Translated from Arabic by Leri Price
Imagine you are a young girl in Damascus … the civil war is raging around you. Your movements are severely restricted – not only because of your sex, but because you have an uncontrollable urge to walk and walk and walk and walk. So your mother attaches a long piece of rope to your wrist and ties you to immovable objects in the home and to herself when you are outside. That way you can never get lost. It’s for your safety, you see.
Rima is that young girl. She is mute (by choice); she doesn’t wish to address the real world. And yet she is an imaginative child, drawn at an early age to the world of books, enchanted by The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland, seeking escape from the many horrors that surround her through literature, drawing and imaginary planets. While those who know her consider her mad, I personally cannot think of a better distraction technique. Yazbek, talking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, talked about Rima’s imagination being more than that, a path to freedom, a rebellion against the world and, in particular, the masculine culture that keeps its feminine counterpart tethered and silenced.
Rima is the narrator of Planet of Clay, writing from a cellar in an area of the city that is being targeted by Assad’s bombers. She is waiting for her brother’s friend, Hassan, to come and move her to a safer place. Her narrative is not linear. Indeed her mind seems to be as restless as her feet! However, her story shows how she arrived in the cellar and the many losses incurred along the way. When you think about the news coming from Syria during recent years, you will realise these have to be many. People shot at checkpoints, carpet bombing and chemical attacks on civilian areas full of women and children. Casualties may just be anonymous numbers to us living far away, for Rima they are personal tragedies and losses. Her youth means she cannot fathom why this is happening, her writing is her attempt to understand. This is war through the eyes of a child growing to adolescence (she takes quite a shine to Hassan), and there is a certain naïvety in her telling. No overt political criticism, or overwhelming emotion. Rima often says she has forgotten the details of what has happened but then captures scenes in almost photographic detail, using her own colourful language. (Another rebellion against the greyness of war.) For example, child victims of the chemical attack on Ghouta are remembered by “the foam coming out of their noses and the orange-coloured streams coming out of their mouths and the blueness creeping over their bodies”. So powerful are these pictures, no further commentary is needed.
Yazbek has seen these things for herself and recounted them in her award-winning reportage. Now fictionalising them, she has created both a sympathetic protaganist and a narrative that, she hopes, will reach a larger audience and remind them of the virtual imprisonment (the tethering of Rima) and ongoing silencing (her muteness) of Syrian women.
Watch Samar Yazbek discuss Planet of Clay and how Rima is “part of her brain” at the Edinburgh Book Festival here.