Syrian Literature: Between Curses of the Past and Challenges of the Present

By Nuri al-Khalaf

Editor of Syrian Literature Month for

Global Literature in Libraries

I remember – one day – that I delivered a long speech introducing and praising the Syrian culture and literature to a big crowd of students.  Once I finished my speech one of my professors said to me: “Dear Nuri, you talked a lot about the Syrian culture, about its richness, about its authenticity, and you talked a lot about the Syrian man that he is a descendent of successive civilizations – so why didn’t the culture that you praised reflect on Syrian literature, and the Syrian man’s manners and behaviors at this critical moment?” I quoted, the philosopher Abu Hasan al-Amiri, who in the ninth century said, “There is a time to spread wisdom and there is a time to hide it, when it is the time of spreading and teaching you must do that, but when the time is to hide it you must do that, too,”  in response to his question. I also said what is happening now is a pure revolution and revolutions are all different from foreign wars and conflicts. They produce lots of questions and conflicts. And at the time of conflict the culture disappears.  So wait till the dark is dispelled, the black cloud blows over, and the morning light rises from the bride of the desert, Palmyra, and has supported circumstances and institutions. Then you will see  the culture as clear as the clearness of the sun in the midday sky and as obvious as the  obviousness of a bright full moon on a crystal clear night.

And as the moment of birth, is a moment of human presence, and so do some of these states of literary absence reproduce this human presence in a way that is possibly more intensely tragic. So, does that mean man and literary writings have two presences and two births? Yes, they do. But only the unique ones where they dedicated pens and books for the sake of man’s dignity and freedom. And here, I’m reminded of al-Zamakhshari’s saying: ”The scholar’s book is his/her immortal child.”

But, can literature rise from  weak and enslaved pillars? Or does it need creative energies, strong and honest institutions, free media and free writers who know their roles in life and who recruit their words for the sake of the man’s sublimity and freedom. Of course, it needs fertile land and active institutions and above all that freedom of expression; because literature is not a sort of pleasure, but it is a position of life and the world and for this literature needs institutions to support it.

To further talk about Syrian literature, we have to remember that Syria was established as a state in the twenty century. But across the long history of Syria, which reaches back thousands of years, numerous of literary writings were produced,  including Imitation Creations Texts, tragedies about the flood and the creation of the world.  This what has been found in Ebla and Mari. Also, Syria conceived the first alphabet in the world, and it is still unique for having the oldest spoken language, Aramaic. However, after the twenty century, various literary writings entered Syrian Literature because of factors like printing and newspapers. Additionally, many famous Syrian literary figures like Nizar Qabbani, Omar abu-Risha, Sulieman al-Issa, Rafick Schami, Hana Mina, Khaled Khalifa, Ghada al-Samman, Samar Yazbek and Haitham Hussien appread. The authors and their writings handle different cases related to a specific period of time.

Recently, the literary movement witnessed great progress after getting rid of obstacles that the literary works were suffering from, such as the lack of freedom and supporting institutions. Many Syrian literary writings have spread worldwide. I am delighted that I have featured a few of them this month on the board of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative with the hope of increasing global literature in English-speaking libraries around the world. Currently, only 3% of what is published in English each year has been translated from other languages. What would the world be like if English language readers read more globally? Readers would expand their hearts and minds. It would leads to more tolerance, more awareness, more understanding and more solidarity.

Now the Syrian Literature Month turns to an educational march: this novel is going to be taught at university and a collection of poems is going to be translated into English. The month says goodbye after lots of readings, seminars and discussion. It is true and very clear that writing and composing increased after the Syrian revolution, which granted some freedom to write. The richness of Syrian literature can contribute and offer something new to the world library even in the darkest hours.

I was honored to edit some of the Syrian literary works and the credit, all the credit, goes to the reviewers with enlightened minds, generous souls and flowing pens from New York to Berlin and from the city of culture – London – to Istanbul from professors, authors, writers, translators, academics, poets and publishing houses. Here I would like to say thank so very much to the generous contributors who have embraced me with their generosity and I can’t reward them enough and it is not possible for my words to describe my  gratefulness. A poet once said:

You   have    benefited from my      favors in three   ways

My deeds,    my words     and my      innermost  thoughts

I hope what I have featured this month has fulfilled readers’ taste a little bit because I’m aware that each reader has his/her own artistic literary taste which is a result of his/her culture, knowledge, and manners – what we can’t cover everything, but we can cover some of it. For this reason, I tried to select a novel, a poem, and a play that represents the readers’ tastes through the eyes of the Syrian literature. But of course, these few days are not enough to say all what I want to say about it. On the other hand,  I don’t think that the featured literary works have reached the artistic perfection that the readers seek. But, I think that the most beautiful books – as I imagine –  have not been written yet.

All in all, I’m pleased to conclude this article with the following words from al-Imad al-Asfahani: “There is no one who ever wrote a book who – one day – would later say if I change that it is better, if I add that it would be more beautiful, if I put this before that it would be great, and I left that it would be more beautiful. This is one of the greatest preachings and  evidence of the human being’s weakness.”


Nuri al-Khalaf is from Aleppo, Syria. He studied English Literature at Al-Bath University in Homs, Syria and received CELTA certification from the University of Cambridge. Currently, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Nuri is an English teacher and a translator. He is also a literary editor on the board of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. He wrote Arabic short stories ‘Ahmed’ in 2010 and ‘Amineh’ in 2014.

Here are the titles featured during  Syrian Literature Month:

Amid the Literature of Syria, the Cradle of Civilization, by Nuri al-Khalaf

No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, by Khaled Khalifa

The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, by Samar Yazbek

Folktales from Syria, by Samir Tahhan

The Arab of the Future, by Riad Sattouf

Breaking Knees, by Zakaria Tamer

“Lament for Syria”, by Amineh Abou Kerech

The Silence and the Roar, by Nihas Sirees

Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace, by Bana Alabed

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and  Nawara Mahfoud

Damascus Nights, by Rafik Schami

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, by Samar Yazbek

THE JASMINE SNEEZE, by Nadine Kadaan

TOMORROW, by Nadine Kadaan

Answer me, Leila, Nadine Kadaan

The Frightened, by Dima Wannous

Withdrawal, by Mohammar Al Attar

The Shell, by Mustafe Khalifa

“When I Love”, by Nizar Qabbani

Arabian Love Poems: Full Arabic and English Texts, by Nizar Qabbani

Adonis: Selected Poems, by Adonis

Farewell Damascus, by Ghada al-Samman

Malakeh, by Malakeh

Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Contemporary Filmmakers, by Rasha Salti

A Weed in Paradise, by Haitham Hussein

“Ports of Soul”, by Hasan al-Nifi

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Nizar Ali Badr

Freedom Hospital, by Hamid Sulaiman

Syria: Recipes from Home, by Dina Mousawi and Itab Azzam


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