The Frightened Ones: 'I sometimes miss fear because it became a way of living'
Dima Wannous, 37, left her beloved Damascus in 2011, as peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad were beginning to be violently dispersed. The Syrian capital had been the author's home for almost 30 years.
Wannous feared for her safety. Her father, the late playwright Saadallah Wannous, was a famous man whose work had political undertones. Her husband, Ibrahim Hamidi, was in the cross hairs of the Syrian government for his work as a journalist.
In 2002, Hamidi was arrested on charges of publishing purportedly “fake news”, after he wrote an article exposing secret plans by the Syrian government to welcome Iraqi refugees in the event of a war in Iraq, despite their official stance opposing the war.
The Idlib-born journalist was released in 2003, as the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, but the threat of further detention was a constant worry for Wannous. And so several years later, the couple rented a studio flat in Beirut, planning to return to Syria as soon as events subsided.
The Frightened Ones is an intimate exploration of what it means to survive under psychological pressure
Wannous found herself struggling to write, and to think of Beirut as her new home, so there was an almost ten year hiatus between the release of her second novel The Chair (2008), written in Syria, and the Arabic edition of The Frightened Ones, which was published in 2017.
But with the conflict in her homeland showing no signs of abating, Wannous ended up staying in Beirut for six more years, before moving to London in 2017.
Whilst The Chair is an observation and critique of human nature and society, where the protagonist is a middle-aged man moved by his desire to fill a seat on the high echelons of society, The Frightened Ones is an intimate exploration of what it means to survive under psychological pressure.
Suleima, the novel's protagonist, is an artist in her 30s who reminisces about events that unfolded 15 years earlier, when she first visited Kamil, a psychotherapist in Damascus, to treat her long term anxiety, panic attacks and anorexia. At Kamil’s practice she meets Naseem, a doctor and writer, who she falls in love with. Naseem, a self-harmer who is also Kamil’s patient, is frightened of many things, including love.
As Suleima tries to make sense of Naseem’s introverted nature, near the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Naseem leaves Damascus for Germany, without asking Suleima to accompany him. Their phone conversations gradually become more and more infrequent and Suleima is left with a host of unanswered questions and a copy of the unfinished manuscript of Nassem’s novel, which he posts to her.
As Suleima begins to read the manuscript, she sees so much of themselves as a couple that she questions whether their relationship had just been a means for Naseem to write his novel.
“I wondered again about Naseem’s motivation”, narrates Suleima. “Why did he make his narrator carry all of our stories?”
Suleima feels betrayed twice: first, for having been abandoned, and then, for feeling manipulated by Naseem as inspiration for his writing. The novel’s chapters alternate between Suleima’s story as narrated by her, and extracts from Naseem’s manuscript, where the narrator is his protagonist - an unnamed woman who seems to resemble Suleima in many ways. The two women have so much in common that the plots of their respective stories sometimes blur. But as Suleima reads on, she realises that the female character is not based on her after all.
After interrogating Kamil’s receptionist, Suleima discovers that the woman in the novel is actually another patient of Kamil's, and that her name is Salma. She discovers that she is a writer in her thirties who has moved from Damascus to Beirut, following Kamil’s recommendation. It becomes Suleima’s mission to try and find this other woman, in the hope that she will help solve the mystery surrounding Naseem’s disappearance.
But after travelling all the way from Damascus, Suleima does nothing more than standing across the road from the cafe where Salma is waiting, before turning back to her hotel. Fear, it seems, prevents Suleima from facing Salma, as she chooses ignorance over a truth that might be final and suffocating.
In the novel, fear appears in many guises. Naseem’s character is disturbed by a constant feeling of being monitored by the secret services.
Similarly, Suleima recalls a time when at secondary school she too had the same feeling of being scrutinised after she was asked to comment on President Hafez al-Assad’s role in the Hama massacre in 1982, when the Syrian army razed the city to quash the Muslim Brotherhood. “Our Father the Leader has bloodied his hands for the entire Syrian people," blurts 14-year-old Suleima.
Following her outburst, she expects immediate punishment. But nothing happens. The instructor simply smiles, and Suleima is left to wait for a reaction that would never come, but would instead terrorise her throughout her school years, narrating how "anticipating fear is harder than feeling it”.
Fear and paranoia also visit Suleima’s father, a doctor. He flees death and destruction in Hama in the 1980s because he is too scared of remaining in a city targeted by the regime as a stronghold of dissenters.
'[It] is not just a Syrian issue, it’s about living under dictatorship: they don’t want you to have fear, no. They want you to be afraid of fear'
- Dima Wannous, Syrian author
Aware that he is being followed and wishing to avoid being accused of disloyalty to the regime, he hangs a flag of the Syrian president in his office. His wife, who had disapproved of his decision to leave Hama, then accuses him of being a coward.
But his paranoia is not unjustified: on one of her trips to Beirut, Suleima discovers that her father had been wanted, and ironically still was, even after his death. "Where did he go?", asks the officer at the Syrian border. "Fled with the rest of the traitors?"
This strategy of spreading terror, Wannous says, “is not just a Syrian issue, it’s about living under dictatorship: they don’t want you to have fear, no. They want you to be afraid of fear."
It was growing up in this repressive climate that made it hard for the Syrian author to tackle her apprehensions and ultimately to approach writing this novel: “When you write about fear you will feel this fear, every time," she says.
Eventually, she found no other way but to confront her own fears head-on: “This is all I could write about. Fear is what 23 million Syrians have in common.”
Processing personal trauma
Another theme that runs through The Frightened Ones is that of loss: both Suleima and Salma have lost key male figures in their life.
Salma lost her father to cancer when she was in her early teens. For many years, she lived in denial, preferring to tell people that he had left, rather than admitting that he was dead. She is a girl of 14, but with a soul that has "matured into its 30s".
Suleima loses her brother, Fuad, who disappeared during demonstrations in Damascus in early 2011. Suleima and her mother cannot leave Damascus, in case he returns.
Suleima, like Salma, also lost her father. And then she loses Naseem, who suffers his own losses - both his mother and sister were killed when their house in Homs was bombed in 2006, as the city was caught in the crossfire of Israel’s war on Lebanon.
When he was still in Damascus and haunted by trauma, Naseem would write obituaries of friends and family who were still alive, on scraps of paper which he kept in his drawer. To Suleima, imagining the modality of their death was his way of feeling like he was somehow in control of their destinies, rather than waiting for their deaths to happen.
In the book, Kamil’s therapy practice is inundated with patients like Suleima, Salma and Naseem, crowding the waiting rooms, suggesting that suffering through trauma is a reality for the many in Syria, not the few. Even the regime’s secret agents go to see Kamil.
And while antidepressants and psychotherapy offer temporary respite to Suleima and Naseem others, like Salma, also contemplate suicide as a possible escape.
It is through these meetings with her therapist over the course of the 15 years since her father died that Suleima begins to understand the role that fear has played in her life. It has become so intrinsic to her and the other characters that they are unable to live without it. “[Fear] urged me to live,” Suleima narrates. “If it wasn’t for fear, I would have lost my impetus for life."
This cycle of fear is something Wannous says she never believed she would be able to break free from. “I never believed that I would be able to write a novel here [in London], in this city, a different country, away from the Arab world.”
But since moving to London, and completing The Frightened Ones, she has written another novel, which has just been published in Arabic. And the Family Devoured Its Men is another powerful look at loss, this time told through the memories haunting a mother and her daughter, who is consumed by guilt at uprooting their lives in Damascus to move to London, where they are now based.
With the themes of her novels seeming to stem from Wannous's own deep seated concerns, it is perhaps not all that surprising that fear is an overwhelming presence in The Frightened Ones.
“I sometimes miss fear," she says. "Because it became a way of living. And my imagination worked around that fear.”
The Frightened Ones, by Dima Wannous, is out now from Harvill Secker, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018.