Authors Bring Voices to Conflict in Syria

Carly Behm | The PHOENIXAuthor Riad Ismat speaks at the “Focus on Syria” event. Wendy Pearlman (left), an associate professor at Northwestern University moderated the discussion. The other Syrian author present, Osama Alomar (center), is working on a novel about the Syrian conflict.

Two Syrian authors who left their home country to live in the United States made an April 9 appearance at Loyola to speak about their writings and experiences with the Syrian Civil Conflict.

The Syrian Civil Conflict started with the Arab Spring in 2011 when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Syria became involved in peaceful protests after the Syrian government tortured boys supporting the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests with violence. The formation of the Free Syrian Army sparked the civil war within Syria, and some extremists joined the opposition to Assad’s government. Foreign intervention throughout the Middle East added to the multi-dimensional war.

The violence caused millions of Syrian citizens to flee to several countries, including the United States, Turkey, Germany and Sweden. But the United States has since changed its stance on allowing Syrian citizens into the country. President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order in January banning Syrians from entering the United States.

The United States didn’t intervene until last week, when Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians.
Osama Alomar and Riad Ismat are Syrian authors, and their writing confronts the Syrian conflict through fiction.

Ismat has been a visiting scholar at Northwestern University since 2013. He authored several plays, short stories and novels. He was the Minister of Culture of Syria and was in charge of cultural affairs, but he stepped down in 2012.

Alomar left Syria in 2008. He said his apartment in Syria was destroyed and he lost the manuscript for an unpublished novel, but he is working on a new novel about the Syrian conflict.

The Chicago Network for Justice and Peace and The Guild Literary Complex, groups that helped organize an initiative supporting exiled writers, hosted “Focus on Syria” April 9 in Piper Hall on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. The Gannon Center for Women in Leadership, which educates and fosters women in leadership, was one of the sponsors for the event.

Ismat read excerpts from his plays and short stories. One work he read from was “Mihbaj,” a play about a widow living on the border of Turkey and Syria with three sons each involved in the Syrian conflict.

The scene Ismat read was from the point of view of a son working for the regime.

Alomar is known for his allegorical short stories and has several publications. Many of his short stories are just sentences long. He read from his book, “The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories.” The short stories in the book are not explicitly about the Syrian conflict, but his writing often leaves the deeper meaning open to interpretation.

Alomar read his short story, “The Knife,” which is featured in his book. It is just two sentences long and reads: “He was born with a silver knife in his mouth. And he was its first victim.”

Ismat said he thinks literature plays an important role in helping people understand the crisis.

“I think it’s important to present an authentic image of the Syrian culture,” Ismat said. “Literature tells the facts about the people [and] the spirit of the people … It is important to bring an awareness among the American audience in general and among the students of Loyola and other universities because … they should understand what’s taking place in that part of the world.”

Alomar said he hopes his works shed light on the civilians in Syria.

“The Syrian crisis is now the number one issue in the world and it looks like the whole world is fighting inside Syria,” said Alomar. “We need more awareness about what’s going on for civilians — for innocent people. They’re suffering every day.”

Alomar and Ismat answered audience questions following the reading. Some people asked the two authors about their form and writing styles.

Politics was also brought up. An audience member asked the writers about Trump’s decision to launch the airstrike and both authors expressed support for U.S. involvement.

“I can say we need to get rid of the Syrian regime anyway. It’s very obliterating and they’re killing people every day,” said Alomar.

Ismat said he thinks the United States should have been involved sooner.

“I think if the U.S. administration intervened politically years back, it would have been better for all parties and probably more than 200,000 lives could have been saved,” he said.

The question and answer session ended with Alomar expressing optimism for youth in Syria and the United States.

“With every new generation there’s the new hope and I think among youth there’s more awareness about equality about human dignity about human rights,” said Alomar. “I’m optimistic about youth because they are the future. They are the roses. So there’s always still spring and spring is optimism.”

Junior environmental science major Judy Malas is a relative of Alomar and said she hopes the event helps people see refugees differently.

“I think it’s easy for people to see Syrians as refugees and people who are kind of lost,” said the 20-year-old. “I think hopefully this will humanize Syrians more. They are writers and artists … They’re not just refugees, there’s a lot more to that and there’s a lot of culture they can bring.”

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