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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 150-176

The Price of Dissidence
A Meditation on Creativity, Censorship, and Exile
Ramar Attas

What is the sense of living on as one's own shadow? We are ghosts or memories.

——Stefan Zweig

Exchanging One Prison Cell for Another

At the end of my novel Lina: A Portrait of a Damascene Girl (Lina: Lawhat Fatat Dimashqiya), which was published in Beirut in 1982 but not allowed to be sold in any Arab country, Lina came to the conclusion that if she stayed in Syria she would be killed, imprisoned, or at best rot like the rest of her people. She chose exile as an alternative space of freedom, rejecting her family, friends, and country. "I will try the impossible," she said to her distraught friend Amal, "to express myself the way I want, with the freedom I see fit. I won't be able to do that unless I run away from you" (Attar 1994, 212). We don't know what happened to Lina in exile. The novel ends before her departure from Damascus. But we share with her the vision that motivates her to fly away from home. We imagine the goldsmith she describes as a god working freely without any fetters.[End Page 150]

"Goodbye," said Lina. "Goodbye," said Amal.

In the shadow of the trees, Lina saw the pale face of her friend, her dejected eyes.

Were they destined to leave as strangers?

The sun began to set on the foot of the mountain. From the city minarets, the voices of the muezzins grew louder, calling people for prayer. What was waiting for her in exile? She raised her head to the sky and gazed at those frail birds rising and falling. Suddenly she wanted to run and run. Through the faint light she saw the deserted lane become a silver vault, then the image of the goldsmith in the gold bazaar came to her, and she heard his file across the years, frail and faint like the rustle of the trees, the murmur of the brooks, the bells of a dream.


Readers may wonder if Lina has in fact fulfilled herself in exile, or whether she has escaped murder, imprisonment, or decay. We do not find answers in the novel, but we could look for clues in my life as an exiled writer.

In August 1965 I resigned from my job as a head of the news section at the Syrian Broadcasting Corporation. Not only had I wished to leave a city drenched in violence at the time but also I hoped to pursue my higher education in North America. Although it is important to distinguish between me as a writer and Lina, my heroine, one can easily see that I did not escape censorship either in the Arab world or in the West. I have exchanged the prison and wretchedness that Lina speaks about for similar experiences in countries where I lived. Creating an alternative space of freedom was an illusion most of the time. At the end I became homeless. My career as a writer was totally destroyed. This does not mean that I regret leaving Damascus, or the decision I made forty-one years ago. Exile has taught me a great deal. It helped me see myself, my country, and the world with new eyes. Had I stayed in Damascus, or returned to it, all my judgments would have been derived from the group. I would not have enjoyed full freedom, or become quite independent.

In the late sixties I taught a seminar in French Canada on James Joyce: The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Dubliners. My students were English and French Canadian graduates. Of course I had read and taught Joyce before, but it was only during the summer of 1968 that I realized that some of my experiences were similar to those of Joyce. Joyce rebelled against his narrow Catholic environment, his home, his religion, and his [End...


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