On Friday night, March 17th, all chairs are filled in the InnBetween, in anticipation of hearing Samar Yazbek talk about her two books, Woman in the Crossfire and the Crossing. Yazbek is originally a novelist but her desire to cover the Syrian conflict has lead her two books to hover half-way between journalism and fiction. They cover her experience with the Syrian resistance. This event is the third installment of Storytellers on Stage, an event organized by StoryLine.
The event’s organizer, Petra Quaedvlieg, believes that stories are not just written down: “We want to celebrate the art of storytelling. Photographers and filmmakers are storytellers too.” In line with this the evening opens with a video shot by Syrian visual artist Issa Touma. Nine days from my window in Aleppo shows the conflict unfolding on the residential street in front of his studio in 2011. A moment that sticks with a mother of two from the audience: “The fighters [from the Free Syrian Army] look like teenagers just hanging out in the street.”
The tone set by the video is somber and as Yazbek assumes her place on the stage she embodies this spirit by speaking quickly and seriously, intent on transmitting her message emotionally to the audience for whom the conflict in Syria might seem very remote. Yazbek speaks English but she declares “you should hear our music” before proceeding to give her answers in Arabic with translations by Amira Eid, board member of Refugee Project Maastricht. Petra Stienen, diplomat, Arabist, and friend to Yazbek enquires about her most recent book, The Crossing, which details her illegal crossings back into Syria after fleeing to France. “Whenever I went back it felt ‘like reality’, but not actually real. Running for twenty, thirty minutes to cross the dangerous no-mans’ land at the border between Turkey and Syria felt like being in a movie scene. I had to keep repeating to myself: this is really reality. And I had to go back to make sure people’s stories were being told on the outside.” Similar to Yazbek’s first book, Woman in the Crossfire, this book documents the Syrian war, shows the effects on her people, and tells the stories of those who have resisted Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “I wanted to attend protests and write down every detail but I would also be the first to flee.” What does writing mean to Yazbek in times of conflict? “The natural role of the writer, of the intellectual, has changed. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. If the media is tarnished, as it is under Assad, we have the responsibility to report.”
A few days earlier, March 15th, the Netherlands held their elections. Where was Yazbek on this day six years ago? “Protesting in Damascus.” She continues: “We of course noticed protests in other places, Lebanon, Egypt, and we were hopeful.” Syria was different. “It was an entirely peaceful protest but the police were arresting people. That is where the resistance started.” Where was she yesterday? “Paris”. It was Yazbek’s dream to live there as a little girl, Stienen remarks. “Yes, but now I want to go back [to Syria].” And she has been going back, at least in her work. In 2012 she set up Women Now for Development, an organization that provides political empowerment education, cultural exposure, and skills trainings to women and children displaced in the war. “I want women from the ground, from the frontlines, to be empowered to make change and take part in making Syria a better place in negotiations for peace and rebuilding the country after the war.” Quaedvlieg hopes that stories can be a powerful tool to bridge divides between people in different places at different times. Yazbek’s story translated this hope into reality as the audience was transported into a world most people only knew from violent images on the news. To quote Quaedvlieg: “Through stories you get a new perspective.”