From Hell to Harvard

An Interview with Journalist and Creative Writer: Walid Alwanni

 

Walid Alwanni is a Palestinian journalist and creative writer born and raised in Damascus, Syria. He was a longtime senior editor with a major Palestinian magazine in Syria, where his articles focused on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, literature and the arts, and the intersections of culture and politics. In his twelve-year career as a journalist, Alwanni freelanced regularly with Arabic-language publications across the Middle East and more recently had several articles translated for English-language news outlets. He was also consistently involved in organizing literary and cultural events in metropolitan Damascus and its neighboring Palestinian refugee camps while developing his own creative pieces. As the Syrian regime committed serial atrocities in the Damascus area, Alwanni quickly became involved in covering the events of the crisis and was ultimately arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly tortured by the Syrian security services for his critical writings. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Alwanni escaped to Beirut, where he remained in hiding from Syrian-allied Lebanese religious militias. Alwanni eventually fled Lebanon for France before relocating to the United States. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard, where he is working to develop and translate his latest monodrama and compose drafts of his first novel. After Hamdard had the opportunity to meet with Alwanni, he agreed to an interview under the condition that we use his pen name so that he may speak openly while still protecting family members in Syria.

 

Hi Walid! Thank you for taking your time to sit with me and chat about your work and life. Reading your bio, the journey you took from Syria to Cambridge in Massachusetts, I found myself in great sorrow for Syrians, and for where humanity is going.. But let’s focus on your journey as a journalist, on how you cope with all the disasters happening around. Let’s start with your English articles. In a Huffington Post article published last year, you describe the dangerous journey Syrians have been taking to flee to Turkey, while Turkey had sealed its borders with Syria. Many writers may find it hard, and sometimes even frustrating, to write about something so dramatic, emotional, and immediate. For example, as an Iranian, it is still hard for me to write about the travel ban and the consequences surrounding it. Tell us about your process when writing about misery and pain that feels very close to heart. Is there a magic button that a writer can push to detach from the emotional burden in order to be able to write?

Well, I think one of the first rules of being a good journalist is to be balanced. In my case, and because I was in Syria in wartime, I didn’t have any choice, as a feeling human, to not write about the things happening around me. So, I found myself describing horrible scenes that unfolded in front of my eyes: rivers of blood and pieces of flesh in the streets, sometimes from the bodies of children. Of course, it is so difficult, and I cannot put my feelings aside when I write about these kinds of things. I think that applies to any intellectual writings or even fiction. Our feelings are always involved in this. The important thing is writing with honesty and a warm heart, but with a cold brain.

In the Huffington Post article you mentioned, the thing you might not know is that parts of that story were drawn from my family’s experiences. In the fall of 2015, my younger sister and brother crossed the Syrian-Turkish border with my two young nieces, one of whom was just two months old. After the horrible things they told me about their journey, I felt like it was my duty to deliver their story, which represents thousands of similar experiences, as a message for all of the world. The process of writing about these terrible things, and about our beloveds and sometimes about ourselves, can be incredibly hard. But it’s not about a magic button, it’s about a magic word: motivation. It’s about our motivation to tell our stories and to deliver our message as a way to push people to sympathize more with our case.

 

Motivation. Yes. You are absolutely right. You’ve mentioned that in the middle of the war, you were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Syrian security services. Upon your release, you had to spend three months between hospitals before being able to walk again. It’s all horrifying and painful! Are you going to use these experiences in your projects? And did you include them in any previous creative writings? I understand that you wrote a melodrama while you were living in Beirut, after leaving Syria. Was that related to your experiences?

I do not agree with the phrase, “use your experiences,” because I believe that all creative writing since humans began to write is a mix between our own experiences and feelings and our communications with others, and with ourselves, sometimes. So of course, the horrible experiences I have endured have become part of me, and therefore, they have become part of my writing.

For example, the melodrama was completely based on the story of my arrest. I did this for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to express myself and to lighten this weight on my shoulders, the weight of carrying this story alone, as a strategy to recover and begin again. Second, I needed to deliver the message of the people still stuck in this hell called the Syrian security branches (the prisons of the Syrian domestic intelligence forces). When we talk about using in the conscious sense, when I was in that hell, the thing that I really used was the fact that I am a writer, as a strategy for survival. I will explain: We were 120 sick and naked men in a room that wouldn’t hold 120 chickens, underground with no sun and no fresh air, suffocating from the closeness of the summer heat. The smell was unbearable; even the water had a texture and a stench. Kids and old men died next to me from torture and the diseases that followed, because the only medical care we received was more torture. In these conditions, I tried to observe the details of my surroundings more and more, resisting death – psychologically at least – by telling myself that if I survived from this, I would write about it. I would deliver the message of these men who were dead while still drawing breath. (By the way, there are still hundreds of thousands under the ground in that hell now, while we are making this interview!) But the thing I did not expect was that it would take me two years to recover the determination to write about my experiences. So I guess, I would have to add to my response to your first question… another magic word when we write about difficult subjects that hit too close is: determination.

 

Yes: Motivation and determination and the time one needs to recover and to heal in some sort. The things you describe about the underground prisons in Syria bring me to ask you another question: It’s confusing for many of us outsiders to understand the scale of different threats that Syrians face. Which threat or threats are more intense? From your experience, it seems that the threat from the Syrian government was way worse than the threat from, for example, ISIS.

I do not want to speak about politics that much, but unfortunately we cannot avoid it, because it has affected all parts of my life. To answer your question about risks to Syrian lives, I want to paraphrase a principle from the philosophy of logic: wrong introductions lead to wrong results. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story in Syria. A dictatorial regime had led the country for five decades. The president literally inherited his throne from his father. There was no freedom of speech, no margin of democracy. The army and the security branches controlled every dimension of people’s lives. For example, if you even wanted to get married, you had to get permission from the security branches. And if you even thought about criticizing the regime, and the security services found out, it could be a death sentence. Remember, all of this is before the revolution.

 

Wow! Although it should not surprise me, since the Iranian security system is as strong and powerful as what you describe in the Syrian case…

Yes, exactly.

Then, the wave of the Arab Spring came to Syrian shores, as in many Arab countries, and the people felt a glimmer of hope that they would finally gain a taste of freedom.

 

Yes. And I remember that the Arab Spring got some influence from Iranian people’s uprising in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election of Iran, when Ahmadinejad was announced to be re-elected. But up to this day, many Iranians doubt the announced result of that election.

There are some similarities, yes, but I think the Syrian regime’s response to the Arab Spring was unfortunately much more brutal than the Iranian regime’s response in 2009. In Syria, like in Iran, the people went to the streets, asking for some reforms—small steps! And, what was the Syrian regime’s response? Killing protesters in the streets in huge numbers, raiding houses and making random arrests, even of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the while calling them terrorists. Then came the bombings of neighborhoods where there had been protests or where the regime thought the people were sympathetic to the protesters, causing the death of thousands of civilians. Then, for the first time, about six months after the revolution began, some people began to take up arms to defend themselves. After that, the regime started using air strikes against safe neighborhoods, foreign religious militias came to help the regime kill its people, and then the regime started using chemical weapons to kill its people. After just three years, the United Nations stopped counting the number of deaths in Syria. Their count had already reached about a half million when they stopped. All the while the world stayed watching and watching the continuous massacre. The only response from the world was an increase in official Iranian state support and, eventually, Russian air strikes to help the regime survive.

 

In Iran’s case, the protesters were not well-organized. Soon after the arrest of the opposition leaders, the street protests were over, and people went back to their lives, with crushed hope, and anger. Then the companies and institutions started firing employees whom were thought to be supporting the opposition. When the Syrian protests started, Assad got the help from his closest ally in the region: Iran; which happened to have some experience in dealing with the street protests. It all adds up. Don’t you think?

Yes, besides the question of the Iranian regime’s previous alliance with Assad, which it had for its own reasons anyway, I think it is in the nature of the governments like Syria and Iran to defend each other and help crush the hope of their peoples for democracy.

So in Syria, with the horrible violence from the regime and the world’s failure of the Syrian people, what do you expect from the people who are losing hope more and more? Of course some of them will turn to radical ideas, and of course Syria would become a kind of magnet for radical people from all over the world, on both sides.

 

This is a very interesting and very fresh theory for me! Of course the chaos absorbs radicalism in one way or another. 

And by the way, the regime has directly and indirectly encouraged the turn to radicalism within the opposition from the beginning. For example, by releasing jihadists who had been in prison since the middle of the Iraq war after just six months of the Syrian crisis. This is what I meant when I said that wrong introductions lead to wrong results.

Now, when you ask me about which threat is the worst, as a secular person, for me the radicals and the regime are equally terrible, each worse than the other. But if we want to be fair, we look for the roots of the problem. This all began with a simple, tragic truth: dictatorial regimes like this cannot accept to have their people ask for even a little freedom. And I believe that even with all of these losses (one million killed, one million injured, 13 million displaced, hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and half the country physically destroyed), and with all of this pressure from the regime and the radicals, the Syrians will keep demanding their freedom.

 

I believe you, and truly wish freedom for Syrians, and for all the people living under dictatorship. Let’s go back to you: You were a Syrian in some ways, but a child of Palestinian refugee parents, so you did not have Syrian citizenship. How did living as a Palestinian under Assad’s regime affect your education, career, and activities as a writer and civil society activist?

We as Palestinians were always the most vulnerable in Syria. Imagine: even the Syrian citizens have no rights, so what about the people who are stateless? I grew up in the house of my paternal grandfather, who had spent a year as a political prisoner of the Ba’athist regime. My father spent four. His oldest brother, whom I have never seen, had to escape from the country to avoid arrest, also for his political activism. Because of all of that, like all the Palestinian-Syrian kids – and Syrian kids, though this is another case – I grew up with one golden rule: never speak about Syrian politics. At the same time, we were all indoctrinated with the regime’s propaganda in every level of our education. Even in the UNWRA schools [the schools for Palestinian children in the refugee camps], they used to line us up every day to chant slogans of loyalty to the regime, with our right arms up like a Nazi salute. Our schoolbooks were covered with the portraits of the Eternal Leader (Hafez al-Assad) and later his son, and the materials of every class were heavy with Ba’athist propaganda.

 

How similar! I remember each of our schoolbooks started with Khomeini (the establisher of Islamic Republic of Iran)’s picture in the first page, and later, followed by Khamenei (the current Supreme Leader)’s picture.

So, in this context, before the revolution, it was never an option for me to pursue openly political activities, so my friends and I started to become involved on the cultural side instead, trying to make the camp we lived in a better and more livable place, relatively.

 

How did you do that?

We used to organize poetry and short story readings and workshops, theatrical performances, film screenings, and also some art exhibits. But even though we were careful to avoid politics, we still had to apply for event permits from the security branches, and sometimes they would bring us to the branches to interrogate us about our backgrounds and what we planned to do with the events we were organizing. Even when we were teenagers, we used to get pulled in for random investigations by intelligence agents, sometimes even harassed in the streets, because of course we were known to the security services by this point… and also, we were Palestinians.

Of course these conditions had an effect on my writing, even before I started my career in journalism. For example, most of my early poems were metaphors: birds in cages as a symbol of the regime’s political prisoners, and so on. To be fair, in general Arabic poetry is full of this, but in the Syrian case it is a necessary step.

Later in my journalistic career, although I used to write about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and regional cultural and social developments, I never spoke about Syrian domestic politics, and even as a Palestinian I could not write openly about the part of Palestinian politics that touched on Syrian affairs. Even with all of these limitations, when I would publish in countries outside Syria, I would be careful to use a pen name to avoid any investigations, especially, for example, if the regime didn’t like the newspaper I had written for. After the revolution, as we talked about, I covered some of the events of the crisis in the Palestinian camps, which had tried to stay distant from the revolution for a while but had by that point also become hot areas under regime attacks. This was of course a major crime for the regime, and of course all of my coverage was under pseudonyms. We were eventually forced to leave the neighborhood where I grew up, and within months I was arrested. After my release, I never wrote again until I got the chance to leave the country at the end of 2014—which, because I am Palestinian, was incredibly difficult, as all of the neighboring countries had banned Palestinians years before. (So you see, I am used to being banned from places!)

 

You fled to Lebanon, right?

Yes. Even after I left Syria, though, I couldn’t write openly. The pro-Assad militias in Lebanon were a huge threat to me since I was still under the regime’s eye, and much of my family is still in Syria, so any open activities under my real name would put them at risk, even until now. For years, the Syrian regime has repeatedly attacked the families of writers and activists in exile if they spoke out. For these reasons, even the monodrama I wrote in Beirut was written and produced under a fake name. It was a sad feeling, seeing the audience applauding for your play, but it is not under your real name, and you are just a member of the audience.

 

What do you do now at Harvard? Are you still working on your first novel?

Yes.

 

Can you tell us about it (if you will)? What made you switch to writing a novel, since you mentioned you were writing poems and short stories before?

My first writings were mostly poetry, yes. For a long time, it was a passion for me. Then, at a certain point, I found myself preferring prose more and more, so I leaned more toward short stories and plays. And because I became charmed by many novelists from all over the world, and because I think the novel is a great ocean where you can swim in different directions before finally returning to the shore, and you can express your stories with more details, I finally turned to the novel as a form. So we will see how this project will go! But I am not saying that the art of the short story is easier than the art of the novel, because in short stories you have to express your ideas in much fewer words. Finally, it’s a point of desire and instinct, and a writer should pursue what he feels comfortable writing.

 

And the novel is about?

Well, if you are curious about the novel, it follows the lives of two men, one representing good principles, and the other representing a kind of evil. They meet finally with one as a prisoner and the other as a guard. (By the way, this is not based on my own life story; it’s not a political prison, and we in the Syrian branches never saw our guards!) The characters’ conflict and relationship develop even beyond the walls of the jail, and we start to doubt that the good man is pure and that the evil one cannot be redeemed. These two characters meet again, finally, in the afterlife, and we will see how God intervenes in their story. I think this is the main plot, and I don’t think I could tell you more than this!

By the way, this is a kind of second version of this project: I had begun working on this novel as the war began, but I lost the drafts of it when my family’s house was destroyed, along with many other drafts and projects… It has changed a lot since then, for obvious reasons.

 

Thank you for telling us this much! Now how do you feel about being in America? I mean, the travel ban affects people from Syria too – and it’s ironic that the American government says it wants to help Syrians under attack, and at the same time, it plans to shut the doors to the Syrians who seek asylum. What is your take on this matter?

I prefer not to speak about this, because it will bring us into such a complicated debate. But about the point of the ban, I think it’s completely unrelated with the Syrian conflict. It’s just an issue of this administration’s misunderstanding of the people of these countries. But the criticism this administration has faced as a result of the ban—basically, how the American people have rejected it—has made me feel much better about this issue. At the same time, I think that it is my duty as someone who comes from Syria, and in your case as an Iranian, to engage even with people who agree with crap like the ban, to encourage them to feel sympathy with our case.

 

True. The ban affects us both.

Yes. And this leads me to your question about my feelings living here. The social inequalities in the U.S., especially after the year I spent in France, are obvious and upsetting to me. And often I feel marked as different. I mean, I am tired of people asking me where I am from as soon as I open my mouth, even though I know for most people who ask, it’s just a point of curiosity. But I am amazed by this mix of cultures and people who live and work and study in this country, and as a writer, this opened many doors for me to become acquainted with many different cultures. This is amazing, and it is so encouraging for creative energy. And I am impressed by the democracy and the freedom of speech you find here, like I was by the democracy of France, after all my experiences in Syria which was the graveyard of democracy and creativity.

 

I am speechless and humbled, by all the things you shared with Hamdard today. I think your journey and experience will lead the path for many young writers and journalists around the world. As you know, sadly, journalism has become more or less like a business venue these days. But your story encourages a very different path: Write to inform people, to put a light into the dark corners of humanity, where we seem to be most ignorant about. Thank you for your words, Walid! And thank you for this great smile you’ve had during the interview, as if you were telling me one of the stories of 1001 nights! My last question might be the hardest to answer: Where is home, Walid?

Well, when we were forced to leave my childhood home and the neighborhood where we spent all our lives, we left all of our memories behind. Our neighborhood was under mortar fire, and when we fled we took only enough essentials for a few days, because all of us thought we would come back soon. We went on foot with many other families thinking the same thing. I remember crying in silence, a single bag on my back, remembering the images my grandfather described when they were forced to leave their home in Jerusalem in 1948. In those moments, all these questions of identity and belonging hit me hard. They have not gone away since that day. I feel I belong to everywhere and nowhere. I feel like I belong to any place where I can express myself, and I do not belong to any place that confines me. I will quote here from the greatest Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish: “All the hearts of the people are my identity!” I’m living here in America now, and I am starting to build a house and a family, but I don’t think I will ever be able to have a clear identity. If one day I have kids, and they ask me, “Where are you from, dad?,” I will tell them the entire story from my grandfather’s time, and I will leave the judgment to them.

 


 

We asked Walid for one of his poems in Arabic. “Most of my poetry was destroyed with our house, and after that it is so rare that I write poetry at all.”

Here is one of his recent poems in English:

 

The end of poetry

The shadows of the dead float across the pages

of my diary

laying siege to these tired thoughts

Write us a poem, they say,

Write us another

 

I ask myself, How,

after poetry divorced my soul

abandoned it and the house they shared

after the shell bombs destroyed my language

and flattened it into nothing

 

But their command knocks on the walls

of my head

 

I make my decision:

I will write the nothing

The ghosts smile at me

The war widows celebrate

 

With every letter the meaning rises

my language dances

the words take flight

to the clouds

find their only safe haven

in the sky of that nothing

with the souls of lost children

 

I discover that this nothing

in the dying breaths of babies

is the poem

and that poetry is done.

 

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