Silence Is a Sense: War, migration, trauma and healing

Silence Is a Sense: How do you heal refugees so traumatised they no longer speak?
5 min read
02 April, 2021
Book Club: Silence Is a Sense is a poignant and profound story of a Syrian refugee left so traumatised by war and migration that she no longer speaks.
Leila AlAmmar's latest novel Silence Is a Sense
In Leila AlAmmar's latest novel Silence Is a Sense, the unnamed protagonist's unwavering attention on the London estate where she was deposited after a traumatic journey from Syria, reveals a determined avoidance to look inward.

As we read on, we realise the ordered lives and routines of her neighbours only seem that way because she observes them as generic objects to which she assigns fitting chapters, like No-Lights Man, The Dad, The Old Couple, and that her outward observations are a welcome respite from the chaotic landscape of her trauma, revealed in jumbled episodes throughout the novel.

The confines of the protagonist's purposefully limited world (from her apartment window, jaunts to the bookstore, periodic visits to the convenience store) provide her plenty of issues, from domestic violence, racism, religiosity, to xenophobia, on which to wield her sharp, incisive analysis, which AlAmmar skillfully balances with a roiling, agitated approach to deflect from inward reflection: as a writer with the pseudonym The Voiceless at a London paper, she uses her determination to refuse feeding the desire for refugee trauma porn not only to avoid her personal feelings and experiences to the public, but also to herself. 

So while the unnamed narrator is able to deliver intelligent commentary about the world, her traumatic experiences are not so easily intelligible to her, nor so easily aligned with the coordinates of a clear, coherent narrative. 

But eventually the jumbled episodes of her journey as a refugee tumble out — rendered like our own memories — in haphazard, scattered, muddled strokes, rather than linear, unswerving, discrete blocks.

  But eventually the jumbled episodes of her journey as a refugee tumble out — rendered like our own memories — in haphazard, scattered, muddled strokes  

Sometimes vague and muddied, sometimes intensely and microscopically focused on the details to sway and transform our depth of vision, the memories nevertheless emerge through a heteroglossia of material that give shape to the unnamed protagonist: the protagonist's narration, her psychiatric assessments, and the fictional and non-fictional pieces she submits to her editor.

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While her editor (Josie) is an unsympathetic figure (at best, an opportunist latte liberal, and at worst, a Brexiteer), she starts out as one of the few characters that the protagonist communicates with — and only through email to maintain her anonymity.

Although the protagonist holds in reserves plenty of commentary about the world, she barely engages with it. She has been devastated into silence by the war and its aftermath and so has become mute.

Although many think she's deaf and thus mute, the protagonist does nothing to disabuse them of their assumptions. So she persists in misleading others about her ability to hear, only so as to hear their unguarded thoughts uttered out loud.

Certainly she has come to embody in the most literal sense the political silence insinuated by her nom de plume, The Voiceless.

In fact, her missing boyfriend's ideas about literary censorship from the Syrian state (or "our Kingdom of Silence", as she refers to it) occupy her thoughts: "…he spoke instead of the silence in the literature of home – our Kingdom of Silence. He spoke of the impossibility of producing anything at all in such a place. He spoke of how much more creative our poets and writers had to be, of the unending search for more obscure, more impenetrable metaphors with which to vaporise the unbearable truths around us, rendering them a hazy mist, released to float and drift between stark, black lines. The silences were there, he said, in every poem and story. Zakariya Tamer, Kabbani and al-Maghut, Ulfat Idilbi. Gaps and lacunae in which the writer had tucked the sardonic and absurd, the uncanny and belligerent, the chillingly futile."

But the protagonist is no martyr — she is not depriving herself of her own voice to perform solidarity with all the politically disenfranchised and silenced.

Rather, her silence is a physical manifestation of her banishment, exile, excommunication from a protective community, a banishment which she negotiates by placing herself outside the dialogic community.

  Her silence is a physical manifestation of her banishment, exile, excommunication from a protective community  

The protagonist's negotiations with silence certainly evoke discussions of the Holocaust and its recollection insofar as it lingers on the silences ("gaps and lacunae") left by trauma, as well as the defensibility of releasing one account of atrocities after another.

Certainly, AlAmmar evokes these questions when she envisions silence as a perceptual experience — a sense — of how we respond to our environment.

These evocations invite us to echo questions of the past as we witness atrocities today: if Adorno declared that after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible, should we consider language and its playfulness inadequate in the face of overwhelming violence and despair? Is language made "dumb", rendered mute, in the face of events too appalling to formulate?

Do we renew our scepticism borne largely out of the failure of common discourse and literature to fulfill the traditional role of churning out accounts of the resiliency of the human spirit? After all this, do we risk generating apathy, indifference, desensitisation to suffering?

Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a writer currently based in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @NahrainAM

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