Writing in exile, Syrian author's tales confront human 'contradiction, complexity, madness'

Syrian author Osama Alomar left Damascus for Chicago in 2008. An intelligence officer had called a local paper that published one of Alomar’s fiction stories in which a Syrian military boot was a main character. The officer wanted to know the author’s whereabouts. Now one of countless Syrians choosing exile, Alomar has not been home since.

“My situation, as one who can only observe what is happening in Syria, fills me with a painful helplessness,” Alomar tells Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammed.  

"I cannot do anything as I look toward this hell that has swallowed up Syria and its people.”

Born in Damascus in 1968, Alomar studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus. Before immigrating to the United States in 2008, the writer published his work in Syria and Lebanon, positioning himself as an adept poet and practitioner of the “very short story,” an established literary genre in the Arab world of short texts imbued with dense symbolism.

Alomar’s stories are unapologetically political, employing a host of unlikely characters—animals, plants and household objects, among others—to act out darkly humorous vignettes.

 Alomar at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in 2014.

His first full-length collection in English, The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories—translated by C.J. Collins and the author—was met with critical praise after its publication this past April for its sharp turns of phrase and playful use of allegory.

Alomar has been profiled in The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Chicago Tribune as an up-and-coming writer with a mastery of short fiction. Acclaimed short story writer Lydia Davis praised his work as “magical imaginative creations….with a heartfelt urgency” in a 2013 article published in The New Yorker.

In their symbolism and linguistic play, his stories provide a caustic critique of authoritarianism, oppression and social inequality in Syria and worldwide. The pen, he says, is all he has.

“Unfortunately, the pen is the weakest of all weapons,” he says, “but that has only doubled my resolve to use it until the last moments of my life.”

Alomar now lives in Pittsburgh, as a writer-in-residence for City of Asylum, a literary organization which provides safe haven for authors in exile. He currently is working on a semi-autobiographical novel that explores how war unravels relationships.

Q: I’d like to ask you about an idea that appears in “Bag of the Nation:” the fear that the Syrian war has not only caused displacement and loss of life, but also wiped away the nation’s rich cultural heritage—the world only knows about Syria through the war. How can literature and art change this phenomenon? 

I [originally] published this story in my book All Rights Reserved in 2008, just a few months before I left for America. I wanted to express the idea that authoritarianism does not just destroy human life, but also the history, civilizations and cultural legacies of a nation. It demolishes the nation’s reputation worldwide.

The world understands perfectly well that Syria’s cultural heritage is being destroyed just like its people, but unfortunately international politics does not concern itself with that. The only thing that matters is political and economic interests.

Q: In your story “Love Letter,” you reference Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play, one of only a few cultural references in your collection The Teeth of the Comb. I find in your stories a layer of absurdism—a fingernail clipping that believes the crescent moon is a god, a head of garlic that complains about the smell of nearby flowers. How does this absurdism allow you to combine humor and great sadness in the same story?

Absurdism is an inherent part of both humor and sorrow. When we feel pain, we must mock it and laugh at it at the same time, as Charlie Chaplin, the most miserable man in the world, once said.

[Ed.: Alomar is paraphrasing a quote attributed to filmmaker and comedian Charlie Chaplin: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” Chaplin had a notoriously difficult childhood, mired in poverty after his father died from illness and his mother’s mental health worsened.]

When sorrow reaches its outer banks, its farthest limits, it comes into direct contact with laughter and jest. That, as I see it, is one of the most incredible characteristics of the human self. It becomes a sort of release valve that keeps a human being from collapsing.

As for my use of objects and natural phenomena in stories—such as nails, garlic, trees, etc.—it subverts the reality of people’s daily lives. Nature is full of inspirational ideas that can be a stage for human events in all their contradiction, complexity and madness.

Q: One often finds in your stories a third person, an observer. A scene plays out between two characters—people, animals, objects or ideas—and then, a third character appears, who has “realized” or “learned” something from this interaction. How does this role of the third-person observer reflect your own experience following the Syrian war from abroad?                 

I immigrated to the United States of America in 2008, three years before the outbreak of the revolution. My situation, as one who can only observe what is happening in Syria, fills me with a painful helplessness. I cannot do anything as I look toward this hell that has swallowed up Syria and its people.

My only weapon is my pen, which has not and will not stop defending human dignity, freedom, democracy and social equality. Unfortunately, the pen is the weakest of all weapons, but that has only doubled my resolve to use it until the last moments of my life.

Q: In previous interviews, you have been very clear that your stories are intended to be political. How do you balance the desire to convey a strong political message and to create an engaging story?

Political literature is one of many shades of literature, and it does not clash with the desire to create a distinctive, engaging story. It depends on the ability of the writer or the poet.

Nizar Qabbani’s gift, being a women’s poet, does not prevent him from writing groundbreaking political poetry.

[Ed.: Nizar Qabbani was a prolific Syrian poet from Damascus who rose to fame through his love poetry, though he later addressed political themes in his work. Several of his collections are notable for addressing the role of women in the Arab world, and redefined traditional norms in writing and public discourse on women’s issues at the time.]

Such is also the case with the poet Ahmed Mattar, who is notable for his political literature in the Arab world. His work has become more widespread than ever before because of the tragic conditions currently faced by the Arab region.

[Ed.: Ahmed Mattar is an Iraqi poet known for his criticism of despotism and repressive governments in the Arab world. He has lived in exile in London since the 1980s after fleeing Iraq out of fear of retribution for his political poetry.]

Q: But can a parable or a metaphor be powerful enough to enact change in reality?

Sadly, words—proverbs and maxims alike—are too weak to make a difference in reality.

There are libraries filled with books written by great philosophers and keepers of wisdom over the course of thousands of years. Yet, all we do after reading them is return them to their shelves. We say: “wonderful words,” “an eloquent phrase” and “expressive,” but without these wonderful words and eloquence enacting any change in our daily behavior.

The word stands perplexed and helpless before the tsunami of madness and hatred that is engulfing it.

Q: Do you see yourself as a character in your own stories?

I always try to keep a distance from the events in the stories that I write in order to maintain neutrality and objectivity. When a writer becomes involved in the goings-on of the story, it has a way of affecting the work.

Q: Throughout The Teeth of the Comb you invert traditional adages and proverbs. In “The Knife,” the silver spoon in a baby’s mouth becomes a “silver knife.” In “The Sold Nations,” money complains it is being exchanged just like nations are, rather than the other way around. What role do these inverted metaphors play in your writing?

I enjoy using inverted concepts or metaphors in my stories in a way that subverts reality. Inspired and inspiring ideas exist everywhere, in nature and everyday objects—money, knives, walls and elsewhere. Through them, the writer can create a story that holds significance, expressing the reality of human beings in all its joy and grief.

Q: Your last two collections were published in English; your readership has shifted toward more Americans and Europeans. As for your stories, they relate to universal topics such as poverty, lack of unity and oppression—very few of them specifically identify Syria as a location or topic. Do you feel that your stories should be read in the context of the Syrian war?

As a writer, I cannot force on the reader a context through which to read my stories. But in general, I can say that my writing can be classified as human stories.

I deal with humanitarian issues that are important and pressing such as persecution, suppression of freedoms, social justice, corruption, poverty and equality. But the reading of the story, the text, changes from reader to reader based on personal experiences.

Q: After publishing several short story collections, two in English, you are now working on a novel about Syria. How has the transition from short, parable-like stories to long-form writing been? What are you able to do in a novel that you did not feel capable of using the very short story genre?

It’s not my first time writing a novel. I lost an unpublished novel that was slated to be printed before I immigrated to America, as well as a collection of manuscripts including short stories and poems that were also going to be published. I left them in my home in the Zamalka suburb of Damascus [east of the capital], thinking that I’d be able to travel from America to Syria every three or four years. But I lost everything there.

The novel allows me to narrate events through a number of different characters, something a very short story cannot do.  

Q: While you were living in Syria, your use of the very short story—often packed with metaphors and symbols—allowed you to publish stories with political and social critiques, while allowing you to escape the censors. In 2008, you came to the United States and lived in Chicago for seven years. Has your relationship with the genre of the very short story changed now that you do not have the same concerns about censorship?

Indeed, I’m not struggling with concerns over censorship, but my style of short story writing and usage of symbolism has not changed. They possess a larger artistic importance apart from political censorship and authoritarian institutions. Namely, an allegory has the abilityto spur a number of interpretations and reflections.

Q: I would like to talk to you about the story “Free Elections,” which goes: “When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.” Can we read from this story that an oppressed people can be complicit in their own oppression?

When American President Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves in the 1860s, some of them felt a bewilderment and confusion. They did not know what to do with themselves. Where would they go? What would they do to make a living and feed their children? They felt an aversion to their own freedom because it represented a loss and an unknown future. They were enslaved by the slave mindset.

Sadly, there are many people in our current age who live bound by the shackles of the slave mindset in all walks of life despite their highly regarded positions, their accomplishments. How can I demand my freedom if I have affection for servitude and shackles, when my soul is taken by a dictator who considers himself a god?

Q:  The rapid erosion of freedoms, aggressive xenophobia and specifically Islamophobia from the new American leadership is creating new dangers for Muslim Arabs already in and hoping to come to the United States. As a Syrian man living and writing in the United States, can you talk about how you see democracy and dignity in your adopted country?

Without a doubt, attacks on Arabs and Muslims in America have reached unprecedented levels, I am very sorry to say. It’s linked to the arrival of President Trump to power, but America remains a country of law and institutions. Despite increased attacks on Muslims across the country, there is still a powerful constitution in America that all must abide by, even the president.   

We must not forget the sympathy shown by a huge number of Americans for those who were barred from entering US soil. They took to the streets in those first days after the executive order was issued. They poured into airports in order to defend the values of democracy, justice and human rights, regardless of race or religion.

Sama Mohammed

Sama is from Daraa province. She received her bachelor's degree in literature in 2011 and taught English in Sheikh Miskeen. In 2013, she moved to Jordan and worked as a freelance translator before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.