My 12-year-old son and I are about 20 pages from finishing Yara’s Spring, a book about a young girl and her family who wakes up to a changed world after the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. The book does a great job of explaining – as much as it can be explained – what the Syrian war is about and how it has affected its people. It’s a great is a great tool to start a conversation of Syria and the importance of democracy. I do worry that it’s a little heavy – there is a whole lot of awfulness in this book – but I stop reading to make sure it’s not too much and to allow my son to ask questions.
The story is “crafted through the lens of (author) Jamal Saeed’s own experience in Syria. Saeed co-authored the book, published by Annick Press, with Sharon E. McKay. Saeed answers a number of questions in this powerful Q&A.
Q. Congratulations on Yara’s Spring, a fictional account of a young woman living through the Syrian civil war. According to book, it’s “crafted through the focused lens of (your own) experiences in Syria.” What does that mean? How much Is Yara’s story your own?
A. Thank you, Lisa. I lived in Syria for 55 years before going abroad. Therefore, I know the Syrian people, cities, streets, mountains, woods, rivers, sea, and desert well. I was involved in many non-violent political activities which, nonetheless, caused me to be arrested three times and spend about 12 years in Syria’s worst military prisons. And this was without being formally sentenced. Both in and out of prison, I met thousands of people struggling to survive and enduring ever-worsening civil strife. It was my own experiences and watching theirs that I drew on to build up Yara’s Spring into a realistic fiction.
Q. Why did you want to write a book through a young woman’s eyes?
A. It was Sharon McKay who initiated the idea of telling a story about a Syrian girl. I joined the project afterward, and it was not hard to recall so many teenage girls and help synthesize their stories into one character.
Q. In addition to showing the world what it was like to live in Syria before the war, you also show what Syria becomes after its president begins killing his own citizens. Why was it important to show the before and after in this conflict?
A. The main point is to show how much the country is destroyed; on the other hand, we had to show the reasons of the conflict. One can’t explain the darkness without understanding the light.
Q. The story is also a “coming of age against all odds and the many kinds of love that bloom even in the face of war.” How did you decide this was the type of story you wanted to share? Why was this story important?
A. Sharon and I thought that the energy of youth and the ability of love cannot be destroyed by shells and bombs. The barrel bombs, which were dropped out of helicopters may destroy many homes and kill many people, like Yara’s parents, cannot destroy the need for the living to want to give and receive love. This is what readers will see Yara and Ali experience.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to write this book? Can you please tell me the process on how it came to be? How long did it take from writing to publishing? What has been the response to the book? It is co-written by Sharon E. McKay. Can you please tell me how that worked? What was it like to work with Sharon?
A. It took more than three years from meeting Sharon before Yara’s Spring was printed. Ray Argyle is a Canadian writer and the head of the sponsorship committee that brought my family to North America. He asked me if I was interested in reviewing and possibly revising an outline for a young-adult fiction based on the Syrian conflict. “Yes,” I said without hesitation.
A few days later Ray drove me to Gananoque where I met Sharon. We hit it off immediately, and by the end of the first get-together, Sharon asked to me actually co-author the book. Again, I did not hesitate to give a big and immediate “Yes!” As in the previous answer, I felt I knew a lot about the setting of the book, the current and historical events, and the types of characters you would find trapped in the situations we are adapting for print. Sharon visited me in Kingston and we sat at the dining table (I had no office at the time) where we discussed the outlines, the title, and the characters. The outline complete, we began communicating online, exchanging notes, comments, suggestions about the action and characters. Again, my big job was to make sure the culture, events and the characters attitudes and reactions were accurate. Meeting Sharon was a great gift to me, and I learned so much during the process.
Q. You and your family fled Syria in 2014 after a failed kidnapping on your wife, poet Rufaida al Khabbaz, and your sons, Ghamr, and Taim. You went to Dubai before being sponsored by Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee to come to Canada. How did you connect with this organization? You have been in Canada since 2016. What have you done in that time? How has your family settled in?
A. For several years we could hear gunfire all over Damascus. But we were not that close to the downtown and became somewhat complacent with war being so close. That is until one night in Summer 2013 when a huge explosion rocked our home. My eldest son was about 13 years old at the time, and he asked me to do something to protect the family. I sent an email to International Cities of Refugee Network (ICORN). After few weeks I had a positive response, but the list of writers, artists and journalists who needed asylum was so long, I was told it would be quite some time before we would get our chance to leave.
After two-armed men followed my wife and sons in a failed attempt to kidnap them, we decided to escape out of the country at our first opportunity. Through various connections, a Syrian businessman who escaped to Dubai previously helped us in getting a tourist visa to Dubai, and then we had a harrowing journey to get to the airport in Beirut, Lebanon.
We made it to Dubai, found jobs and an apartment, but Dubai is one of the most expensive places to live. If one of us lost a job, we wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment or the expensive high school fees. Plus, there is no path to citizenship in that country, so there was no real future. Finally, on Feb. 15, 2016, I received an email from Elisabeth Dyvik of ICORN.
It may be interesting for your readers to read the communication:
My name is Elisabeth Dyvik, and I am a colleague of Marianne here at ICORN. Today we have some potentially good news for you.
Through a partner organization, PEN Canada, we have secured an offer of sponsored relocation to Canada as refugees for you and your immediate family (wife and children). This offer is not from an ICORN member, but we trust the hosts and the offer to be serious and well-funded.
We are aware that you and your family are safe in Dubai for the moment, but we still thought you would consider this offer of permanent, safe, relocation.
The offer comes from a group called the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee. They have secured funding and all the formalities to be able to bring you and your family to Canada as sponsored refugees. This means that they will support you the first year in Canada, both with a reasonable flat and with a grant.
After few days we began an exchange of emails with Ray Argyle, the chair of Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee. I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer and I began my search about what would be my family’s new home. Things moved quickly after this, and we were In Kingston by the end of 2016.
Q. In addition to being poet and a writer, (you published a collection of short stories in 1992), an editor and a translator, you are also a painter. You also host an Arabic arts and culture series, helping to “develop a deeper understanding of Arabic culture, and foster new relationships within the Kingston community.” Of all the things you have done and are still doing, what is your favorite? How do develop your crafts?
A. Visual art is an old hobby, but I guess I enjoy anything creative, written or visual. I can’t really say what I like best, but I think my writing skills are most developed. Fun story (looking back on it, not living it) the day after one Syrian government agency agreed to publish a volume of my short stories, another agency had me arrested and back in jail.
How does one develop their craft, you ask?, mainly by follow up on innovations, especially new ones, in the field of literature and art as much as possible by discussing different aspects with other artists, and doing it every day.
Q. According to your bio, you still continue to raise awareness about Syria’s ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis. How do you do that? What can the average Canadian do to help?
A. I’m still writing articles in Arabic and publish them in some newspapers, magazines or websites about the Syrian affairs. And I still communicate with Syrian people in and out of Syria discussing the details of the Syrian issues. What can the average Canadian person do to help? Keep informed, talk about to your friends, get involved in committees, and volunteer to help refugees from anywhere in the world who are already in your community.
Q. You spent 12 years as a prisoner of consciousness (what is that by the way?) in Syria for speaking out against the government. After your release you continued to advocate for democracy and freedom for your fellow citizens. What made you become an activist initially and continue to be one after your imprisonment?
A. The official definition of a prisoner of conscience (POC) is anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. I was the latter. When the Supreme State Security Court wouldn’t convict me, the military just took me out of civil prison, and threw me into their hell holes. Why did I become an activist? Many of my new North American friends say they flirted with activism. Youth always does, but it’s only a few who continue it into adulthood. But in Syria, to challenge the ruling family is to be their enemy and they have all the power. As for bravery, one doesn’t know how one will act until one is faced with jail and torture.
Q. How did you survive that time in prison? What kept you going?
A. This follows the last question well. I can say a lot about that topic. I’ll give two examples now. In the isolation cell I made chess pieces from stale bread and water. I mixed in cigarette ash for the black pieces. I began playing against myself. When I beat myself, one part of me would congratulate the other and then together we would analyze the game. It sounds like insanity, but it was done to keep my mind active. As well, in the same isolation cell, every day we had lentil soup, but the small stones from the field were never culled from the lentils. After a while, I had over ten thousand of these small, colorful stones, and so I would spend hours and days making mosaics of words, poems and pictures of scenes with them. My greatest masterpiece was a scene of the mulberry tree in front of my family home. It took half a day to do this one, but when I heard the lock on my cell being opened, I swept the stones into a corner so the jailers wouldn’t confiscate the means of my creativity.
Q. Do you consider Canada your home now? What do you miss most about Syria?
A. Yes. Canada is my home. It is a great gift to me and to my family, especially my sons. Both have worked hard and now have full scholarships to university. But I do miss my family and friends back in Syria. And sometimes I feel like my childhood is still hiding and waiting for me in the places I used to play, the beautiful woods, rivers and caves near my family’s farm. I also miss the shore of Mediterranean and the narrow streets of old Damascus. I miss the particular feel and colour of the sun, the flavour of Syrian apricots and figs. I can write a lot about what I miss.
Q. What do you hope to do next? Do you have any projects currently on the go?
A. I have a contract with the publisher ECW to write my autobiography, The Road from Damascus. I’m doing it in a way that not only tells my story, but the story of Syria. I think it should come out late 2021 or in 2022. After that, I hope I can have my old short stories translated into English, and I have a few other projects in development.
Q. Anything else you would like to say?