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Modern Literature in Syria

Syrian Poet Adonis (Photo by MOHAMMED MAHJOUB / AFP)

Contemporary Arabic literature has its basis in the Nahda, the movement of cultural revival which began in Egypt during the 19th century, although some of its roots can be traced back to an earlier period. The Nahda accrued from two seemingly contradictory developments: the encounter with European culture and the revaluation of the classical Arabic cultural heritage. Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals with a Christian background, who traditionally maintained close ties with the European Roman Catholic Church, played an important role in both movements. As a result of the persecution of the Christian and Druze populations in the 1860s, they migrated in large numbers to Egypt, where they contributed greatly to the Nahda. Among the foremost Syrian-Lebanese representatives of the literary Nahda were Salim al-Bustani (1846-1884), who translated and adapted mainly French literature, Francis al-Marrash (1836-1873), author of prose poems who deeply influenced the world famous American-Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, and Maruf Ahmad al-Arnaut (1892-1948), who introduced the historical novel into the literary spectrum.

The contemporary Syrian novel

Many critics and scholars agree that the first fully fledged novel of literary merit was Naham (Desire, 1937), a highly romantic work, written by Shakib al-Jabri (1912-1996). The 1940s and 1950s were marked by a gradual but clear shift from romanticism towards (socialist) realism, influenced by Russian authors like Maxim Gorky. The first realistic novel appeared in 1954, written by Hanna Mina (ca. 1924), a fervent supporter of the Baath regime, who played a major role in the development of the Syrian novel from the 1950s to present times. Other literary trends in the 1960s were: revolt without ideology (Haydar Haydar), mystic spiritualism (Abd al-Salam al-Ujayli) and fantasy with a political content (Walid Ikhlasi). The same period witnessed the emergence of women in the literary field, including Ulfa Idlibi, Ghada al-Samman, Colette Khoury and many others, who generally focused on the position of women in the Syrian society. The traumatizing outcome of the wars of June 1967 and October 1973 resulted in a reinforcement of social criticism in literature, represented by the surrealist writer Zakariya Tamir and the Kurdish writer Salim Barakat, whose novels are marked by a magic realist touch. This disaffected attitude towards Arab society in general and internal Syrian politics in particular, is nowadays pursued by Khaled Khalifa, who heavily criticized the Syrian aggression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s in his novel Madih al-Karahiya (In Praise of Hatred, 2006), the poet-writer Khalil Suwailih and the writer and journalist Dima Wannous. Bashar al-Assad, who assumed power in 2000, initially seemed to show some leniency towards the political opponents among the Syrian intellectuals, but shortly thereafter he tightened the reins again by suppressing publications, intimidating dissident writers, and lately by blocking critical websites.

Contemporary Syrian poetry

In the second half of the 19th century the so far traditional and formalistic neoclassical Syrian poetry underwent a radical change. Initially most poets kept to the old poetical structures, but their choice of topical themes was innovative. In the 1920s and 1930s the classical form was still maintained, but there was a substantial wave of individualistic, romantic poetry, partly influenced by the British poetic tradition. It was the Mahjar movement (a group of Lebanese poets and writers who had migrated to North and South America in the late 19th century) that instigated the liberation from the straightjacket in which most poets were caught. The famous Syrian poet and intellectual Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) first wrote his poetry in classic forms, but after 1956 he turned to experimental poetry. In the 1970s the way was finally cleared for new forms of poetry, such as the free verse, the prose poem and the mystical ‘neo Sufi trend’, of which the world-famous poet and leftist cosmopolitan Adunis (alias of Ali Ahmad Said, 1930) was the leading exponent. Surprisingly, this same Adunis, who sympathized with the Tunisian and Egyptian rebels during the uprisings of January 2011, lately showed his loyalty to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by sending him an open letter of support. After a wave of criticism by Syrian and Arab writers he reconsidered his point of view and advised al-Assad to step down, but not without accusing the opposition for being fragmented and dominated by religious groups.

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