Kingston, Ontario based writer and activist Jamal Saeed, talks to AW’s Lucy Black about his new memoir

LB: Thank you for sharing your journey from Damascus to Dubai to your current home in Canada.  Writing your memoir must have necessitated revisiting memories of great pain. Could you share with us how and why you selected some of the scenes that you document so graphically?

JS: My pleasure. In short, I drafted the book, including the scenes you asked about, spontaneously. Revising for me is an inseparable part of the writing process. That process includes thinking about form, content, style, events, characters, etc., so that these things come down on paper interconnected. I revisited the first draft — not only as a writer but also as a reader. I am thinking now of the various reasons that pushed me to document some scenes so graphically. Some details related to the art of narration, as I understand it, and I felt that documentary details were powerful in some places. Such details clarify the scene and enable me to share it with the reader — not only as a piece of writing but also as a piece of life. At specific points in the book, I wanted to deliver even the smells and the unusual colours, to ensure that the reader catches the setting of the action, for I thought this would help the reader to understand. This helped me to share with the reader the feelings I mentioned directly or indirectly. And you know sharing needs both: the writer to show and the reader to see. So, I have to thank you, too, for making the sharing complete.

LB: At a low point in your narrative you wrote, My past no longer belongs to me.  The war has eaten it up (p.390).  I’m interested to know if writing your story has, in some way, allowed you to reclaim your past.

JS: One aspect of leaving Syria was being out of my past. I refer here not just to a vanished time: I’m talking about time hidden in place, materials, experiences, and dreams — time as part of the texture of these aforementioned things.  The past is there in the children’s scribbles on the walls; it accompanied the story of every piece of furniture and the trees that grew in the garden. The past is part of my wishes for all the components of the country that I know by heart. The past I departed from has an embodied presence. What I meant is that I could touch the past.

The war pushed me out of my house and dreams and ate the past and the supposed future I was trying to reach. Now I have a destroyed time, and I had to start a new one from point zero.  The image of my past will stay with me wherever I go unless I develop an illness like Alzheimer’s.  What I had when I wrote the book was not just the tangible past, but images of the past. Writing enabled me to clean up those pictures and to remember my feelings and thoughts during different stages of my life.

LB: The structure of your book moves fluidly back and forth between your childhood, your years of imprisonment, and your life in exile. The reflections on the Syria of your childhood are often poetic, while the years in prison are more clipped, verging on didactic, whereas your life in exile feels journalistic in nature.  After beginning in English, you eventually wrote the text in your language of origin and then worked with a translator on the manuscript.  Please comment on the challenges and choices you made as the story unspooled.    

JS: I didn’t plan to be poetic or journalistic, but I did try to build up a piece of art based on solid, real actions that I was part of.  I began writing this book in English, with considerable help from Ray Argyle. After writing the first three chapters, I was convinced that I was much better able to write in Arabic. At that point, I began writing in Arabic. Lory Kaufman, together with Ian Baines, helped me find a translator. I noticed while searching online that Catherine Cobham had translated the works of several major Arab writers, and Canadian friends admired her translations. I contacted her and asked her to translate some sample chapters to present to an agent, and when I read her e-mail saying she would translate these sample chapters “for Syria,” I had tears in my eyes. While working on the book, she checked the chapters after the initial round of editing and offered some important observations. Catherine was not only a translator but also a reader and critic who took care of every detail. Ray and Lory helped in the initial editing, but the final editing (before I sent the manuscript to Michael Holmes at ECW Press) was done by Lawrence Scanlan, who edited many chapters many times. I got great help in overcoming obstacles and facing challenges. I’m so grateful to all the people I just mentioned.

LB: Tell us about your decision to write this book. What inspired and/or motivated your interest in the subject matter?

JS: I decided to write this book long before I actually did. I wanted to share with people an experience that shed a light on what I went through — from a historical and humanitarian point of view. On one occasion, I was waiting to be executed, but when I realized that they were not going to kill me, I thought that it was worth sharing with others my feelings and thoughts when I was waiting for death. This is one of the many times I thought of writing this book. It was so difficult, if not impossible, to publish such a book when I was in Syria, because of censorship by the regime and suppression. I met Khalil Mustafa Barayyiz, who was arrested because of his book The Fall of the Golan Heights. He was released after spending twenty-eight years in prison. I had a chance to write this book once I was outside Syria. I began thinking about Syrian history and participating in writing history from below when I moved to Dubai, but I began writing this book seriously when I came to Canada.

LB: Share with us your driving force.  What is that special energy that encourages you to be a writer?

JS: Reading books, as a child and teenager, sparked a dream to be a writer. I thought of rediscovering the world through writing, and I began to think that I had to capture the core of things. I was about twenty when I realised there was a strong relationship between writing, on the one hand, and love, justice, freedom, and beauty, on the other. These things I caught from the environment I lived in; they made me a writer. I thought at the beginning that the writer is the one who can arrange and rearrange his own spirit, and this arrangement enables him to help others to engineer their own inner worlds and dreams. One more thing gave me energy: the reaction to my writings of the people around me. For example, my prison cellmates encouraged me so much to write poems and short stories. I still remember some of their phrases, such as: “You are our memory.” And I must mention the great encouragement of Antun Maqdisi, a major Syrian intellectual, who asked me not to stop writing. “You’ll be to Syria,” he said, “what Maupassant was to France.”

LB: We know that words have power.  When were you first aware that your ability to write could be transformative?

JS: It was in high school; I was sixteen when our teacher asked us to write three-hundred words about whatever we wanted. I wrote about the way my great-grandmother danced during the wedding party of my uncle Salman, her grandson. I remember a few things I wrote: She began her dance as a poplar tree, her hands were distributing her happiness to the attendants who were applauding enthusiastically, and she moved as if she were flying. I felt the earth become a sky, where the dancer was moving.  On hearing what I had written, some students were astonished, and others argued that what I wrote didn’t convey a real photographic image. The teacher asked me to say something in response to those who had criticized me, and I told them that they were right. But I didn’t want my words to be photographic. I’d wanted the words to be like making a painting.  That long conversation about what I wrote in the class, and the words of our teacher, made me think about the effect of my words. 

LB: If you had to choose one book that has influenced your writing life, what would that book be and how did it influence you?

JS: One of the books that influenced my writing is The Thousand and One Nights, also called The Arabian NightsAlf laylah wa laylah, in Arabic. This book is a school of narration. I was influenced by the way the imagined world was mixed smoothly with the real one. This mixture was introduced in a creative way that helped the reader to see the ideas the narrator wanted to deliver, through the development of action.  One more thing I admired about the book is that the stories are generated from each other, and all the stories serve the main-frame story. The book includes many folk tales derived from different civilizations. And it includes many poems as well. The structure of the book and the fluid gathering together of these things is stunning. 

LB: What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have ever been given?

JS: I’m not going to forget what the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous said to me during our many chats:

In literature, no serious book should be considered as an alternative to another.  Reading Shakespeare is not a substitute for reading Dostoevsky. Respect the cleverness of the reader, and be the first critic of your own book, before pushing it to the publisher. If there is a book you think is the best, ask yourself if it might be better. My own response is: Yes, every book can be better. If you do not read books with a critical eye, you may be stunned, but you will be sterile, unable to evaluate them or even praise them for what they really deserve.

LB: If you could spend a full day with a famous writer or a famous character who would it be and why?

JS: One of the writers I’d like to spend more than a day with is Mario Vargas Llosa. I want to complete the discussion he began with Octavio Paz. Their debate — on freedom and social justice in the contemporary world — pushed me to develop my own ideas. I have many questions about the way Vargas Llosa built his novels. I’d like to chat with him for a while about his novel, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, and I’d like to hear his thoughts on the magic realism wave, and to know what he thinks of the work of some writers, such as William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, James Baldwin, Tony Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Miguel de Cervantes, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Juan Rulfo, and others. We might chat about Vargas Llosa’s own journey from Peru to western Europe.

LB: If you were to give a young writer a piece of crucial writing advice, what would that be?

JS: Your own experience offers many subjects to write about, and you know these things better than any other person. Reading and knowledge are good, especially when you read with a critical eye. It helps when you know why and how writers constructed their masterpieces, or why specific writers failed.  The best thing is to know how to be yourself and how to use and develop your own voice, vision, style, etc. Learn as much as you can about serious theories and bits of advice about writing, then forget them all and obey your own.

Jamal Saeed spent twelve years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada in 2016. He continues to raise awareness about Syria’s ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis through his work as an activist, editor, visual artist, and author. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.