In the middle section of Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s mesmerizing five-part video We Will Live to See These Things, or, Five Pictures of What May Come to Pass (2007), a well-known Syrian dissident speaks with glinting precision about the experience of living and thinking under the blunt weight of a despotic state. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a journalist and life-long political activist, likens the experience not only to a struggle but also to the creation of a vital space ‘inside the conscience or the heart of every one of us, especially people who have been subject to a deliberate, crushing trial’.
Haj Saleh knows that last point all too well. When he was 20, studying medicine in Aleppo, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for being a member of a communist party. He served them all, plus one more, in a prison in Palmyra known for extreme torture. He emerged with a belief in two things: human dignity and justice.
Haj Saleh is now 52 and has never held a passport; in 2004, he was barred from ever leaving the country. When We Will Live to See These Things was made, the regime in Syria had put him under such heavy scrutiny that Meltzer and Thorne worried about naming him as a subject of their film. More recently, Haj Saleh has been described as the ‘wise man’ of the Syrian revolution, itself a speculative endeavour co-existing with an ever-more gruesome civil war. He is still in Damascus but has gone into hiding. He writes prolifically – weekly newspaper columns, essays on the intricacies of the regime’s armed thugs, or shabiha, books about his time in prison that are still untranslated. What is incredible about hearing Haj Saleh speak is the buoyancy of his ideas, language and tone. He sounds genuinely, astonishingly, happy to wrestle the meaning of freedom into words, and to find forms adequate to express the effort, the outcome and the toll. ‘Still I find some hard pleasure living under such a regime’, he says in the film: ‘Only he who is denied freedom knows its value.’
We Will Live to See These Things endures not only as a serious document capturing the dark mood of a particular time and place: it belongs to a small but strong collection of films and videos that test out the lift and drag of a narrative far more common to literature than contemporary art, at least in the Middle East.
The Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdallah has made two highly experimental but slightly haphazard documentaries – I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave (2006), co-authored by the artist Ammar al-Beik, and As if We Were Catching a Cobra (2012) – that capture the experiences of political prisoners in Syria, from the artist Youssef Abdelke to the novelist Samar Yazbek. In Turkey, Gülsün Karamustafa’s Making of the Wall (2003) covers similar ground, with a feminist turn. Works exploring the structures of confinement and claustrophobia in more metaphoric and allegorical terms include: Sherif El Azma’s Rice City (2010); Hassan Khan’s The Hidden Location (2004); and Rabih Mroué’s Looking for a Missing Employee (2003).
But the heavyweights are literary, as embodied by Abdel Rahman Munif’s quintessential prison narrative, East of the Mediterranean (1975), about a young man broken by years of torture in a tyrannical (but unnamed) Arab state (‘A human being in the lands east of the Mediterranean is cheaper than anything,’ Munif famously wrote, ‘and a cigarette stub has more value than him.’) There is something deeply unsettling about the fact that the greatest achievement of modern Arab literature is a genre of fiction about men who are thrown behind bars for their political opinions. There is also something suspiciously tempting about reading topical politics into the recent push to move Arab prison fiction into mainstream circulation. Among several other books, this year has seen a new translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1966 masterpiece That Smell (re-released this spring, in a volume with Notes from Prison); and an English translation of Nihad Sirees’s 2004 novel The Silence and the Roar, about a dictator’s attempt to bear down and co-opt a young, brash writer who resists.
But there may be something more to this. The novel in Arabic is still relatively young, dating back to the late 19th century. In his book of essays The Author and His Doubles (2001), the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito suggests that the classical forms of Arabic literature were identified by genre rather than writer, so the texts were often composed collectively rather than individually (with plenty of plagiarism, appropriation and theft along the way). What is intriguing about the advent of prison fiction is the long arc it takes back to that promise of a shared art. In Ibrahim’s That Smell, a man reacquaints himself with Cairo after a brutal incarceration. But the writer’s Notes from Prison offer a luminous account of how the book was made – in dialogue with others artists, disciplines and sensibilities. Ibrahim’s notes on Surrealism, abstraction, colour theory and form clearly sustained him and gave him the solace of knowing he was not alone. At a time when artists and writers have been marginalized from political life and cut off from one another, we might learn something from that ferment of imagination in the most inhospitable of conditions.