The Luxury to Express One’s Feelings: An Interview with Housam Al-Mosilli

by    /  April 24, 2017  / Comments Off on The Luxury to Express One’s Feelings: An Interview with Housam Al-Mosilli

It’s interesting to think about self-expression as a luxury, because I think a lot of people who haven’t lived through a war or under oppressive circumstances don’t think about that as a luxury. What story or stories do you hope to tell with your writing? Has that message and story changed since leaving Syria and having more freedom to write? 

I was planning on writing about myself– my dreams, my passions– but the war put me in a place where I felt responsible to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. I cannot talk about myself only, my country, and my friends, because of the situation.

I’m trying to tell people that we Syrians are ordinary people. We have our dreams, our love stories, our careers, our hobbies; we do not deserve to have a war. Nobody deserves to have a war. Especially now that we think that the civilization has really advanced and we are planning on moving to Mars. We still have some essential and basic things we could improve and change. And this is what is happening in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. There’s a lot of ignorance.

Sometimes I can justify this ignorance because I think that if Syrians did not have a war, we would have the same ignorance. Most of the people in Syria do not care about what’s happening in other places in the world. This is not the fault of Europeans or Americans, or the Western world or the “Free World.” But still, I want to tell people that they need to rethink what is happening in Syria and about how evil can affect humanity. If we want to advance, we should get rid of evil and war. We cannot keep going to work when there are still people being killed or forced to flee their homes.

This message was enhanced by my leaving Syria. I gained some more information and resources that can justify for me what is happening in terms of the war. In terms of humanity and evil, nothing has changed. 

What circumstances were you in when you wrote your poem “Diary of the Silent”? Are those circumstances reflected anywhere in the poem?

I wrote “Diary of the Silent” in more than one place. I wrote some of it in Egypt and some of it in Turkey. It wasn’t very good circumstances of course– a lot of things were happening in Syria and I was still blaming myself for leaving my country. I always wanted to go back. I was always trying to tell people the truth. The truth was my feelings. My family was still in danger in Damascus and nobody wanted to hear that or hear what they wanted.

I remember I was thinking about a lot of stories that faced me when I was imprisoned in Syria. Even when we speak, nobody wants to hear. So in that way we have a silent diary. I wanted to write our memories, thinking maybe they can read us if they cannot hear us.

When I remember writing that poem, I have very good feeling; I was relieving myself when I wrote it. I usually do not write about Damascus– I don’t know why– especially the city of Damascus. I have a lot fear writing about Damascus because I fear my city, and at the same time I love it. So I felt embarrassed, like I couldn’t do anything. So “Diary of the Silent” was the first time I wrote anything about it. The last part, when I wrote about Roberto Benigni, it felt very good to write that. That movie, The Tiger and the Snow, was describing a story in Iraq. It was moment of relief for me, because in that movie I saw this description of my country and people being killed. It wasn’t a matter of cinema for me, but memories. 

In “Diary of the Silent,” the speaker uses the plural “we.” Who is the “we” the speaker represents? Is it the Syrian people, or someone else?

I usually use “we” in my writing. I intend to use the plural to say, “I am a Syrian.” After I left Syria, I was being treated in a special way– maybe because I know English, maybe because I’m a kind of artist. So I usually say, “I am also Syrian. I am not only that artist whose texts you like. First, I am a Syrian.” I am maybe able to express something using language, but that doesn’t mean that others are not suffering. Maybe the only difference between me and them is that I can write and I can tell my story in English and they can’t. But they have witnessed the same thing.

We are Syrians. And my struggle with me and with myself– I can sometimes express it easily. I’m living now in Sweden and it’s very safe. But still I have my daily nightmares about being arrested and war stories. I still speak to my family every day, and they are living in a completely different situation. When I remember myself there, there’s something different– some struggle between being safe and being in danger.

A timeline of Housam’s travels between 2011-2016

Lighting a Dark Theater: The Writing Process

What kind of mental space do you enter into before you write?

Usually when I write something, I am seeing it and I am only writing about it with my keyboard or my notebook. But it’s usually just a mental note on several events or several weeks. Sometimes I see something or I remember something, but I do not write it immediately. I just leave it to be a note inside of myself. Sometimes I just wake up in the morning and just start writing and I feel like I already memorized something and I’m afraid to forget it.

I discovered that I’m doing this not only with short poetry, but also when I’m writing 3000 or 4000 word short stories. I see it in front of me; it’s just a transcript. But when I’m doing this I really can’t feel anything. I remember once I woke up and I had a visitor. I woke up and started writing for one hour. After I finished I said, “Good morning,” and he said, “Yeah, it’s already 4:00.” 

Is that process the same when you’re writing non-fiction as it is when you’re writing poetry? What are the moments in which you feel inspired to write poetry and fiction? Nonfiction?

For the nonfiction, it just really comes from nowhere. You keep it inside yourself and then suddenly, out of nowhere, it comes and you write a long text. Working with nonfiction is of course very different, especially with articles. I do a lot of focusing, researching, searching for information. It’s a completely different attitude or manner of writing. That space that I go to, it is the best thing I feel. I feel as though I am completely separated from the world. It’s just me and some keyboard or pen. It’s like you’re on a theater stage and it’s all dark, but the focus is on highlighting one area with a spotlight. It’s cinema I think. I’m addicted to it.

After you left your home in Syria, you said Syria also left you in some ways. How do you navigate trying to write about home while you’re physically separated from it?

I had this feeling the first time I left Syria. I felt that my country abandoned me. I felt like I was doing other things that nobody should do at this age. I was supposed to enjoy life, but I found myself being tortured and arrested. So I had these negative feelings that I did not deserve such treatment, especially from my home. So I made the decision to leave.

I’m not going to forget my country, and of course I’m not going to forget myself. But at some point, I felt that I can’t leave without being connected to this place. I spent half of my life there: my family, my friends, my school, it’s where I had my first kiss. When you’re outside of the country physically, even if you have all of the resources to know what is happening on the ground and are always online with people who are telling you what is happening from every spot of the country, you still need to feel, you need to touch, you need to be there. I felt somehow that I abandoned my country and I wasn’t supposed to do this. And this actually continues because sometimes I feel I should go back to my country.

Sometimes I think yeah, I should just go now and find a way illegally to enter my country again, even though I know I cannot do anything inside Syria. Or maybe do anything well. But at least I’m still alive and I’m telling my story about my country. And there’s no Internet, no safe place to stay there. I don’t know— I really have mixed feelings. 

Does identity play a role in your writing? Do you consider questions about what it means to be Syrian in this moment?

I can’t forget my identity– well because it’s me– but the reason I am here is because I am a Syrian writer. I’m only in Sweden because I’m a Syrian writer who has been tortured and imprisoned and lived through a war. That’s why I’m publishing, and being interviewed, and getting translated. It’s always the country first: I am a Syrian artist, a Syrian worker, and more. It always sticks with me.

I’m very proud of being Syrian. My country gave me all these things and I can only be thankful. I was speaking to a friend a few hours ago, and we were talking about this same thing. He is a poet and also living in Sweden. We were saying that we do not live in a new world where we’re not affected by the war. If we were younger, we would maybe heal fast, or at least faster. But for us, we think that we can’t heal because we have spent 30 years in this cause in the Middle East, and it’s always there–the pressure–you can’t just erase that after two or three years.

Actually, in two or three years, what’s happening with me now, here in Sweden, especially in these last few months, is everything is coming to the surface. I was just pretending that I’m okay, pretending that life is going alright and going to work and everything. Now I feel that after having options of life, something inside of me just wants to break out to the surface. For example, when somebody tells you the movie To Rome with Love is a silly movie, but sometimes you feel it’s such silly stuff you should debate. You say, “No, it’s not that silly. You don’t understand the cinema or anything.” I don’t know what is happening, but it’s still something where we have been Syrians for a very long time and we do not have a place to release our energy or to use it in a very positive way, as we wanted, as we dreamed.

That’s why I think the whole world should treat people from the war zones as victims. Because they are victims. They have witnessed something they did not want to witness. We should not have to be pushing back and labeling things, especially in Europe and what’s happening now with Trump, labeling Syrians as criminals or terrorists, as well as Iraqis and Iranians. This will not do good for the long term. And most people have only seen horrors. They should be treated in a more thoughtful manner than other people who have been living a normal life. We should fix our broken holes, not make them wider.

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