The Polyphony of a Syrian Refugee Speaks Volumes

25 January, 2021
The old city of Aleppo before the civil war (Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
Alep­po, Syria.


Silence is a Sense, a nov­el by Lay­la AlAmmar
Algo­nquin March 2021
ISBN 9781643750262



Farah Abdessamad


“The thing is, when you can’t speak, peo­ple assume you can’t hear either,” says the anony­mous 26-year-old Syr­i­an refugee in Lay­la AlAm­mar’s sec­ond nov­el, Silence is a Sense. The book tells the sto­ry of “The Voice­less,” a mute young woman from war-torn Alep­po, who has left fam­i­ly and life behind to reside in an unspec­i­fied British town only to find that the solace she sought lies beyond her reach.

The Voice­less is study­ing for an online degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence, but what she does all day and night is to linger in the lim­i­nal, dan­ger­ous space between liv­ing and dying, the present and the past, nego­ti­at­ing with the refrac­tions of her relent­less trau­ma which ham­pers her abil­i­ty (or will­ing­ness) to speak. She hints at and describes the mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al hard­ships she has over­come. She either stays in the sanc­tu­ary of her apart­ment or when she ven­tures out­side, it is always with­in a deter­mined perime­ter. The Voice­less writes a news­pa­per col­umn using her pseu­do­nym and spies on her neigh­bors from her win­dow. How will she cope when irrup­tions threat­en to shat­ter her san­i­tized and pre­car­i­ous cocoon?

From her apart­ment in “West Tow­er, fourth floor, flat three,” her world is small. Neigh­bors appear and ani­mate behind their respec­tive win­dows like mar­i­onettes. There’s “The Juicer” with a six-pack tor­so and strict macro diet; the messy fam­i­ly of Helen, sur­viv­ing domes­tic vio­lence, and her daugh­ter Chloe; the old cou­ple Tom and Ruth speak­ing in an inde­ci­pher­able lan­guage; Adam who will grow to become a friend and con­fi­dant, and oth­ers. The Voice­less fol­lows their slices of life, their habits, from a dis­tance until the would-be her­met­ic cor­don san­i­taire between her and them is no longer tenable.

The second novel from Layla AlAmmar,   Silence is a Sense   is available from Algonquin.

Silence is a Sense con­veys the frag­ments of war, par­tic­u­lar­ly the war in Syr­ia that pulls the Voice­less to shoul­der her past like the unfor­tu­nate Sisy­phus and his rock. Writ­ing and read­ing are a form of escapism for this lit­er­a­ture-savvy young woman who attend­ed uni­ver­si­ty in Dam­as­cus before the war broke out and reveres Edgar Allan Poe. Though she had claimed “the right to live with dig­ni­ty, the right to think with­out fear, the right to exist out­side of a state of emer­gency” in the fren­zy of a buoy­ant Syr­i­an Spring, she real­izes years lat­er that safe­ty does­n’t and can’t exist, since fear and inse­cu­ri­ty haven’t aban­doned her. Racist slurs and attacks in her new home in the UK shake her to the core and break her frail bub­ble. Tran­quil­li­ty may be a fantasy.

Her rec­ol­lec­tions of the war are present in asso­ci­a­tions and flash­backs when, for instance, a neigh­bor she encoun­ters phys­i­cal­ly reminds her of a fam­i­ly mem­ber. Her repeat­ed night­mares are grip­ping. Malak al Mawt, the Angel of Death as recount­ed in Islam, makes fre­quent appear­ances in the book. It’s haunt­ing company.

The psy­chi­a­trist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst Carl Jung wrote that sen­sa­tion is a phys­i­cal stim­u­lus to per­cep­tion. Silence con­trasts with the noise of war the Voice­less was sub­ject­ed to. Trau­ma express­es itself in silence as if mut­ing her­self would also shut down the vagaries of her mind. The sound of war is a music, of bombs, of cry­ing infants and wails. It is a cacoph­o­ny, often punc­tu­at­ed by long peri­ods of bore­dom in between two hor­rors — in my expe­ri­ence this is true.

I’ve had my own close encoun­ters with Malak al Mawt and deeply con­nect­ed with the con­nec­tion between speech and self-real­iza­tion in the nov­el. One day not too long ago, I decid­ed I want­ed to do some­thing about the night­mares and the fear. I was exhaust­ed. I had lost sleep, and had grown unbear­ably irri­ta­ble. I took a short time-out from my work after ten years on-and-off in the Mid­dle East, a region I’ve known in both war and peace. I stepped on a plane, watch­ing des­o­la­tion become tiny con­fet­ti dots below, and after an overnight flight, dipped my toes the warm waters of a Thai beach. I was ful­ly con­scious of the priv­i­lege this con­sti­tut­ed — con­flict still raged in the coun­try from which I had just depart­ed. I attend­ed a vipas­sana retreat with a group of strangers, which involved fol­low­ing a mind­ful­ness pro­gram for a week under Bud­dhist monas­tic rules, with­out speak­ing, exchang­ing eye con­tact or touching.

The silent retreat flew by (some peo­ple dropped out) and when it was time to “break” our tem­po­rary vows, includ­ing speak­ing, I observed peo­ple rush­ing to talk to each oth­er, laugh­ing, remov­ing their smart phones out of their bags, and scrolling through the social media posts they had missed. I stayed numb for a long while, at a table drink­ing a glass of water by myself (I nev­er drank water more slow­ly than that day), unwill­ing to engage with the world again just yet, find­ing plea­sure in hush­ing sounds, lim­it­ing echoes, pro­tect­ing an invis­i­ble nest and crowd­ing-out the brouha­ha of sound bombs which still rever­ber­at­ed in my ears. Kuwaiti-Amer­i­can author Lay­la AlAm­mar mas­ter­ful­ly depicts that silence is a refuge, too, for peo­ple affect­ed by the unspeak­able — a jus­ti­fi­able paren­the­sis. What was there to say to the Oth­er? There were only paus­es to con­vey. I found truths in Silence in a Sense where for me the line of fic­tion and real­i­ty often blurred. 

When you come from a place where the walls have ears and you spend your life hid­ing and fab­ri­cat­ing, try­ing to learn the rules to games you have no hope of ever win­ning and search­ing for cracks from which to scur­ry out, your instinct is to hold cer­tain mat­ters close to the chest. It’s about self-preser­va­tion, that most basic of human instincts.— Lay­la AlAmmar

The nov­el con­veys the dis­so­nance one feels rec­on­cil­ing a “here and now” when so much pulls away and apart. Wher­ev­er she is, the Voice­less does­n’t belong — in Syr­ia where she did­n’t abide by old tra­di­tions, nor in this British set­ting where she’s con­front­ed with the vio­lence of nor­mal­cy (and the nor­mal­cy of violence). 

Untitled, painting by Syrian artist Aula Al Ayoubi (courtesy Aula Al Ayoubi)
Refugee woman paint­ed by Syr­i­an artist Aula Al Ayoubi.

Her sur­re­al exchanges with Josie, her col­umn edi­tor, are most strik­ing. Josie prompts the Voice­less to cull more sto­ries from her life back home; she wants more about what it means to be a refugee and less polit­i­cal­ly-charged reflec­tion from this new­com­er. Josie’s west­ern gaze is after trauma­porn. The sto­ry in the nov­el takes place in the back­drop of the Man­ches­ter bomb­ing, and when a Lon­don knife attack occurs, Josie tells the Voice­less that it’s a big deal as real peo­ple (eight) died and not to throw around casu­al state­ments which may obfus­cate peo­ple’s shock and grief. But whose grief is Josie inter­est­ed in? Unsur­pris­ing­ly the Voice­less strug­gles with the obscen­i­ty of this preach­ing and ques­tions the right of her edi­tor to label real lives, in oppo­si­tion to the implied “fake lives” that may extend to her kin beyond the Mediter­ranean. Is there a num­ber above which death becomes mean­ing­less and unim­por­tant, she won­ders. This remind­ed me of the quote often attrib­uted to Joseph Stal­in, “the death of one per­son is a tragedy; the death of one mil­lion is a sta­tis­tic,” which also cyn­i­cal­ly applies to our COVID-19 era. How to explain that between 400,000 to 500,000 of her peo­ple have died, and that she’s one of over five mil­lion Syr­i­an refugees, not count­ing the six mil­lion who have been inter­nal­ly dis­placed with­in Syr­i­a’s bor­ders? The Voice­less obvi­ous­ly knows more about suf­fer­ing and loss — vis­cer­al­ly, not in abstract terms — but she can’t com­mu­ni­cate it in a way that reach­es peo­ple like Josie. And per­haps, oth­ers aren’t ready to tru­ly lis­ten (and the Syr­i­an plight con­tin­ues). Speak­ing forces accountability.

Trau­ma, as Lay­la AlAm­mar demon­strates, is deal­ing with soli­tude even when you are in a group of peo­ple. Despite the immense sad­ness this may cause, her pro­tag­o­nist refus­es to fall to expect­ed abysmal depths. The Voice­less retains her dig­ni­ty despite the hard­ships she’s endured. AlAm­mar suc­ceeds in chal­leng­ing the refugee or asy­lum-seek­er stereo­type, includ­ing the one of a young Arab woman. The Voice­less does­n’t flee pover­ty and isn’t there to “steal” British jobs. She’s edu­cat­ed and impress­es with her near-native Eng­lish writ­ing style to the extent that some of her col­umn read­ers believe her refugee sto­ry is a cov­er and a fraud. She holds agency and does­n’t rely on a man for pro­tec­tion. She stuck with dif­fi­cult deci­sions and isn’t sor­ry for her­self. Though she hints at abuse dur­ing her jour­ney from Syr­ia to the UK, her sex­u­al­i­ty is not a source of shame — she pur­sues her desires when she wants to.

Silence is a Sense is a mod­ern-day tragedy bor­row­ing clas­si­cal ele­ments of the genre. From trag­ic dimen­sions iden­ti­fied over 2,300 years ago, we find the rec­ol­lec­tions of her change of fate and the long, Odyssean migrant route which took the Voice­less across Europe; the tragedy of her own suf­fer­ing; of her char­ac­ter, not inter­ven­ing at a cru­cial moment because she could­n’t bring her­self to speak and when she does it’s too late (which includes a scene of self-aware­ness when she unveils the extent of her cir­cum­stances); also of spec­ta­cle and décor. 

I was most inter­est­ed in the mir­ror-like, almost claus­tro­pho­bic arrange­ment of the build­ing, where most of the action takes place, and her inter­ac­tions with the oth­er res­i­dents. The Voice­less obses­sive­ly peeks at her neigh­bors’ lives, drift­ing into theirs, and she real­izes that they may also “see” some­thing in return. What is it that they guess behind her mute shad­ow? What feel­ing or iden­ti­ty does she project, and how does she mod­u­late her pres­ence to her spectators?

These ques­tions explore the dra­matur­gi­cal lens offered in Erv­ing Goff­man’s The Pre­sen­ta­tion of Self in Every­day Life orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1956. This soci­o­log­i­cal work framed human and social inter­ac­tions in the­atri­cal terms, posit­ing them as noth­ing short of a per­for­mance. We tend to avoid embar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions, and adjust our appear­ance or man­ners as actors may arrange cos­tumes, ges­tures and into­na­tions to con­vey spe­cif­ic mean­ing and influ­ence over encoun­ters. The Voice­less, as we also are, is often caught in the shift­ing glare of what con­sti­tutes an inside and an out­side. In her case, turn­ing inwards opens the matryosh­ka dolls of her mem­o­ries — lead­ing to a past out­side, in far­away Syr­ia — and the present-day out­side is often the pris­on­er of her inner con­flicts. The Voice­less is trapped unless some­thing rad­i­cal changes, a theme AlAm­mar had already devel­oped in her UK debut nov­el, The Pact We Made.

Silence is a Sense is a poly­phon­ic, psy­cho­log­i­cal, char­ac­ter-dri­ven nov­el about the banal­i­ty of vio­lence and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of chart­ing a heal­ing process (trig­ger warn­ing for rape, sui­cide attempt and depres­sion). Beyond sta­tis­tics, it explores how to under­stand the human-scale motions of the mind and sur­veys invis­i­ble scars. “The human need for sto­ries is itself an obsta­cle to mem­o­ry,” AlAm­mar writes, though one may dis­agree. Sto­ries are also what nour­ish mem­o­ries. Silence is more than noth­ing­ness, it is a lan­guage, an act. Sisy­phus’ boul­der inex­orably rolls back down­hill. Yet he per­sists in his task and con­fronts absur­di­ty with humanity.



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