North Africa, West Asia

Syrian prison literature and human rights: an interview with Shareah Taleghani

Literature about prison has actually assisted international campaigns in the release of individual detainees.

Tugrul Mende
6 January 2021, 12.00am
Syrians stage a die-in amongst the rubble of destroyed buildings during a protest against the Syrian regime in Arihah on 28 August 2020
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Anas Alkharboutli/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

There is a vast archive of Syrian Prison Literature. Shareah Taleghani’s latest book navigates through the difficult narratives focusing on human rights in this genre.

In her latest book, Readings in Syrian Prison Literature: The Poetics of Human Rights (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,2020) R. Shareah Taleghani, assistant professor and director of Middle East studies at Queens College, City University of New York, argues that prison literature led to an “experimental shift” in Arabic literature since the 1960s. Her decade long research on this topic explores how Syrian prison literature changed since the early 1970s until today. Depicting important poets such as Faraj Bayraqdar, she engages with a certain cultural production that does not deal only with art itself but with the political reality in which the authors find themselves in. We discussed her approach to this genre over email.

Tugrul Mende: Why did you decide to write a book about prison literature in Syria?

Shareah Taleghani: In 2002 I took a seminar on Arabic prison literature taught by Elias Khoury. Among many many other texts, we read Faraj Bayraqdar’s poetry collection Hamama Mutlaqat al-Jinahayn (Dove in Free Flight) and translated it into English as a group translation project. I read more and more texts that were written by former detainees or about the experience of political detention in Syria, and I also later had the opportunity to meet with several writers who, by generously responding to my questions and sharing their writings and the writings of others, helped me understand the significance of all these texts. When I started the research, I was constantly thinking about these intersections of literature, detention, creativity, agency, and human rights, and in particular what it means to write about the experience of detention, why such narratives are important, and how such texts could be read. But I was also very moved and inspired by the power and poignancy of the individual texts themselves and the stories I heard from different authors.

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TM: What were the challenges of working on this project from a distance, without being physically there?

ST: Initially, one of the biggest challenges was in obtaining Arabic language texts that had been published much earlier and/or circulated in only a limited fashion due to censorship. More recently, this challenge has been largely alleviated by the availability of digital publishing. Another challenge is the lack of availability of in-depth historical studies on prisons in Syria.

TM: What is special about this genre in the case of Syria?

ST: I would say that Syrian prison literature or prison writing has much in common with writings about the experience of incarceration across world literature. There are obviously shared traits between the experience of incarceration globally, and those common characteristics of surviving detention come through in narratives about prisons around the world. Writings about the experience of detention in Syria also share certain features in common with the texts produced in other countries of the region--Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Iran - such as a focus on the experiences of prisoners of conscience and distinctions between detainees on the secular left and those who identify as Islamist. Additionally, in Arabic and Syrian prison literature, there are many works that meditate on the act of writing itself.

In Syrian literature there is also a uniquely important intersection of innovative literary experimentalism and hybridity

Still, there are many unique features about the body of writings on prison from and about Syria beyond the fact that there is such a vast number of texts. For one, when I first started my research, I was struck by the number and importance of particular genres outside of the memoir and the novel in comparison with other world literatures. There is, of course, a vast amount of poetry which is not surprising, but the short story, by writers such as Ibrahim Samu’il, Jamil Hatmal, Ghassan al-Jaba’i among others, has been a particularly important form in depicting the prison experience. Additionally, in Syrian literature there is also a uniquely important intersection of innovative literary experimentalism and hybridity in particular prose works such as Rosa Yassin Hasan’s Negative, Malik Daghastani’s The Vertigo of Freedom, and Hasiba ‘Abd al-Rahman’s The Cocoon.

TM: The state of prison literature in Syria changed a lot – especially in 2011, and there has been a lot of focus on this genre as well. Ten years have passed since the revolution, what narratives and discourses have changed since then in the literature that you came across?

ST: Both for this book and a co-edited volume I worked on, my research has focused on writings about prison and/or the relationship between cultural production and dissent prior to 2010-2011. Very little of this body of writings has been translated into English, and I think it’s important to understand the political and literary history that formed part of the backstory to the Syrian Revolution and uprisings elsewhere. My knowledge of post-2011 writings is fairly limited, and I hope to continue reading and learning more. As others have noted, there is much more literature to come about the experience of detention in Syria after 2011, and it will include both accounts of experiences of imprisonment under the Assad regime and oppositional militias and movements (there is, for example, already a book about the experiences of those detained by Da’ish).

Human rights law and reportage constructs the human in very specific ways, and this includes placing parameters on how and when former detainees speak about their experiences, how their experiences are made to be seen or not seen

TM: Can prison literature challenge the language of human rights? Or at least create a space to challenge it?

ST: As a number of scholars have shown, human rights discourse and reportage have particular generic narrative conventions and also limitations in that their narratives are tied to standards of legal documentation and evidence, with a focus on making acts, abuses, or crimes visible, legible, narratable, and readable. Because it must adhere to particular standards of modern legal discourse, human rights law and reportage constructs the human in very specific ways, and this includes placing parameters on how and when former detainees speak about their experiences, how their experiences are made to be seen or not seen.

In my book, I argue that prison literature both parallels and challenges the language of human rights. Much of the writing about prison can be read as testimonial and witness literature - a mosaic documentary record and counter narrative produced by the representation of individuals’ experiences of detention which at the same time attempts to speak for a collective experience and also for those who are not able to speak (something that is frequently noted by individual authors). Many of the texts, particularly memoirs, offer very detailed accounts - of prisons as physical spaces, of the conditions of detention, and of those imprisoned and executed by the regime (i.e. often recorded by name in list form as documentary evidence). In reading different works about detention, one of the most noticeable things is how different authors interrogate the possibility of ever fully recounting or representing their experiences. Writers reflect on the recognition that certain elements of the experience of detention cannot be narrated in a cohesive or transparently readable manner, and this mode of questioning is part of the narrative itself.

TM: In what way would you think the situation of Syrian prison literature is comparable to other countries in and outside the Arabic speaking world?

The terms “prison literature” and “prison writing” are themselves highly problematic

ST: I think Syrian prison literature shares many traits with writings about prison from within the region and more globally. In many memoirs and novels, as Barbara Harlow and other scholars have pointed out, there is a conventional tripartite structure to narratives about prison: 1) arrest/interrogation, 2) long-term detention, 3) release. Additionally, narratives about prison tend towards the representation of a collective rather than solely an individual experience. Syrian and Arabic prison literature is unique in that it is tied to the specific phenomena of political detention, and more recently, some, including Ghassan al-Jaba‘i, have argued for the use of the term “adab al-mu‘taqal” instead of “adab al-sujun” because these texts are primarily written from or about the point of view of prisoners of conscience. The terms “prison literature” and “prison writing” are themselves highly problematic. With respect to Syrian and Arabic prison literature, there is also a unique link between a general movement towards literary experimentalism and writings about the experience of detention.

TM: What connections are there between human rights reportage and prison literature - how do they complement each other and in what way are the memoirs and novels a way for helping human rights advocates to work on specific cases?

ST: It really depends on the specific text and form: fiction vs. nonfiction, poetry, prose, or drama. It’s easiest to trace the connections between prose nonfictional memoirs or narratives and human rights reportage. For example, there is the simple fact of both genres frequently offering eye-witness testimony and the use of the first person in recounting what has been seen, heard, or experienced. I think some readers may find works of prison literature, memoirs, novels, short stories, plays, poetry, more accessible and approachable, rendering the experiences of Syrian detainees more personal or individual, rather than just part of a series of statistics. Some human rights organizations, such as the Syrian Human Rights Committee, have made works of prison literature, particularly memoirs, part of their online libraries that are accessible to a wider public. The publication of works of literature, about prison or other subjects, can assist and has actually assisted international campaigns for the release of individual detainees.

The publication of works of literature, about prison or other subjects, can assist and has actually assisted international campaigns for the release of individual detainees

TM: How is prison literature affected by censorship? Did censorship measures change in the timeframe you worked on this project?

ST: That’s a very good but difficult question to answer in a cohesive or general way. There is, of course, a very long and complex history of censorship in Syria, and a number of scholars have written extensively about it. In my research, I learned that each text has a unique history and story about the process of its creation, publication, distribution, and censorship. One thing is clear, and in this case Syria is very similar to Iran and other countries in the region. State censorship does not prevent the circulation of a text - it can limit it, but can’t prevent it, and authors will find creative ways to circumvent mechanisms of censorship in order to reach their audiences. Now obviously, with digital or electronic publishing so widespread, authors have an even greater variety of means for publishing, disseminating, and publicizing their works.

TM: How much has the landscape of prison literature evolved?

That is also an interesting question, but I don’t think I have a comprehensive answer for it at the moment, and in a sense, the evolution of a body of literature is something that former detainees and writers will produce and analyze themselves. One would have to make a comparative study of the literature produced in different decades by different generations of writers, and especially important would be a comprehensive reading and study of all of the forms of narratives produced about the experience of detention in the wake of the 2011 revolution - not just written narratives, but also ones being produced in the fields of visual culture.

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