‘Imaginary Worlds’ in conversation with Sanna Aoun

Sanna Aoun – a Syrian writer who is currently living in refuge in Norway – is one of the writers adding her voice to the Make Space campaign. Before moving to Norway, Sanna worked as an author, journalist, and teacher in Syria. Here - in this interview originally printed in the TLS - she speaks to Sarah Perry & Basim Mardan. 'I belong to Syria, a country that for centuries has known no real stability. Even during periods of relative political calm, there has been much anger and frustration growing steadily and quietly behind the scenes. Readers of Arabic literature, and Syrian literature in particular, will often notice a certain tension in the works. Themes of violence, dictatorship, extremism and personal freedom are presented in the books as day-to-day realities. The life I have been living over the past couple of years has become the source for hundreds of stories, which in turn have become the place in which I try to explore the many questions that only literature can ask. Syria today is a political and social failure. In such situations literature – especially novels – emerges as a means of reviewing our political life and our history, to help us realize where we went wrong, what needs to be replaced and ultimately what needs to be mended. Literature provides a portrait of life, of people and places, and this is especially important in a place where dictatorships try to keep everything hidden. That said, I never thought I would have to leave Syria. Even during the war, because of the conditions – the spreading ignorance, the deep-rooted corruption and oppression – my humble job as a school teacher became a sacred duty. I remember once I was teaching my students to plant trees in the school garden, while jet fighters were bombing the area. After a time, it felt as if hope had fled Syria, and I found myself paralysed. I was afraid of writing any article signed with my real name. I would write without publishing my articles. The possibility of death was greater than that of living, and all the time I was afraid of getting captured and imprisoned, of losing the sustenance of life: water, electricity, fuel and bread. All these problems together made my staying in Syria impossible. When I arrived in snowy Tromso, I was struck by the warmth of the people and their hospitality. Of course I miss my friends. I didn’t lose friends just because I fled Syria. I started losing friends while I was still there. Some of them were killed; others were imprisoned under secretive conditions. The Syrian regime is almost unique when it comes to its treatment of prisoners. But in Tromso, although I was far away from home, I discovered that the cold North allowed me to write freely again. It is a strange place for me, but I’ve started to love this strangeness, and I’ve begun to feel that I belong here. I’m used to experiencing four seasons; here, there are only two. To me, this seems an imaginary world – similar, in fact, to the world of writing.  I see Tromso in a poetic way; for me it is the place where winter is made – the factory of winter for the whole world. Arabic is a poetic language. The sounds of its words seem somehow related to its meanings. Poetry and the musicality of its language have always been of significance in classical Arabic culture. Since I principally write short stories, I don’t think that the tonality of the words in my work plays as important a role as the narration itself. Yet plot, character and events can cohere to form a distinct harmony of their own. I cannot remember the moment I began writing. There is a time when we find ourselves fully aware of the surrounding world – a kind of rebirth. There is a comparable moment in relation to writing: we become aware that it is an integral part of us. I write about mothers who have lost their sons and daughters; I write about girls whose dreams are curbed. My texts are preoccupied with political questions, and I am obsessed with recounting the quotidian stories of ordinary people who face war and death through no fault of their own. I write mostly about women, and most of my short stories are about them and dedicated to them. Even when I write about humans in general, I do so through the eyes of women. The women of my region are my concern mainly because I am one of them. The recent growth of violence in Syria has doubled their suffering. The Syrian regime and religious extremists, who violate them physically and morally, have imprisoned too many women. And even for the Syrian women who escape to neighbouring countries, many are abused by sex traffickers and corruption. My role in telling people’s stories is distanced from overt questions of politics and conflict. For example, in one of my short stories I describe a bookshop and its owner during peaceful conditions and then at war. Eventually the bookshop closes dramatically because of the regime and the Islamic groups. The story, though, is told through the owner’s perspective, focusing on the moral transformations that take place as a result of political and social collapse. The bookshop is a reflection of our collective humanity. Of course, there is harmful writing that spreads widely during all political crises. This kind of writing links literature to ideology and turns it into a battlefield. One of my duties is to challenge it. Literature and all the arts play a role in facing up to oppression whether political, religious or social. My relationship with writing started at the moment I started to express myself through language. I gradually reached the point where writing was the only thing that kept me balanced and sane. It allows me to compensate for my losses and widen my personal space. It allows me to do what I can’t do in reality.' Sanna Aoun’s new play is in development and will be staged by Halogoland Teater next year. The process will be followed by PEN’s Make Space campaign.