–Jill Holslin, San Diego State University
Originally published in Contemporary Women’s Writing, vol. 1, no. 3-4. (June 2008)
Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official by Miriam Cooke. 2007. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, pp. 196. £46.99
“Our literature never leaves the country.” These words of Syrian women writers clarify a common problem faced by writers all over the Arab world. In the western imaginary, the facile image of a silent, veiled woman inviting heroic western intervention often stands in for the complex Middle Eastern societies and histories about which readers in the West often know little. This new scholarly memoir by Miriam Cooke, American professor of Arabic Literature and specialist on Arab women writers, illuminates the complex geopolitical conditions shaping literature and cultural production in Syria today. Cooke sets out to deliver Syrian writing to the West, in eight chapters that weave together close readings of short stories, novels, poetry and films with biographical sketches and interviews with Syrian women writers, filmmakers, intellectuals and political prisoners. Yet, as an American Fulbright scholar visiting Syria in 1995-96, the very conditions that made Cooke’s study possible also threaten to cast her in the role of the western imperialist.
“Haunted, she writes, by this “double bind,” Cooke grounds her project in Salman Rushdie’s appeal to international intellectuals to “magnify the voices of Arab, Afghan, Latin American and Russian dissidents” to build solidarity and foster a global dialogue. By reframing her 1995 visit within the more contemporary terms of Bush’s War on Terror, and the concomitant identification of Hafez al-Assad’s Syria as a “rogue state” and sponsor of terrorism, Cooke retrospectively situates the conflicts and frustrations she experienced during her Fulbright stay in solidarity with the struggles of the contemporary Syrian writers and artists she writes about. For the reader interested in literary culture in the Middle East or the status of writers in totalitarian states anywhere, Cooke’s account demonstrates the precarious position of the international intellectual who would hope to make these conditions visible.
Cooke’s initial research plan was to focus on women writers, and her opening chapters document her efforts to organize a nadwa, a symposium on women writers in October of 1995. Eager to re-establish contact with the women writers she had met on an earlier research trip to Beirut in 1980, Cooke finds herself in the social and literary circle of a now-elderly generation of women writers whose outspoken feminist fiction and poetry was popular in Syria and the greater Middle East in the 1950s and 60s. In spite of, and perhaps because of, the success of the symposium held at the American Center in Damascus, Cooke’s contacts leave her completely out of touch with the younger generation of women writers. When Cooke asks Colette al-Khuri if she might invite some of the younger generation of women writers to participate in the nadwa, al-Khuri’s response reveals the way her own position of power as member of the Syrian parliament and friend of Hafez al-Assad works to silence the voices that Cooke would hope to magnify. Al-Khuri replies that young people are no longer writing. “After the khaiba (disappointment) of 1989,” al-Khuri claims, “no new voices have been heard because no one has the heart to write.” Three days after the symposium, Cooke reports, a member of a government-sponsored literary group the “Women’s Union” called the American Center, the sponsor of the event, to complain that none of the younger generation of women writers had been invited to participate. While Cooke attempts, through careful staging, to contextualize these rifts in the Syrian literary scene for the western reader, her now-dated accounts suggest that she might have followed up in the intervening years with more research to clarify the questions she raises about the cultural politics and complex positioning of these disparate literary circles.
Cooke uses a narrative technique now familiar in feminist scholarship—she eschews the disembodied voice of the objective expert, and instead situates herself inside the community of scholars, revealing the rifts and gaps in her own understanding. There’s a refreshing honesty in Cooke’s portrayal of herself as the American scholar abroad, organizing symposia, completely dependent upon the Syrian writers she happens to meet, living in a country whose cultural scene and political dynamics she does not, and cannot, fully understand. After half a year in Syria, Cooke admits: “The more I learned, the more puzzled I became.”
Cooke’s clear impatience with the encoding of dissent in a police state leaves the reader wanting much more reflection on al-Assad’s manipulation of the public perception of her presence in Syria in 1995-96. Nonetheless, Cooke’s technique enables the reader to feel the awkward presence of silencing mechanisms of the police state: the memories of tragedy and personal betrayal manifested in half-told stories, whispers, evasions and awkward silences. At a meeting of the Cultural Association for Women, Cooke hears the story of a woman writer whose study was filled with manuscripts of her own poetry. When Cooke inquires further, and learns that all of the poetry was burned, she asks the women, ‘why?’, and is confronted with uncomfortable silences, annoyed looks, and whispers about “internal revolution.” Cooke responds, “No one told me what that meant.” Remarking that highly nationalistic historical writing had emerged as “a fad” among women writers in the 1990s, Cooke asks writer Nadia al-Ghazzi whether she thinks the writers were attempting a veiled critique of the current regime. Al-Ghazzi naturally dodges the question, and Cooke reflects: “It was early days. I had not yet learned how carefully such questions have to be formulated.”
The term “commissioned criticism” serves to link the problem for the Syrian intellectual under the al-Assad regime to the dilemma of Arab women writers whose works rarely reach a global audience, burdened by the economic hurdles of translation, publication and distribution networks. While publicly supporting intellectuals and writers, and even publishing the works of political prisoners, the Hafez al-Assad regime was able to coopt writing by controlling not its content, but its distribution and circulation. The Ministry of Culture published politically sensitive books, but would not allow their sale on the open market. Instead, the books were sent to remote regional cultural centers or Arab book fairs, where they fashioned for foreign consumption the facade of Syrian democracy and civil rights. State control of writers generated its own cynical public discourse: writers were publicly branded as muharrij, or “court jester,” accused of having “allowed themselves” to be manipulated by the state. As Cooke relates the story of her quest to replace her copy of Banana Fingers, a 1994 collection of short stories and plays written by imprisoned writer Ghassan al-Jaba’i, we begin to see the dissention among women writers in light of this mechanism of state control. Although al-Jaba’i’s book had been published by the Ministry of Culture, and a well-established Syrian writer had written the introduction, the text was no where to be found in bookstores, and bookstore owners had not even heard of the book. Finally, Cooke goes to the Ministry of Culture, where a clerk brings her a copy from the warehouse. The deputy minister appears, asking how Cooke had learned about the book, and Cooke reports feeling “like a spy caught in the act, even though all I wanted was a book the Ministry had published.”
Cooke’s identification of her own struggles with those of Syrian writers might leave her open for criticism: her ten books and dozens of articles on Middle Eastern women writers are widely available, after all. Yet, her connections reveal the precarious position in which international intellectuals find themselves today. Dozens of American scholars associated with the Middle East Studies Association have been subjected to witch hunts and blacklisting since the early 2000s, and Cooke was recently included in David Horowitz’s 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. By framing and reframing these debates, Cooke usefully destabilizes the category of “women writers” without undermining its potential power, showing how the controversies among various literary societies and writers in Syria are caught up in multiple contexts and shifting centers of power in an ever-changing Syria.
JILL M. HOLSLIN
San Diego State University, USA