Writer in Exile: An Interview with Yasmine Merei




THE IMAGES of the Syrian migrants go from harrowing to devastating: families facing batons of Hungarian police, a drowned three-year-old face-down in the surf of a Turkish beach. Then we try to grasp the reality of people still in Syria, the place that drove these refugees to risk the death of their children on foreign shores — Assad’s thugs; the black flag of ISIS; rogue militias; Russian bombs; US (and now French) air strikes.

Maybe I would feel less powerless, less despairing, if I could understand more, understand better than I do. When I heard that a Syrian journalist and human rights activist named Yasmin Merei was staying at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, I jumped at the chance to talk with a woman recently arrived from the front lines of the turmoil.

No one answered, however, when I rang the buzzer for our appointment at 520 Paseo Miramar on a quiet afternoon in late October. Just the sound of a few leaf blowers and the occasional passing car broke the silence on that winding street high in the hills of the Palisades. I peered through the barred iron gate. No activity at all. I glanced at my watch; I was half an hour late. Perhaps I had the date wrong? 

The Villa Aurora was once home to another writer-in-exile, Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish playwright and novelist who recognized — and wrote about — the Nazi threat as far back as the early 1920s. By the time they assumed power, the Nazis named him “Public Enemy Number One.” Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta moved to the south of France, but once that became occupied territory they barely made it out of Europe in time. Their salvation came at Roosevelt’s bequest and with the canny assistance of diplomat Varian Fry. Once they arrived in the United States in 1941, they moved to California and, in 1943, Marta was able to purchase the rundown villa — built in 1921 and modeled on a “Castillo” in Seville, for $9,000.

The villa became a focal point and a regular salon as Lion and Marta opened their home to European and German artists and intellectuals in exile: among them the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and composer Ernst Toch. Now the Villa is an international residency program for artists, administered by the nonprofit Friends of Villa Aurora, with partial funding from the German government. Marta donated her husband’s library, now The Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, to USC.

This year, Villa Aurora invited Merei, a founding member of the Syrian Women’s Lobby, to be their “Feuchtwanger Writer in Exile.” She travelled from Turkey, where she had been living since 2012, and where she edits a magazine called Sayyidat Suria (“The Lady of Syria”).

My interview prospects were starting to look dim. No response to texts. The driveway was gated and stairs off the sidewalk lead down to a locked boiler room. I wrote out a note to leave in the mailbox, and tried the buzzer one last time. To my surprise, this attempt summoned a courteous young man, who told me he was an artist from Berlin and welcomed me inside. I followed him through the large tiled kitchen, out the back door onto a brick patio with an expansive view. My guide knocked politely on a closed door, then rapped his knuckles again: “Yasmin, you have a visitor.” 

A woman opened the door a crack. She was in her pajamas, just awakened, and understandably abashed. I countered her string of apologies with reassurances: I was not in a hurry; I knew she keeps difficult hours, editing through the night via Skype with her magazine colleagues in Turkey and Egypt. I know you have to sleep when you can.

I seated myself at a wooden table on the patio and stared out at the Pacific coastline. Fruiting orange trees lined the terrace below. The bougainvillea gleamed translucent scarlet. The blue sky was cloudless.

In a few minutes, Yasmin emerged from her room in a pink embroidered blouse, glossy dark hair brushed back from her the oval of her pale face. She offered a warm smile and more apologies as she joined me at the table. Her eyes, I noticed, looked weary, even haunted. With her permission, I turned on the tape recorder. Her English is “not perfect,” as she says, but understandable. I’ve largely maintained her word choice and syntax, which struck me as lilting, at times poetic. 

I’d never interviewed a Syrian revolutionary before, someone whose family was made to suffer gravely because she decided to fight for a better Syria. How to talk to her about so painful and fresh a period in her life? I took my cues from Yasmin, and, when she needed to, let her cry in peace.

¤

LOUISE STEINMAN: Are you the first Syrian writer at Villa Aurora? How did that come about?

YASMIN MEREI: I was then living in Gaziantep, Turkey, after leaving Syria. I took two workshops with Reporters Without Borders there and they submitted my name for the residency without telling me. When Villa Aurora said yes, Reporters sent me a notice that I am invited to this program. I’d never heard of Villa Aurora before that time.

Is your family out of Syria?

No. Two of my brothers are in Lebanon, but my mother, two of my sisters — one sister is without her husband and son because they are kidnapped — and my brother and his family, they are all in a city called As-Suwayda, in the south of Syria, near the Jordanian border.

How far is it from the fighting?

Actually this city is still controlled by the regime. So it’s not so shooted [bombed].

By now, you must know how ignorant we Americans are about Syrian history and geography. I was just reading a long piece in The New York Review of Books by Charles Glass, who says that the current conflict is a “reenactment” of the drama of one century ago, in the First World War, when Syrians suffered from such horrible misfortunes — from locusts, forced conscription, blockades, and famine. He says that it “undid in four years all that the Ottomans had achieved over the previous four centuries.”

I think now it’s worse.

It’s gone on longer.

And we cannot forget that during that period of First World War, a state was fighting another state; now, it’s the president of the state and the army of the state which is killing its own people.

Now every side is killing people … right? In addition to Assad’s soldiers, now there is ISIS, and as well, competing Islamist rebel militias, like Al-Nusra, who want an Islamic government in Syria. And Russian bombings too.

Right. Now, it is every side is killing people. But if we want to talk about the first three years, no! Only the regime was killing then.

Now it is very confused, right?

It is very clear for us, as Syrians.

Is there still a civil Syrian opposition to the regime inside Syria? Or have most people left?

Look, the people who are against the regime are still against the regime, whether they are inside or outside. I am a member of the revolution since 2011, and I still am. Because day after day, when you learn how savage this regime is, you cannot change your mind.

Tell me about the magazine you write for.

The magazine, Sayyidat Suria, talks about Syrian women’s issues. Before the revolution, there were no magazines for women. So we started in September 2013, and we published our first issue in January 2014.

From Turkey?

Yes, our main office is in Turkey. We focus on first the stories of women inside Syria and also in camps and in countries around Syria. We also try to listen to the women who support the regime. As the political opposition, we are against the regime, but if you want to think in a human way, you cannot forget the women who are losing their husbands, their sons, their lovers — even if they are supporting the regime. They are losing as much as women anywhere in the world.

We are also trying to focus on the successful political experience of women all over the world. We write about them. We also have translated articles from French or English or American newspapers.

How does one read your magazine?

We distribute copies for free in the Syrian community in Turkey and also in other Arab countries, like Yemen and Egypt. It’s also online. Inside Syria, we print and distribute about 5,800 copies. We have five offices inside Syria. And one in Cairo.

In Syria? It’s possible? How are they not shut down?

They are not in the areas of the regime. In the area of the regime, you cannot work.

Our main office is in Gaziantep. We have writers from several Arabic countries now working with us. The Syrian journalist who coordinates them is based in Cairo. We have writers in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen also.

We focus on the legal situation of Syrian women. There are a lot of problems in the constitution of Syria, a lot of laws that are against women’s rights. For example, we have something called the crime of honor; you know about it? Say you want to be married to someone you are in love with, and your family doesn’t accept it. For this they can kill you. They bring someone, maybe a relative, a cousin, someone who is under 18. He kills you and after that, they arrest him and can hold him for only six months, that’s all.

Is this sanctioned by law? Or is it a custom?

This is protected by Syrian law. For 45 years; first under Assad, the father, for 30 years, and now under Bashar Al-Assad, for 15 years.

For your whole life. How old are you?

Thirty-two.

What are your models for this work? Are there magazines you emulated? That inspired you?

No. We started the magazine because of the needs of Syrian women, something we know well.

Are you running the magazine now from your room here at Villa Aurora?

Now, yes. It’s difficult to find someone who can understand everything, well enough to cover for you when you leave. Also, the staff depends on me for relations with the women we write about. Though we also have a lot of men in our team, the women we write about feel it’s easier to be in contact with a woman.

How long will you stay here?

Until the end of the year.

Where will you go then?

Nothing is clear. But I plan to go back to Turkey.

Could you apply for asylum here?

I don’t want to lose my nationality. I don’t want to lose my passport. I have a Syrian passport, even though I can’t go back to Syria now. I left because I was wanted by the security forces. At first I moved from Homs to Suwayda, a city of Druze minority in Southern Syria, near the border with Jordan.

Are you Druze?

No, I am Sunni.

Tell me about the time leading up to your decision to leave Syria.

My family moved to Suwayda because my city of Homs was bombed heavily. When they were bombing the city, my father always said to my mother, “I want to leave; I don’t want to be killed by a bomb.” We moved to Suwayda because I had a brother working there. But my father was killed by the torture. [she starts to cry for a moment … then regains her composure.]

It was very difficult to leave a city [Homs] that is still 100 percent ruled by the regime you are struggling against. Do you understand me? You are against this regime and you are escaping from his bombing and shooting but you’re going to a city — Suwayda — that he is also ruling. It is protected by him. So you feel you are leaving from him but going to him.

We moved to Suwayda, and it was, well, safe, no shooting. But because I was wearing the veil it was very easy to recognize me. [note: Among Druze women, only the very religious wear a veil, a distinctive white veil always worn with a black dress, so Yasmin’s hijab stood out.] A lot of activists there were doing relief work, and I was working with them and so, after awhile, somebody reported me. They took photos of our small relief group and they started asking, “Who is this veiled woman from Homs who is working for the refugees?”

And within 18 days of when they asked for me, my father and two of my brothers were arrested.

For my mother, it was impossible to think of me being arrested. I have four brothers and they took two of them and two of them remained at home. My mother pointed to her two sons still in the house. She said to me, “Do you see your two brothers?” And I said yes. She said, “I would agree with them if they take these two in addition to your father and your other two brothers, but I cannot think that you would be arrested. They would take you.”

You see, everybody feels afraid if a woman, a girl or a wife — would get arrested … because they think about rape. Because the regime did that a lot. So for my family, it’s better to be dead than to be raped. Not for only my family, but for everybody, even maybe for me. I escaped, left my country, only because I was afraid of being raped. For no other reason. Because when I went with friends to demonstrations in Homs, they were shooting at us. We knew there was a possibility of being killed.

If you can, please tell me what happened to your father.

Every day, my father would beg me, “Please please, Yasmin, sit at home. Please. Please.” And I said, “Dad, look, we lost everything. We lost our house in Homs. We were forced to leave. And we are here. I have nothing to lose. I am not better than my friends who were arrested, who were killed.” Every night we had this argument. And after that, he was arrested — not me.

When were your father and brothers arrested?

My father and two of my brothers were arrested in Suwayda on the 31st of October, 2012. They were wanted by the military security in Homs, and they searched in all the cities. We knew because a lot of our relatives sent us messages, “Be careful, be careful. They were asking where you are in Suwayda.”

They knew that we were in the city, but they didn’t know exactly where. But when you rent a house, you must register at a government office. They found us according to the registration. When they came, I wasn’t home, I was at work. Our neighbors told me that 25 soldiers came and stand around the house. And they took my father and my brothers.

The soldiers told my mother, “They will be back in two to three hours.” But after the arrest, they moved them to Damascus and from there, they moved them to Homs. We didn’t know anything about them for 40 days.

But before they moved them, when they were still inside the city, my other two brothers could see them. For the first six days, they were still in Suwayda. And because my father had a problem with blood pressure, my brother brought him medicine every day to the prison. They told him, “Give us the medicine, and we will give it to your father.” But the last day when my brother saw them, my father said, “They didn’t give me anything.”

My father was in prison for 50 days. And my brothers they kept for six months and after that, they escaped to Lebanon. And earlier this year I went to Lebanon to see them. They told me a lot of things. The guards knew they were a family, so every time they brought them to the cell where they tortured my brothers, they forced my father to watch. They always said, “We are happy to welcome you as a family.” Always they made them take off all their clothes.

Think about a man who is 70 years old who is forced to take off his clothes and watch the torture of his sons! And when they released my father, it was end of December 2012. In Syria, it is very cold in December. I learned from my youngest brother, who was still at home, who told me, “Yasmin, when they released our father, he was only wearing his pants of pajamas, no shoes.”

They had cut his hair in a very bad way. They only try to humiliate you. They don’t give you any money and they don’t allow you to call your family. He needed to travel for six hours to arrive home. So he had to stand up the street and wait until someone came and gave him money. And you know, this thing was enough to kill my father. In the Orient, this is a big shame. People are very proud. Hospitable. It’s a cultural matter. It’s the shame; it was enough to kill him.

Did you see him after he was released?

No, I left before he was released. I left on the 20th November 2012.

Was it hard to get out?

They asked about me on the 18th of November. So I went to Damascus to make sure I could pass the checkpoints. When I passed from Suwayda to Damascus, I knew that my name was not yet at the lists. I spent two nights in the house of my friend. Then I left for Beirut by bus. I stayed in Lebanon for two months and 10 days, and after that, I fly to Istanbul.

After living through such horrors, what were your first impressions of landing in this place, Villa Aurora, which has such a special history?

You know, Louise, sometimes you feel guilty [breaks down] … I feel, well, I am an activist. Maybe some of the Syrian people did not want the Revolution to start. But we wanted it. We said, we have to do it. This dictator should leave. Now I am out of the country, and, because I am working, I can help my family. If I was still inside Syria, we would have nothing.

But at the end, three years later, here I am living with electricity, I have water all the time. I have everything. But if you think of the other people [crying] … about the other families. In Aleppo. Damascus. Homs. People who have nothing. You feel that … [crying] I don’t know what to say.

[A long pause.]

I cannot ask people at home, “How are you? Do you need anything?” You feel shy to ask. I cannot say that I am in an amazing place. I cannot say, “I am in L.A. I can go to Hollywood and take pictures.” You cannot say these things. You cannot feel the joy. I really struggle to help people to understand what’s happening in my country.

When you are inside Syria, you feel that everyone is thinking about us, everybody is interested in listening to what is happening. But when you leave — you are shocked, because people are not.

Do you find people here want to know?

Yes, but after five years, you are surprised that people don’t know. You think that they should know. You think about how huge is the crisis inside your country. Some people are interested to know. But others, they don’t care.

Have you noticed that most Americans don’t read a newspaper? We have one newspaper in Los Angeles and it’s getting thinner by the day.

I met my first American when I was in Turkey. I was there only two months. She was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She asked for a meeting with Syrian women. One of my friends told her, “We were waiting for something from the American people, not the American government. Because you are a liberated people and we thought that you would support us, you will support the Revolution and you would ask your government to support us.”

She said, “I am sorry to tell you that maybe 95 percent of the American people don’t know where Syria is on a map.” I became crazy. I said, “I don’t think you are telling the truth.” Syria has borders with Iraq, the country you had war with. And Israel and Lebanon, this area where you played a very important role for many years. I couldn’t understand that you didn’t know. Over the last three years I met a lot of people and also politicians, and I learned that she was telling the truth. I don’t have to blame people. It’s totally different when you think about how the American people live. How Europeans live. And how the Syrian people live.

Now, the Europeans have to think about it. Because the crisis has come to their countries. We all have to think about it.

Sometimes I feel, well maybe in the magazine we are doing a lot. We are trying to talk about all these problems that especially women are facing. But when you publish only in Arabic you feel you cannot change things too much; if you are talking about Syrian issues and only Syrian people are reading. You cannot talk about everything to European or American people.

But in Syria, we don’t only need a political revolution, we need a social revolution. Even in the areas ruled by the opposition, sometimes we cannot distribute the magazine when it contains articles about the issue of early marriage, for example. Last year we release a campaign, you will see [shows me image cover] …

image

We called this issue: “CHILD NOT WIFE.” I think it was a clever idea. When we started working inside Syria during the month of the campaign, a lot of our reporters were threatened. They were told, “You are against Islam; because Islam allows girls to be married when they are as young as 12.” Some of our reporters were famous, and they told them, “Because you are so-and-so, we will let you go. Next time, it is very easy to shoot you.” And they destroyed our posters.

And who are “they”?

The Al-Nusra Front. They are fighting the regime, and with a military campaign. But they also are radical.

Has most of the opposition, what we in the US think of “opposition fighters” — have they left the country now? The ones who took the risk to oppose Assad to begin with?

Unfortunately, you can say that 90 percent of the civil activists have left. The rest are arrested or killed.

I don’t want to discuss Islam really. Now, I am outside that world. But now, a lot of friends think we should support Al-Nusra because it’s fighting the regime in the name of Islam. And I think, inside themselves, they can’t really believe what they are saying!

You know, sometimes, I think I want to be out of the ideologies, please! I want to live like a human! I worked with well-known and important persons in the Syrian opposition for year and a month. I was executive assistant to the vice-president of the coalition, a woman. I met many opposition politicians. When you watch them on TV, you feel that these are the people that Syria dreamed about. A lot of them were arrested by the regime for maybe 10 years. They struggled a lot. We can understand that struggle.

But after awhile, they are fighting each other, they are not fighting the regime any more. And in some meetings of the coalition, you feel they are not talking about Assad at all.

You have a remarkable perspective … 360 degrees. Because you’ve seen it from all these different angles.

At some times, we thought that we could not speak about the problems of the opposition, because we must be one bloc. The opposition is paid for by a lot of countries. When you think about this political money and how it has divided the Revolution you feel that no! You must speak out …

Let’s go back to the magazine.

We believe that first, women are the most injured group. They lose the most during the war. We feel that they think about peace more than men. Men are fighting. But it is women who are losing their sons, their husbands. Women cannot move around because of the Islamic groups. Women who are afraid of the Regime, who are afraid to cross checkpoints because they might be on a list. They need peace more than any others, for themselves, for their children. We believe women are the group who will be very active in building peace. In every issue, we talk about a specific topic. For example, we have discussed sexual harassment. Last issue, it was about UN resolution 1235, which tries to address violence against women all over the world. Next issue, we will be talking about gender and how it is related to every aspect of life. How it is related to policy, economic life. And you know, Louise, in Syria there’s no general knowledge about women’s issues, women’s rights.

Are there feminist writers in Syria who are well known, whom people read?

No, until now, few Syrian women accept these ideas. They grow up with these masculine ideas, and they say, “What are you talking about?” It can be more difficult to deal with your mother or aunt or older sister than even your father — because she thinks in a masculine way more than he does. For example, I was forced to wear a veil when I was 10 years old because I was taller than all the other girls, I looked like I was 14 or 15, and in the suburb, you could be asked to marry. I wear it for 20 years. And last year, I made the decision to take it off. And it was a fight! With family, with friends.

Do you feel the spirit of Feuchtwanger here at Villa Aurora?

Let me tell you something. We grow up in Syria with an idea that the Jewish are an enemy, because of Israel. And every day in school we say this recitation which talks about this matter. And when I received the last document from the US to show at the airport, it tells me “Villa Aurora was owned by a Jewish German novelist.”

I stopped for a second. And I said, “Oh my god, he’s Jewish.” You cannot tell your friends; they would say, “Oh, you are going to Jewish people?!”

I thought about this all the way from Turkey to Los Angeles, 14 hours. I was thinking, “Yasmin, think about the emails they sent to you from the Villa. They were amazing. They were so helpful! Very respectful.”

Since I came here, I realize how stupid I was! That is how ideology takes you out of your humanity.

There was nothing about Feuchtwanger in Arabic. I could only read about him on Wikipedia, and my English is not perfect. But I started trying to understand. I saw the huge amount of books he wrote that are here and at USC Memorial Library. And I saw how serious he was, and I thought about Nazi Germany and what they did to him. And now Villa Aurora is receiving people like me, and I thought, “Nothing could be more great than this.” And when I sit up in his office, I have a very strange feeling, a good feeling … I cannot describe it.

Feuchtwanger had to escape his country because of a dictator and a regime and I’m out of Syria for the same reasons. I think about how Villa Aurora helped me to understand my own value as a writer.

Because sometimes in your own society, people don’t care about you as a writer; sometimes they do, but not always. But how people treat you here, it is different.

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Louise Steinman is the author of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. She curates the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles (www.aloudla.org) and is co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC.


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