BEIRUT: During a performance in May at the Hamra Street theater Masrah al-Madina, five excruciating minutes passed as half a dozen members of the Belgian dance company Damaged Goods tied themselves into a human knot and rolled slowly, awkwardly from one corner of the stage to another. Legs extended and contracted. Arms groped, strained and embraced. Taking a diagonal path, the dancers repeatedly picked up and stuffed various props into the strange, solid mass that was constantly being created by the densely packed proximity of their lithe, entangled bodies.
It is unlikely that Meg Stuart, the American choreographer who authored the work, had regional politics in mind when she and her company presented the performance, titled “Sketches/Notebook,” during the opening days of Home Works 6, the deliriously interdisciplinary arts festival organized by Ashkal Alwan.
This ball of dancers’ bodies, bound together as if for dear life, was also a bright shining moment in an otherwise long, often dull and perplexingly infantile piece of theater.
As an image to be scanned and read for meaning in a particular time and place, however, the movements of Meg Stuart’s dancers, as seen in Beirut in the spring of 2013, were palpably evocative of a refugee crisis, a crowd of protesters, demonstrators clinging to false hopes, revolutions gone awry and survivors of some historic flood holding fast to the flimsiest of metaphorical life rafts.
A similarly strong and equally moving image recurs throughout the Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’ newly translated novel, “The Silence and the Roar.” The story follows a clever young writer through the streets of an unnamed city – maybe Aleppo, maybe Damascus – which is heaving with crowds celebrating the twentieth anniversary of a cruel and manipulative dictatorship.
The leader of said dictatorship has an iron fist and a fragile ego. Obsessed with his own image – and in Sirees’s hands, so alone, preening and insecure that readers nearly empathize with the airlessness of his alienation – he forces his subjects to show fealty, erecting an elaborate architecture of fear and intimidation to ensure their compliance.
Sirees’ protagonist is a 31-year-old writer named Fathi Sheen. Once a promising journalist with a popular literary talk show on television, he was deemed too independent by the regime, and not nearly sycophantic enough. When Sheen refused to make the leader the main subject and purpose of his program, he was fired from his job.
Not only that, he was banned from writing for newspapers, barred from publishing books, denounced by his colleagues, slandered, insulted, kicked out of the writers’ union and deemed a traitor by his peers.
“The Silence and the Roar” opens somewhere in the middle of Sheen’s malaise. In the time of the book, he’s already been “brought down” by the government but hasn’t yet been called in for a reckoning, which looms on the horizon like a dark ominous disaster rolling in from behind the clouds.
“For some time I have been suffering from unhappiness and self-loathing because I don’t actually do much of anything,” Sheen tells us. “I don’t write. I don’t read. I don’t even think. I lost the pleasure of doing things some time ago.”
Distinctly cinematic, with each chapter effectively time-stamped from morning until night, “The Silence and the Roar” takes place over the course of a single day in an unidentified country that bears a striking, now devastating resemblance to Syria, circa 2004.
That’s the year the book was published in Arabic by Dar al-Adab in Beirut. As such, many critics and readers have read the “The Silence and the Roar” as a crib sheet for the current crisis.
In fact, the novel is a different kind of document, a crucial record of a time that came before, a time that is now totally irrecoverable and in danger of being forgotten.
“The Silence and the Roar” is not great literature. Sirees explains too much and leaves too little to chance or mystery. But the strength of his political allegory slots the novel into a formidable lineage of fictions illuminating the dark corners of dictatorship, repression and blinding bureaucracy, from Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” and J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” to Ismail Kadare’s “The Successor” and Jose Saramago’s “The Lives of Things.”
That said, the dissident writer to whom Sirees owes the greater debt is Milan Kundera.
Like “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Sirees’ novel is light, funny, sexy. His characters respond to the stultification of authoritarianism by spending long hours in bed, the pleasures and desires of their sexual lives a tonic against the deadening weight of the state.
They also laugh in the face of everything, throughout the book, until the bitter end.
On this day in Fathi Sheen’s life, he visits three women: his mother, his girlfriend and his sister.
Between his apartment and his mother’s, however, he sees a young man being brutally beaten by the security services, and intervenes. As a result, his ID card is snatched away. From then on, a sinister subplot upends his familial appointments and romantic assignations.
The confiscated ID serves as the regime’s bait, luring the young writer into a multilayered trap. First he is pulled into the sleek, corporate-style offices of the ruling party. Then he is pushed into the filthy dungeon that lies at the heart of the police state.
Because retrieving the ID will never be enough, Sheen’s mother is deeply implicated in the regime’s plans. Recently widowed, she is to be married off to an obsequious party hack who wants nothing more than to harness the writer’s talent and force him to fall into line.
The “silence” of Sirees’s title is the suppression of Sheen’s work, ambition and intellect, alongside his ethics, principles and faculties for critical thinking. Those are the things that have been disappeared from Syria today. The “roar” is the crowd, the telegenic marches that are heavily stage-managed by the regime.
Off camera, however, they roll through the streets with the same volatility and ambiguity as Meg Stuart’s dancers. They are euphoric. They are desperate. They are afraid. They crush their own. Untold numbers are suffocated, trampled upon and killed. Their deaths go untallied, the prison population is unknown.
Set against this tangle of bodies both dead and alive, Sirees introduces his readers to a chamber of silence that is chilling but possible to understand. What haunts the novel most is the suspicion that a second chamber lies beyond the first, where silence is death at a terrible, unconscionable price. That is the silence of Syria today.
Nihad Sirees’ novel “The Silence and the Roar,” translated by Max Weiss, is published by Other Press in the U.S. and Pushkin Press in the U.K.