Words as Weapons

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon 2012

Words as Weapons

E Brawley
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine angry and defrauded young?

-A Dead Statesman by Rudyard Kipling

In only two short years, the Syrian War has conjured some of the most complicated civil and worldwide conflict of the twenty-first century. The rising conflict between the B’aath government and Syrian rebels caused rebels to crave “reforms … allowing political parties, equal rights for Kurds, and broad political freedoms, such as freedom of the press, speech and assembly” (“Arab Spring”). When that did not happen, Syria fell into a violent bloodbath between government and rebels. Since then, the United Nations estimates that over 100,000 have been killed, nearly 2 million refugees have fled the country, and thousands are stuck in the chaos. Amidst this violence and chaos, however, few fail to notice the uprising peaceful movement of Syrian War literature. It is a unifying force for Syria. The literature combines elements of peaceful protest and new emotional vocabulary with intent to spread beyond Syria's borders – not only to end the war, but let others know of its urgency.

When looking at the Syrian conflict, it is important to note the three groups of people in the war: the government, the rebels, and the artists. What makes these artists so unique? To put it plainly, it is that they protest peacefully.

Rebel groups adopt varying ideals: from centralist, jihadist Al-Qaeda-associated groups striving for Sunni majority, to Kurdish protectors, to violent extremist. The largest of these groups (and arguably most moderate) is the FSA, or Free Syrian Army, led by Brig Gen Salim Idris (“Syrian Crisis”). In spite of the many separations between both the government and the rebels, the two groups are becoming increasingly violent. Literary artists are completely separating themselves from these groups. Extensive evidence, eyewitness accounts, and printed proof point to a new revolution of rebellion: Syria’s Literary Rebellion. These brave soldiers of the spoken word are putting their lives on the line through pens and poetry, literature and logic. But the irony of Syria’s national motto, “Unity, Freedom, Socialism,” lingers. How could ordinary civilians rewrite the history of a nation? Through my research, I will examine the context of new Syrian literature and its ramifications worldwide. To further this concept, I will draw parallels with past American Civil War literature. Ultimately, after delving into these topics, I stress the true impact of Syrian Literature with its peaceful attempts at reversing the course of a bloody war.

Proclamations for Peace: The Context of Syrian Literature                                                               

Syrians are taking the war into their own hands, expelling a mass amount of new, gripping literature, capturing the hellish, raw emotions and effects of war. Stylistically, a new genre of literature is in the making. Aljazeera references the graphic imagery and stark realism of some of Syria’s new poetry:

“I bandage my heart with the determination of that boy / they hit with an electric stick on his only kidney until he urinated blood. / Yet he returned and walked in the next demonstration… / I bandage it with the outcry: ‘Death and not humiliation'"

-Najat Abdul Samad

Samad uses emotional imagery to portray not only the concept of violence in the war, but its effect on Syria’s budding generation. This not only affects the present, but the future. Syrian poetry utilizes graphic, violent words to display the gruesome brutality and realities of war. Samad ends the poem segment with his "outry" of "death and not humiliation." What makes this poetry so unique is that it is a rallying outcry: involving both poet and reader.         

Unlike the religious separation of the rebel groups, Syrian literature is taking a stand on the ideal of Syrian unity, not through religion, but through identity. Author Nihad Sirees wrote the critically acclaimed 2004 war novel, The Silence and the Roar, with similar intentions. His engineering background of education fueled his layered style of graphic imagery and complex, human characters, strung along by political unrest (Irving, Sarah). Ironically, his novel focuses on the creation of a “new city.”

“You can call anyone you want a traitor as long as you're the one holding the pen.”

Sirees credits a sense of control through literature. An interview through the Arab Review explains Sirees’ feelings towards the new revolution of writing:

“I wanted people to cry, or to push them for change when they compared everything with the present. But I don’t believe in adaptations, it’s better to see it as a new way of writing.”

With his novel, Sirees’ focus on human, realistic characters call out to the reader to take action. Syrians are not just creating graphic stories; they are inter-weaving cries for help in every word of text. Even in simple poetry, the cries for help are asked in desperate questions (“Take a peek into Syria”).

Will your words bring back my home

and those who were killed accidentally?

Will they erase tears shed on this soil?

-Youseff Abu Yihea

Yihea asks the readers some chilling questions, shot with personalized imagery. Who is the "your" the author is speaking about? In this example of Syrian poetry, the author is universalizing the conflict of the Syrian War - he is not specifically blaming the government, for example, he is addressing everyone at an individual level. The poetry of the Syrian War begs everyone to take responsibility for the crimes, even those who are not directly involved. Simple words cannot bring back a homeland, those who have died, or tears shed on soil; action must be taken, and Yihea is begging for it.

Artists in Exile

The role of an artist in Syria is just as dangerous as any soldier fighting on the field. Author Nihad Sirees has had to take refuge in Cairo in order to avoid being killed for his literary works. He describes the experience, however, as positive, since he can write as freely as possible (Irving, Sarah). PEN International keeps a record of Syrian artists, writers, bloggers, and activists killed and injured in protecting the freedom of expression (“PEN International Writers Committee”).


Activist, blogger and a member of the Damascus Centre for Freedom of Expression (SCM) was arrested for the second time on 15 November 2012 by the Air Forces secret services. He was killed, reportedly under torture, shortly after his arrest.

Muhammad Namer AL-MADANI:

Writer, aged 51. Reportedly arrested at the end of August 2012 by the Air Force Secret Services. Killed, reportedly under torture, on 3 October 2012.

Mohammad Abdulla Al-ROWAILY:

Well- known novelist and writer. Reportedly kidnapped on 22 November 2012 from his house in Die Azzor city by the Syrian army and was later executed on the street by the army soldiers. He had written more than twenty novels and books.

In spite of these horrific deaths, poets and writers are persevering. Aljazeera describes some of the continuing retaliation: the death of Poet Ibrahim Qashoush, who was kidnapped and killed. Two writers are still allegedly in prison without a lawyer; writer Khaled Khalifa was attacked in Damascus, his hand broken. In light of this relatiation, the massive risks Syrian Literary Rebels must take are garnering attention, emerging beyond Syria’s borders. Translators and artists worldwide are spreading the voice of Syria safely.

Speaking for Syria

The response to Syria’s literary movement has increased dramatically. Several enthusiasts of the literary movement are working tirelessly to spread the literature, translating and publishing to make it available to the widest audience possible. Ghada al-Alatrash, a Syrian-Canadian writer and translator, has studied the recent movement, noting incredible change (Cuen, Leigh). For example, people are sing verses in Syrian streets, as well as spreading mediums across breadths of social media outlets like Facebook. Alatrash discovers Syrian writers through social media and subsequently translates their works into English, making them even more accessible. Additionally, author Nihad Sirees has benefited substantially from Max Weiss’ translation of The Silence and the Roar (Irving, Sarah). Sirees credits the translation as extremely beneficial, stating that it gives English speakers a chance to view Syria in ways besides news headlines. In other words, the translations personalize his works. The translations have been extremely beneficial in spreading the impact of Syrian literature.

The evidence goes to show how much has changed in just a little over a decade. In 2001, Mohja Kahf, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, refuted the existence of a “Syrian Literature,” claiming that any existence of it was “created under the conditions of repression and censorship” (Kahf, Mohja). Kahf, however, claims that idea has now changed due to the outlets of social media and the web: "A new Syrian identity and literary tradition are being formed around the events of the last few years" (Cuen, Leigh).

Common Ties: The Influence of Past War Literature

While Syria’s new contemporary movement is groundbreaking, how can its authenticity be truly valued, amidst constant change of war and weaponry? Comparing the Syrian War literature movement with past literature movement helps to validate this claim of a new movement, specifically comparing it with the American Civil War. Associate Professor of English at Drury University, Randall Fuller, states in his talk, How the Civil War Transformed American Literature: “What happened to the Civil War, what happened to American literature, is a kind of chastening, a sense that maybe we should focus less on our ideals and more upon the day-to-day lives of actual living human beings” (Fuller, Randall). Ironically, the Syrian literary poets have followed a similar path, focusing on visceral imagery over religious ideals. Like the revolutionary Civil War poets, Syrians are describing the world simply as they see it. Fuller states that, “They [American Authors] wanted a moral revolution to happen inside the readers” (Fuller, Randall). Authors such as Emerson consequently influenced others like Walt Whitman. Fuller explains the true power of Whitman’s work; Whitman experienced the trials of the war by visiting soldiers and seeing the battlefront instead of a newspaper. Similarly, Syrians are pushing away the newspaper headlines and calling out to their audiences through their poetic experience. Fuller similarly explains the same tradition of the American Civil War: “the American poet will simply describe the world as he sees it or she sees it, and that will become a new kind of poetry.”

The past two years of the Syrian War have drastically changed in terms of democracy and literature. Thousands have been killed and relocated, with rebels, civilians, and governments clashing, as violence continues to escalate. Fortunately, the new Syrian Literary Movement has attempted to achieve peace again, attempting to change the course of war through words. Stylistically, Syrian Literature has become more raw, emotional, and graphic; the artists of this literature, however, endure trials and hardships, risking their lives to make the trials of the war known. Yet many are trying to alleviate this issue, with the uprising of translators and publishers, attempting to make the voices of Syria heard in different languages in mediums – from novels to social media. These powerful actions mirror the similar intentions of American Civil War literature, further emphasizing the validity and credibility of the Syrian War literary movement. The raw bravery of these artists reflects the strong hope for the Syrian War’s end, something which neither newspaper headline nor TV broadcast could ever achieve.

But no land except my homeland

will nourish me with its grains,

nor will all the clouds

in this universe quench my thirst.

-“I Am Syrian” by Youssef Abu Yihea





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