Essays

On the healing powers of fiction in times of war

*This essay is based on a talk I gave on art in times of conflict.

I would like to start by paying tribute to all the artists currently living in conflict areas, breathing life into spaces filled with blood. I’m in awe of their work and inspired by the opportunity they carve out in the midst of destruction.

Today, Yemenis are the recipients of limitless violence. By 2020, it is estimated that 233,000 people would’ve been killed mainly because of the lack of hospitals, medicine, and food.

Will Art feed the starving children? No.

Will Art cure them of cholera? No.

Art is not a panacea for every ailment, but it is not irrelevant in times of conflict either.  In fact, It’s extremely important, not only because Art can document violations, it can break down taboos, but it can also provide relief and an escape.  It can inspire and instill hope by making the ugly beautiful.

 

In the photos above, Artist Saba Jallas does exactly that. These two images are from actual explosions. She sketches over them in order to instill hope and inspiration. This isn’t just about being naively hopeful, it’s about taking control of the uncontrollable chaos in their lives. It’s about reclaiming agency when the world tells you that you have none.

Finally, art has the power to heal trauma, which is what I’d like to focus on, specifically the healing powers of fiction.

HEALING POWERS OF FICTION

I fell in a depression post-revolution after the passing of people I loved, grief over the loss of a dream, the loss of home; and the inability to deal with documenting the suffering of people but not being able to do anything about it. I took a step back from activism and with time I turned into what dictators love, a politically apathetic person. This was strange because I had been very politically active since I was young.

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I grew up in an extremely political family. Our family stories had two heroes, my grandfather (in the photo on the left) who was beheaded for ‘the cause’, a picture of his beheading still hangs in the military museum in Yemen as an ode to revolutionaries; and my grandmother who they claim never cried despite the political imprisonment of her four sons.

Retreating from politics meant retreating from my family legacy, my old life, and my friends. It meant exclusion from my community and questioning my identity. I felt lost, lonely, and guilty about not doing my part in politics, but when you’re sinking, how could you help others breathe? The more I suffered, the guiltier I felt about my weakness. I didn’t have the words to describe what I was feeling.   So I hid from the world.

Then one day, while my grandmother was telling me a story about her childhood, I asked if I could interview her about her life. After much deliberation, she agreed on one condition: the story I would eventually write had to be turned into a musalsal Ramadan.

I had intended to write her story exactly as it was told to me in the hopes of one day turning it into a Ramadan TV series, but as I began writing, something strange happened, I began creating another character that resembled my grandmother but that wasn’t entirely her.  She morphed into something else. She was a character-based in the past, but also in the present. Someone from virtual reality, but also a reality I knew very well.

Without realizing it, I had begun a novel and with time, the fiction-writing process healed me.

Fiction gave me the chance to ‘transcend the here and now’

In the two hours I wrote daily, I lived outside the space of war. I ‘transcended the here and now’ as Howard Zinn described the power of art.  I no longer thought about things I couldn’t control like pregnant women who die at checkpoints, parents who helplessly watch their kids turn to skeletons or siblings who have re-assemble body parts damaged by a bombing in order to recognize and then bury their loved ones.

I began to feel emotions other than sadness. Even if they were at first the emotions of my characters, with time they became mine. When I wrote about women’s parties or ammo Ali’s tea or my childhood memories of Abu Walad biscuits I was taking myself away from the moments of horror and reminding myself what Yemen was like, even if it’s not exactly like that now – it gave me hope for what it could return to.

Second, writing helped me reflect

While I wrote, I was free to listen to my characters and to absorb information without any expectation of finding a solution. In a state of grief, I needed some time to recover from shock, but not everyone understood that – especially not in activist circles. Fiction gave me the space to do that and allowed for ideas to resonate in the mind. Every time I re-read what I had written, I was reflecting on it, and by doing that the making of new meaning happened.

Fiction helped me process trauma.

I didn’t just write happy things, I also wrote extremely difficult chapters. Writing allowed me to process my trauma at my own pace, in controlled dosages. Through my fictional characters, I became a spectator of my own life and I not only processed recent events, but also my childhood, and even inter-generational trauma. I laughed, debated, got angry and sad all with my characters. Through fiction, I externalized the violence I had witnessed, positioned myself against deep grief and began to understand and reconstruct what has happened. In essence, I took control over what was once uncontrollable.

Fiction allowed me to transcend linear thinking

In times of conflict, political polarization and identity politics take a center stage and this made me feel extremely suffocated and pushed me to retreat further from politics. Fiction freed me from that dichotomy. It gave me space and time to think of divergent ideas, to think in non-linear ways.

The novel appreciates the complexities of human nature. I sought these complexities instead of shying away from them. My characters are as complex as the conflict. They are as complex as human beings all are. Through character dialogues, I become my own devil’s advocate and questioned my own beliefs.

Fiction allowed me to go back home

When you’re in exile – whether by choice or force – you’re away from the place you love. Through my writing, I go to Yemen daily. Not the Yemen we see on TV, but the Yemen I remember. I write to make sure that the memories I have aren’t overshadowed by all the blood. In the current novel I’m writing, my birth city Sana’a is still standing strong, and the beautiful old city where I lived is still intact.

Fiction provided me with the tools to break out of my bubble

By bringing people of diverse opinions together and opening up the space to allow us to speak to one another, fiction can build greater empathy and understanding. I learned to see people who hurt me differently by making them the protagonist.

At a moment when the world seems more divided than ever, I believe this is vital.

To conclude, I believe in the power of story because perceptions of reality are reinforced by stories we tell ourselves and this is why it’s important to break away from the single narrative on Yemen. Let’s help construct a new shared narrative on Yemen that is not one-dimensional and goes against the toxic binary narratives.

I’m not saying let’s not write about the war and the suffering, we must, but let’s also write about what keeps us alive. Let’s also write about our resilience because that is also who we are.

My grandmother couldn’t read or write, but I hope to one day honor her life by writing her story, maybe even in the form of a Ramadan series, inshallah.

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