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Writers in exile
10 min read

Crisis and Unrepresentability

PEN/Opp publishes “Crisis and unrepresentability” – a new written lecture by the Syrian author, thinker and the Tucholsky Prize winner Yassin Al-Haj Saleh. The lecture was previously presented in Sweden on the 28 of August at the School of Gerlesborg and the 29 of August at the World Culture Museum as part of a conversation arranged by Clandestino in Gotenburg.

The conversation was led by the author Sara Mannheimer, who has been in dialogue with Yassin Al-Haj Saleh for several years, both in letter form and in real life in Berlin, where he now lives.

The conversation that followed led by Mannheimer came to be characterized by the closeness and friendship that has developed between the two authors, which gave the discourse a deeper dimension.

Mannheimer’s starting point is her strong will to understand the paralyzing position in which Syrian thinkers and intellectuals find themselves. Al-Haj Saleh calls it “the horrific” of the collective trauma.

Despite the vicious Syrian reality that cannot be disregarded, the conversation managed to focus on literature where the exploration of alternatives still takes place. Yassin Al-Haj Saleh's ability to analyze Syrian experiences with a certain amount of distance inspires hope. In his lecture, translated here from the English by Sara Mannheimer and Eva Björkander Mannheimer, he seeks to define a Syrian intellectual crisis where free speech is blocked, also by the intellectuals themselves. It is not self-censorship but rather an internal blockage where words are unable to describe the horrific.

So, what forms of expression remain when the collective trauma has ground the language to a standstill?

Credits Text: Yassin Al-Haj Saleh Photo: Omar Nasser September 10 2021

The history of my country, Syria, has been one of a permanent crisis in my lifetime, represented by a state of exception that has prevailed since 1963. This so-called emergency status has persisted until 2012, when it was replaced by laws against terror. In those six decades, Syria has moved from the oppressive dictatorship of a one-party system to a new sultanic politicidal regime, with high genocidal potential.

This condition of crisis has from the outset been twined to a permanent crisis of expression and representation. Expression was subject to partisan state censorship, and freedom of expression was severely suppressed. The dozen independent newspapers and periodicals were reduced to two “national” ones, both Ba’thists. The right of assembly became criminalized. Syrian society was forcibly unionized from above to enable state power total surveillance over public activities. A writers’ union was even established and predictably it was controlled by the Ba’th party command.

The conventional meaning of freedom of expression suggests that its suppression manifests in political powers that prevent people from making their voices heard, asserting their right to speak, and transmitting to others their ideas and opinions. This conventional meaning of the suppression of freedom of expression has been in Syria all the time, and prevalent in many parts of the world. However, there is another unthought of form of a crisis of expression: expression blockade, the inability to express yourself because of the unrepresentability of your experience. I mean when your experiences are so extreme to the degree that your words or other tools of representation are rendered helpless in communicating meaning. The tools of expression are in crisis. It is as if our traumatizing experiences destroy, temporarily at least, our faculty to represent. These experiences are what I identify with the atrocious (al-fazi’ in Arabic) and they challenge our tools of representation. The atrocious signifies the violent loss/decimation?? of forms (or figures): forms of human bodies, forms of social environment, forms of residential areas and civil facilities, as well as the unknowable fate of your loved ones which hijacks your ability to give a form to your experience of loss.

Literature has dealt much with suppression of expression and little with inexpressibility or unrepresentability. One can even say that literature and intellectual life are essentially formed around different degrees of confrontation with the external obstacles before expression, freedom of expression being defined as overcoming these obstacles. It takes a paradigmatic shift in our tools to deal with the quite different set of problems of inexpressibility and unrepresentability. Expression is the process of transforming experiences into ideas or suffering into meaning (to suffer and to mean are from the same semantic root in Arabic). Representation is expression through form: shaping our expression in form. We borrow forms from tradition or produce them through entanglements with multiple traditions available to us today.

Unrepresentability can originate either from our inability to express ourselves in words or colors or sounds because of the extreme character of our experiences, or because our experiences are unprecedented and we cannot put them in suitable forms, that is, we do not find in our cultural repertoire the appropriate forms for our expressions, or because the traditions available to us do not supply us with appropriate forms. The latter origin of unrepresentability is relative: we represent, but there is no added value or added meaning in our representation. The forms we use dampen the experience or drain it. Rigid traditional forms such as the example of clichés in effect “kill” experiences.

What do we do when our expressive capacity becomes blocked within us? This is a condition of double crisis, one in our lives and one in our tools: when we are tortured, raped, humiliated, displaced, when we lose homes and dear ones, and our words fail to express our experiences? Words fail because the experiences are extreme and crushing. They fail as well when there are no interlocutors from whom one can receive recognition for the crushing experience and possibly turn it to a story. Under this politicidal regime, ruling now for 58 years, talk and dialogue have been absent from the lives of Syrians, 96% of whom are under 60. Rarely have Syrians had the opportunity to speak for themselves or to represent themselves, and to relativize their extreme sufferings. The double crisis has happened twice in my life. I mean twice I experienced an uncommonly acute crisis within the chronic or permanent crisis. The first led me to arrest, torture and long years in prison, and the other to loss pf loved ones and exile. Both were parts of much bigger national crises.

So, how do we react to the acute crises? One can map three reactions: destructive violence, uncontrollable tears, silent death. Media reports from the Middle East typically cast spectacles of violence, but not tears, and not silent death, though tears are by no means less political than violence. Invisible death is equally political. The visibility of violence is related to the structure of the world today: sovereign states that monopolize violence and the logic of capitalism. Death is relegated to the private realm, tears are even more so, violence is ‘sexy,’ publicized and spectacularized by the media, especially when it is practiced by other than “sovereign states”. We do not think of tears as telling stories, as expressions of what we feel when words fail us. We have not developed tools to interpret tears even if we happen to witness them. Literature has not involved itself in tears and vanquished death (usually preceded by self-isolation and social death, or loss of trust in the world, as Jean Amery, a Holocaust survivor, put it about his torture by the Nazis). This condition is related to the structure of literature and trauma alike. Literature is usually a delayed response to violent experience or traumas, especially when the representer is the one traumatized. For when still under the spell of the trauma, it is impossible for us to represent. In our part of the world women cry more than men because they do not have equal entitlement to speech acts. I believe they cry more here in Europe as well.

Tears express but they do not represent. In effect, violence and silent death are expressive too, but of our responses to expressive blockade. Their expressivity is ersatz. The crucial difference between violence, tears, and silent death on the one hand and literary, artistic, and theoretical representations is that the latter are delayed responses, they come years after the traumatizing experiences. On the other hand, representation has a communicative and social function, with a possible community forming around them (we recreate society by representation), while no possible community can be formed around violence, tears and silent death.

What we call in Syria “prison literature” is a delayed response to the first crisis when dozens of thousands of people were arrested, tortured and spent long years in jail. Similar numbers were killed in massacres or executed in Tadmur prison, which was a torture and death camp. This literature is a delayed response, with the earliest publications coming out some twenty years after the crisis, and years after the end of its acute phase. It seems that the unrepresentable dose not present itself to representation unless full separation from the trauma is achieved. Here is the paradox of crisis representation: while we are in the acute phase of crisis, we cannot represent, the shocking experience is unrepresentable; and when we are able to represent years after, we inevitably miss many things. Our memories are not reliable, especially when it comes to shocking experiences. As a delayed response, our prison literature is essentially survival literature, written long years after out most traumatizing experiences. In a way, they are testimonies of self-defense, permeated at times with sentiments of challenge and persistence. When I look back at my book on jail experience, published only ten years ago (some 16 years after my 16 years in jail, and 32 years after I was arrested and tortured) I seem to have been preoccupied by proving my agency, that I had come out of prison healthy and active, and that jail was now an object for intellectual representation. I am sure that I could not bring to the present, re-present, much of what had faded in the past.

People may wonder if thinking of violence as a response to failure of words before the atrocious and unrepresentable is not granting violence legitimacy. This is quite possible. But violence is there. We cannot think of it in Syria or in Palestine or the Middle East at large, without connecting it to the workability of words, dialogue and what can be called “politics of reason” where words, debate and argument play vital roles. Apart from the fact that those who prevent people from talking use violence in doing so (they may justify it by saying: they, this specific people or that, do not understand but the language of force), those who are prevented from taking while experiencing atrocities may well resort to violence as an alternative language.

Aren’t there alternative words to replace failing words? This is the paradigmatic shift I alluded to above. The challenge of unrepresntability is a call for a revolution in representation. Prison literature that addressed our first crisis is no longer a satisfactory response to our new crisis and its new set of atrocious experiences during the last 10 years. The essential weak point in our prison literature is that it was so local, confined within our country and culture. We are in a better position to affect a shift or a revolution in representation, now that we have significantly thicker experiences, are at a distance from them, and that we are in exile more exposed to other sensitivities, languages, and sources of knowledge, in one word: traditions.

Post prison literature can hopefully appropriate our new set of experiences, develop awareness of the ersatz expressivity of the tears, destructive violence, and invisible death, and develop new forms through our acculturation in exile. It is an ongoing battle.

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