″The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria″

Pen Pinter prizewinner Samar Yazbek talks to Rosa Gosch about her latest book, ″The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria″, the current situation in her home country and her expectations of the West

By Rosa Gosch

Ms Yazbek, the subject of refugees is currently the prevailing debate in Europe. The majority of the migrants come from your country, Syria. In your new book ″The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria″ you describe how you returned to the country, a year after you escaped to France in July 2011. You made three trips to the north of Syria between August 2012 and August 2013. Why did you go back?

Samar Yazbek: The situation in Syria wasn′t as bad in 2012 as it is now. At that time I thought it would be possible to return permanently to the areas in the north that had been liberated from Bashar al-Assad′s regime. I wanted to write about life there and set up some projects for women and schools. But the situation deteriorated so badly that I had to leave the country for good in 2013.

How exactly has life in Syria deteriorated?

Yazbek: The situation has changed fundamentally since 2012. The Free Syrian Army and many civil society organisations have grown weaker and weaker. In the meantime, the jihadist military groups have become stronger. The borders to Turkey have become increasingly easy to cross for all sorts of fighters and mercenaries. And since the spring of 2013, Islamic State (IS) has come more and more into play. Over this entire period, Assad′s troops have continued their shooting and bombing of the areas that had defied their control, with artillery and canons, with barrel bombs, rubbish containers, cluster bombs, and – in the Ghuta region in August 2013 – with poison gas. The local population was basically wiped out. These days, the regime carries out attacks from the air while radical jihadists attack on the ground.

″The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria” by Samar Yazbek, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (photo: Rider Books, 2015)
"The fact that you′re in constant contact with your home country and can find out what′s happening there makes exile more difficult. Your person fragments – your body is in one place, your thoughts and soul in another," explains Yazbek

Does the image of Syria presented by the Western media differ from your own?

Yazbek: The Western media report almost exclusively on the refugees and IS. But the situation is more complicated than that. In 2011 Syria saw a peaceful protest movement that had support across the entire population. It called for freedom, justice, the rule of law and democracy. But the regime stamped out the protests with great brutality, by means of arrests and massacres – and by stoking confessional conflict. As a result, the revolution became militarised. The Free Syrian Army was founded and was very strong to begin with. But it got no support from the international community. Even worse – certain countries like Russia, the USA, Iran and Turkey each pursued their own interests in Syria. Once Iran and Hezbollah intervened in the conflict under the pretext of religion there was a religious reaction from the Sunnis. And once IS appeared on the scene, Syria became a magnet for extremists from all over the world. IS is the result of the Assad regime′s brutality.

Do you mean the international community is not addressing the core of the problem by combatting IS?  

Yazbek: Of course we need to fight IS. It is a terrorist organisation. But Bashar al-Assad is a terrorist too. The real problem is the continued existence of the regime. The people in Syria are fleeing not only IS, but also Assad′s barrel bombs. When a hundred people or so were killed by Assad′s bombs in the city of Douma last August it scarcely got a mention.

The German title of your book translates as ″The Stolen Revolution”. Who stole it?

Yazbek: Who equipped the extremists with money and weapons? Who is responsible for IS occupying half of Syria′s territory? Through its tacit agreement with what is going on in Syria, the international community is responsible for the revolution being hijacked. As are the states that simply pursue their own interests in Syria. You see, as long as the chaos remains contained within Syria′s borders, the rest of the world thinks it can afford to ignore what is happening.

So the state has collapsed?                                                        

Yazbek: Chaos reigns in Syria. There are only certain regions left where anyone is in charge: the Nusra Front, IS, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, the Iranians, the Russians – they all have their own sphere of influence. Most of the activists who began the revolution are now either in exile or dead. There are only very few regions where they′re still active. And until Assad stops bombing, there′s no point in talking about a political solution – which I′m actually in favour of.

What would have to happen?

Yazbek: It has become very difficult to reach a solution, but there are steps that ought to be undertaken: there needs to be a no-fly zone and safe regions, and IS needs to be pushed back. Assad must step down and a provisional government should be installed. But the international community has to want all this. And apparently it doesn′t.

In your book, you write, ″An exile flooded by new social means of communication, reports and photos of the rapid events is no longer an exile.″ What does exile mean to you now?

Yazbek: The fact that you′re in constant contact with your home country and can find out what′s happening there makes exile more difficult. Your person fragments – your body is in one place, your thoughts and soul in another. That intensifies the pain and the sense of alienation. In earlier times it might have been easier to live in exile. Now, you constantly think of home. As a writer, I get the feeling the modern media are essentially working against my writing. I haven′t written any fiction for the past five years. That means I inhabit a special kind of exile, as a writer.

Is that also the reason for your new book′s form? It′s a chronicle of your experiences with a journalistic, documentary approach, but at the same time it′s very literary.

Yazbek: I tried to rediscover myself as a writer with this book. In my first book about the revolution, all I did was document facts. Now I wanted to bring my role as a writer back into the equation. Today′s Syria is deeply riven and the population structure has changed due to the enormous refugee movement. I′m just as torn inside as my country.

Does writing make it easier?

Yazbek: People always say writing helps to process pain. In my case it′s the opposite. The more I write about it, the greater the pain. Everything I write about becomes part of me. The fires of hell have ignited inside me and I can′t put them out.

Interview by Rosa Gosch

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

″The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria” by Samar Yazbek, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Rider, 2015.