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Syrian Women Novelists and the Alienation of the Creative Experience in the Refugee Journey

"I arrived here with a lot of pain. The sounds of rockets, shellfire, news of killings, daily death, and terror still nestle in my head", said Syrian writer Shadia Atassi.
Syrian Women Novelists and the Alienation of the Creative Experience in the Refugee Journey

Intellectual Syrian women who have found themselves outside their homeland have discovered a newfound freedom of expression. This space, which was denied to them in Syria due to oppression, tyranny, and the regime’s cultivation of fear and doubt, has allowed them to view writing as a creative act intertwined with the Syrian women’s cause. These women, driven by their own projects and aspirations, sought to find their place in the diaspora, a fate that became inevitable for many Syrians advocating for freedom.

 The Creative Process in Exile

The Syrian writer Shadia Atassi encapsulates this profound journey. Her deep vision blends human experience and suffering during the Syrian revolution. Writing, for her, did not come spontaneously but emerged from a continuous process of creation. She describes how the upheaval in Syria made her reassess previously unquestioned absolutes. This seismic shift compelled her to articulate her philosophy toward writing and to describe the transformations taking place within her consciousness.

Shadia reflects on her arrival in Switzerland: “I arrived here with a lot of pain. The sounds of rockets, shellfire, news of killings, daily death, and terror still nestle in my head. I had to find a parallel world to support this terrible brokenness. I wrote to survive, to face myself first and the outside world second.”

This echoes the concept of purification in theatre, as described by Aristotle in his book “The Art of Poetry.” Writing, when it becomes a means of survival for the writer, mirrors the artistic purification that occurs when one confronts their deepest fears through reading, watching, or listening. This transformative process can turn creative expression from a form of resistance into a revolutionary act. By capturing and analyzing reality in all its aspects, writers like Shadia imagine possible futures, potentially creating real alternatives to the present.

 The Ongoing Creative Experience

Author Manhal Al-Sarraj reflects on her ongoing creative experience, stating, “I did not stop writing during the war years. Writing, for me, is an act of existence and a necessity of life, but the circumstances we endured made it different. I do not know if ‘hospitalization’ is the right word because writing is creativity, and Syrians are daily recovering from the war’s effects. For me, writing can be a kind of self-combing.” This highlights the shift in the writing experience, ranging from action to reaction, from the pleasure of writing described by Barthes to the open wound expressed by Kafka. The writer searches for new experiences to convey and finds themselves amidst numerous imposing experiences, suffering from the density of subject matter. Thus, writing becomes a means of self-combing, to shed the weight of experience and share the heavy burden of reality with the reader, alleviating the anxiety only upon completing the creative process.

Writer Yara Wahbi asserts that “creative work is a state of longing that imposes itself on the creative self. Creativity is not largely an act of choice, because when the writer writes, they already possess a vast store of experience, a sense of responsibility, and a desire to share with others.” When the writer relinquishes the will to choose creativity, they are essentially choosing, as Sartre puts it, “choosing not to choose,” thereby choosing for themselves and others. The writer holds full freedom and responsibility toward the act of writing.

Integration and Cultural Contrasts

Educated Syrian women, after their exodus to Europe, were exposed to new cultures and managed to varying degrees to integrate into these societies. They came to know Western women, whom they admired as ideal models. However, Shadia Atassi points out, “It is difficult to talk about integration that has been achieved. Arab women still carry the weight of their upbringing in a closed society burdened by a rigid ideology that marginalizes them. In our country, we still lack the basic concept of freedom for both men and women. We don’t even have the freedom to discuss issues that are central to daily life, such as corruption, high prices, and power outages, let alone larger issues like freedom of opinion, justice, and power.”

This perspective underscores the challenges faced by Syrian women writers in the diaspora. Their creative journeys are shaped by the struggle to reconcile their past experiences with new environments. Writing becomes a vital tool for survival and self-expression, allowing them to navigate and process the traumas of war and displacement. It also serves as a bridge to connect their own narratives with broader human experiences, fostering a sense of solidarity and shared understanding.

 Balancing Cultural Identities

The oscillation between her cultural reference point and a culture that is new to her in every sense has led to an identity dilemma for Shadia Atassi. She began comparing these disparate cultures, noting, “European society has reached a state of well-being and intellectual luxury, where sexual freedom, cohabitation, and homosexuality seem legitimate and taken for granted.” This cultural contrast has motivated many Syrian women novelists to raise awareness among Syrian women through fictional characters that reflect women’s realities and their potential for change and development.

For example, in her novel “The Tattoo,” Manhal al-Sarraj chose the real-life figure Lola al-Agha as her protagonist. Al-Sarraj explains, “The Tattoo was a novel in which I talked about the real-life Lola al-Agha and her tragedies.” Although al-Sarraj was not directly connected with feminist movements in Europe, the freedom she found there emboldened her to address women’s issues and the injustices they face. This newfound freedom allowed her to write without fear of the censorship that had previously stifled her work.

One such instance of her boldness is evident in her novel “As a River Should,” which features a female protagonist, Fatma. Through this character, al-Sarraj symbolically tackled the events of Hama in the 1980s, exposing the massacres perpetrated by the regime. The courage to confront such sensitive issues reflects the transformative impact of her experience in Europe, where she could finally express her thoughts and ideas openly.

This interplay between personal liberation and creative expression highlights the profound influence of cultural immersion on Syrian women writers. It not only shapes their narratives but also empowers them to challenge and redefine societal norms, both in their homeland and in their adopted countries.

 The Pain of Alienation and Nostalgia

Since the forced exit from Syria and subsequent dispersal across the globe was the fate of many Syrians, some have managed to achieve psychological and emotional balance in their new countries of exile. However, others continue to suffer from the pain of alienation and nostalgia, immersed in a long series of deeply engraved memories. When discussing Syrian novelists who have immigrated to Europe, the theme of homesickness is prominently embodied in their lives and writings. Their souls are divided: one part remains stuck in the window of their homeland, watching with a sad heart and helpless will the devastation and destruction occurring there; the other part roams in a new country with unfamiliar customs, traditions, faces, feelings, language, and climate. They are exhausted by the endless paradoxes, causing the vibrant image of their homeland to fade into a dull picture devoid of joy and life.

Writer Shadia Al-Atassi poignantly captures this duality in her writings: “I search for myself in a country I try to belong to, making myself an object of experience and research. How do I face the challenge of a different life, culture, and language? How can I ignore the issue of nostalgia? How can I be objective in a city that fascinates me with its beauty when I am a prisoner of its laws, and may not do justice to it? I consider it a plight, a plight that reveals the eternal need that accompanies the stranger who has moved to a space other than his own.”

This reflection underscores how writers, with their pain of nostalgia and alienation, channel their emotions into their work. They project their internal struggles onto fictional characters, delving deeper into issues that affect Syrians separated by vast geographical distances from their homeland. At every turn, memories grow like a lush tree shading their souls weary from alienation. For instance, Yara Wehbe’s novel “And the Sun Overlooked Our Strange Land” revolves around nostalgia, recounting the stories of refugees in Germany. It focuses on the problems caused by homesickness and cultural differences, reflecting her own experience of expatriation and longing for home.

 The Writer’s Responsibility

Writing, without a doubt, is a responsibility that the writer must bear with complete and absolute awareness, as they existentially belong to the society in which they live. One of their tasks is to convey the reality of this society. The writer’s perspective presented in their novels is not merely an expression of pure subjectivity but a unique task that intellectuals and writers undertake on behalf of others who share the same viewpoint. Fiction writing represents the vision of the world that the writer creates to achieve what they could not in reality. It is an escape from confronting a self laden with suffering and brokenness, coupled with a desire to restore its structure through creative action. The truth of this is manifested by continuing to practice creative cultural activities, presenting different visions based on the relationship of the creative self with itself and the surrounding world.


This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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