Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syrian Attempts to Rewrite the Chronicle of Humanity

Syrian Attempts to rewrite
A Lebanese university student reads an Arabic novel as she takes a break at the campus of the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut on April 21, 2009. JOSEPH BARRAK / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

After the Setback of the June War 1967 and the impossibility of overcoming the poor Arab regimes, Syrian writers attempted to redraw their status quo in another way. The imposed reality at the time prompted those writers to use fantasy or magical realism, where they tried to return the shortcomings to ancient helplessness. Mamdouh Hamadeh and Saadallah Wannous sought to create a new present and existence stemming from a past and a history other than that we know or read about in books.

The new existence that these writers created was conditional. Its creation depended on the defeats of the Arabs at the time. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Arabism dominated Syria. Its intellectuals were fans of Arabism and a utopian dream of unity. Therefore, any defeat to any Arab region seemed like a slap to the face of the Syrian intellectuals.

Such an orientation is visible in the stories of Daftar al-Abaterah (The Book of Emperors) by the Syrian writer, screenwriter and caricaturist Mamdouh Hamadeh. The same applies to the last book of playwright Saadallah Wannous A’n al-Thakera Wa al-Mawt (About Memory and Death).

The period between the 1960 and 1990s was stagnant in the history of Arab existence. That period may be the most oppressive in this contemporary history, after the setback of the June War 1967 and the deterioration of the ruling political regimes. There should have been a reseason found for such a setback. It should be either due to a predestined ancient helplessness or a sheer coincidence. That is what the two Syrian writers used to justify the impotence of their time.

At that time, the Arabs were unsatisfied with their history. They felt they were a minority or had to be so through time. Although the word indicates a quantitative notion, it also stipulates the worthiness of existence, or: the existential and historic condition for humans. Such an approach was what Wannous was all about in his theatre: politicization. For him, a person may not fulfil his conditions because of his geographical environment, as these conditions are the imperativeness of acting and the necessity of humans to understand their position in history and their role in writing it.

In his story al-Ajroudi, Hamadeh redraws political regimes. Moustaches can alter history through a crown prince who cannot grow a beard or moustaches, as his father, the king, considers him disobedient. When the prince became king, he issued a firman after another to take revenge upon moustaches. He imposed taxes, then an opposition party emerged with the name The Moustaches Party. Then, Hamadeh displays conflicts inside the party revolving around its motto and disputes between the party and the monarchy.

Hamadeh then rewrites history, using an entirely new approach in his story Thanab al-Baqarah (The Cow’s Tail). He redraws the history of monarchy and the conflict revolving around it through two siblings fighting over a fig tree. In the story, the following is stated: “Had the myth been true, they would have been the sons of Eve.” A third human intervenes. He ties one end of a robe to the fig tree stalk and the other end to another tree stalk, dividing the planet into two halves: what lies north of the robe belongs to the first sibling, and what lies south of the tree belongs to the second sibling. Therefore, the first sibling declares himself as the owner of the fig tree.

Between the two trees stands a cow. The cow, too, is divided by the robe. Its head was facing south, and its rear was facing north. Therefore, the second sibling had to feed the cow, while the first had to milk it.

Months later, the second sibling was feeding the cow. He noticed a change in the appearance of the first sibling. His sibling started to wear a garment instead of hay. Days later, he saw him wearing sandals then he was fully dressed. The third person – who initially resolved the conflict – was with the first sibling, and now he calls him sir. The first sibling brought a bull to breed with the cow, and it gave birth. A bull after another until the first sibling land was full of cows.

Sometime later, the first sibling becomes disgusted with his brother and starts to call him primitive. Therefore, the second sibling attempts to assault the first. At that moment, the third person draws his sword. He informs the second sibling that his money, by law, is confiscated. He did that who became a subject of the first sibling. Since then, the first sibling became an emperor, and the second became a subject.

Hamadeh concludes his novel with a question: “What would have happened if the cow turned to the opposite direction?”

In this new history and geographical classification, there is a clear indication that may criticize the division of the world. Certain forces made that division. Therefore, there are rich and poor sides in this world: The developed North and the developing South. It is worth mentioning that the front half of the cow is to the south, but it turns its head to the north. Therefore, the first sibling took the wealthiest part of it, and this is a tragicomic irony. In this case, the cow can be considered the imaginary Brandt Line that divided the world into north and south, where this division does not depend on a geographical fact. Australia, for example, is located in the south geographically, but it is classified as a northern country. Therefore, Hamadeh made a joke out of this division: a cow and its tail. By following this approach, he redraws the history of humanity with a story that simulates the story of Cain and Abel.

While Mamdouh Hamadeh focuses on the regional division and rewrites the history of humanity, Wannous takes another path, a social path, in the chapter “A Journey to Passing the Unknown of Death”. In that chapter, Wannous tells the story of a journey taking off from 27 BC to 2699. That journey was for a family living in the catacombs, with a vague hope of a sun shining outside.

In 27 BC, one of the ancestors drowns in a mud sludge, and no one saves him. For Wannous, the catacombs only lead to more catacombs, and everyone has only to walk. In the year 620, strife arose. The remaining ancestors fight over the amulets and over the direction they have to walk through. Wannous maintains his nihilistic tendency in this story: despite the marriage of the narrator and the birth of a new family, the catacombs remain catacombs. However, the narrator put lamps in the corners of the catacombs to shrink the darkness. All of the ancestors were still walking in search of the sun. The narrator writes the following: “It is 2214. We are still walking. Now it is 2370, and we are still walking. We are in 2690, and we are still walking. In 2699, my feet betray me. Nevertheless, we are still walking, and my children will walk and write this history.”

Wannous wrote that chapter with complete delirium while being in a hospital. Therefore, he wanted to give the feeling that everything is absurd. He lost his faith in change. It is worth mentioning that Wannous wrote the chapter in 1996, one year before his passing. In this period, he changed his mind: the word will remain a word, and the act will remain an act, and I think he has reached the most bitter point of futility.

Hamadeh and Wannous produced that new historiography out of pure existential anxiety that connects to history itself. Both rewrote the history of humanity to create a better present. They wanted to justify their miserable present with a past that was worse. Their approach may have started with an optimistic existential view, but soon it turned into a cynical nihilism, with no belief in the possibility of change. That is how the writer distorts the beginning of history because the distorted result must come from a distorted reason.




Hamadeh, Mamdouh, Daftar Al Abaterah, Mamdouh Adwan for publishing, 2006, Arabic version:

Wannous, Saadallah, About memory and Death, Al-Ahali for Publishing, 1996. Arabic version:

Ali, Mostafa Mohammad, North and South, Geographic Indications and International Modern Uses. Damascus University Magazine, Volume 27, Edition 1+2, 2011. Arabic version:



The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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