R. Shareah Taleghani, Readings in Syrian Prison Literature: The Poetics of Human Rights (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
R. Shareah Taleghani (RST): Although I was originally planning another topic for my dissertation, I had taken a seminar on Arabic prison literature and also became involved in a collective project to translate Faraj Bayraqdar’s poetry collection Dove in Free Flight. I became interested in the topic as I read more works written by authors who had endured and survived detention in Syria. I also had the opportunity to meet with several writers who very kindly and generously answered my questions and provided me with copies of their writings (before digital publishing was prevalent). In large part, I wrote this book because I found these texts, and the life stories of the writers powerful, inspiring, and moving.
I had also always had an interest in human rights issues, including detention, particularly in Iran where part of my family is from, and as a high school student and undergraduate, I had originally thought of becoming a human rights activist or lawyer. Yet, I also developed an awareness of the critiques of human rights, especially the US government’s exploitation and manipulation of the language of human rights, and the human rights regime that was even more blatantly apparent in the early 2000s in the massively destructive and lethal trajectory of the so-called “war on terror.” At the time, there was not much scholarly work in English on Syrian “prison literature” or “prison writing” (the terms are problematic ones as I discuss in my book)—just a few articles, including those by Miriam Cooke and Isabella D’Afflitto. Also, very little of the literature had been translated into English. In the process of writing the book, I also drew inspiration from other scholars’ work, such as Alexandra Moore and Joseph Slaughter, on the relationship between literature and human rights or the humanities and human rights that developed in the US academe in recognition of US human rights violations in the aftermath of 9/11, as well as US-based critical carceral studies. In the process of my research, I found that Arab literary critics had made this connection between literature about prison and human rights discourse much earlier than the post-9/11 emergence of the subfield of literature and human rights in the United States.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RST: Using an interdisciplinary approach, my book focuses on works of literature produced in, about, and through the experience of detention in Syria from 1970 to 2015. It analyzes the intersections of prison narratives, political opposition, Arabic literary experimentalism, and global human rights discourse. I provide a series of close readings of literary texts in tandem with human rights reportage. Rather than focusing on how such texts act as a literature of witnessing or counter-history (and, of course, it can and should be read as such), my study examines how particular works of prison literature both echo and challenge the generic conventions and limitations of human rights discourse. It also explores the ways in which individual authors experiment with literary form to depict the experience of detention and the detainee as a speaking subject. The book is organized thematically, with chapters on the genre of prison literature as a problematic construction, vulnerability and recognition, representations of torture, depictions of prison space and life, and the relationship between carceral metafiction and exile. There is also a separate chapter on the notorious Tadmur Military Prison.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RST: Generally, much of my research has centered on examining the intersections of political opposition and dissent, forms of cultural production, and aesthetics. While my other work does not really address how forms of cultural production relate to human rights discourse, I have always been interested in exploring how particular cultural producers and dissidents generate creative interventions against regimes of power through their artistic works.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RST: It is my hope that the book will reach both an academic and more general audience—particularly those with an interest in Syria and the culture and the history of political dissent there. I would like for it to be read by students and scholars interested in modern Syrian and Arabic literature and cultural production, comparative literature, and the subfield of literature and human rights, as well as critical carceral studies. I also hope it will be read by those who have an interest in politics and cultural production in the Middle East generally and Syria in particular. I plan to publish an Arabic translation of it as soon as possible. Because it addresses a limited number of texts in a vast body of literature produced by detainees in Syria in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I hope that it sparks more interest in the topic, more studies of these works, and more translations into English of these texts, especially since so few have been translated so far.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RST: Currently, I am finalizing a co-edited and co-translated collection of poetry by Faraj Bayraqdar’s Dove in Free Flight, which will hopefully be out in the winter or spring of 2021. A colleague and I are also planning a special issue for CLC Web Comparative Literature and Culture on humor and the absurd in Middle Eastern cultural production. In my new larger research project, I am returning to the topic of my master’s thesis, and I am focusing on examining the intersections of satire, nostalgia, and dissent in works of Middle Eastern cultural production—not just literature, but also film and drama. I want to explore how particular works fuse satire with a nostalgic rather than utopian impulse.
J: Why do you use the terms “Readings” and the “Poetics of Human Rights” in the title?
RST: First, with the term “readings” I wanted to convey the sense that the focus of the book is precisely that—a series of readings and textual/thematic analyses of particular works of literature about prison. In the introduction, I point out that the book is not intended to be a history of Syrian prisons, human rights movements in Syria, oral histories of former prisoners of conscience, or the autobiographies of very important figures in the Syrian opposition and human rights movements. All of those are very important topics, and while many of them have been the focus of critical study in Arabic, the field of Syria studies in English is still very small. Additionally, the book only addresses a limited set of texts in a vast and varying body of literature that can be approached and read through many different angles and viewpoints. In using the phrase “poetics of human rights,” I wanted to indicate the connection between these works of literature and human rights, but also evoke “poetics” in the sense of a systematic study of literature, as well as the notion of understanding how texts achieve certain effects on readers.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5: “On the ‘Kingdom of Death and Madness:’ Sousveillance and Surrealism in Tadmur Military Prison”)
Several organizations, from Human Rights Watch to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, have made Tadmur Military Prison the subject of special reports since the early 1990s. These reports follow the conventional patterns of the human rights reportage. Using as much verifiable detail as possible, drawn from mostly (and necessarily) anonymous witnesses, these reports document, chart, measure, and map the total number of prisoners held, their names and ideological or party affiliations when available, and the official length of their sentences. They also describe the measurable structures and architecture of the prison; the size and specific numbers of detainees crammed into overcrowded communal cells, where prisoners are forced to take turns standing, sitting, or sleeping sword-style due to lack of space; the lack of food to the point of starvation; the horrendous conditions prisoners live under, including poor sanitation and freezing and blisteringly hot temperatures; the rapid and deadly spread of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera; the myriad forms of daily torture improvised by guards; and the number of prisoners killed in a given time period—whether arbitrarily through torture or by execution. Most of these conditions have existed at other prisons in Syria, but at Tadmur they were more frequent, more systematic, more intense, and more lethal than at any other prison until its reported closure in 2001. Now, after the 2011 Revolution, Tadmur Military Prison’s notoriety has been surpassed by that of Saydnaya and other detention centers.
In the same way that it has been the distinctive concern of human rights organizations, Tadmur Military Prison occupies a haunting, nearly mythical position in Syrian prison literature, much like that of Abu Ghrayb in Iraqi prison literature. Tadmur’s infamy is highlighted by the common saying: “The one who enters it dies, and the one who leaves it is reborn.” As al-Haj Saleh writes: “Let us imagine a prison without visits, without books and pens, without means of entertainment and without ‘tools of production’ of any sort, without domestic facilities—kitchen fixtures, stoves—without hot water . . . just a closed place that doesn’t open up except for food and . . . punishment. That is Tadmur prison: the Syrian shame that is indelible. In this prison, time does not pass. It accumulates over the prisoners and suffocates them.”
Other former detainees echo al-Haj Saleh in the numerous memoirs composed about the prison, in addition to essays, novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. They continue to publish works even now, with some who were detained there in the 1980s and 1990s being motivated to tell or publicly circulate their stories since the 2011 Revolution. Though much of the writing produced about Tadmur shares traits in content and form with texts about other prisons in Syria and the Arab world, the literature about the prison is unique not only in its emphasis on the level of the state’s grotesque acts of depravity perpetrated against detainees there, but also in its reflections on the incomprehensibility of, absurdity of, and difficulty of describing of such acts. Authors of such works are generating a body of testimonial literature and producing a collectively written, mosaic-like history of the prison. They are also making Tadmur Military Prison and the forms of suffering they endured there visible to their reading publics, an act and process that have become even more imperative in light of the prison’s alleged destruction by Da‘ish and the fact that the Asad regime has retaken the city of Tadmur and remains firmly entrenched in power.
But how, then, do former detainees make Tadmur visible? How do they reconstruct and revisualize their experiences of surviving the prison? In writing of their own and others’ survival in detention, how do they see the prison and how do they make it seen for their audiences? These questions are complicated by the fact that in Tadmur, as in other prisons, making oneself visible meant making oneself vulnerable, with often lethal consequences. Prisoners were under constant surveillance and threat of torture and death, in addition to being confined in the same dark, usually windowless cells for years. They were often forced to wear blindfolds or hoods, including when they slept. When in the yards, they were also consistently ordered to keep their heads bowed in a display of abject submission and humility, including when they were forced into stress positions for hours at a time. Guards forbade them to glance around their environment or to look up unless specifically ordered to. For prisoners to dare to meet the eyes of their jailers and torturers, to peer around them, or to stand out in any way meant risking becoming marked (mu‘allam) for additional brutal punishments by the guards. Being marked would result in, at the very least, some form of degrading or excruciating physical torture and, at the very worst, being tortured to death. As Bayraqdar notes of his experiences at Tadmur, “To raise your eyes would be to raise your own casket and prepare to march at the front of the funeral.” In some prisoners’ descriptions of their inability to see and their constant awareness of being under the guards’ unending visual and aural scrutiny, the system of discipline and punishment at Tadmur enacts a kind of panopticism, albeit with variations, especially the incorporation of the daily physical torture inflicted on prisoners. Under persistent threat of death, Tadmur prisoners were ordered not to look in certain directions and not to speak, and such commands would diminish the detainees’ agency and subjectivity, especially considering the fact that vision is of “central importance for an inmate’s attempt to ‘make space’ within the prison environment.”
Despite all of the limitations on prisoners’ field of vision, most authors describe the physical structures of the prison, or at least the parts of the prison they encounter in visual terms during their detention. Especially in nonfiction works, authors such as Muhammad Salim Hammad, Bara Sarraj, Ali Abou Dehn (‘Ali Abu Dahn), and Khalid Fadil describe the spaces they are forced to dwell in with minute detail and exact measurements, much like the documentary style of human rights reports. Yet once writers have described the physical attributes of the parts of the compound they have seen, usually upon their entry, the material, architectural spaces of Tadmur Military Prison are effaced, except for brief references. Authors of the prison literature about Tadmur document everything from obscene acts of torture, to the names and numbers of those executed, to the consistent, often minute forms of resistance they enact. They describe the emotional ties they establish with one another, and the multiple ways prisoners created to survive despite the harsh regime of the prison indicating “how people cope, how they carve out spaces for themselves in the space of the prison,” even in a site of extreme deprivation and violence, like the desert prison. For other writers, making Tadmur visible for their audience means inaugurating and inscribing a mode of countersurveillance or sousveillance, like the “hidden observer” protagonist of Mustafa Khalifa’s novel The Shell (al-Qawqa’a, 2008). At the same time, there are those, such as Bayraqdar in his memoir, The Betrayals of Language and Silence (Khiyanat al-Lugha wa-l-Samt, 2006) who make Tadmur visible by interrogating the possibility of ever fully capturing what he and others experienced there.