Artwork by Khaled Akil
yrian writers have been marginalized for decades, left to languish on the Middle Eastern edge of a genre that is often reductively labeled “world lit.” Since the March 8, 1963, coup d’état that brought the Ba’ath Party (and later the Assads) to power, loyalty to the state has been a defining aspect of the country’s literature. The distinctions between “faithful” and “treasonous” writing are determined by a convoluted array of institutions, ranging from the General Union of Arab Writers to Ba’ath Party officials; however, the censorship matrix in Syria doesn’t neatly fit into Western notions of “freedom” and “totalitarianism.” Writers in Syria must operate under conditions that, in my opinion, can best be described as “freedom with restrictions.”
Syrian writers are particularly well positioned to comment on the historical progress and degradation of the political situation in their country even though many are persecuted. Novels banned in Syria can still be smuggled in from neighboring Lebanon. But a ban functions as a scarlet letter for authors, a way for the government to distinguish between who is with them and who is against.
Like much of the literary elite in Syria, the novelist Fawwaz Haddad has watched his country disintegrate over the past 20 months without explicitly taking an outspoken position for or against the regime. As an author, he evinces a fusion of clear-eyed realism and careful optimism in his assessment of the Syrian situation. He signed off one recent email to me expressing his wish that we would see each other soon, “once peace arrives in my country.” But as his homeland falls deeper into civil war, Fawwaz’s neutrality may have reached its limit. He has left the country, although he intends to return to Syria, as much of his family is still there.
Fawwaz was born in Damascus in 1947 and studied law before moving on to work in the private sector. His early writings consisted of historical fiction, with an emphasis on Syria during the French Mandate and the early days of its independence. But he was a late bloomer—Mosaic Damascus ’39, his debut novel, wasn’t published until he was 44. His more recent work has veered toward hard-boiled realism, which has vastly increased his notoriety. In 2009, Fawwaz was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel The Unfaithful Translator and in 2011 long-listed for God’s Soldiers. His stories explore the limits placed on the state and Syrian society, zig-zagging between high-minded principles and the dirty business of everyday life while offering insight into the workings of a broken system—one that seems impervious to both reform and revolution.
Fawwaz’s 2009 Solo Piano Music, an excerpt of which appears over the following pages for the first time in English, tells the story of Fateh al-Qalaj, a solitary secular intellectual who is assaulted in the stairwell of his Damascus apartment building. After he’s paid a visit by an investigator from the shady Terrorism Affairs Bureau, Fateh comes to believe that he is being targeted for his outspoken views on religion and the state.
In this Kafkaesque crime novel, the dance between “the investigator” and “the secular intellectual” is central to the narrative tension. Following Fateh’s assault, a childhood friend pays him a visit while he is recovering in the hospital. Fateh’s old friend reveals that he is mixed up with radical Islamists, and the role he played in the assault grows ever murkier.
In the book’s climax, the Syrian regime violently stamps out the perceived terrorist threat. Fateh is left feeling remorse for the murdered “terrorists.” He questions whether the Terrorism Affairs investigator had been lying to him, and whether he even works for the government. Fateh comes to the bleak conclusion that one has to rely on oneself alone.
Read Solo Piano Music.
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.