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Review: The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees

During the Second World War, a spokesman of the Vichy Government criticised the films of poetic-realist director Marcel Carné for their pessimism, saying that ‘if we have lost the war it is because of Le Quai des Brumes’. Carné is supposed to have retorted that you ‘cannot blame a storm on the barometer’*. For better or for worse, the overhaul of any political system influences the reception of the cultural product of the overhauled regime, due to the influence this regime must have had on its cultural product.

Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar sits on both sides of this divide. Written under an oppressive regime, re-published after its fall, the book tells the story of Fathi Sheen, a writer living in a thinly disguised pre-civil war Syria. Here, no cultural output is permitted that does not in some way endorse the never-named ‘Leader’ of the country. Fathi was recently a popular author, critic and broadcaster, until one day he received ‘a fax from one of the security services…which criticized my programme because I had not mentioned the Leader recently’, and was subsequently forbidden from public work.

Sirees has lived in exile from Syria in Egypt since 2012. At the risk of seeming cynical, it seems unlikely that the book would have found a publisher and English translator were it not for the recent upheavals. National crises such as the current situation in Syria are not self-contained events; their influence on a country’s culture spreads a long way not only into the future but also into the past.

Like Le Quai des Brumes much of the appeal of a book like Sirees’ is that it is charged with the foreboding air of a situation approaching crisis; as a book about a writer struggling to survive under an oppressive regime, written by a man who has escaped the regime as it enters its own struggle for survival. The Silence and the Roar is a good example of the point where literature crosses over with politics.

Fathi lives in a constant tussle between the two forces named in the title, the silence of dissident voices and the roar of the blind popular support. As a dissenter, Fathi is forced into silence by the omnipresence of the cult of The Leader: millions of posters of The Leader’s face cover every surface; outside, mass marches bloat the streets (the chanting is so loud and so pervasive that the words ‘noise’ and ‘roar’ are used interchangeably), and these marches are broadcast incessantly over the radio and on the television.

Even with the mass support demonstrated by the marches, Sirees shows the instability of the country through the glimpses of dissent expressed by the frustrated few. At one point Fathi meets a doctor who has been living in silence to the extent that he cannot even define the insanity of the situation, dozens die of heat stroke on a daily basis as they are forced to demonstrate their support for the leader, and he can do nothing without risking the wrath of the establishment. At another point a dissatisfied government official slips Fathi a note inviting him to a secret meeting at a café, so they can vent their frustration together, but the meeting never takes place.

Fathi and his girlfriend Lama (who walks around her apartment completely naked, wonderfully contravening the Western perception of Middle-Eastern women) maintain their sanity through sex and laughter, one of many inevitable parallels between The Silence and the Roar and Nineteen Eighty-Four. However these, like the Doctor’s attempt to define the regime and the Official’s note, are ultimately empty gestures. Fathi is so muffled by the roar of government support that he is unable even to write:

Yesterday was like the day before and like the day before that and like any day months earlier. I don’t do anything anymore. I don’t write. I don’t read. I don’t even think. I lost the pleasure of doing things some time ago.

Rather than write in defiance of the authorities, Fathi keeps his beliefs to himself and his family; though he despises the country’s political situation, by keeping his views to himself he is ensuring that nothing changes.

Though the extent to which the book can be considered autobiographical is left ambiguous, it is evident that Sirees himself suffered from similar symptoms. The Silence and the Roar is not a call to arms, but a view inside the world of totalitarianism. The most outwardly condemning part of the book is the afterword. Written in 2012 after the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is only in this section that Syria is directly referenced, and though Sirees’ decision not to reference either the country or Assad by name throughout the novel is understandable, it nevertheless diminishes the book’s relevance.

Writers and artists are often considered to be at the vanguard of cultural change, but The Silence and the Roar questions this position both through its story and its relationship to actual political events. It is an uncomfortable truth which Fathi won’t even admit to himself, but the anti-establishment effects of literature, sex and laughter are generally limited to the individual, they are a way of letting off steam rather than bringing the country to a boiling point. This is an important argument, but an unsettling one to consider when it relates to a genuine political crisis. The Silence and the Roar is a highly interesting work: well written, well translated, and relevant to current affairs. But it won’t convince anyone to pick up a gun.

The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees. Pushkin Press, 2013

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