Nihad Sirees The Silence and the Roar translated by Max Weiss (London: Pushkin Press, 2013)
By Rebecca DeWald
The task of this reviewer seems paradoxical: reviewing a translation without knowledge of one of the languages involved. I don’t speak Arabic, Nihad Sirees’ language and also that of his novel. My cultural knowledge of Syria, the country Sirees is from, is similarly limited to contemporary news broadcasts and the idealized bygone and mythical time of the Arabian Nights (in their translations). I have no option but to rely entirely on Max Weiss’ translation.
The title is intriguing, particularly the word “roar” instead of noise, cry, or howl. Early on in the novel, I helpfully find a definition of ‘roar’: “Noise. Derived from the foul verb to make noise. I haven’t come across another verb in the Arabic language that is quite so foul. I prefer the word roar. In my story I will use the two words interchangeably.”
The origin of these words is in a dream about an orchestra which hurts the narrator Fathi Sheen’s ears with constant noise. The roar recurs in the rolling “R… R… Our Leader” of the crowd shouting in the streets to hail their unnamed Leader, amplified through megaphones, and is repeated throughout the story, which takes place over a single day of Fathi’s life. It is the public display of the regime’s power, accompanied by the all-pervasive sound which is impossible to ignore and maybe even impossible to defeat.
“Silence,” on the other hand, is not as clearly marked and – as is its nature, one might think – only slowly sneaks into the plot. It appears as a form of resistance, of purposeful abstinence from public manifestations and a retreat into the private. Fathi refuses to join the parades for the Leader since he is neither a government employee nor a union member and therefore not obliged to join official marches. Furthermore, silence constitutes an imposed form of living for him as he has been silenced by the regime and banned from writing, much like his father. Mr. Ha’el, a high-ranking government employee, even threatens him with the “silence of the grave” should Fathi disagree with his mother marrying Ha’el or reject a post as propaganda minister following their wedding. Silence, then, is both the constant threat of the unknown, of torture and disappearance through the regime, and resistance to it. Fathi’s partner Lama realizes that Fathi’s silence, given his reputation as a writer, menaces the Leader: “They don’t want you to be silent. They want you to talk, only in a way that benefits them.”
The regime uses phrases, slogans and poetry to control the masses, slogans which “are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry” since in the “Age of the Masses […] metred speech and rhyming verses are a fundamental requirement in our life. My works and prose writings are the imaginations of a traitor.” Amplified as collective chants through megaphones, the roar “eliminates thought.” The regime is further threatened by Fathi’s ability to control silence and to use it in his favour, be it in directions to a secret night-time rendezvous slipped him by a police officer or a clandestine conversation with a doctor whose fragile mental state is somewhat alleviated by Fathi’s assent to the his perception that the situation they find themselves in is nothing but “surreal.” Silence also enables Fathi “to ignore noise” by withdrawing inside himself and thereby forgetting the “annoying sounds that constitute the roar.” The regime is consequently wary of silence:
“Nothing can be heard out of that noise except for the sound of military brass bands, as the instruments of the Arabic orchestra get lost in the shuffle. They have no place in our present. […] The nay is insignificant, reactionary and unpatriotic because it drives the listener to contemplation and sorrow, befitting the silence of the grave, whereas the horn renders people more awake and enthusiastic, more patriotic because they will be ready to sacrifice spirit and blood on behalf of the Leader.”
What is most silent throughout the novel, however, is its probable setting, Syria. Sirees only mentions his home country and its connection to the protagonist in the brief afterword. More hints are given by the editor, mentioning the “real courage by a brilliant Syrian writer” and Sirees’ exile in Egypt since 2012. Additionally, Max Weiss’ body of translations includes many texts from and about revolutionary Middle Eastern countries, amongst them A Tunisian Tale by Hassouna Mosbahi and A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek, and therefore gives a direct indication of where the novel is set.
It is hard for the text not to take on added importance given the current situation in Syria, even though it was originally published as Al Samt Wal Sakhab in Lebanon as early as 2004; from this perspective it reflects the already tense situation in Syria nine years before unrest caught the world’s imagination. But it is also emblematic of the silence of Syrian Arabic as opposed to the roar of American English, which is similarly all-pervasive and inescapable and the reason why Sirees’ text has become subject of a review of this kind. While English is the prevalent language of Western literature and academic scholarship, very few texts are actually translated into English every year. Statistics hover around 2-4% of all publications in the UK. Jared Shurin summarises the small sample – about 200 – of reviews published on the website Pornokitsch in more tangible terms: “There’s a shocking lack of fiction in translation – statistically, a UK genre title is twice as likely to have a zombie than be first published in a non-English language.”
The status of The Silence and the Roar is therefore different from Al Samt Wal Sakhab’s, not only because of its temporal remoteness but rather because this second translation – a French translation was published by Robert Laffont in 2012 – opens up the text for current debate: could Syria be anywhere? The opening scene of the book does not give us information about its setting. The first pages describe an “intensely hot” and bright day in a noisy city. The image is universal, drawing on the physical sensation of sweat, heat and the loss of vision at the same time as making constant reference to an inescapable noise from the streets. The city could be anywhere; the hot southern states of the US, for example, particularly since the narrator assumes at times a casual American tone, and talks about everyday concerns like buying cigarettes and the beautiful naked body of his girlfriend. Then, the sounds of cars mingle with the sounds of muezzins and an American setting suddenly becomes less likely. Yet this kind of indeterminacy is present throughout the book.
At a recent public lecture the translation scholar Lawrence Venuti addressed the question of how to read a translation as a translation, without reference to the source text, since translation, after all, only exists because nobody speaks every language. Venuti’s proposed reading strategy focused on what sounds foreign in a text. The rationale behind this is that there is a certain common standard translations are generally required to aim for, namely that a translation should sound like a non-translation. In order to do this, a “discursive regime” is applied. That is, a translation mainly uses the standard form of the language the text is translated into. In order to find out what makes a certain text a translation and how it differs from an original, one would read for the bumps, the irregularities which crack the surface and reveal the translation beneath. When reading Weiss’ translation, for example, I notice its casual, somewhat American tone and register. One example is a scene when the fiancé of Fathi’s mother, Mr Ha’el, concludes his offer – really a badly disguised threat – of a government job and the ability to publish again with the comradely, “Enjoy your life, man!” Fathi realises that his mother is a a pawn in Mr Ha’el’s plan to silence Fathi as a writer, and he exclaims, “Damn! So that’s the play then.”
At the same time Weiss constantly draws attention to Arabic influences. He uses phonetic transcriptions of Arabic words in italics, like mukhabarat (Intelligence Agency), mashallah (a “Praise the Lord” at the end of a sentence), muwashahat (secular music with lyrics based on a poem), and the instruments kamanche (a bowed lira), qanum (a stringed instrument similar to a zither), or nay (a type of flute) without explanation or definition. Some idiosyncrasies of Arabic are also explained, like the fact that it uses a single word to express “to make noise” whereas English employs a phrasal verb, or that the Leader is mocked for his inability to use grammatical nuances appropriately.
All these instances remind the reader that the text is a translation. Additionally, while Fathi continuously refers elusively to “my country,” the afterword is explicit in its address “to the English reader.” This reveals the tension between a setting which could be many places in the Arabic-speaking world and the necessity to write about a situation in English in order for Sirees’ Arabic voice to find an echo in a broader community through Weiss’ American English. This translation, with its afterword addressed to the English reader, also blends Fathi and Sirees and makes the text almost prophetic considering the developments in Syria since 2004: “There is another kind of roar that this author never thought the leader would ever be capable of using: the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities. The leader is levelling cities and using lethal force against his own people in order to hold on the power. We must ask, alongside the characters in this novel: what kind of Surrealism is this?” What seemed surreal at the time of publication of Al Samt Wal Sakhab has been superseded by the even more surreal reality of contemporary Syria. The need to speak up – to speak up in a Western, globally powerful language – has become unavoidable.
Despite the similarities between Syria and the Western Anglophone readership highlighted by the translation, it also stresses some distinctions and cultural gaps. Fathi, for example, describes his girlfriend Lama as a “liberated woman” because she lives separated from her husband (who took a second wife to please the Leader), and because she likes walking around her flat naked. Yet, Fathi abounds in clichés:
“Perhaps shyness is the reason why women are afraid to reveal their physical imperfections (some psychologists even base their theories on the notion that women consider their vaginas a permanent imperfection that is something to be ashamed of). But Lama doesn’t have a single imperfection on her entire body that she could be afraid of revealing to her lover, so she has no problem being naked in front of him.”
About his sister, Fathi says: “I intended to go visit my sister Samira in order to find out … anything my mother might have confided in her because women speak more freely amongst themselves; they don’t keep secrets from each other” Womens’ experience clearly differs around the world, yet reading these analyses in an English-language text jars.
The translation opens up the reading of the Sirees’ novel to a wider audience but also to more possible interpretations, yet it would have gained even more from the addition of a translator’s preface outlining Weiss’ interpretation and his approach in translating Sirees: Where did he set his text? Why did he leave certain words in Arabic? A translation is an interpretation of a text, and my interpretation here would gain from a discussion with a different, previous interpreter – the translator himself. The book is not perfect, and it contains many unfinished plots. The secret meeting with the police officer never happens and the unstable doctor fades back into hospital routine, but these loose ends bespeak the ongoing interpretative process of translation and also resonate with the continuing struggle in Syria. With this in mind, we might ask: what more appropriate form to express Syria’s current situation than in a translation, to use a silent form of writing to help the silenced voice of Sirees to a roar elsewhere?