I was back visiting one of my favorite countries, Lebanon, when I purchased The Silence and the Roar in a chic mall in Beirut in 2013. My friend was downstairs purchasing a pair of Valentino boots and I was browsing the newly translated offerings in English from Arabic when I came across Nihad Sirees’ Orweillian novel. I picked it up for the sticker announcing it was the winner of the English Pen Award. I bought it due to the description on the back and the fact that Sirees is Syrian. I bought the real treasure that day.
Having lived in Turkey for a few years by then and knowing that the streams of desperate people fleeing from Syria into Turkey (and Lebanon) were growing larger by the day, I was keen to read something by a Syrian author. As I had only briefly visited Syria in the winter of 2000-2001, I took the book to the register with the hope to gain more of a understanding of what life had been like for Syrians, especially the intellectual class, before the outbreak of the current war under the rule of Bashar Al-Assad. The Silence and the Roar does not disappoint. The book is banned in Syria, but its popularity worldwide has only grown. It has more recently been published in Dutch, Czech, Italian, and Turkish, in addition to German and French. Max Weiss has done a superb job translating it from Arabic to English.
Let me be clear, however, Sirees’ brilliance with this book, which he wrote almost prophetically in 2004, is that he doesn’t name the country the protagonist, a writer named Fathi Sheen, lives in. Nor does he name “the Leader”. The time span of the novel is merely 24 hours, but wow, does Sirees pack a punch in his allegory of Syria. The “roar” in the title of the book refers to the crowds marching and chanting for the Leader religiously – whether it’s below on the streets or televised on the TV – for different cities are chosen for parades of devotional crowds each day around the unnamed country on this occasion of the dear leader’s 20th anniversary of coming to power. The descriptions of these marches are terrifying for the fact that a number of countries in the past few years have witnessed crowds like Sirees describes:
The roar produced by the chants and the megaphones eliminates thought. Thought is retribution, a crime, treason against the Leader. And insofar as calm and tranquility can incite a person to think, it is essential to drag out the masses to these roaring marches every once in a while in order to brainwash them and keep them from committing the crime of thought. What else could be the point of all that noise.
Why aren’t we better than this in 2018? Sirees wrote down some ideas in his Afterward. He believes the silence and the roar can co-exist. He explains with aching devastation that:
Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications….Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave.
Sirees states that humanity needs to strive towards love and peace and we do indeed see Sirees’ Fathi physically loving his girlfriend in the oppressive heat and environment of this particular day. Fathi fights his circumstances with his “two weapons of survival” – laughter and sex. I urge you to add The Silence and the Roar to your storage house of weapons of self-care. What a timely novel from a citizen of a country that has witnessed some of the worst atrocities in recent memory.
Maureen Gumusmakas is a writer, editor, world traveler, and currently in the midst of completing her Master’s degree in Global Affairs. Originally from Detroit, Maureen is proud to call Istanbul her home – one that she shares with her master jeweler husband Nurhan, their daughter Mariam, and their cat Mink.