Novel Explores 'Silence' And 'Roar' Of Life In A Place Like Syria

Mar 10, 2013
Originally published on March 10, 2013 11:20 am

The Silence and the Roar follows a young man living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is in chaos. The book doesn't explicitly take place in Syria, but the similarities between its setting and author Nihad Sirees' home country are undeniable.

Sirees' work has been banned from publication in Syria, where he's considered an opponent of the government — another point at which Sirees' story and that of his protagonist, Fathi Chin, intersect.

Fathi is a writer who is banned from speaking freely after he refuses to praise his country's dictator. He's asked to live in silence just as the country begins celebrating its leader's 20th anniversary in power. The title of Sirees' book refers to Fathi's forced silence, as well as the sound of people on the streets showing their support — real or feigned — for their leader.

Eventually, Fathi is detained and held in a cell in the basement of a security services building. Surprisingly, Fathi welcomes the quiet and solitude of the cell, where he can finally begin to process the roar of life on the street.

"I had a similar story with the authorities," Sirees tells NPR's Rachel Martin. In the late '90s, when current Syrian President Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad, was in power, Sirees clashed with authorities. "They started to read every word, every line" that Sirees wrote, and began banning his works. "So the relationship between me and the authorities was very bad," he says.

Originally written in Arabic, The Silence and the Roar's English translation came out March 5.

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Nihad Sirees is a Syrian author who's been living in self-imposed exile for the last year. His most recent novel, "The Silence and the Roar," has now been translated into English. It's about a young man living in a country in chaos, much like Sirees' home country of Syria. But the book does not explicitly take place in Syria. In fact, there's no mention of known places or names. I asked Nihad Sirees why he felt the need to keep the location ambiguous.

NIHAD SIREES: I am talking in this book about tyranny. These regimes may exist in many countries in this world, so I thought that it is better to talk not in particular countries, particular dictator, but in general.

MARTIN: But, Sirees, whose work is banned in Syria, also had another reason for keeping real names and places out of the book.

SIREES: Any mentioning about our president or our regime clearly - and in names - this maybe they will ban the book. So I thought it is better like this way to give the book a chance to live.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Silence and the Roar," and it is the story of this man Fathi, 24 hours in his life, one day. Can you give an idea of who this man is?

SIREES: Fathi is a writer, but he was banned to speak freely because one time he refused to praise the dictator. So, they ask him to live in silence, not to write. But in the meantime, he has to listen to the noise of the regime because in that day, people were in street celebrating 20th anniversary of the dictator in power.

MARTIN: And you've just described that title. The silence is what he is living in as a writer whose voice has been quieted by the regime. But the roar is very interesting. You talk a lot about this. It is literally the roar of the demonstrators on the streets crying out their support, whether real or feigned, of the leader, but also metaphorically. Describe what the roar means for this intellectual, this writer living in this regime.

SIREES: The roar or the noise the regime needs always to let people to go to streets to praise the dictator and to make this noise because the noise will keep them away from thinking. So, the leader always asks his people to go to streets and to express love to him.

MARTIN: But Fathi does not take part. He refuses to demonstrate along with the masses, and he is just trying to live his life. We talk about the silence in a negative way. His voice has been silenced. But in some ways in this book, silence is also a good thing. How does Fathi find quiet? How does he find the silence that helps him deal with the roar?

SIREES: Maybe he will look to be away in his girlfriend's apartment where he feels love and quietness. Also, he felt this quietness in a jumble in the basement of security service building.

MARTIN: He's actually - we should say - he is detained. This whole novel has this kind of Kafkaesque quality to it. There is this mystery, a lot of confusion and he is detained at one point. And you say in this cell of the security services, he actually finds his own quiet. He finds welcome solitude.

SIREES: Yes, exactly. And you say that better than me.

MARTIN: You write so eloquently about how Fathi learns to block out the noise in a literal way by talking to himself, literally by talking out loud to himself. Are these things that you learned to do yourself?

SIREES: In the beginning, when I was young, I started to tell myself stories. And all the time tell stories, tell stories, and it was like practicing. But I was spoken about this book in that inner world of my character. It is a way, a literary way to continue writing, to continue talking with the reader and to explain to him the stories behind the story and so on.

MARTIN: Nihad Sirees. He is the author of "The Silence and the Roar," which has just been released in an English version from the original Arabic. He joined us from WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Mr. Sirees, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

SIREES: Thank you. Thank you very much.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.