The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
In a nameless city, a writer, once well known, now lives a near-wasted life. Rendered a pariah, his life oscillates between the uproar of a dictator’s tyranny and his seeking of an elusive silence. The dictator, identified simply as the Leader throughout The Silence and the Roar, a cracking satire by Nihad Sirees, is a classic autocrat — narcissistic and insecure to the core.
Fathi Chin, the thirty-one-year-old hero of the taut novel takes us through the city, oppressed both by hot weather and the fanatical demonstration of the Leader’s supporters who shout their lungs out in his praises to mark his twenty-year rule. That Sirees employs his hero as a writer is both clever and subversive. The cleverness shines in Fathi’s voice — humour laced with a bite so sharp it stings even as it makes you smile. The subversion is in Sirees satirizing, through Fathi, the political atmosphere he himself experienced in Syria, where the government banned his writing. Sirees has been living in exile since 2012.
Love for the Leader requires no thought; it’s axiomatic…You must love him for who he is, simply because he is, and any thought given to reason why might cause you to — God forbid — stop loving him one day because you might find…that his eyes blink continuously whenever he speaks…and your love for him may start to diminish, which is, after all, a very grave sin indeed.
Fathi finds his already stagnant station in life further complicated by factors outside his control and often beyond his understanding. During the demonstration, as he steps out of his house to meet his girlfriend, Lama, the police seizes his ID card. His attempts to get it back only land him into further ordeals. Then there is the twist in his family life — his widowed mother is set to marry a close aide of the Leader and tries to persuade Fathi to resume writing; the Leader’s lackey will support and protect him, she assures. But there’s a catch to this olive branch as the young writer would find out during his interrogation at the Party office where he goes to retrieve his ID card. The invitation for him to resume his craft is more of a command and comes with a rider — that he must speak positively of the Leader and his regime.
In its geographical anonymity, despite the alluded location being somewhere in the Middle East, The Silence and the Roar is striking in its mirroring of repressive dictatorships anywhere in the world. A lot of times, these dictators aren’t self-imposed but actually democratically elected. One only has to look at the rise in right-wing extremism and the resulting political climate around the globe to validate the pattern.
Megalomania, manipulation of power, total disregard for justice, suppressing dissent in any form, and, in the 21st century, a complete and post-truth control of the media apparatus, down to the latest technological tools — Sirees is able to map, with remarkable brevity and acerbic wit, the entire trajectory of an authoritarian regime.
For me, one of the most telling scenes in the book–not because of what happens in it but the despondency it conveys–is when Fathi carries an elderly woman injured in the demonstrations and brings her to a hospital. He’s badly injured himself, too, and learns from the doctor treating him that the woman was already dead by the time she was brought in. At one point, the doctor presses Fathi, the famous writer, to give him a name for the tragedy that has gripped the country.
“Naming can satisfy a need, it can shorten a conversation that otherwise might go on for hours. Tell me, I’m begging you!”
…”Surrealism, Surrealism,” I found myself repeating.
He received the word from my lips…stared up at the ceiling and hissed repeatedly, “Surrealism, yes, Surrealism. That’s it.”
Through all his travails, if there’s one door that promises both hope and an escape for Fathi, it is Lama and the love she embodies. Her sensual and explicit display of affection is for Fathi, the antithesis of the regime’s demonic suppression of free speech and independent thought. The vividness of Lama’s physicality is possibly the most ethereal and manifest expression of creativity for him. If Lama exhibits little inhibition in baring her sexuality, his lover, the narrator, doesn’t hold himself from letting that beauty spill through his words.
This love is also the closest that Fathi will get to experience to the silence he seeks. This silence isn’t the absence of noise but rather the space against which one can appreciate the most mundane and perhaps thus, the most comforting of sounds — the cooing of a pigeon, an owl’s hooting, a muezzin’s early morning call to prayer. As Fathi observes, “…the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”
In the backdrop of today’s Syria and the cacophony surrounding which faction is on the right side of history, such a silence may not just be desirable but also prescriptive.