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With its benches in the shade of the tall linden or mulberry trees and its blooming roses, the readers’ garden in the town of Qamishlo in Northern Syria’s Rojava offers a cool and pleasant oasis away from the town’s dust and heat. In one corner, a glassed-in building serves as a venue for literary discussions or book presentations. Next to it, a small library-book store offers a choice of locally published works amateurs may buy or read in situ. Considerations on the place of the Arts in society, and notably that of literature, has not escaped the ongoing political process in the areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. Thus, a literature committee was created, next to Siler, a publishing house, adjoining the Amara bookstore, the readers’ garden and a translation center, in order to promote literary creativity..
“Prior to the revolution, writers could not talk, they did not have a voice”, explains heval Berxwedan, a poet and coordinator of the literature committee. Under the Baathist regime, censorship was a common occurrence. Kurdish literature was prohibited as was the expression of any dissenting voice. “Following the revolution, there were more readers and a Writers’ Union was created. Now, we are free to write, we can even criticize.” The committee attempts to encourage writing by the greater number. “Even if quality was sometimes insufficient at first, we published the works nonetheless. We are now more demanding. The committee reads the works offered to it and writes a report with suggestions to the author for improvements, if need be. For the reading committe, what matters most is that the work be comprehensible. They attempt to put the authors at ease and not be too demanding concerning grammar. The Kurdish language is a rich one, and time is reauired to attain a standard.” This is not a censorship body for all that. Its members declare a writer may very well decide to publish independently.
“We are independent from the Autonomous Administration”, insist Nariman Evdikê, Botan, Zara , all three of them members of the literature committee, created in 2016. Nariman and Botan are authors, Zara is a literary critic. They studied literature and taught at Qamishlo University in the department of literature, Kurdish language or of jineology. Any writer requesting it may join the committee. In Qamishlo proper, the committee consists of four to ten members, but others are present in various towns in zones under the control of the Autonomous Administration. The structure works with several publishing houses, such as Siler. A commission is in charge of studying books written in Kurdish and another for those written in Arabic. “If there were any books in Syriac, there would also be a committee for that language,” Botan specifies. Six or seven persons read the work, taking note of its positive and negative aspects and write a report for the author who can then improve his or her writing. If the book is not at a level sufficient for publication, they encourage the writer to revise it. And if they do not feel comfortable with a work, they do not publish it at Siler. When a work is published by Siler, all costs are covered.
“The majority of the committee is made up of women and attempts to increase the standing of works by female authors who represent approximately 40% of the manuscripts we receive,” Nariman explains. Female writers are under a number of pressures. For this reason, the committee members attempt to accompany them more in the writing process. An author herself since the age of fourteen, Nariman is cognizant of these difficulties. After studying literature in Diyarbakir and returning to her native town of Sere Kaniye in 2016, the young woman explains: “All women involved in a literary activity have many things to narrate and write, but they need sufficient time for this. They are afraid because of social pressure, criticism from others and notably from men who attempt to discourage them, to bring them down. So they take the time to write solid things. There are also subjects difficult to write about for women: love and sexual relationships; certain political topics; religion. A man, on the other hand, will write on these topics with greater ease and will be better tolerated.” Zara adds: “This is also true for women artists in general. A woman painter, for example, could not paint a mother breast feeding her child, whereas a man could.” Nariman adds: “There are at least ten different stories to write about her, every day. What you wish to take hold of as a writer depends on you.” Her latest work “Berberoj” is a collection of words from young female fighters from her native town, mutilated during the fighting against the Jihadists in 2013. In it, she lets them tell their stories, their dreams and why they chose to fight in Rojava in a war for which none was truly ready.
For the committee, what matters is for literature to be connected with society. “The language reflects the beauty of the people. Literature is a means through which to advance society in the service of the people, language is just a vector”, says Berxwedan. In order to explain under which criteria a book might be turned down, he gives the polemical example of a book that would attack God or religion directly with crude language. In his opinion, society in its current phase would not be ready to accept such literature, and therefore, the committee would not defend it. However, a surrealistic writer such as Helim Yusef is well received by the population and so his books are published.
“We are involved in a revolution in Rojava, and so we need a revolutionary literature”, Berxwedan explains. “No matter in what language. Cultures, languages, history form the basis of a society’s existence. In a democratic nation, everyone must find a place. Each person must be allowed to live his or her culture. We do not want a single mould, everyone must write as he or she wishes, while respecting the society’s values. The revolution is built by the people and it has allowed a space for individual expression, including on religion, up to a certain point. We try to give writers the space in which they feel themselves a part of society, in order to express the voices of the people. Because if there is a gap between the population and intellectuals, the latter can become selfish, distant. Our writers’ possibilities are sometimes limited but we attempt to help them because literature helps the people. We want to raise the level, for people to read more and educate themselves. We want to make them free.”
The Siler publishing house began its activities in 2016-2017 and has since published approximately 300 works in a number of genres. Press runs are usually between 500 and 3 000 copies. If only 25 books came off the presses in the first year, there were over one hundred last year, testifying to the development and liveliness of publishing in Northern Syria. More than half of the works published by Siler are in Kurdish. The publishing house does not have as a mission to turn a profit. It sells its books at low cost to keep them accessible and often goes as far as giving them away for centers, associations… The embargo that weighs on the Autonomous Administration from hostile neighbors sometimes puts a limit on printing resources, parts for machines, tools and even paper, at times. Siler now wants to publish books translated from other languages into Kurdish. The first will be a work by Murray Bookchin, currently under press. Bakunin will be part of the lot as will be Yuval Noah Harari. There are also translations of Arabic works into Kurdish and from soranî into kurmancî. Siler is in contact with publishing houses in Bashur, in Europe, in Damascus… But in order to further develop publishing activities, the creation of a publishing house officially recognized by the Syrian regime is under consideration. This would allow for distribution through the country and at the international level.
Book distriubtion in Qamishlo is done notably thanks to the Amara book store which opened in October 2018. It sells books of course, but also fulfils the role of a library allowing for borrowing or consultation on the premises. People go there in order to read in a quiet environment, but also in order to meet, discuss their readings…Students find resources there. The shelves offer a large variety of books in different areas. Dilivin Tobal is one of the librarians. Arrived from Efrîn following the Turkish attack in 2018, she started working there from its opening. According to her, the books most in demand are philosophy, novels, but also language methods for Kurdish and foreign languages. The bookstore/library has incurred a debt of $60 000 for the purchase of books and sales do not compensate the investment for their acquisition.
Heval Berxwedan remains optimistic, despite everything. “In former times, the people, society, did not write its own history, the elites handled this since the government forbade it. We want people free to write their own history on their own,” he says in conclusion.
Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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