In his thirteenth letter to his missing wife Samira al-Khalil, abducted in Douma in 2013, Yassin al-Haj Saleh pays tribute to those who have given time and energy to promoting her cause.
Sammour, I’ve written to you before about unpleasant things; happenings that shouldn’t have happened, and a world whose horizons have become dimmer in the years of your absence. This time, I write to you about what keeps hope alive, even in such a world: friendship; a great deal of solidarity, support, and partnership on behalf of countless men and (especially) women almost everywhere in the world. Since I can’t mention them all, and yet must cite a few examples, I should state to all friends everywhere that I don’t take their generosity and love for granted, and that if I haven’t always thanked them, this isn’t because what they do is some natural entitlement of mine as their friend, and as the husband of the disappeared Samira. I know they put in great effort, time, and energy for our sake, and I imagine that in our story, and that of Syria itself, they’ve come to know the most lonely, radical, and desperate struggle, one which nonetheless persists, and in doing so generates hope.
To be honest, Sammour, I find it harder to write these words than I do to write in a critical or analytical mood. I inherited a difficulty with emotional expression, which you of all people don’t need to be told. Perhaps I became a writer for this very reason: to escape what I don’t know how to say, and then to demand it indirectly nonetheless. I’ll try, despite this, to say something about those who have loved the disappeared Samira, and stood alongside her deprived partner. I hope I’ll be forgiven for mentioning only a few by name.
After each of these letters was published, Naomí Ramírez in Madrid took it upon herself to translate and re-publish them in Spanish, sometimes just hours after their appearance in Arabic. It was Naomí, too, who translated your book about your months under siege, Journal of the 2013 Siege of Douma, into Spanish. “Samira’s case has become a personal case,” Naomí tells me, adding that she translates the letters because they “tell the story and life of an important activist in the Syrian revolution.” From Naomí I learned of a man from Spain who read your book with his daughter Laura, and wished to have another daughter so he could name her Samira. Naomí has committed herself to the Syrian cause from the start; translating, writing, and communicating; and she continues today not in spite of the horrendous turn of events but precisely because of them, and to confront them.
Likewise, Souad Labbize, the Algerian-French poet, has translated the letters into French. She did this because you are “dear” to her, and because your story gives an idea about the story of Syria. Souad sees us as one family, linked not by blood or creed but by the cause of liberation: the kinship of revolution. In Algeria today there are lively protests against “renewing the pledge of allegiance” for the fifth time to Bouteflika, who can hardly speak or stand up. Souad’s heart is over there with them. Mine as well.
You know nothing about Souad or Naomí, Sammour, and I myself only came to know them after your disappearance. And I still haven’t made the acquaintance of Nurah El Assouad, the Syrian-Italian who’s lived in Italy for years, though her heart remains in Syria. In these letters, she has found something that preserves this attachment to the extent that her friends now tell her when a new letter has been published, so she can get to work straight away on translating it into Italian. Before Noura, and with her, some of the letters were also translated by Sami Haddad, Milena Annunziata, Marianna Barberio, Giovanna De Luca, and Roberta Pasini. I’ve known Sami since my university days before prison, though it’s been thirty-nine years since we last met in person. Giovanna’s Italian translation of your book is due to be published soon, with help from Francesca Scalenci, who wrote a beautiful poem about you and Syria two months ago. I got to know these two Italian women recently; it was you who brought us together. I think our women friends identify with you, and want to “carry the flag that fell on the battlefield,” as Souad put it.
In English, most of the letters were translated by Murhaf Fares, a young Syrian man currently completing a doctoral thesis in Oslo. Murhaf wanted a larger number of people to get to know you, and our “unique” story in which the personal combines to a large extent with the public; the story of this “difficult and uncompromising mixture.” It was also, for him, an expression of solidarity with you. Our story gives hope to our friends, who give hope to us in turn. We’re a community of hope, Sammour.
Your words in your Journal of the 2013 Siege of Douma, already rendered into Spanish by Naomí, will hopefully soon be read in English, if and when a publisher is found. An English translation has been completed by Sara Hunaidi, a young Syrian woman living and studying in the United States. She and I have not yet met. I hope you’ll be with us when we do.
All across the Middle East, and the world, we have partners who’ve never ceased standing by your side. I was much moved a few days ago when I received a letter from a British friend saying she had lit a candle in your name and mine in Exeter Cathedral, and requested a prayer for our sake. Everywhere she goes to pray, she said, she leaves one of these prayer requests in our name. Light shines for you all over the place, Sammour. I nicknamed this woman “the saint,” knowing she is a deep believer, but she rejects the title, preferring to be called a friend. Her name is Sian. She wants our story to be so widely shared that no one could ever say they didn’t know of it. She says that those aware of the story in the rural area where she lives with her husband—an ecologist who studies the nocturnal behavior of wild animals, and the effects of electronic lighting on their lives—often stop her and ask about us, wondering if there’s any news.
I’ve only mentioned but a few of those you don’t know personally, whom I also didn’t know until after your disappearance. But there are a great number you do and don’t know, from Syria and elsewhere; from Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, and truly everywhere. Above all, there are the Syrians. Despite the fact that traumas drive people to turn in on themselves, and despite eight years of pain and utmost cruelty, there still exist humanity, courage, and dignity in Syria. This isn’t the full picture, unfortunately. But Syrians, whether in the diaspora or inside the country, have shown that the Assadists’ success in producing Syrians who do nothing but tear one another apart is limited, and that there still is a different Syria, free and dignified, standing in solidarity, alive in countless numbers of its daughters and sons. These people are the Syrian revolution. Most of them are youngsters.
As a result of these friends, a large number of people have been able to hear about you, about Samira from Syria, and about Syria. I hope one day every person on the planet hears about you—a tall order, I know, but with the help of these friends, word has already traveled far and wide.
We are an entire world, Sammour. We’re not a neighborhood, or a clan, or a closed clique. We are a hopeful world that loves and misses you. Samira’s world.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 8 March, 2019]