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The Silence and the Roar, By Nihad Sirees Translated by Max Weiss

The loud silence before Syria’s almighty storm

The Silence and the Roar by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies. 

The pre-revolutionary roar is that of the Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.

Counterposed to the roar are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”

The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain.

The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?

One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is through sex, “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.” Another is by laughter. Fathi’s mother and lover both survive the world by ridiculing it, and Fathi too, in his amused insouciance under bullying and threats, meets the challenge by means of absurd comedy. His context is often absurd – he is refused access to the security building where he must reclaim his confiscated ID card, because he doesn’t have his ID card.

A state built around the amplified personality of the Leader is also absurd. Surrealism is the term used to name the situation, both by Fathi (in conversation with an anguished doctor) and by Sirees in his afterword. The tragicomic ending is fittingly in dream shape, and bears great but indirect symbolic weight. The city is not quite Damascus. The Leader too is generalised, not quite Bashar al-Assad or his father Hafez. Occasionally his outsized decadence is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s autumnal patriarch, as when he strolls through his palace peering into the TV screens, each replaying the engineered roar.

This is a small dystopian treasure of Gogolian texture, nightmarish but light, self-referential but never pretentious. Eerie, banal, yet bearing the cold imprint of reality, Sirees’s vision of tyranny, superlatively translated, is distinctive enough to be ranked with Orwell, Huxley or Marquez’s.