The Prophet of Aleppo

Nihad Sirees
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees (right) Hannah Assouline/Opale

A popular writer living under dictatorship refuses to join the regime's propaganda machine, and so he goes silent. His novels are banned and he cannot work or write. This is Fathi Sheen, the narrator of Syrian writer Nihad Sirees's scathing, absurdist, and powerful novel The Silence and the Roar—but it is also Sirees himself, who fled Syria last year for Cairo after decades of writing to resist the cult of the ruling Assads—Hafez and now Bashar (whom he writes about in this issue of Newsweek). Sirees's novels promote the individual's power of free expression under an authoritarian regime that demands the masses' blind adherence and for three decades has silenced people with what Sirees calls "an expansive roar"—of rallies, secret prisons, and now artillery, tanks, and jets—"that renders thought impossible."

On a recent afternoon in Providence, Rhode Island, Sirees sits at a table in a Greek restaurant near Brown University, where he is a visiting fellow, and toiled with what to call the civil war devastating his country, where the death toll exceeds 70,000. It mimics a scene in his novel, in which Fathi meets a doctor in a hospital overwhelmed with the bodies of people trampled by hysterical crowds celebrating the Leader. The doctor begs Fathi to tell him "what we should call what's going on here. Naming can satisfy a need." Fathi's answer—"surrealism"—was Sirees's initial reply, too. But then he conceded, "No one could give a name or a title to this. It's only criminal."

Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is standing in for Syria, the novel takes place on the day the regime forces everyone to commemorate the Leader's anniversary in power. Crowds swell in oppressive heat under a sea of bullhorns, banners, and portraits of the Leader. "Comrades," the regime's loyal thugs, harass anyone who isn't celebrating, including Fathi, and confiscate his ID card after he intervenes to help a young man in their grips. But as Fathi goes about his day, visiting his mother and his girlfriend, he finds strength from their love and laughter to go retrieve his ID from the security forces.

Just as the Leader forces crowds into the streets, the Assad regime controlled the masses through fear and intimidation until, nearly two years ago, Syrians resisted and started protesting for reform—only to be shot in the streets. They demanded Assad's downfall instead. Another word came to Sirees: slavery. "If a slave ran away, his master would find him and kill him," he said. "The same is happening now. If anyone defects from the Army, from his post, his party—if he defects from the masses—in the mind of the leader, he deserves to be executed."

Sirees was forced into silence not for his many plays or seven novels, of which The Silence and the Roar is the first to be translated into English, but his television drama, The Silk Market, which premiered in 1996. Syria's popular soap operas, or mosalsalat, are broadcast to tens of millions of satellite viewers across the Arab world. Many are historical showpieces set in the Old City of Damascus that capture Syria's rich heritage and nostalgia for the years of resistance against the Ottomans and the French. These soaps present a sanitized history approved by the regime, toeing the censors' line and often conforming to the wishes of the Baath Party. The Silk Market went against all that.

"We have a formal history, which the regime or the leader wants everyone to know, and to run in his blood and heart," Sirees says. "I came to say that this history is fake." The Silk Market narrated the social and political upheavals around Syria's 1958–1961 union with Egypt, from the view of textile merchants in the historic heart of Aleppo. "We read books and watched TV series only from the Damascus point of view," he says, a result of Aleppo's political and economic marginalization by Hafez as punishment for its role in the Muslim Brotherhood–led insurgency against the regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I wanted to write something to say that Aleppo has a point of view, too."

The show's premiere was a massive success. "Overnight, we all became stars," Sirees says, beaming. He heard Hafez even liked it, the president claiming he had always been "proud of Aleppo." The first season went through two years of intense censorship, but the second season, which aired in 1998, largely evaded censors because of Sirees's popularity. "They didn't read the script!" he exclaims. After the censors' frantic last-minute cuts, what aired "was like a bomb for the regime." The second season criticized the regime and Syria's union with Egypt, as well as the nationalistic economic policies. By attributing the union's dissolution not to "imperialism or Zionism," Sirees said, but to "the dictatorship of Nasser, acts of torture and humiliation, fighting every kind of free speech and political organization," he publicly challenged the regime's own propaganda about its origins.

The regime retaliated by smearing Sirees in the state media and banning his books. A member of the Majlis al-Shaab, or People's Council, Syria's Parliament—though Sirees refuses to call it that—berated him at a public lecture, saying an Israeli could not have written a show as insulting to Syria as he had. "That means I am a traitor," Sirees says. He stayed in Aleppo but published his books in Beirut, including The Silence and the Roar, which appeared in Arabic in 2004. When Bashar al-Assad took power after his father's death in 2000, Sirees helped organize the reformist salons that became known as the Damascus Spring, a brief period of political liberalization, which abruptly ended in 2001 when the regime arrested outspoken liberals and intellectuals.

Sirees continued to work quietly from Aleppo, where the regime excluded him from public and cultural life even as his books and popular television dramas, including a 30-episode series on the Lebanese-born American writer and artist Khalil Gibran, were released abroad. Now he is writing a new novel, but the work is slow, and he stresses it is not about the war that ravages Syria today. "I believe that literature comes very early or very late," he says, tapping a copy of The Silence and the Roar on the table to stress the former. "Writing about the uprising will come later, when it is finished, and we sit to write and think about what happened and what is next." He is busy writing personal reflections, giving talks, and reading daily news reports and Facebook posts from Syria's brutal reality. "If you're inside, you'd think what is going on was beyond imagination. To discover a grave of hundreds of people? Or a whole family of 15 killed in cold blood? With violence exploding like this, it is beyond imagination."

And he cannot imagine Syria's future. "The opposition will win, Bashar will lose." He pauses. "But, really, who will be victorious?" Running a pen over his small notepad, on which he scrawled a simple map of Syria, he says, "If we had written fiction or films or dramas in the past like this, we wouldn't be close to what is happening now."