Collective Witnessing

February 14, 2021   •   By Lydia Wilson

Readings in Syrian Prison Literature

R. Shareah Taleghani

IN MARCH 2011, in the city of Dar’a, Syria, a group of children sprayed anti-government slogans on the walls of their school. The response was swift and brutal. Shocking images of their tortured bodies ricocheted around the country and the world, generating so much outrage that this act of cruelty is widely considered to have triggered the Syrian Revolution. But this violence was not new to the population of Syria. “The brutality of the state’s crackdown in 2011 against […] children,” R. Shareah Taleghani writes in her unflinching new book, Readings in Syrian Prison Literature: The Poetics of Human Rights, “was not unfamiliar to Syrians. […] The detention, torture, and in some cases savage murder of the children in Dar’a are echoed in and connected to numerous stories told in works of contemporary Syrian prison literature.”


This might seem like a niche (if important and appalling) genre: a narrow type of writing by a specific group of people from one small country. But Taleghani makes a powerful case that it is precisely by appealing to universal human experience that prison literature succeeds. Indeed, in many ways it must be about the universal, since it is often produced as testimony within the human rights framework that is the basis of international law when it comes to matters of incarceration and torture. Translating an experience into the universal is essential for justice for oneself and for others: many parts of human existence may be culturally specific, but pain, and vulnerability to pain, are truly universal.


Moving from the particular to the universal is not the only way testimony involves translation: as Taleghani argues, a witness must also satisfy the form demanded by human rights organizations and courts of law. Chronological narratives, lists, numbers, details, names: the law demands clarity and detail. But this framework rests on an assumption that such egregious acts committed by humans against other humans can be portrayed so starkly, when trauma often results in fractured memories, inaccessible even to the victim. Further, as this book illustrates, such horrors can prove resistant to expression: language itself cannot do justice to experiences that permanently scar the psyche. Linear narratives assume that an experience has a beginning, middle, and end, but trauma does not obey such rules: in the words of Rida Haddad, who was imprisoned for 15 years and died just eight months after his release in 1995, “Despite the fact that I left prison, it didn’t leave me. For the traces of its pain penetrate my blood.”


Hence the emergence of alternative ways of writing about incarceration. Many ex-detainees speak of this struggle with the act of writing itself, drawing attention to the fact that, however much they try to communicate the reality of their experience, the final product remains an artifice. Taleghani argues that this “metafictional” aspect, this concern with alerting the reader to the impossibility of what the writers are attempting, was a major force in the creation of experimental literature in Arabic. “Arab writers’ turn toward a conscious or self-reflexive manipulation of literary forms via the uses of historiographic metafiction, streams-of-consciousness narration, or cinematic realism,” she writes, “has been engendered by political oppression and […] by the pervasive experience of political detention.” Her examples are compelling, drawing on a long history of Arabic prison literature. In 1966, Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim published That Smell, a foundational work of Arabic modernism, with his Notes from Prison appearing alongside. The protagonist in That Smell has just been released from prison; although this is barely mentioned, the accompanying nonfiction notebooks make the semi-autobiographical nature of the work very clear. (This is one of the few such texts available to English readers, in a brilliant translation by Robyn Creswell.)


In an interesting sidenote (which Taleghani does not explore), Ibrahim has spoken of how he discovered Virginia Woolf in prison: source material for both the content and the form of his literary work thus came from his five-year incarceration under President Nasser. Ibrahim has also acknowledged his debt to Hemingway, but of course the non-Arabic influences on Arabic modernism would be a huge topic to investigate. The timing of Ibrahim’s experience is also of historical interest, given that he was imprisoned at the same time as Sayyid Qutb: while Ibrahim was developing That Smell, Qutb was producing major works that would lay the foundation for the contemporary Muslim Brotherhood. This corpus of prison texts was not mentioned by Taleghani. Indeed, Islamist resistance texts do not feature in her book at all (though Islamist prisoners do appear), no doubt because they are not known for their experimental form, which is the focus of her study.


Syrian Faraj Bayraqdar, imprisoned for over 13 years, was released in 2000 as part of the “Damascus Spring,” in the first months after Bashar al-Assad came to power, following the death of his father. In a clear gesture toward Taleghani’s “metafictional” genre, Bayraqdar named his poetic prison memoir The Betrayals of Language and Silence, thus alluding to the difficulty of communication and also the impossibility of remaining silent in the face of such egregious human rights abuses. His solution is in the form; fragmented memories, both of his own experiences and of those recounted by his fellow prisoners, are interrupted by self-interrogation:


What will you say to people when they ask you about that?


You will be silent. Because you are sure that no one will believe a single word you say.


In the best of circumstances they will consider your words simply delusions or waking nightmares; it is not proper for you to remain under their force.


Can you be faithful to your duty of the necessity of exposing the entirety of the experience, from the first rattle to the last hell?


The instruction to be silent in the act of writing forms the essence of his struggle throughout the book, and the reasons given for maintaining silence are compelling: no one will believe such horror, and it is impossible to express the “entirety of the experience” in any case. But, in the very same fragment, he speaks of his “duty,” of the “necessity of exposing”: there is no option but to try. The torture must be exposed, and perhaps to this end he includes passages that echo human rights reports: there is an endnote, for example, entitled “Simplified explanations approximating some of the means of torture,” which lists all the types of torture already mentioned in the text in simple, stark language. Bayraqdar is thus writing for collective witnessing — he is testifying, as many other writers included in this study also feel compelled to do, often from a sense of shame that they survived when so many others did not.


Maziar Bahari’s 2018 documentary film 82 Names: Syria, Please Don’t Forget Us shows Syrian author Mansour Omari at his computer as, in voice-over, he says: “I have this guilt; you know, I was released and my friends are still there. I feel when I finish this book, and it’s published, and people have read it, I’ll feel that I did something.” The title of the documentary refers to 82 scraps of fabric torn from his shirt that Omari smuggled out of prison in 2013, each scrap inscribed with the name of a prisoner and details of their arrest and treatment written in ink made out of blood and rust. This is testimony by any means available, for as many people as possible, including those who cannot speak for themselves.


In a similar strategy, Hasiba Abd al-Rahman, in her autobiographical novel The Cocoon (1999), overlays the experiences of her protagonist on top of historical events, implying that the violence done to this one person is reflected in the violence perpetrated on the Syrian people as a whole. This sense of shared national identity, created by a joint experience of oppression and war, is a key concern of many Syrian writers, both within the genre of “prison writing” and beyond. The playwright Sa’adallah Wannous, for example, explored the boundaries between social and individual identities in many of his plays, a concern seemingly passed on to his daughter Dima Wannous, whose brilliant 2017 novel The Frightened Ones depicts a character constantly shadowed by the fear that her identity may not be her own, her history indistinguishable from that of others to the point that she feels her individuality threatened.


In a message of hope, Taleghani’s coda profiles another kind of “collective”: Abounaddara is an anonymous group of filmmakers who have written manifestoes about a project they call “emergency cinema,” arguing that the “right to the image” is a fundamental human right. In their eagerness to portray conflict, Abounaddara argues, the international media have trampled all over this right, showing Syrians as passive victims in a “spectacle of indignity streamed almost live from Syria since 2011” (in contrast, the group notes that Bashar al-Assad, perpetrator of crimes against his own citizens, is presented as a “gentleman, defending his views to the world’s major media organizations”). In their “bullet films,” these filmmakers aim to give Syrians back their agency, by providing space to tell their stories in their own words, and control over the final product, thus resulting in powerful short films directly from those who are living the conflict.


Here is an example of the “collective” working together for dignity, which from the beginning was the central demand of the 2011 revolution. Human rights advocates and international law are also presumably pursuing the rights of dignity and agency for all, yet as Taleghani observes, their neutral third-person portrayal of abuses removes the subject’s voice as surely as international media organizations do when they cover war and conflict. “The detainee as a speaking subject can be inadvertently forgotten or silenced,” she writes, “rendered into an object to be counted, surveyed, and observed, or made entirely invisible in reports on human rights violations.” Although mobilized in the service of providing legal evidence, this “narrative mode can replicate the exclusionary power structures, including some of the surveillance mechanisms, of political detention itself.”


In another irony, the authoritarian powers can sometimes benefit from granting ex-detainees a voice, albeit tightly restricted: the Assad regimes (previous and current) have always officially denied the use of torture, and so have needed — and continue to need — another way of communicating its horrors in order to maintain public fear. The ethical ambiguities of prison writing are multifaceted, and the challenge in overcoming these concerns around testimony and inclusion, added onto the difficulty of communicating trauma, makes the act of writing a daunting task that the writers profiled here responded to with extraordinary effect. Within this framework, the “modernist turn” Taleghani describes feels not just natural but urgently necessary, in order to overcome the exclusions and omissions of human rights reports.


But can legal discourse be expanded to include the fragmentary and ambiguous? Hoping for the law to accept modernist techniques as a form of testimony seems as utopian as the 2011 revolution now appears, a bloody decade on. But this corpus of work, whether included in the international case against Assad or not, still stands as testimony to his atrocities, and to the dream of the revolution, rooted in a demand for the most basic of human rights: dignity and freedom.


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Lydia Wilson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge (Computer Lab and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies), working on extremism and conflict. She edits the Cambridge Literary Review and presented “The Secret History of Writing” for BBC television.