Literature reminds us that there are many kinds of courage and battles are fought not only on the ground but also in the pages of a book. Syrian author and journalist Samar Yazbek has fought Syria’s Assad regime in the pages of her own book, “A Woman in the Crossfire,” a revolution diary of sorts which, along with her vocal opposition to the Assad regime, has forced the author into exile.
For this Yazbek was granted the 2012 PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage prize Monday. She will share the award with 2012 PEN/Pinter Prize winner British poet Carol Ann Duffy, who helped choose Yazbek as the award recipient.
The annual award, granted in honor of the late playwright Harold Pinter, is given to a British writer of outstanding literary merit. The winner then chooses a recipient for the Writer of Courage Award, which recognizes an international writer who shows “fierce intellectual determination."
“Giving the PEN/Pinter international writer of courage prize to the author of the Syrian revolution’s diaries is an important sign of the recognition of the Syrian people’s struggle,” Yazbek said of the award. “The honor is dedicated to the martyrs of the Syrian revolution, and to all those women who are working in silence, in particularly difficult circumstances inside Syria, and to those who move among the downpour of bullets and artillery fire, the tanks and fighter jets, in order to carry on the revolution of the Syrian people toward establishing a free and democratic society.”
“I have chosen Samar because of her literary skill... and her bravery in writing about her opposition to the bloody Assad regime when she is already such a prominent figure in Syria and so at increased risk,” Duffy said during the award presentation. “Harassment from the security services and denouncements from her family and clan have forced her to flee from Syria to Europe.”
This last point is especially noteworthy because Yazbek is from the very same Alawite clan to which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs and was born in his ancestral region in northern Syria. As such, Yazbek has defected from her clan into the rebellion. With her book, she has taken an especially dangerous risk in speaking out against her own clan, an identity and affiliation that is of utmost importance in Arab lands.
“Woman in the Crossfire” chronicles the first few months of the Syrian uprising based on diaries Yazbek kept as well as stories from ordinary Syrians and those at the heart of the revolution. It is alternately courageous, arresting, and disturbing.
According to the UK’s “Spectator,” “In one of the most disturbing passages in her revolutionary diaries, written in the spring of 2011, she is questioned about her opposition writing, briefly blindfolded then taken into a series of rooms where she is forced to see men hanging in various states of torture and decomposition. Bodies covered in fresh and dried blood are suspended from metal clamps, ‘deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter.’ Assaulted by ‘the smell of blood and piss and sh**’ and the sounds of torture and screaming, she is shoved into a room where there is an unconscious young man ‘whose spine looked like an anatomist’s sketch,’ his back split open ‘as if a map had been carved into it with a knife.’ ‘Humans have become pieces of flesh on display, an exhibition of the art of murder and torture that was all for show.’”
Her depiction of accounts like this grisly scene forced Yazbek into exile in Paris with her young daughter in 2011, though she told the BBC she often returns to Syria. “I return all the time, but in secrecy,” she said. “Undercover.”
Prior to this, she wrote on women’s issues for Syrian newspapers and journals as well as several novels that challenged taboos, including “Heavenly Girl,” “Clay,” which cast a critical eye on the power of the Syrian military, and “Cinnamon,” which examines Syria’s social divide.
It is accounts like Yazbek’s – rare, chilling glimpses into an uprising and brutal crackdown that is largely kept hidden from the world community – which illustrate literature’s innate and compelling power and remind us of the crucial role literature must play in conflict.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.