I: Fear and Expression
Let me begin with a quotation, not from the book I’m about to consider but from another it called to my mind:
In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face. – 1 April 1957, Leningrad. (From Requiem by Anna Akhmatova)
The conceptual duality of fear and expression seems to be rare in Western fiction. I don’t think the West really understands what true fear is (with the obvious note that, through imperialism, the West has usually been the perpetrator of fear). On an individual level, it is certainly understood: for example, the fears of the abuse victim is certainly present in literature and media. But the fear and expression (or lack thereof) of a whole community and society? And the impact that has on the psyche, the terrible physicality of silence and its effect on one’s sense of personhood? That is the domain of Eastern literatures.
Perhaps that is why I felt drawn to Akhmatova’s Requiem as I wrote this. Soviet-era Eastern European literature and Arabic literature often feel like siblings to my mind and so there is no strange stretch that Akhmatova should be one of the first connections I make with the book. The introduction to my copy, by translator D.M. Thomas, notes: From 1935-40, the period of its composition, to 1957, it is said to have survived only in the memories of the poet and a few of her most trusted friends. It was first published in 1963, ‘without the author’s knowledge or consent’, by the Society of Russian Émigré Writers, from a copy which had found its way to the West. The idea that the poem existed secretly for nearly thirty years, and that it was first published by looser-lipped exiles in the West, feels strikingly relevant.
I see fear and expression as the duality here. Not fear and bravery, nor silence and expression. When we express ourselves, we triumph over fear, at least in the moment (be it a speech, a novel, an unfurled banner). When we hold ourselves in silence, we are beholden to fear. Sometimes, I wonder at the things people say in the UK, wondering what it is like not to feel the clamping power of fear on a loose tongue.
Thus I felt drawn to Silence is a Sense from my very first encounter with its title and how it seems to immediately evoke a certain lived experience, that of the duality of fear and expression.
In fact, my own sensibilities seem confirmed by an article by the author, who writes on LitHub: We write of the pain and bear witness to trauma that resurfaces and plagues us. We write knowing how futile it is. We write to keep alive a grief that refuses consolation. We write in anticipation of decades to come when new revolutions will spring into being in response to the very same injustices.
II: Violence and Community
Silence is a Sense is the second book by Kuwaiti novelist Layla AlAmmar and follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates her life in the UK. Our protagonist is a Syrian refugee whose trauma has rendered her incapable of speech. She lives in an estate formed of two tower blocks that face each other and she watches the secret and not-so-secret lives of the denizens of these tower blocks and their surrounds. Among them are the Juicer; No-Lights-Man; Chloe and Helen who live with abusive Dad and their brother Matt; Hassan, the proprietor of the local corner shop; Imam Abdulrahman in charge of the local mosque; and there are many more besides. The book elegantly moves between her observations of life around her, her memories and nightmares, and her articles for an online magazine under the penname The Voiceless.
Though there are many people living in these tower blocks, and though they live ostensibly in peace – our narrator reflects on the rainy sky and the absence of bombs falling – they live without a sense community.
This contrasts with the narrator’s memories of Aleppo. There, a sense of community is torn asunder through war’s violence. Over the course of the revolutionary moment-turned-civil war, clear friends and family members turn into shadows of their former selves, the edges of their personalities frayed, as war brings each of them to their individual limits.
If the narrator’s Syria is a land where community is ripped apart by violence, then Britain is a land where violence gives cause for a community to stitch together. The violent isolationism practiced by the tower block denizens forces them to band together as individual and communal violence reaches a crescendo. The narrator dismisses activists in Britain as playing a low stakes and naïve game, and while the stakes are perhaps lower, there is a sense gotten from her flashbacks to Syria that her friends there were just as naïve as the ones she makes in Britain.
These two dualities – community and individualism, war and peace – are at play constantly in the novel. There is no community in peaceful Britain – and yet, it is not so peaceful. Helen’s husband is a violent abuser who she hasn’t the strength to leave. Racist thugs come to disrupt celebrations at the local mosque. It is supposed to be safe in the UK, and yet the constant trickle of not-so-petty crimes and personal violence swirls the protagonist down the whirlpool of her own troubled psyche.
III: The Voyeurism of the West
All the while, the narrator writes her column, The Voiceless, seemingly to stabilise herself. These Voiceless essays, peppered throughout the novel, provide stability for the reader too, giving us something familiar to read in her op-eds, more concrete than the journeys within her mind’s eye (more on that later), where reality can give way to dreams and traumas from one sentence to the next.
But who benefits from reading The Voiceless and her anonymous opinions? Josie, the narrator’s editor at the magazine, is constantly fishing for her ‘true’ story. At first the narrator avoids giving anything away, but when she relents and provides stories of her journeys through Europe, Josie flinches – her stories sound fictionalised, unbelievable, untrue. No one person could have experienced so many daily horrors. The more the narrator tries to appease the Western gaze, the more she herself encounters the violence of racism.
This relationship between the narrator and Josie brings out the crucial dichotomy of fear and expression. The more the narrator expresses herself through her column, the more Josie tries to control her speech. Gentle editorial nudges become appeals for the narrator’s ‘Journey’, become critiques of her portrayal of her own life. By the end, Josie is encouraging the narrator to use fiction as a vehicle to tell her own story. We are left to wonder: is she encouraging the narrator to use her voice to its fullest potential, through the medium of fiction, or is she trying to mould a refugee’s voice to be palatable for a British audience?
That question leads to another: who is the audience of the Voiceless? The narrator expresses herself through her articles because she needs the valve of expression. But her British audience is full of people who judge, ridicule, question, attack and dismiss her. She fears giving too much of herself away, in case family – wherever they may be – might somehow identify her.
More subtly, the novel seems to ask: to whom does a refugee’s story belong to, and what do they owe to explain to their audience? Does a refugee owe an audience anything at all? Does this refugee on your page owe you, the reader, anything?The narrator’s personal history is hemmed by the constant violence, illness, fear, cold and abuse she suffered. She does not want to unearth it, yet the constant requests of Josie, and triggers of traumatic memories around her, unlock memories of that journey.
These are memories she clearly does not want to share. So the beginnings of her life in Syria – which is a curiosity for the reader who naturally wishes to understand the protagonist – make uncomfortable reading the further we continue. The deeper into the book we go, the more we become privy to the narrator’s private thoughts and memories. In some of the most vividly realised nightmare segments, she and her friends are conducting their civil activism in a disintegrating flat. From the corner of one ceiling, a human eye watches them, constantly, like flesh-and-blood CCTV; at one stage, they even attempt to knock it down. The eye is a straightforward metaphor of Assad regime, its spies and its autocrat’s face plastered everywhere bearing down on activists. But on another level, I think the eye is us, the reader. We have infiltrated the narrator’s head, have invasively become her mind’s eye, and even in her sleep she cannot escape us reading on, demanding to unravel her mysteries with every next word read. Knowing the pain she suffers because people paint her by the labels of ‘Syrian’, ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘refugee’, the reader becomes an accomplice in peeling away her layers against her will.
In creating this discomfort, the book seems to hold a knife up to the voyeurism of so many readers who approach refugee narratives. Because there is nothing romantic about walking half the earth in search of safety. Anyone who knows a refugee, is a refugee, or has worked closely with them is familiar with that voyeurism. It is the white, middle-class mother who weeps at the screening of a film on their Plight and asks, “What can we do?” It is the journalist whose opening question to an unprepared teenager is, “What was it like to go on your Journey?” It is the exasperated liberal who sighs, “We welcomed them in, what more do they want?”
If the grotesque in fiction is often used to reflect societal ills, then here it is used to hold a mirror up to that voyeurism. As we enter the increasingly uncomfortable depths of the narrator’s psyche and bear witness to her traumas, nightmares and losses, the book seems to be addressing the voyeur: there’s nothing here for you, and there’s nothing to make you feel good about yourself.
Some of the characters in the novel seem to be that same kind of voyeur. They are complex individuals, and their goodness is not dismissed. Our narrator is flawed and requires these people’s goodness to grow. In the beginning, she sits outside society and largely rejects it. She is quietly judgemental and slow to action. Whether in present moments of conflict or in the remembered past of Syria, she is usually a passive bystander. Overcoming that passivity as the violence escalates around her becomes an imperative towards the end of the novel.
The people of the tower blocks are also flawed. Even as friendships develop with No-Lights-Man and Josie, I am left with a nagging fear for our narrator by the end, as these new friends reveal their own voyeuristic and flat perspectives of her, each in their own way. Do they actually see her as a complete human? It’s possible they do not: but their interactions with each other make everyone, from the narrator to those she grows closest to, fuller people.
Ultimately, my mind keeps returning to this voyeurism. My paperback copy includes a quote by the New York Times on its front cover: “This is not just good storytelling, but a blueprint for survival.” Perhaps this is unfair – the full review may provide valuable context – but it rather feels to me that this phrase, ‘a blueprint for survival’, is exactly the sort of voyeurism in refugee lives that the book turns on its head. Like Josie’s pressured editorial notes to the narrator, it speaks to the intoxication those of us living safe lives seek in the lived experience of the oppressed.
IV: Empathy and Appropriation
While the narrator finds herself in conflict with the Western gaze, AlAmmar as an Arab writing in the English language seems to elegantly deflect it. It feels like a book written for an Arab readership in English, not for a Western one. The metaphoric language is Arabic in character and flows effortlessly: “I swallow down the panic but my heart is a small, angry bird fluttering in my chest”; “My mind folds in on itself, like origami”; “all those eyes picking me apart like vultures”. References to jinn hanging from lampposts and malak almawt are never exposited for us: either you get it or you are trusted to do your own research.
As I approached the end of the novel and my reflections on voyeurism took shape, I found myself asking the next logical question: does AlAmmar have a ‘right’ to tell this story? AlAmmar is not a Syrian, nor a refugee. They are adjacent: a Kuwaiti women whose proximity in language and culture allows her to extrapolate and tell this story.
But is that enough license to tell such stories, or do they belong only to those with lived experiences? Are Syrians the only ones who should tell stories of Syrians?
An answer begins to form when we read the Acknowledgements, which ends on this note: “I must extend a special thank you to Faraj, a young man from Aleppo, who, on a beautiful Sunday in Hampstead Heath, shared his story with an unflinching bravery and honesty. The joy, love, and hope with which you approach the world, despite all you’ve seen, is as great a testament as any to the resilience of the human spirit.”
Another piece of the answer is provided in AlAmmar’s article for LitHub, which makes her awareness of this dilemma quite clear: “it was imperative to maintain a critical distance between feeling for someone and feeling as someone, even as I asked myself whether literature could be written from such a position. Writing demands empathy as much as observation: How can you awaken feelings in the reader if you haven’t stirred them in yourself? And yet, there’s a responsibility there, to resist slipping into the appropriation of someone else’s pain.”
So does the novel appropriate another’s pain? The reader (or at least, this reader) is forced to address the voyeurism built into ‘Refugee’ genres of literature. Perhaps it’s because this struggle between empathy and appropriation (another duality?) was present in the author’s process that the book feels like a critique on voyeurism. In the hands of a different (probably Western) writer, Silence is a Sense would be a shockingly touristic vision of a Syrian’s life.
But I think this is not a ‘Refugee’ novel but an ‘Arab Spring’ novel. I found this idea confirmed by the author’s LitHub article (already referenced, and which names the Arab Spring in its title). Its position there is its strength, and its avenue of escape from being an act of appropriation. The experience of the Arab Spring, particularly in its most passionate early days, knocked down national identities invented by colonisers and came closer to realising a pan-Arab experience than anything since the mid-century anti-colonial movements.
While AlAmmar’s novel inhabits a specifically Syrian experience, the story exists within a broader Arab and West Asian experience: that of individuals and communities navigating between fear and expression. It is written from that deeper lived experience. Well-researched, and AlAmmar’s real-life inspirations acknowledged and thanked, the story never descends into exhibitionism or voyeurism. Instead, it emerges as a powerful reflection of the post-2011 Arab and West Asian experience. Silence is a Sense is fundamentally a novel about how authoritarianism corrodes our sense of self, both on an individual and communal level, and the violence that enacts on our ability to express ourselves. It does not claim that expression and community can negate the degrading impact of fear and violence – that would be far too neat – but it does powerfully claim that they can combat the effects.