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Writing in the face of bullets

Nour Jandali: Syrian writer & civil activist.

My first book was published more than a quarter century ago. I did not imagine that I would keep on writing for an entire quarter of a century. A quarter like no other, lived by a female author in this wide world. It was full of critical events and experiences, although I chose to write in the shadows, away from platforms of appreciation, certificates, and messages from readers and followers. I wanted to experience writing while participating in demonstrations and sit-ins, taking part in strikes, running for my life under live bullets, attending martyrs' funerals, searching for the right words that might relieve their mothers, and then finding theright words to keep their comrades hopeful. I also wrote with a broken arm, which was a completely different experience, embodying all aspects of life. The matter pertained to the birth of a nation, a people’s revolution, and a yearning for change after years of humiliation and oppression. I imagined a lot in my stories and novels, but reality exceeded what I could have ever imagined, and I could not put down my pen throughout any of the revolution's stages and moments. I lived the revolution with all my heart and poured my feelings and thoughts into it. I wrote incessantly.

I wrote about the harmonious beginnings of our revolution as part of the Arab Spring, the powerful moments and taking to the streets to call for freedom. I wrote about blood in peaceful demonstrations in which people returned home covered in blood, and about children and women who were killed or arrested just because they were in the way of the military! I also wrote about the activists, males and females, who sacrificed their lives so that we survive and continue the path. This was their last will before they left, and it will be mine when I leave.

I had to recall great, painful, and inspiring scenes, faces, and stories to write about, only to realize that I need many more years than those I will live to write about them all.

During the siege of my city of Homs, I asked a little girl, "What is your dream?" She was silent for a moment, trying to remember what her dream was. She looked at the sky as if trying to catch her wandering dream like a bird that decided to migrate, then looked into my eyes and said, "I no longer have a dream!" Her words struck me and reminded me that I had not been able to write for quite some time. I had become too occupied with the tiring daily events to the extent that my own dream was beginning to vanish. I felt back then that this was my new challenge, that I had to bring back that migrating bird which carried away the ability to dream as well as the future of my country.

I cannot remember the number of psychology books that I read to learn how to hold my life together and maintain my strength in order to replenish my capacity to help others without losing my ability to write. I do not deny that I felt frustrated and weak sometimes. I used to vent to a friend, and one day I told her how much I missed writing on the beach. She suggested watching a video of the sea and using my imagination. However, I felt increasingly suffocated, and resorted to my comfort zone in the small library that we kept open to the public to alleviate their suffering. It was my comfort zone from where I addressed world thinkers and scholars without fearing tanks or snipers.

I devoted myself to learning all which could alleviate the misery of our reality. During bombings, I risked my life to reach shelters that were full of fear and frustration. I had to overcome my fears and tell people that these hard times shall pass and that we should link our hands together to achieve a free, safe, and stable homeland. My mission was to chase fear and spread reassurance among women, for I knew that a reassured woman can spread tranquility in an entire city, and that a reassured child is the best future for his or her country. I had to prepare a trained team to face these kinds of difficulties. We learned together despite air strikes; we used screens and connected to the internet with difficulty. We learned manythings remotely: how to offer psychosocial support to others, how to communicate with children, and how to establish a school or nursery. Afterwards, we applied what we learned on children and were rewarded by their smiles. Yet, the hardest task for me was to write for the world. It was extremely difficult to tell my local community and wider world that we might die, but that we do not regret it for we sided with the revolution .

I was often stuck for hours in residential buildings. I could not leave until aircrafts were gone, and we often counted the air raids, one, two, … eleven, twelve, hoping that each one would be the last. Following silence and anticipation, we would run madly towards the nearest shelter, as if we were escaping from one death to another through a fine thread of life. One evening, I was surprised by a mortar shelling campaign while I was on my way back home. The shelling was insane and it was impossible to return home. I did not expect to survive, as the man who was three meters away from me was killed. I was supposed to run, but my injury prevented me from moving. I thought it was the end, but miraculously, it was not, and I survived despite sustaining fractures and wounds. I practiced writing with my left hand as the right one was broken. I continued passionately and realized that my life did not end and I should make more use of it.

I stood up again and along with those with me in the siege. We established a private school to prove that despite school bombings, we would not stop providing education. Rather, in the dim lights of shelters, we continued to learn, read, and do our best to smile and mask our concern about the unknown future. We knew that we could disappear in a blink of an eye without achieving what we set out to do.

When they announced the decision of displacement, I wished to carry along my city with its walls, doors, martyrs' tombs, the famous clock, the castle, its old houses, jasmine plants, ancient minarets, and its people's faces. Yet, I could not. I felt it was the end of a long struggle. However, the look into one child's eyes restored my strength to continue. I preserved everything from my city and that historical moment in my novels.

Onboard the green buses of displacement, I carried some books with me in small boxes to my destination. I wiped the dust off of shelves that never housed books before, and reopened a public library in northern Syria, as I could not bear the idea of leaving Syria. I and those with me tried to fight ignorance and fear with our solidarity, will, and deep faith. We reopened a private school under the same name as our old school. Was it a coincidence that my team chose the name "School of the Pen" to reassure me that the pen is a tool for change? That I must write again for the sake of all those who struggled and made sacrifices? That I should seize this fateful moment to tell every human being on Earth that it is worth it, no matter how bad the circumstances are? That no matter how blocked the roads seem, there is hope? Bird flocks always return home vividly with hope. For this reason, I continued writing to tell the world that a person remains free as long as he/she decides to be so, irrespective of his/her circumstances and location. I wrote to show that freedom is an idea linked to the mind and conscience. I wrote to declare that nightmares will forever chase those who tightened the chains on the detainees, the people and the whole country. I wrote to affirm that one day, those chains will break. Until we return, until rights are returned to their owners, until we break those chains, and until we put flowers on the graves of the martyrs, I will keep on dreaming and keep on writing.

Nour Jandali: Syrian writer & civil activist.



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