One year after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2012, Housam Al-Mosilli and his friends were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured when they were stopped at a checkpoint on their way to cover an anti-government protest in Damascus. The group left the prison alive, but Housam remained aware of the constant threat on his life in the months following. He fled Syria in December of 2012, traveling to Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey before being accepted as the ICORN writer in residence in Linköping, arriving in Sweden. Since leaving Syria, Housam has continued to write nonfiction, short stories, poetry, and novels about politics, film, and human rights.
Life in Syria, and Out
You were arrested for the third time in 2012 for documenting an opposition demonstration. When did you first become blacklisted? How did the situation build into the 2012 arrest and torture?
It started in May 2011. That was the first time I was arrested actually. It was because of an article I wrote; I was comparing Assad’s regime to the film The Grey– the main actor was Liam Neeson, if you remember it—which is about about wolves and how wolves can track us.
I was talking about the regime in this piece. I cannot remember the publisher because they used a fake name, but they published my piece with my name and my photo. There was a problem I had already been arrested for before.
In addition, I had been constantly participating in the Syrian demonstrations against the regime since the revolution started. The security in Syria was very afraid of people working in the media because they were taking photos and videos of what was happening the country and spreading it worldwide. They were afraid of us and sometimes we were treated badly. When I was arrested for the third time– I was living in the countryside of Damascus– they stopped us at a checkpoint. I was there for several hours under torture. That was the worst of my three arrests. But even before that, I wasn’t staying at my home, or even at my family’s place. I used to change places and sleep at friends’ apartments; there was always some new place to move to. I was always scared that my name was on the blacklist, and we had connections, people who were undercover, inside the security. They told us that my name was blacklisted. And I actually discovered my documents confirming this after I left Syria.
When did you realize that you would have to leave Syria?
Well, I did not want to leave. But the pressure on my friends and the threats– it was overwhelming. I was putting them in danger, and I was also putting myself in danger. There was a lot of pressure, especially from my mother, to leave the country, saying, “You are putting us and your brothers in danger.” After being arrested three times, I did not have the ability to move freely in the country. I was always walking and walking; I could not go in a taxi or on a bus, because at the checkpoints they used to stop and check people with IDs, and I knew that I would have been detained a lot of times. I made the decision in the last days of 2012, and I left the country on the 29 of December for Lebanon.
You traveled to Lebanon and then to Egypt and Turkey before being accepted as the ICORN writer in Linköping. What was it like to write in exile while still fearing your safety?
The danger never stopped after leaving Syria. In countries like Lebanon, Egypt, or even Turkey, there’s a bit of chaos. While in Lebanon, I was publishing in the Lebanese newspapers and websites, and I was also publishing other texts and poetry. But I was also working on research and political opinion articles. I left Lebanon because the number of people threatening me increased.
The Syrian civil war did not stop at the borders of Lebanon. It tore the country into a lot of parts, with all of them fighting each other. Some of them are with the regime of Assad, like the militia of Hezbollah. They controlled the airport traffic and were connected with the borders, and they tracked my travels from Lebanon to Egypt. It was dangerous.
In Egypt it was the same thing. I got some threats from the military consulate and the Syrian embassy in Cairo, saying, “You have to trust us and work with us or you may be arrested and transferred from Egypt to Syria.” That’s why I left for Turkey.
While in Turkey, I was working on several subjects. I believe some people should specialize with one subject, but of course we should also know about all parts of the world, not only about our own country. I did some research for the London School of Economics and had some contacts with Esquire; I was working as an editor-in-chief in Turkey. I was doing everything that served the cause.
Called to Art, Forced to Write
When did you first realize you wanted to become a professional writer? What led up to this decision?
It was always about art. I have been saying “I’m going to be an artist,” since I was in school. And when I was in school, I had a very good teacher– I still love him a lot– he was a teacher of the Arabic language. He used to encourage me and give me a lot of advice and books to read. I thought I was either going to be a writer, a scriptwriter for TV, or maybe an actor.
Instead, the circumstances within Syria led me to my career. If you wanted to be an actor, for example, the Regime controlled the institution, so you would need somebody to push your case to the Regime or pay money. So I decided to write.
Now that I’m doing well, I feel like myself when I write. I feel like I’m shaping something. I worked in several professions before that weren’t related to the arts. But even then writing made me feel very full of possibility.
What are the other fields you worked in before becoming a writer? Does that time you spent working other jobs still influence your writing now?
I got a lot of experience from working in fields very far from art and writing. I was very interested in marketing and business administration, and I translated several books and articles for private universities in Syria. I’ve found that now I’m very familiar with the ideas of marketing because there’s a lot of creative innovation there. I also worked as a manager for a company, one of the biggest companies in Syria. I was one of the younger people in the company, but I still held a very high position.
This still affects a lot of my writing, because I see the reality of the events I am writing about from different points of view. I am not just looking at what’s happening internationally or at any spot in the world with an artist’s eye only; I can look at it through the eyes of accounting, for example, or through the eyes of a salesman. So writing with all these different points of view will make you have an expanded view of what’s happening around you.
Who are your literary influences?
Actually, Hemingway is my biggest. I always write that “Hemingway is my hero.” Because he was a writer, but before that he was a correspondent covering the war. He did not want to live this political life of an artist during that time period. He wanted to be engaged; he wanted to be with people, to see what was happening in the war, not to write about something he did not know. For me, Hemingway was a true hero. And I’m always afraid that I’m going to finish like him, so I’m trying to be more optimistic about life.
What is your favorite Hemingway work?
For Whom the Bell Tolls. Actually I have this quote tattooed on my arm, it’s: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.” This is from a poem written by John Donne, a British poet, someone else of whom I’m a very big fan. Hemingway was influenced by John Donne when he named his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I also think Roberto Amato, the Italian, is one of my favorites. Eduardo Galeano, he wrote something about football, and I still think it’s one of the best pieces of art ever written. Because it touches you when he is only speaking about football. But you can see the reflection of all the world in this poem. It’s quite amazing. But you know I influence myself sometimes– because sometimes I feel that if I’m getting very influenced by others, I’m losing my way with writing. And sometimes I think yeah, I’m a writer too, let’s pretend that I’m a really good writer, and I idolize myself.
You said fleeing Syria and being persecuted as a writer made you “closer to your writing” and established your identity as a writer. Did isolation play a role in that closeness?Do you think all writers have to enter into isolation in order to establish this identity?
I think being isolated is very important because there are always things you need reflect on by sitting alone and thinking about everything you did and everything that happened, if you made the right decisions or not, what could be changed if you had the chance to change something in the past, and what your future plan is. And to look at the events happening, for example in Syria, without pressure from the media, friends and family, and just think I’m going to be neutral and look at what is happening. And thinking about your future; I think no one can write good things without being in such an experience of isolation. Because in the world we are living in, a lot of things can change or manipulate us, our opinions or our reality. I have actually really enjoyed the experience of loneliness. Of course, I’m not lonely all the time, but you have to have your own space and your own time. And I think this goes not only for writing, but for all things in a very fast moving world. We have to stop sometimes and think again about why we are running so fast. What are we trying to catch? What did we miss?
You write nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Is there one you started writing first, or have you always written in these different forms? What does each form bring to your expression; how do you decide which form will be best to express yourself in?
I started with writing nonfiction. I was also writing some short stories, some poetry, and of course every writer when he is young has as his ultimate plan to write a novel. So I was thinking about that, but the situation in Syria did not allow me to feel free. I was in a position to just write about the war. And I needed to because there are people who don’t know what’s happening in the country. You have to write some testimonies or articles, political articles, do some research. We did not have the luxury to write nonfiction.
We did not have the luxury to express our feelings. The priority was to tell the people what was happening. This happens during every war in the world. During the war or even after it’s been over for two or three years, you do not have a very good artistic world. It’s all about the country. After that, you have the luxury to express yourself. Then you will see the cinema, the movies, and novels that can last for a long time, that can express not only the writer, but a lot of people who lived through the same misery. I like to express myself in poetry of course, but I still didn’t have the time to just focus on this.
We did not have the luxury to express our feelings. The priority was to tell the people what was happening.
I’m now focusing on short stories, documenting the nonfiction events in Syria with a fiction point of view. I already wrote several short stories, and I’m planning on publishing them when I have about twenty or twenty-five.
It’s interesting to think about self-expression as a luxury, because I think a lot of people who haven’t lived through a war or under oppressive circumstances don’t think about that as a luxury. What story or stories do you hope to tell with your writing? Has that message and story changed since leaving Syria and having more freedom to write?
I was planning on writing about myself– my dreams, my passions– but the war put me in a place where I felt responsible to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. I cannot talk about myself only, my country, and my friends, because of the situation.
I’m trying to tell people that we Syrians are ordinary people. We have our dreams, our love stories, our careers, our hobbies; we do not deserve to have a war. Nobody deserves to have a war. Especially now that we think that the civilization has really advanced and we are planning on moving to Mars. We still have some essential and basic things we could improve and change. And this is what is happening in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. There’s a lot of ignorance.
Sometimes I can justify this ignorance because I think that if Syrians did not have a war, we would have the same ignorance. Most of the people in Syria do not care about what’s happening in other places in the world. This is not the fault of Europeans or Americans, or the Western world or the “Free World.” But still, I want to tell people that they need to rethink what is happening in Syria and about how evil can affect humanity. If we want to advance, we should get rid of evil and war. We cannot keep going to work when there are still people being killed or forced to flee their homes.
This message was enhanced by my leaving Syria. I gained some more information and resources that can justify for me what is happening in terms of the war. In terms of humanity and evil, nothing has changed.
What circumstances were you in when you wrote your poem “Diary of the Silent”? Are those circumstances reflected anywhere in the poem?
I wrote “Diary of the Silent” in more than one place. I wrote some of it in Egypt and some of it in Turkey. It wasn’t very good circumstances of course– a lot of things were happening in Syria and I was still blaming myself for leaving my country. I always wanted to go back. I was always trying to tell people the truth. The truth was my feelings. My family was still in danger in Damascus and nobody wanted to hear that or hear what they wanted.
I remember I was thinking about a lot of stories that faced me when I was imprisoned in Syria. Even when we speak, nobody wants to hear. So in that way we have a silent diary. I wanted to write our memories, thinking maybe they can read us if they cannot hear us.
When I remember writing that poem, I have very good feeling; I was relieving myself when I wrote it. I usually do not write about Damascus– I don’t know why– especially the city of Damascus. I have a lot fear writing about Damascus because I fear my city, and at the same time I love it. So I felt embarrassed, like I couldn’t do anything. So “Diary of the Silent” was the first time I wrote anything about it. The last part, when I wrote about Roberto Benigni, it felt very good to write that. That movie, The Tiger and the Snow, was describing a story in Iraq. It was moment of relief for me, because in that movie I saw this description of my country and people being killed. It wasn’t a matter of cinema for me, but memories.
In “Diary of the Silent,” the speaker uses the plural “we.” Who is the “we” the speaker represents? Is it the Syrian people, or someone else?
I usually use “we” in my writing. I intend to use the plural to say, “I am a Syrian.” After I left Syria, I was being treated in a special way– maybe because I know English, maybe because I’m a kind of artist. So I usually say, “I am also Syrian. I am not only that artist whose texts you like. First, I am a Syrian.” I am maybe able to express something using language, but that doesn’t mean that others are not suffering. Maybe the only difference between me and them is that I can write and I can tell my story in English and they can’t. But they have witnessed the same thing.
We are Syrians. And my struggle with me and with myself– I can sometimes express it easily. I’m living now in Sweden and it’s very safe. But still I have my daily nightmares about being arrested and war stories. I still speak to my family every day, and they are living in a completely different situation. When I remember myself there, there’s something different– some struggle between being safe and being in danger.
Lighting a Dark Theater: The Writing Process
What kind of mental space do you enter into before you write?
Usually when I write something, I am seeing it and I am only writing about it with my keyboard or my notebook. But it’s usually just a mental note on several events or several weeks. Sometimes I see something or I remember something, but I do not write it immediately. I just leave it to be a note inside of myself. Sometimes I just wake up in the morning and just start writing and I feel like I already memorized something and I’m afraid to forget it.
I discovered that I’m doing this not only with short poetry, but also when I’m writing 3000 or 4000 word short stories. I see it in front of me; it’s just a transcript. But when I’m doing this I really can’t feel anything. I remember once I woke up and I had a visitor. I woke up and started writing for one hour. After I finished I said, “Good morning,” and he said, “Yeah, it’s already 4:00.”
Is that process the same when you’re writing non-fiction as it is when you’re writing poetry? What are the moments in which you feel inspired to write poetry and fiction? Nonfiction?
For the nonfiction, it just really comes from nowhere. You keep it inside yourself and then suddenly, out of nowhere, it comes and you write a long text. Working with nonfiction is of course very different, especially with articles. I do a lot of focusing, researching, searching for information. It’s a completely different attitude or manner of writing. That space that I go to, it is the best thing I feel. I feel as though I am completely separated from the world. It’s just me and some keyboard or pen. It’s like you’re on a theater stage and it’s all dark, but the focus is on highlighting one area with a spotlight. It’s cinema I think. I’m addicted to it.
After you left your home in Syria, you said Syria also left you in some ways. How do you navigate trying to write about home while you’re physically separated from it?
I had this feeling the first time I left Syria. I felt that my country abandoned me. I felt like I was doing other things that nobody should do at this age. I was supposed to enjoy life, but I found myself being tortured and arrested. So I had these negative feelings that I did not deserve such treatment, especially from my home. So I made the decision to leave.
I’m not going to forget my country, and of course I’m not going to forget myself. But at some point, I felt that I can’t leave without being connected to this place. I spent half of my life there: my family, my friends, my school, it’s where I had my first kiss. When you’re outside of the country physically, even if you have all of the resources to know what is happening on the ground and are always online with people who are telling you what is happening from every spot of the country, you still need to feel, you need to touch, you need to be there. I felt somehow that I abandoned my country and I wasn’t supposed to do this. And this actually continues because sometimes I feel I should go back to my country.
Sometimes I think yeah, I should just go now and find a way illegally to enter my country again, even though I know I cannot do anything inside Syria. Or maybe do anything well. But at least I’m still alive and I’m telling my story about my country. And there’s no Internet, no safe place to stay there. I don’t know— I really have mixed feelings.
Does identity play a role in your writing? Do you consider questions about what it means to be Syrian in this moment?
I can’t forget my identity– well because it’s me– but the reason I am here is because I am a Syrian writer. I’m only in Sweden because I’m a Syrian writer who has been tortured and imprisoned and lived through a war. That’s why I’m publishing, and being interviewed, and getting translated. It’s always the country first: I am a Syrian artist, a Syrian worker, and more. It always sticks with me.
I’m very proud of being Syrian. My country gave me all these things and I can only be thankful. I was speaking to a friend a few hours ago, and we were talking about this same thing. He is a poet and also living in Sweden. We were saying that we do not live in a new world where we’re not affected by the war. If we were younger, we would maybe heal fast, or at least faster. But for us, we think that we can’t heal because we have spent 30 years in this cause in the Middle East, and it’s always there–the pressure–you can’t just erase that after two or three years.
Actually, in two or three years, what’s happening with me now, here in Sweden, especially in these last few months, is everything is coming to the surface. I was just pretending that I’m okay, pretending that life is going alright and going to work and everything. Now I feel that after having options of life, something inside of me just wants to break out to the surface. For example, when somebody tells you the movie To Rome with Love is a silly movie, but sometimes you feel it’s such silly stuff you should debate. You say, “No, it’s not that silly. You don’t understand the cinema or anything.” I don’t know what is happening, but it’s still something where we have been Syrians for a very long time and we do not have a place to release our energy or to use it in a very positive way, as we wanted, as we dreamed.
That’s why I think the whole world should treat people from the war zones as victims. Because they are victims. They have witnessed something they did not want to witness. We should not have to be pushing back and labeling things, especially in Europe and what’s happening now with Trump, labeling Syrians as criminals or terrorists, as well as Iraqis and Iranians. This will not do good for the long term. And most people have only seen horrors. They should be treated in a more thoughtful manner than other people who have been living a normal life. We should fix our broken holes, not make them wider.
When you talk about labeling, it reminds me of the problem of generalizing the conflict in Syria and what it means to be Syrian that you’ve talked about before. How do you try to respond to overgeneralization with your writing?
I’m trying to get across that Syrians– or anybody of any nationality or race or anything in the world– we are in the first thing individuals. Each of us has our own separate and important story. Each human on this earth has his own very important life to tell about, and he is not the same as his neighbor, or his brother even. I witnessed something other people have witnessed, but each individual has his own point of view. Sometimes we share something like politics, or economics, but we are very different. It’s a matter of people who can express themselves, and I think art is usually good for when you want to express something or when you want to fight generalization.
We are in the first thing individuals. Each of us has our own separate and important story.
I remember there was an animated Iranian movie nominated for the Oscars maybe three or four years ago called Persepolis; it’s about an Iranian writer living in France, and she decides to go back to her country. She speaks the truth there: that all the people are individuals– they have their own story, their own life, their own careers, and she was one of them.
We can’t say “Iranians”, or that the writer of this movie, with her own story, will speak for everybody in Iran. Maybe if you went to Iran you would think that some things are the same, but definitely the people aren’t all the same. And that’s what I’m trying to do when I’m writing short stories. I’m writing about very different people sometimes. I wrote two different short stories about the army and soldiers. And one of the soldiers was pure evil and the other was an angel. One was helping people and the other was killing them. Even for the soldiers, we can’t say that soldiers are the same. They are humans first.
How much of your work has been translated into other languages?
I have a few translated texts: some longer texts, some poetry, and some nonfiction texts. I have a short story that was translated into Swedish. I have several texts translated into other languages, but mostly to Swedish and then to English. When I was in Istanbul, I wrote “The Memories of the Lost.” I remember people liked this text a lot, but still– actually I did not like it when “Diary of the Silent” was translated, for example. When it was translated to Swedish first and then English, a newspaper in Sweden wanted to republish it. So it was republished here. And then at the Courrier International in France, one of the editors read it in Swedish and he wanted to translate it into French and publish in the Courrier. This text has been translated into several languages. But I don’t know how I feel about it; I’m still confused about it.
Do you feel like something is lost when your work gets translated into other languages?
Yes, of course. I have already translated four books. I just delivered the last book three weeks ago to the publisher, and I know how hard the translator worked on it. However, the original text will never be the same as the translated one.
When Your Home Leaves You: Life in Sweden
You’ve said you spend about six hours a day watching the news. What are you looking for when you watch? What kind of material are you gathering? What kind of effect does it have on you?
I watch the news with fear because every time I watch the news, I’m scared I’m going to see someone I know among the victims and people who have been killed. Sometimes I think maybe I will see some report or some video, and I will see that my apartment has been bombed. Still, I also watch the news because I think I have to do something, and I am still concerned about what is happening in my country. I still know what is happening, both the events on the ground and in the political field. If I stop watching the news, I think I would mostly be lost. I’m always in contact with people inside in Syria and trying to stay connected.
For me in Sweden now, I’m really enjoying it. After living in several countries, like starting from zero, I think I’m going to live here for a long time. Based on my experiences after about 13 months here, I think it is a very good country; the people are very shy, but they are also very kind. Now I’m focusing on being settled in Sweden. So that’s why I started going to school, learning the language; I already applied for the University– I want to study documentary filmmaking. I’m trying to find work here– not only my freelance work– I want to find something that I can feel very settled in the country, going to spend every day at work with a group of people. I think Sweden has given me the greatest opportunity I can imagine. Of course I’m very grateful for Sweden. Even for this potential to be the guest writer, it’s something special and so all of the time I feel that I owe them, and I should at least do something in return. That’s why in the last year I have been going every week or so to a reading or lecture, or visiting something all around Sweden. They were very pleased with me; I’ve been invited to a lot of activities, and I’ve been given the chance to just tell about my country with all the freedom, with all the words I want to tell with.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on translations of my short stories, and the novel– which I stopped writing—I’m going back to it again. I was working on a TV program about cinema, I did two series of this program, about 26 episodes. The first season was about the political films and asked questions about how we are telling stories in the western world. Western films try to help or force a story, especially when it comes from Iraq. You see this in a film like American Sniper. The second season was an anthology of the best cinema in the world. I wrote a lot about Fellini, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Spielberg, and I’m trying to publish it as a book now. There’s a lot of things I’m still working on, like I’m translating some of a book– they are articles to publish as a book– it’s all about cinema, and I’m translating it from English to Arabic. It’s a very hard language because it’s not like English.
Do you think you will ever go back to Syria?
Well, to be realistic, I don’t think so, or at least not in these next ten years. I always dream of going now, like we hang up and I say goodbye and go back to my country. But then to be more realistic, I know that I’m staying here. Even in Syria, I think it will take a lot of time to reset that place again. Instead I try to do something much better than living in the country and not doing anything, but instead living outside the country and telling the story of the country and trying to be a good representative outside of it.
There’s a lot of conversations about refugees in our global discourse. But you’ve said no one talks about the “real problem” of getting rid of terrorism in Syria so that Syrians can return home. What do you think is the answer for getting rid of terrorism in Syria?
The main root of terrorism in Syria is the regime of Assad. It has been for forty years. Before Assad, the women were educated, we did not have to ask for a visa to travel to other countries– we were a very open-minded society with more respect for human rights. We were a very complete country, but they ruined it; they stole it from its people during this dictatorship. I think — I’m still always insisting about this—that getting rid of Assad will fix maybe 75 percent of the problem. Now it’s really complicated. When we hear the news outside Syria and we don’t know any sources on the ground about what is actually happening there, you will see that the international community is not trying to solve the problem, they are just making it worse than before,. We now have the Russians, and I think maybe the whole world, involved in the war.
I’m sure what I’m saying goes for most of Syrians: they blame Barack Obama for not taking any action. Because people were saying, “Come on, the American President is going to protect us.” They had a lot of hope in Obama. And he was saying every day that Assad had only a few hours to leave power, and we people had hope that we were supported by the biggest superpower on the planet. Then he abandoned the people. After he said, “We are not going to attack Assad’s regime,” the victims killed by Assad increased from dozens into hundreds. It was like they had the green light from America to do what they want.
The main problem is still Assad, and But the main problem is still Assad, and actually according to statistics, 92% of the civilians killed in Syria have been killed by Assad’s regime. And 1.8% of civilians were killed by the ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups. It would be silly to put our hands now in the hands of the killer Assad and say, “Let’s go and fight ISIS.” The world really should always have a third option, so we can say more than that we need to only fight ISIS or for Assad to take the country. No, there’s 20 million people in Syria. And I’m sure we can establish a new government and we can elect a new government to rule the country.
What do you think is Syria’s future?
Everyone now on the ground is saying that the country will be divided and maybe in ten years there won’t be Syria as we know it. There will a country for Alawites, a country for Sunnis, and Turkey is going to take some part of the country, and maybe Israel too. The Iranian influence is also spreading wider and wider. And I think the Iranians– the government of Iran– they are the most evil in the Middle East out of anyone. I think if nothing happens to change that dark future, the whole world is going to suffer. We have already witnessed how people are using– some terrorist people– are using the cause of human rights in the Middle East to justify terrorist attacks. That’s why I think all of the people who really believe in human rights should be protected in my country, in a democratic, liberal, or whatever it is, some government elected by people. We need support to find an ultimate solution for all of this that’s happening in the Middle East, especially in Syria. But still, it’s not a matter of feelings only.
The most powerful people on this earth are actually the most evil. They can control the economy, and I’d like to think that even before there was war in the world, there were still those guys who try to steal or terrorize, and those people are now just wearing some nice tuxedos and makeup, and they can go in front of the cameras and speak, and they can go and control the military. But they are still the same, because it’s the human race that should be looked at. When people choose who their leaders are, they only want to go by appearances. They do not look for the people who can help us all live together.