it isn’t, because despite the fact that nation-specific identifiers aren’t named,  the narrative flows unreservedly close to the many realities Arabs have faced for decades in attempting to cultivate some form of independent self-expression under repressive governments, Syria being no exception. Indeed, the resonance of Sirees’ vision of this ‘fictional’ society, far from being unrelated to the events gripping Syria today, is a damning testament to just how accustomed Sirees is to living under the real, pernicious influence of a home-grown police state, one whose discriminatory economic policies and brutal curtailment of civil rights over a 40 year-period gave rise to the on-going revolution in Syria.

The fictional events comprising The Silence and the Roar are relayed directly by Sirees’ protagonist; Fathi Sheen is a well-known journalist and TV anchor who has had his weekly programme and license to publish material withdrawn after insulting the ruling Party during an acrimonious exchange with his girlfriend’s estranged husband. Fathi takes us through the raucous events of one day – a day with an atmosphere overwhelmingly marked by the 20th anniversary political festivities in praise of the Leader and his coming to power. The celebratory atmosphere masks the reality of those suffering under the day’s heat, humiliation at the hands of the security apparatus and corrupt Party members, and deaths due to the asphyxiating nature of a dense, massive rally followed by a few panic-triggered stampedes.

Fathi’s account is markedly solipsistic in nature, describing political events and the social zeitgeist of his homeland largely from their impact on his own circumstances. What is particularly remarkable about Fathi is his cheeky sense of humour as he light-heartedly pokes fun at everyone from his own mother, the listless behaviour of guards at a state security branch, and even his security interrogator as he orders a nearby guard to subject Fathi to a beating. The dry sarcasm of Fathi’s immaculate descriptions of the Leader Cult rituals sharply recalls the stark reality in present-day Syria, a climate in which pro-Assad rallies in the capital are frequently called in via mandatory text message invitations through Syriatel, a private company owned by the corrupt entrepreneurial cousin of the dictator and Syria’s largest telecommunications provider. At every sly turn, Fathi defies the tightening sphincter of the regime’s pervasive attempts to co-opt his famed writing prowess for their own propagandistic ends through humour, mockery, bravery, and courageous selflessness (at one point our protagonist determinedly hauls the body of an unconscious woman through searing heat and dense crowds towards the hospital, his flagging strength notwithstanding). Despite his brazen efforts, however, Fathi is ultimately overwhelmed as he realises that the State has curtailed his options at every turn and, unavoidably faced with the putrefaction of the Leader Cult’s gangrenous influence, starts to psychologically unravel at the seams. The reader is left with the sense that any solitary attempt at maintaining a carefree, recalcitrant demeanour in the face of an all-encompassing surveillance and leader-cult state is a valiant but ultimately terrifying prospect.

The Silence and the Roar is essential reading for all those interested in how one of Syria’s unique literary figures circumvented the creative restrictions placed upon him via tight censorship and relentless institutional intimidation at the hands of one of the Arab world’s most barbaric and corrupt regimes.

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