The Silence and the Roar
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
Published in English March 5, 2013
154 pages (paperback)
In the heartbreaking afterword written for the English translation of this book, author Nihad Sirees closes by saying, “As I present my novel to the English reader, my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” Sirees has been in self-imposed exile from Syria since 2012 due to personal and political harassment. This novel, which was translated into English just two years ago, was originally published in Arabic in 2004, and has been banned in Syria for years.
Do a Google images or news search for Aleppo, the city where Sirees was born, and you will be bombarded with photos and articles that are evidence of a decade’s worth of devastation and destruction. Daily, stories out of Syria prove that it continues to be shattered by war, rebels (like ISIS), and rocket fire.
The Silence and the Roar is set in a Middle Eastern Country whose precise location is never named. But, not surprisingly, it feels strikingly similar to Sirees’ home country. Needless to say, this diminutive novel is not light reading.
The book, a day-in-the-life of Fathi Sheen, is a parable about life in this unnamed Middle Eastern country. The citizens are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the reigning tyrant, referred to only as “the Leader.”
As the title suggests, the book explores the contrast between the simultaneous silence and roar imposed by a despotic regime. The silence refers to censorship, imprisonment, or even death. In contrast, the roar is the noise of ardor and forced fervor, chants and megaphones (“Thought is retribution, a crime, treason against the Leader. And insofar as calm and tranquility can incite a person to think, it is essential to drag out the masses to these roaring marches every once in a while to brainwash them and keep them from committing the crime of thought. What else could be the point of all that noise?”).
As Sirees explains in his afterword:
In countries ruled by people obsessed with supremacy, authoritarians and those who are crazed by power, the ruler or the leader imposes silence upon all those who dare to think outside the prevailing norm. Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications, as is the case with Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of this novel. Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave.
But this silence is also accompanied by an expansive roar, one that renders thought impossible. Thought leads to individualization, which is the most powerful enemy of the dictator. People must not think about the leader and how he runs the country; they must simply adore him, want to die for him in their adoration of him. Therefore, the leader creates a roar all around him, forcing people to celebrate him, to roar.
It is no surprise, of course, that when given the choice between the two terrible sides of despotism, Fathi chooses silence. His television program about authors has been cancelled (for his refusal to do a writing contest celebrating the Leader). His writings have been banned. He is out of work. He is harassed for his failure to participate in the anniversary marches. And he is suffering from “a continuous state of unhappiness or self-loathing” as he attempts to escape the roar.
I’ve managed to make this book sound awfully dark . . . and rightly so. But, even at only 154 pages, a book that handled this subject matter in a totally straight-forward manner could be a bit too heavy to handle. What makes this book so strong and so successful, however, is that it relies on humor to tell Fathi’s tale. Fathi is able to fend off the despot’s roar because he relies on laughter and love (and sex) to get him through the worst of times.
“Give me a name for what’s going on here,” someone begs Fathi, seeking to make sense of the world in which they’re living, a world where “human beings have absolutely no value whatsoever.” The word that springs to Fathi’s mind is Surrealism. Sirees recognizes the horribly ridiculous and unbelievable nature of the world in which Fathi is living. He acknowledges many different coping mechanisms (like Fathi’s sister’s method of being “a dummy among dummies”), but ultimately he shows us that “love and peace are the right way to confront tyranny.” He allows Fathi to exhibit strength in the face of this Surrealism—not physical strength or violence, mind you, but mental strength. It is a powerful book with a powerful message.
I often praise non-fiction books that read like fiction. On the flip side, fictional books that have the power to educate like non-fiction are equally laudable. And this book certainly falls into the latter category.
Who should read it: Fans of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman will like this book, too. It has a similar, character-driven vibe (not a lot of plot) and is a very unique look at a foreign and frightening world/regime.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- A Man Called Ove (Winner of the 2014 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award; Booklist starred review; Publishers Weekly starred review) and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (an Indie Next List pick for July 2015; a June 2015 LibraryReads List selection) by Fredrik Backman
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (a Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel in 2012; a Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee in 2014; an Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee in 2015)