Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The freedom of speech and the importance of writing

The freedom of speech
and the importance of writing

If you walk towards the center of the small Roman amphitheater on the edge of the site of Byblos castle, the sound of crunching gravel beneath your feet is suddenly amplified. This feat of engineering was mastered thousands of years ago, using stone and space to raise the voice of a speaker addressing a crowd. An adaption of the Greek play Antigone by Sophocles was performed at the Byblos International Festival last month, so the play was on my mind as I explored the ancient ruins. Antigone tells the tragic tale of a young woman who stands up to her uncle, an oppressive king who denies her the right to bury her dead brother, a man who has been named a traitor. I saw the play performed for the first time six years ago, in Mumbai, India, with my great aunt Dina, and have never been able to forget this line: 

'Oh, it's terrible when the one who does the judging judges things all wrong.'

As I start to investigate the literary culture here in Lebanon and learn more about the stories and influences at work, I am discovering some beautiful writing. The words of Kahlil Gibran, for example.

'I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.'

Amin Maalouf is one of Lebanon's most revered writers today, perhaps best known for his novel, Samarkand, a work that explores the story of the famed poet, Omar Khayyam. One passage in the book has always struck me as particularly powerful. The qadi (ruler) of Samarkand, Abu Taher, hands Omar a precious book he has had made especially for him, saying

'I had a brother, ten years older than I. He died when he was as old as you. He had been banished to Balkh for having written a poem which displeased the ruler of the time. He was accused of formenting heresy. I don't know if that was true, but I resent my brother for having wasted his life on a poem, a miserable poem, hardly longer than a rubai.'
His voice shook, and he went on breathlessly.
'Keep this book. Whenever a verse takes place in your mind, or is on the tip of your tongue, just hold it back. Write it down on these sheets, which will stay hidden, and as you write think of Abu Taher.'
Did the qadi know that with that gesture and those words he was giving birth to one of the best-kept secrets in the history of literature, and that the world would have to wait eight centuries to discover the sublime poetry of Omar Khayyam, for the Rubaiyat to be revered as one of the most original works of all time even before the strange fate of the Samarkand manuscript was known?

A friend gave me a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam a few years ago and the beautiful verse left me with lines I will never forget; drink wine, he says, and be happy for this moment for this moment is your life. Maalouf's imagining of the poet's life in Samarkand has been praised by critics for subtly drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty power struggles of one thousand years ago and today, where sectarian violence continues to silence voices and drive nations apart. 

As we walked by the sea a few weeks back, a Syrian friend asked for my advice on how to write something about her experiences in Damascus before she fled the capital in 2012. She wanted to write her story and the stories of her friends, but was afraid of what might happen to her if she published, even under a pseudonym. I heard myself saying something similar to what the qadi had said to Omar Khayyam in Maalouf's novel. I advised her to write whatever she wanted to write, but to write without the intention of showing it to anyone at first. She could send her writing to a friend, or keep it to herself, something secret to work on and build over time. Perhaps in time she will feel confident to share what she has written, or perhaps her words will remain, like so many, unspoken. 

What was most important was that if she felt a story inside her, she should write it for her, regardless of who, if anyone, would read it. As the late Maya Angelou wrote, 'there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.'

A new anthology of self-expression has been released in the UK called Syria Speaks, I'm looking forward to having a look when I'm back on the island. If you're interested, you can find a copy or ask your library to order one in from Saqi Books, London, here.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks for writing. I think I will ask my library to do just that. :)

  2. Thank you, Helen. You always bring peace to my mind when you write. I have just finished reading The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, it is all about the power of words, particularly of those that shout the loudest and talk the most, but they always seem to be the wrong words. All the quotes you have included in this post are intertwined with this. I have been despairing of the circular motion of intolerance, poverty and injustice throughout the past, present and the future, this post has made me think more clearly about it. Lots of love xx