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After Syrian Literature

Session X-14, sponsored by Syrian Studies Association (SSA), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
In her 2001 article “The Silences of Syrian Literature,” writer and scholar Mohja Kahf defined Syrian literature as a national literature in its own right. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Syrian literature has been created under the conditions of repression and censorship, lacking, as Kahf argues, in the “geographic cohesiveness of Egypt” and “spared the Palestinian and Lebanese traumas” around which literary production centers. Ten years after Kahf’s intervention, the Syrian revolution erupted, forcing millions into exile and migration. This panel proposes to examine how the contours of Syrian literature have been redrawn and redefined during the last two decades. Papers will explore Syrian literature beyond its national limitations, taking into consideration transnational and diasporic frameworks of analysis. Papers will cover topics including new modalities of writing exile and migration in Arabic literature from the diaspora, a diachronic reading of Syrian national literature along literary gestures of mourning, the theme of silence in Syrian literature, representations of the Syrian Arab and Kurdish relationship and its implications for activism, and the politics of the Syrian novel in translation. This panel will explore some of the new configurations and expressive possibilities of silence as it relates to emergent contexts of mobility and displacement. Inquiries into the broader stakes of reading Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian literary acts of becoming-diaspora diachronically will be taken up. It will explore the concept of "memoirization" of modern Syrian literature in translation, and will establish and discuss the various "pedagogies of protest" that call for activist-scholarly attention to anti-sectarian and anti-racist pedagogies in art and in grassroots activism in a study of the representation of Kurdish communities in Syria.
  • In recent years, a considerable amount of Syrian memoirs, novels, and fiction have been published and translated into the European and North American literary and translation scenes, specifically in Germany, where Berlin is now described as the capital of the Syrian art. In an article in the ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly Magazine in 2020, Mari Odoy described this recent and markable interest in Syrian writers, as a “boom” of Syrian literature translated into German,” and notes that this sudden interest “is felt across Berlin.” This development of “Syrin literature” in exile is reminisent of Prof Mohja Kahf’s critical work, as many literatry scholars noted in recent work exploring the emergence of Syrian literature in parellel to the on-going war back home. In her prophetic article published in 2001, “The Silences of the Syrian Literature,” Prof Mohja Kahf encounraged her readers to rethink the term “literature literature” alongside the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi literature, all of which grew and were shaped by exile as a consquences of settler colonialism, empire, and authoeriatian violence together. Two decades later, critics are exploring the emergence of not only the Syrian literature, notably in the Berlinian exile, but also the politics of suffering around such emergence. Based on ethnographic research and elite interviews with Palestinian and Syrian writers, artists, and scholars based in Berlin, including Palestinian and Syrian queer and feminist writers, this paper explores the racial politics behind publishing Syrian and Palestinian literature in Germany, specifically since the so-called “refugee crisis.” More specifically, I explore the racial figuration of ‘refugee’ and its attachment to the emotion of white innocence. politics that are attached to it. I do that in comparison and/or in parallel with understanding and interviewing Palestinian authors about their experiences as literary authors based in Berlin. More specifically, I explore the racial politics attached to the figuration of ‘refugee,’ Syrian refugee, and a Palestinian refugee. I examine how the different figurations of refugees expose the interconnectedness between race, politics, and sexuality, in the realm of literary productions.
  • Scholars of Syrian literature have shown that themes of silence and use of indirect signifiers have constituted creative responses to political oppression and surveillance, sometimes even been figured as a kind of exile without physical displacement. As the conflict following the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad’s regime gave rise to large-scale migration and internal displacement, the geography of Syrian cultural production has been radically transformed, with diasporic settings and voices becoming more central to Syrian literature and arts. This paper elaborates on some of the new modes of writing exile and migration in Arabic literature and then probes some of the new configurations and expressive possibilities of silence as it relates to emergent contexts of mobility and displacement. In Samar Yazbek’s 2017 novel Al-Mashāʾa (She Who Walks) the theme of silence and mobility converge in a young protagonist who refuses to speak and is afflicted by a mysterious condition that causes her to walk ceaselessly unless fettered. Yazbek’s first novel since leaving Syria after participating in the early days of protest in 2011, Al-Mashāʾa is told from the perspective of an adolescent narrator who prefers to not to use her “tongue muscle” other than to recite verses from the Qu’ran and instead expresses herself through drawings and in her fanciful written account addressing the reader directly. Her silence is interpreted by those around her not as a choice but as a disability. Her walking poses a danger and must be curtailed, first by her mother who uses a rope to keep her in place and then, after her mother’s death at a checkpoint, by her brother who moves her into a rebel-held area. Her choice to not to use her tongue coexists with a drive to walk that seems to defy individual agency. In this unnamed narrator, a drive for mobility thus coexists with multiple constraints, both individual and collective. The novel’s exploration of mobility within multiple contexts of constraint connects it to literature of contemporary forced migration both within and across national borders and presents a continuation and transformation of the theme of silence in Syrian literature.