Rare Opportunity to Shadow Syrian Novelist Leads to Activism
The images that media use to create a narrative of the Syrian conflict don't tell the entire story -- that's what AJ Naddaff '19 came to understand after spending several days with award-winning Syrian novelist and screenwriter Khaled Khalifa during his spring visit to Davidson.
In his writings, Khalifa captures the revolution for future generations, portraying the evolution of the uprising from peaceful protests to intractable civil war.
Naddaff now feels compelled to share the human side of the crisis in Syria with others.
In the spring, Naddaff conducted research with Associate Professor and Chair of Arab Studies Rebecca Joubin, who specializes in Syrian drama -- the perfect medium through which to illuminate the humanity of the civilian movement in Syria.
"Media sheds light on depressing and grim stories, but I found Khaled to be one of the most jovial characters I've ever met," he said. "The photos we see aren't indicative of the reality that these people show emotions other than sadness."
Currently, he is studying Arabic in Jordan and has been selected, along with Waleed AlKhoor '19, by the Humans of Amman Program to serve as a photographer and narrative writer.
Khalifa spent a week on Davidson's campus while completing a writing fellowship at Harvard University. While at Davidson, he participated in a Q&A session, attended classes and met with small groups of students.
"Bringing artist activists from the Arab world gives a different image than what we see in the media," Joubin said.
Naddaff was taking two courses that included Khalifa's novel In Praise of Hatred, and Joubin proposed that, as a part of his work-study with her, they co-publish an article for the Arab culture magazine Al-Jadid, called Khaled Khalifa Speaks His Mind.
Naddaff stayed by Khalifa's side throughout his visit, interviewing him intermittently.
"It was a great honor to spend three days alongside him," Naddaff said. "Because of that, we were able to form a special connection."
Naddaff said that Khaled's warmth removed any sense of hierarchy and fostered a trusting relationship that enabled him to ask all of his questions -- even the more sensitive ones.
"He really opened up to me," Naddaff said. "This is truly incredible to think about, considering his acclaim and the way you would expect most celebrities handle their visits at schools in a more reserved manner."
During classes with Khalifa, Naddaff said students wanted to get to know Khalifa as an artist and author, and asked about the process of translation as well as the challenge of writing a story through the female perspective for his novel In Praise of Hatred.
"He explained to us how he was able to reach a Syrian readership thanks to the novel's wide success in other areas of the Arab world, all the while subverting the regime's narrative," Naddaff said.
Naddaff learned that Khalifa doesn't own copies of his books, or keep copies of material written about him. Rather, Khalifa said, he wants to maintain focus on the real heroes of the revolution.
At Davidson he viewed his mini series, Memoirs of Al-Jalali (Serat Al-Jalali) for the first time in years.
"For each time he sees these shows, he relives special memories," Naddaff said. "I could tell how grateful Khaled was to be in the United States, but how much he yearned to be back in Syria with friends and family."
Initiatives for Better Understanding
As a result of his experience, Naddaff wants to help people understand what's happening in Syria and foster support for the civilian movement.
With friend and classmate Aman Madan '19, he has started the Syria Awareness series.
"We aim to bring in a diverse perspective of lectures to help our peers understand the divisive geopolitics of the conflict, but most importantly the human element behind the revolution as Khalifa helped me understand," he said. "After all, the revolution started with hopes for a new democratic future, not to make war."
He believes that overcoming cultural and language barriers will inform his research on the region for his senior thesis and views studying abroad as essential to the process.
"I want to spend a year in Lebanon to enhance my cultural understanding and expose me to new viewpoints," he said. "My father is American-Lebanese but doesn't speak any Arabic and hasn't been to Lebanon. My dad and I are grateful that I'll be one of the first in my family to return."
In preparation for his year abroad, Naddaff is spending the summer in Jordan studying Arabic and working with an initiative in partnership with various state department-affiliated nonprofits that serve Syrian students whose studies have been interrupted. As part of the initiative, he visits various embassies, high schools and universities to speak with students about the possibilities of a U.S. education, and even a Davidson education.
Naddaff chose to attend Davidson because of a conversation he had with Joubin.
"I found the Arab Studies department at Davidson to be very strong and gained an idea of the types of experiences I could have, but I didn't know how attainable they would be," he said. "I don't know of any other college where I could have met and spent so much time with an acclaimed Syrian author."