photo by Richard Sammour
“The experience of living in a country like Syria is very enriching despite its cruelty”
Dima Wannous is a Syrian writer currently living in London. For her, writing is both an escape and a way to make sense of life as a Syrian. Dima studied French Literature at Damascus University and the Sorbonne. She has a diploma in translation from the University of Leon, France, and from 2003 to 2006 worked as a translator and Radio Damascus French news announcer. Since 2003 she has written on politics and culture for Assafir, al-Akhbar and Al-Hayat newspapers. Dima published her debut short story collection Tafasil (Details) in 2007 (Dar al-Mada, Damascus), which caught the eye of literary critics. Her debut novel al-Kursi (The Chair) came out in 2008. In 2009, she was selected as one of the Hay Festival’s Beirut39 group, the 39 best Arab writers below the age of 40. Dima’s latest novel Al Khaifoun (The Frightened) is due to be published in English translation in autumn 2018. An excerpt from the novel, translated by Julia Ihnatowicz, was published in Banipal 57 – Syria in the Heart (Autumn/Winter 2016), a special issue of the magazine of modern Arabic literature, showcasing writing from Syria. You can also read her short story Sahar in Banipal 31 Spring 2008.
Naseem, the protagonist of The Frightened fears fear itself. The novel takes on that very question – “the very fear of fear” that “has permeated the souls of most Syrians for many decades”, a fear that Dima herself has lived with. Sulayma, who loves Naseem, is almost certain that he wrote his novel about her. “Fear itself is concentrated in the strange young woman that Naseem made his novel’s protagonist. She is Sulayma’s double in her fear, her anxiety, and her alienation.” Dima’s protagonists’ attempts to live their lives in this atmosphere of fear, silence and alienation are reminiscent of other Syrian novels, such as The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees and Khalid Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. In The Frightened Dima explores the psychological aspects of living in this situation.
In autumn 2017, I interviewed Dima about her work at a Banipal magazine event, celebrating Magazine Weekend, held at Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, London. That interview is reproduced here.
When and why did you begin writing?
I started to write at a very early age. It was a kind of escape for me from the environment where I lived, but felt removed from, where I felt isolated, desperate and dreadful. I found in reading a start, a refuge where I live a parallel life with people I don’t know. Then, I started to write. Today, writing still constitutes for me an escape from a reality that I cannot stand, and at the same time, I don’t know how to do anything but writing! It’s my career.
How has life in Syria influenced your writing?
I remember that my father (Syrian playwright, Saadallah Wannous) used to disagree with his friend, the famous Syrian poet, Al Maghout, about creativity and its relation to dictatorships. My father believed that freedom is what stimulates creativity, while Al Maghout believed the opposite, that oppression facilitates more creativity. In any case, and regardless of their opinions, I see that writing in a country like Syria is a real escape from the life that we don’t have there. For the last 40 years, a Syrian citizen doesn’t own his or her country, doesn’t know the street where he or she lives, doesn’t own his/her own house, the chair where he/she gets used to sitting at home becomes the only thing that represents the sense of belonging. We had not owned ourselves. That’s when writing becomes the only way to own oneself and to create a career away from the regime imposed on us, and from the official public institutions, and from dealing daily with fear. Nevertheless, Syria has constituted for me a motivation to plumb the depths of that oppressive security regime, to spy on its officials, and to think deeply about the conditions that have led them to this extent of criminality. My first book, entitled Details, featured short stories about nine personalities, including security officials, businessmen, religious leaders and influential women living among us and owning the country we don’t own. The experience of living in a country like Syria is very enriching despite its cruelty, the traumas, and the mental illness it causes. Sometimes I wish I could get rid of that memory once and for all, and start a new memory, keeping only the people I lived with and loved the most.
Can you tell us about the experience of moving to the United Kingdom?
I moved to London for my son, to offer him a better life in a country where we feel at home although we don’t carry its nationality. Every two years, we Syrians pay a huge amount of money to renew our Syrian passport for only two years! But we hold the passport of a country we don’t belong to, except in papers, and that doesn’t respect us as citizens. There, in Syria, the regime kills the people, the people who hold the Syrian nationality, the same nationality that the regime holds. In London, I never felt as if I were a stranger or non-British! My son deserves to live and to grow up away from the fear, terror and insecurities present in Lebanon, where I lived for six years, and where the situation is much like in Syria. I wouldn’t have left had it not been for my son. I love our region, despite how awful living there is. Awfulness has advantages too. I got used to living amidst that devastation and that chaos. As a writer, I feel that my region suits me better than this amazingly beautiful and organized city [London], in this country of law, justice, equal rights and civilization. Everything is systematic and that leaves me in a state of comfort. I am afraid of what effect this might have on my writing and imagination.
You have said that your novel The Frightened is about fear, can you talk a bit more about that?
My book entitled, The Frightened which will be translated next autumn, is about fear. Actually, it is about the fear of fear. In Syria, we experienced this kind of fear that precedes fear. The idea motivated me to look deeply into my memory for the source of fear, its progress, and its control over our life. We are fearful people regardless of the challenges that Syrians have been through, in their resistance to the machinery of repression, the daily brutal murder, barrel bombing, bombing with chemical weapons, detentions, and killing during torture. We are fearful. To the extent that any Syrian living today in Europe who receives a random call from the bank or the police or simply the hospital, takes minutes to relax and understand that it’s a normal situation and that he/she won’t be called for investigation, or won’t be punished unjustly as is the case in his/her “country”. Because it is not our country. Those who would like to learn more about this Syrian fear can read my novel when it is translated into English.
In your novel, The Frightened, Sulayma feels that Naseem’s novel is about her. Are the experiences and characters you write about based on real people and experiences?
My thoughts stem from my strong memory. I can remember my life from when I was two years old until today. It is such a strongly etched memory and it needs to be organized for fear of insanity. I walk from that memory to reach imagination and build personalities where reality merges with imagination. My characters are Syrians that I don’t necessarily know, but that constitute a state that can be studied to understand the Syrian, his/her problems and complexities.
The Frightened is about two women living one in the heart of the other, given their similarity. They are connected though a writer and a medical doctor. Sulayma receives the manuscript of the novel that he wrote about a real woman called Sulayma and she starts looking for her given their resemblance. I worked a lot on the psychological aspect of the topic; the psychological analysis of the characters, in particular, and of their obsessions, illnesses, common and non-common fears.
What are you working on now?
Today I am trying to write and work on a new novel. I haven’t found my own place in this amazing, yet very large city. My next novel is about the lost memory of the Syrian woman. I can’t tell you more about it, I’m unfortunately better at writing than talking.
Becki Maddock is a translator and researcher living in London. She translates from Arabic, Persian and Spanish into English. She has a BA in Arabic and Spanish (Exeter University) and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London. Becki is a regular contributor to Banipal magazine and runs the Banipal Book Club, which meets in London to discuss Arabic literature in translation.