Des manifestants près de la mosquée des Omeyyades. Photo AP
Samar Yazbek is a very important Syrian writer. She is the author of 4 novels, 2 collections of short stories and several film scripts. She is currently a cinema and television critic. Her style is quite original. She is very courageous to deal with themes related to the disappointments of a marginalised generation.
Her novel “Ra’ihat al-Qirfa” (The Smell of Cinnamom) is being translated into French and has been recently published in Italy. This original text hereunder speaks of the anguish felt by the author during the tragic events that are ravaging Syria.
It is not true that death will have your eyes when it comes.
It is not true that the desire for death is like the desire for love. These two are not identical, yet they both float in nothingness.
In love, one identifies oneself with another person, whereas in death one identifies with one’s existence and the metamorphosis from tangible substance to an abstract idea. People have always seen death as being more noble than their own existence: if not, why venerate the dead? The deceased, who was here among us only a few minutes ago, is at once turned into nothing but a spark.
I would not say that I am calm now, but I am silent. I can hear my heart thumping like the echo of a distant explosion: more clearly than the sound of bullets, screaming kids, and wailing mothers, and even more clearly than the trembling voice of my mother when she tells me not to go out into the street.
The assassins are everywhere.
Death is everywhere.
In the village,
In the city,
By the seaside.
Assassins are taking over both humans and places, and they are terrorizing people. They come to the homes of our neighbors, telling them that we are about to kill them. Then, they turn back at us crying: They will kill you!
I am the accidental visitor to this place. I am the improvisation of life. I do not belong to my own community. Like a wild animal, I float in nothingness. I struggle in the void except for my existential freedom. I look out through the window and observe, I grow calmer and then become silent. My voice is smothered. At this moment, the words of filmmaker Omar Amiralay, come to my mind. During one of our morning meetings, I said: “I’m going to write novels about the history of this country,” and he replied: “Hurry up then! Because I can see that you are under the sentence of death.” I burst out laughing. He adds, smiling: “If it weren’t for your daughter, of course!” Had he not known my relation with death – which often had saved my life – Omar, the witty man that he was, would not have uttered those words lightly. Death is very much like love: if you want to get rid of it, immerse yourself in it. If you want to be burnt by love, keep it away from you.
I wanted to be done with this existence at once. Overwhelmed by details, I failed to perceive at the time, that this indifference would make me strong and vulnerable. And then, that I would cling to life with such fear. Fear of what? How do people fear? They do not even know that, as they breathe, they fear.
For fifteen years, ever since I moved to the capital with my daughter, I have kept a knife in my bag and carried it with me everywhere. For years, I told myself that I would use it against those who would attack a lonely woman like myself. I did not have to use it often, yet I waved it a few times in the faces of speechless men. Lately, I have told myself: “I would stab it in my own heart before anyone could offend my dignity.”
So what does this all mean now, in the whirl of death? Going out into the streets has become a likely occasion to die. But the idea tickles me… to walk down the street knowing that someone could kill you any minute. Indeed, going out with friends to protest, well aware that security officials are ready to shoot you dead on the spot, is a crazy, weird idea. These are the same security officers who have crushed, betrayed, arrested and killed people for centuries: now, once more, they walk the streets in cold blood.
How do human bodies turn into lethal weapons? Their hands, eyes, hair, heads and all their organs are similar to yours. How can people be turned into pincers and hooks? In the blink of an eye, reality becomes fantasy. Because reality is more bitter than fantasy. It has been said that writing novels requires fantasy; well, I would say that it requires reality – and only reality. For that which is written in novels is always less brutal than what happens for real.
The untruthful lady was on TV. My mother said: “Listen, she talks of traitors and sectarian strife. Woe betide us! Shut the windows!” But the neighbors and I take her words lightly. We are united more than one family. I argue with my mother and suddenly burst into tears. The images come back to me: of children being tortured, of murdered young people. The face of the child who I carried in my arms in Marjeh Square while he watched his family beaten up and arrested. I listen to a man on TV speaking of the blood of martyrs in Deraa, and he called for revenge. “We will not reply to this woman (the untruthful woman), we will not reply to women, because who listens to a woman.
What happens does not look like me; the applause of my family to the lady, the applause of my friends to the martyrs’ blood. I am ashamed of the martyrs’ blood. I retreat into my shell. Oh Lord! If a human mistake is made, and it turns out that you are sitting up there, refusing to come down to see what is happening, I will reach out for you from your seventh heaven so you see and hear.
I go out on my balcony where the lemon trees exhilarate me. The place is quiet, it is only moments before the backfire will start anew. Everyone knows that this calm is not the calm of nature, it is the security system’s hegemony and nobody dares disturb it. Officials are everywhere in the streets, turning the city into a carnival of terror. Suddenly, chaos prevails. People start running away, and some get randomly eliminated. Gangs emerge from underground: they grow like plants, without logic or reason.
People ask themselves: “From where did these gangs come? How could they murder all these people, with their bullets dancing beneath our feet and under our windows? How did it all happen?” These are the gangs that terrorize our Sunni neighbors, telling them that we are after them and plan to kill them. Then, they turn to us and say the same thing about the Alawites. Me, an intruder in this place, I observe all of this with horror. I am the one exiled from both the city and the village, from the sea and the air. I am under everyone’s gaze. I know both sides. I know other aspects of Damascus life, where the city has been transformed into a village of another nature.
What am I doing here?
Am I waiting for death? Yes, that is something I have always known, and meanwhile I continue fighting. The debates are resumed: “the saboteurs, hackers…” I have become withdrawn: I am an intruder among my own people, an intruder in my bed, an intruder in a silent and impossible love. I poke my nose into everything and yet I am nothing. I am a mass of flesh curled up under the bedspread. I even sneak into the asphalt of the street outside. I sink into the sorrow of every Syrian crossing the street in front of me. I hear the gunfire, the screams and the prayers. I am the mass of flesh that goes from house to house every morning in the hopes of finding a loophole, while pretending to do something, something false that would allow itself to be done in the course of justice.
But what is all of that worth now? Nothing.
All the slogans, all the suffering, all the hatred that lead to so much murder and death mean nothing anymore. The reality is that the streets are empty. The cities are ghost towns. The military machineries are everywhere, yet the army has vanished. Where is the army? Who trusts this nonsense nowadays anyway? The army allows the gangs to terrorize and kill people without intervening. Even the security officers, who used to terrorize civilians, have suddenly become vulnerable to these gangs.
What is this insanity?
It is death. It is a living creature moving forward on its feet. I can hear its voice and I can gaze at it. I know its taste. I know the taste of a knife on the neck, and of boots on the neck too. I have known this for a long time, ever since I first escaped from this narrow world, and since my second and third escape from it. I am a deferred crime of honor in my family and a crime of treason in my community and sect, and in… and in…
I am no longer afraid: not because I am brave, for I am very fragile, but as a force of habit.
I no longer fear death: I wait for it, serenely, with my cigarette and coffee. I think to myself and say that I dare to stare into the eye of a sniper on the roof of a building. I can stare at him without batting an eyelid. I walk down the street unhurriedly, staring at the roofs. I cross the sidewalks and the city square and I think to myself: where might the sniper be now? I think that I will write a novel about a sniper watching a woman walking sedately down the street. I think of the two of them as lonely heroes in a ghost town. I think of the streets as those in José Saramago’s Blindess.
I go back to the capital, knowing that this place will never be the same again. Fear no longer comes as naturally as breath. Life here has changed, all at once and forever.
I go back, knowing that I will not cease to demand justice even if it puts my life at risk. It is the force of habit: no more, no less. I shall wait for death and shall not place flowers on my grave*.
*Allusion to the title of a famous poem from Syrian poet Daad Haddad:
I am the one who bring the flowers to his grave
Translated from Arabic to English by Sahar Ghoussoub.
This translation is published with the courtesey of