Abdulrahman Matar is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Canada as a refugee since 2015. Since his days as a young man in Syria, he has devoted his life to issues of rights, freedoms and civil society in addition to culture and literature. Consequently, Matar was arrested and imprisoned five times for exercising his freedom of expression.
He has published five books of poetry, stories, and novels as well as articles and political studies in the Arab press. In addition to being the managing editor of the literary magazine “Awraq,” Matar is also founder and director of the Syrian-Mediterranean Cultural Forum which focuses on introducing Arab writers and artists to the Canadian community.
In addition to being a board member in the executive office of the Syrian Writers Association, he is also a member of the Writers Union of Canada, PEN Canada and recipient of the Arts Commitment Award from the Happening Multicultural Festival / Toronto 2021.
Recently Abdulrahman Matar was one of three refugee journalists featured in “The Cost of Freedom,” a Canadian documentary that tells their stories and follows their paths to a new life. The Cost of Freedom is being shown at film festivals in Canada, the United States, and Europe this year.
Last week SYRIAWISE sat down with Matar and talked about the journey his life has taken so far.
Q: How did you end up on the regime’s radar?
The intelligence eye was always vigilant and wherever I went, I felt someone watching me, or following me. This is the status for many, and not me alone. However, I reached a point where everything became public.
In the cultural center where I was working, security personnel were present in the center every day, wanting an explanation for everything we did, or wanting to know what a visiting intellectual wanted, or what was the program?
There was also someone who dealt with the intelligence (an informant) who sent information about me personally and about the visitors to the cultural center. The intelligence services used to summon me almost every week and I was interrogated: about the visitors, what I said, and why I did not obtain the intelligence’s approval for everything in advance. This informant was a member of the security forces, and another was the director of the cultural center.
I later became aware of the security person assigned to monitor me, face to face.
In 2011, in Raqqa and in Damascus, I was also under direct security supervision. I used to see them on my travels, and in any public place I went to, or any cultural activity I attended.
And the summons did not stop. Sometimes they called my phone just to ask me my whereabouts.
And sometimes I was obliged to accept their invitations for coffee!
One of them used to come to my place of work in the Al-Wahda Foundation and say to me: “When will we host you?”
Sometimes he would tell me “Your arrest will give me a reward” and later he hosted me in state security for real.
The story of surveillance and security pursuit is the story of all Syrians.
Q: How did you go from being a poet, writer and artist who was passionate enough about your work that you risked being targeted as an enemy of the regime, to living and working as a regular citizen in Canada?
Without a doubt, there is no one in the world who seeks to be a refugee. Circumstances forced us to do so.
Since the late eighties, after leaving Syria in 1987, I have been able to visit many Arab, European, and Mediterranean countries several times, and I did not seek asylum in any of them.
Q: You were a seeker of freedom and justice for many years in Syria and now you are an asylum seeker in Canada. How is your life different now?
Canada has given me protection, safety and peace on a personal level. I also enjoy freedoms, especially freedom of expression.
This has enhanced my ability to write and work for issues we believe in: the Syrian revolution, and all related issues, including civil society issues, democracy, the issue of political detainees and so on.
Q: You have said that you are now doing very different work than you did in Syria. Was it hard to go from being a high-profile writer in your homeland, to being just another laborer in your new home?
It is natural for my cultural and political performance to be different. Where I was free to do that in Turkey, and I used to work in journalism, in Canada the matter is completely different. You must work. But you cannot work in journalism unless you have experience in Canada. And this is how we find ourselves in the labor market; in factories, transportation, security, and so on.
As for my work, my preoccupation with issues of freedom and rights, change in Syria, and publicizing our cause is still an absolute commitment, and I am still carrying out cultural and political activity, especially through my active membership in PEN Canada, the Canadian Writers Union and other media organizations concerned with freedom of expression. I founded the Syrian-Mediterranean Cultural Forum in Istanbul and continued its activities in Canada with the mission of introducing Arab creators and our issues. We also actively participate in cultural diversity activities. My newest project is a shared book.
Q: What can you tell us about this book?
The idea of this book is to address the Canadian society from inside, and through the cultural status, close to public opinion makers, mainly writers and journalists, to convey the voices of “others”, so to speak. That is, our voices, writers and journalists who are refugees in Canada.
The truth is, we have a number of challenges and problems here, and in every country that refugees arrive in because of tyranny and wars. The obstacles start with language, and do not end with the issue of cultural differentiation, and the problem of a new society and different culture.
It is a joint book, comprising ten feature articles written by ten different writers in exile. We are all members of PEN Canada, from Syria, Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Africa. Each of us tells one’s own story: What are the main reasons for becoming a refugee. How did one get to Canada and become a refugee there, and finally, what are the challenges one faces in the new society? The book will be published soon in English, and my contribution to it is under the title: The Road to Freedom. I have just signed a contract with the publisher, and I hope that the English translation of my novel, Wild Mirage (supported by PEN Canada) will find its way to the publisher soon.
Q: As the founder of Syrian- Mediterranean Cultural Forum, could you please tell us about it?
I founded this forum in March 2013 in Istanbul, after I noticed the absence of cultural institutions that care about Syrian creative intellectuals – at that time – in Turkey. Then, because of the asylum, the forum and its activities moved to Canada, and its mission became to introduce the creative Syrian intellectuals and the Arabs residing in Canada, and to present their literary and artistic productions in order to familiarize the Canadian public with them. The forum’s activities have received positive attention, whether from the Canadian press, or Canadian cultural institutions and those concerned with the diverse cultures in Canada. This was reflected in our extensive participation in various activities, and our nomination as new Arab voices in Canada. After the years of Covid 19, we hope to return again, soon.