Syrian Writers Union: A First Step Towards Independence

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Others believe that a league for Syrian writers is necessary to shake the crumbling official cultural structures, which disregard the interests of their members. This must be on the condition not to monopolize the “quality” stamp. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Thursday, January 12, 2012

After decades of the Syrian state having complete control of unions, a group of writers decided to break the monopoly.

Damascus – The founders of the Syrian Writers League, established at the beginning of the year, borrowed the name of their organization from the first Syrian literary gathering, which was originally established in the 1950s. As a result, members of this new group have effectively pushed aside the Arab Writers Union, which replaced the original Syrian Writers League.

The announcement of the new league’s formation has led to both praise and criticism. Most of this criticism focuses on the timing of the organization’s establishment and its goals. Such comments largely disregarded the importance of the league’s founding statement which refers to establishing “a democratic and independent framework for all Syrian writers.”

However, most of the members’ names listed on the League’s website are also members of the Arab Writers Union. It would have been preferable if those writers had withdrawn from the Union before joining the League to avoid the “false witnesses” label (in reference to where their political allegiance lies in Syria) that appears in the founding statement, even if this meant giving up the financial rewards offered by the (official) Union to its members.

This question was raised by novelist Omar Kaddour, who is thinking of withdrawing from the new League because of “the lack of transparency and foundation for serious work.” He adds, “I cannot believe a writer who has one foot here and one foot there, this is opportunism.”

His position on duplicity is similar to that of the Syrian poet, Aïsha Arnaout, who lives in Paris. She withdrew her membership from the Union in a letter addressed to the League expressing her faith in the Syrian revolution and the move “from subservient organizations to free ones after half a century of tyrannical rule and enjoyment of submission to the oppressive apparatus which is grand treason to the blood of the pure.”

Syrian novelist, Salwa al-Nuaimi, who also lives in Paris, commented on the duplicity of some of the writers too, calling them “two-faced.”

The poet Shawqi Baghdadi showed his enthusiasm for the establishment of the League “as an alternative to a long enslavement that has limited the Syrian writer’s freedom and threatened his personal safety because of a rogue poem or an intellectual opinion.” He made this comment while forgetting the ills of the time he spent as a member of the executive office of the Union during the infamous era of Ali Uqla Irsan.

The poet, Ali Safar, fears that linking the League’s agenda to the movement on Syria’s streets today is “an exclusionary act similar to those of the Writers Union. Particularly after it announced its opposition to the regime [disregarding] the difficulty many writers who live in Syria have in declaring a frank position on this issue.

“This turns the initiative into a vague adventure. Or perhaps delegitimizing the Union is more important than their dedication to independence.”

Poet Ibrahim al-Jaradi, who won a seat in the current executive office of the Writer’s Union as an independent, has a different opinion. He points out that “Syrian writers have the right to take what they have been deprived of due to a misguided cultural policy and old-fashioned controls on the work of the Union.

“However, the declaration of the League at this point in time does seem to be reckless, trying to destroy a cultural and professional establishment built by many (free) writers. The claim that anyone who is a member of the Union is a submissive writer, and whoever is not is a creative hero, is not right. It would be better now for this League to make sure that it is independent in its direction, to ensure that creativity is not exploited for political ends and opportunistic whims, as is the case in the Union, even if from an opposite direction.”

Others believe that a league for Syrian writers is necessary to shake the crumbling official cultural structures, which disregard the interests of their members. This must be on the condition not to monopolize the “quality” stamp.

With the enthusiasm exhibited by those who wrote its founding statement, this League appears to be a bid to ride the wave of the Syrian revolution. But if the League is unable to establish a noticeable presence inside the country, this could create a rift in the Syrian cultural scene between “homeland writers” and “writers abroad,” a likely scenario in the current circumstances. The “cleansing” tone which can be detected in the statement made by the League does not help.

The argument might continue for a long time, or perhaps it will disappear under the slogans of the revolution from one side and the ‘mysterious agendas’ talk from the other. But then another question arises: What about al-Sham League of Writers, announced by the Muslim Brotherhood just recently? Don’t these calls bring up a conflict that will drag Syrian intellectuals into a labyrinth at the worst of times?

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm: Independence First and Last

Rita Faraj

“First and foremost, the League seeks to get rid of the yellow unions and syndicates,” Sadiq Jalal al-Azm tells Al-Akhbar. The Syrian thinker and one of the founders of the Syrian Writers League considers it “an independent union which seeks to overcome the period when unions were connected to the regimes.”

The author of The Mental Taboo hopes that this step will encourage engineers and lawyers to follow suit and establish independent unions to represent them in democratic Syria.

As to how it will support the Syrian revolution, as mentioned in the League’s founding statement, al-Azm believes that this will come through “the participation of some of its members in the movement on the ground and the establishment of a cultural foundation for the transition from an authoritarian regime to a pluralistic and democratic one.” He also believes that opportunities will arise as the League bets seriously on a change in government.

But the League has not declared a position on secularism. Al-Azm, author of Critique of Religious Thought, said the League does not seek to adopt ready made slogans like those often championed by literary unions, such as, fighting imperialism. “The aim behind this is to discard vague slogans that have been of no use. This does not mean that we are against secularism,” he said.

“On the contrary, the majority of the members of the League are progressive on this issue and consider it to be a fundamental one. In my opinion, building civil institutions in Syrian society will automatically lead to secularism.”

So why was the prominent Syrian critic and poet Adonis excluded? Al-Azm insists that no one excluded Adonis and that membership in the League is open to all Syrian writers. But he adds: “I think someone in Paris contacted him but perhaps he did not respond. In my opinion, Adonis’ positions on the Syrian revolution are vague and unclear, this may have contributed to his absence from the League.”

The most important issues mentioned in the League’s founding statement, according to al-Azm, are about its independence. The League, he says, “has no financial backing. Financing is dependent on individual efforts and membership fees.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Arab Writers Union conference is a good initiative by Arab officials to promote Arab literary work. It’s a best platform where cultural personalities can gather and such events encourage cultural and poetic events in the country.

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