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A Novel About the ‘Anonymous People Who Every Day Live, Love, Resist and Struggle’ for Syria

Leila Nachawati Rego

Leila Nachawati Rego. Photo courtesy of Leila.

Leila Nachawati Rego, a Syrian-Galician journalist and activist, is taking a punt on telling other stories; those stories that we don't read, see, or hear. Syria, one of her native countries — and greatest passions — has been immersed in a grueling and bloody war, but still love and resistance flourish there. This belief, among other things, is the basis of her first novel “Cuando la revolución termine” (When the Revolution Is Over).

In an email, Leila (@leila_na) spoke to Global Voices, another one of her great passions where she volunteers as a writer, about her new novel, literature, identities, and her memories of another Damascus.

Global Voices (GV): Why do you feel that this is a story which is better told through literature than journalism?

Leila Nachawati (LN): Llevo años escribiendo artículos y ensayos sobre Siria y oriente medio, y cuanto más pasaba el tiempo más me parecía que la región no se entiende, se interpreta en claves geostratégicas y religiosas/identitarias. Creo que una novela puede llegar a un público más amplio y hacer que la gente empatice con un contexto que consideran lejano y en realidad no lo es tanto. Las críticas de la novela hasta el momento han destacado el hecho de que la novela muestra cómo era Siria antes de 2011, cómo se vivía, qué se comía, cómo se divertía la gente… y luego qué reivindican a partir de las protestas de 2011, qué reclaman… y eso es importante porque acerca y facilita la empatía, algo que no siempre se da con análisis y coberturas de medios de comunicación de masas.

Leila Nachawati (LN): I have been writing articles and essays about Syria and the Middle East for years, and the more time passed, the more I realized that the region wasn't understood, it is interpreted in terms of religion, identity or geopolitics. I think that a novel can reach a wider public and make people empathise with a context that they consider to be far away, yet in reality is closer than they think. Reviews of the novel so far have highlighted the fact that the novel portrays Syria before 2011, how people lived, what people ate, how people enjoyed themselves, and this is important as it creates empathy, which is not always something you get with coverage and analysis from mass media.

Cuando la revolución termine by Leila Nachawati Rego

Cuando la revolución termine by Leila Nachawati Rego

GV: Your novel is political, yet also a love story; love for children, friends, partners, for countries, and for cities. For a long time now, the only stories we read about Syria are horror stories, tales of death and devastation. What are we not reading about Syria? What other stories need to be told?

LN: Leemos a diario historias en las que los protagonistas son los que destruyen (ya sea Asad o ISIS /Daesh, y escuchamos poco a los que resisten, a los que construyen y reconstruyen en un contexto cada vez más difícil. Mi novela es un homenaje a esa gente anónima que día a día vive, se enamora, resiste y lucha por su país, por una sociedad mejor aunque todos los vientos soplen en contra.

LN: Daily we read stories in which the protagonists are those that destroy Syria (be it [Syrian President] Assad or ISIS/Daesh) yet we hear little of those who resist, construct and reconstruct the country, in an increasingly difficult context. My novel is a homage to those anonymous people who every day live, love, resist and struggle for their country, for a better society, even if the odds are against them.

GV: You are Syrian-Galician. How do you navigate your identities?

LN: Creo que quienes vivimos a caballo entre dos culturas tenemos esa doble visión que nos permite ser una especie de puente, de traductores de entornos distintos que en realidad tienen mucho en común. La “distancia media” de la que hablaba Aristóteles.

LN: I think that those of us who spend our lives between two cultures have a double vision which allows us to be a sort of bridge, translators of different environments which actually have a lot in common. The “happy medium” that Aristotle talked about.

GV: Tell us about your memories of Damascus.

LN: Damasco para mí es ruido de tornos, de obras sin acabar, de bocinas de coche en el tráfico en hora punta, de olor a arguile de dos manzanas, de cebolla friéndose en mantequilla, de naranjas y jazmín. De sonrisas y miradas cómplices, de silencios que hablan más que cualquier grito, de susurros, de deseo reprimido de cambio.

LN: To me, Damascus is the sound of lathes, of construction that is never finished, of car horns in rush hour traffic, the smell of double-apple shisha, of onion frying in butter, of oranges and jasmine. Of smiles and knowing glances, of silences that speak more than any scream, of whispers, of the suppressed desire for change.

Leila señala un cartel que pide la libertad del desarrollador de software sirio, Bassel Khartabil. Foto cortesía de Leila.

Leila points to a poster appealing for the freedom of Syrian software developer Bassel Khartabil. Photo courtesy of Leila.

GV: How has belonging to the Global Voices community influenced your life? The protagonist in your novel is also a GV author.

LN: Global Voices marcó un antes y un después en mi vida, me permitió conocer a toda una generación de activistas que me abrió los ojos a unas luchas y deseos de cambio, de justicia social, que parte de lo local y a la vez es muy global, basada en unas redes de solidaridad muy fuertes y unos vínculos que se crean más allá de las diferencias culturales. En la novela, Global Voices marca un punto de inflexión en la trayectoria de la protagonista, que dice: “Antes de 2011, en todos mis viajes a Siria, no había conocido a un solo activista. Conocería a muchos a partir de entonces”

LN: Global Voices marked a before and after in my life, it allowed me to meet a whole generation of activists who opened my eyes to struggles and desires for change, to social justice, both local and global at once, based in strong networks of solidarity and bonds formed regardless of cultural differences. In the novel, Global Voices marks a turning point in the path of the protagonist, who says, “Before 2011, in all my travels to Syria, I hadn't met a single activist. From then on, I would know many.”

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