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Conversations: Turning Fear Into Fiction and Hope for the Future

In 19-year-old Syrian medical student Nabeel Kallas’s upcoming novel “When the Jasmine Returns,” a group of young friends in Damascus strive to maintain a sense of normalcy against the backdrop of the Syrian conflict.

Written by Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Cover of Nabeel Kallas's upcoming novel "When the Jasmine Returns."Nabeel Kallas

BEIRUT – Nabeel Kallas falls into the category of people in Syria that he describes as having been able to “invest in the war.” That is, people who have taken the daily horrors and tragedies of conflict and “made a good thing out of it.”

The 19-year-old from Hama is in his third year of medical school in Damascus and about to self-publish his first novel – something he hopes will help him achieve his future goals despite the fighting around him.

“When the Jasmine Returns” is Kallas’s fictional portrayal of a group of friends in Damascus as they struggle maintain the sense of normalcy in their daily lives that is constantly at risk of disappearing. The characters and plotlines draw in part from his own experiences during the conflict in Syria, and those of friends and family, and in part from Kallas’s fantasies of what his life would be like.

He completed the first draft in Arabic at the age of 17, and spent the following two years translating it to English, editing, proofreading and designing the cover with the help of several American authors he met online.

Last week, Kallas set up a Kickstarter page to raise funds to continue his medical studies in the U.S., to support those suffering because of the war, and compensate those who “refused to take any money” for helping him, he said.

Syria Deeply spoke to Kallas about the process of writing fiction in the midst of a war, and we include a short excerpt from “When The Jasmine Returns” below.

Syria Deeply: What is the most pressing thing about the conflict in Syria or the country as a whole that you think has been misunderstood or ignored?

Nabbed Kallas: Just scratching [beneath] the surface: We are not the murderers and terrorists that you see on TV. Those are a rare minority that can be found in every nation.

Syrian people are people just like you. We are peace-seekers and lovers. We hate blood on our lands as much as we hate seeing it on yours. We don’t want to transform war, we want to end it. We wake up every day to war, to ash and to blood. Yet, we still love, laugh, hope and continue to dream.

Syria Deeply: How do you think the war has influenced modern Syrian fiction as a whole?

Kallas: Art is the daughter of pain. Pain induces art. I believe that, in art, you give your best when you are at your worst. A lot of people here were able to – I love to put it like this – invest in the war. [They were able to] make a good thing out of it. A painting, a song, a poem, a dance, a book. Anything good amid the tragedies we wake up to every day.

Syria Deeply: Given your background studying medicine, what made you decide to write a novel?

Kallas: Writing is something I enjoyed doing for years. I used to write random pieces, stories and poems. Then, one morning, I challenged myself to finish writing something that I started. A few months later, the challenge was completed, and my first novel was finished.

Syria Deeply: Can you tell us about the main characters in the book? Were they modeled after people you know, or yourself?

Kallas: The novel was kind of how I imagined my life would turn out. The main character, Rafi, is, in a way, modeled after me. Other characters are also loosely based on people around me: friends, family, the people who I hoped would continue the journey with me.

Syria Deeply: You mention that a portion of what you raise in your Kickstarter campaign will go to victims of the war – how will you distribute it and will you donate to any organization or area in particular?

Kallas: Every day, I walk by homeless people, living on the streets in need of almost every basic necessity to survive – from food, to medicine, to clothes, to protecting their bodies from the cruel weather. I love to think that, by dedicating a portion [of funds], I’ll be able to help those people, especially ahead of the drastic winter that’s about to hit us.

Syria Deeply: You also mention that funding will go to support furthering your medical education in the U.S. Can you tell us about these future goals?

Kallas: Moving to America in my twenties has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. To get there and be able to practice medicine, I need to graduate medical school here, and take three pricey and enormous exams.

I must also pass with high marks to potentially get admission to specialize in a thriving hospital in New York or Chicago. I started preparing for the first test. It’s intimidating and time-consuming. But it’s worth it.

The following is an edited extract from “When The Jasmine Returns” by Nabeel Kallas.

I was looking at the sky. The scene was wonderful. The moon was in the middle of a group of charmingly sparkling stars.

Ward looked to where I was I looking. She smiled. After a few seconds she told me in a loving voice: “I don’t think I can live away from this sky of my homeland!”

I didn’t know what to say to her. Traveling in those days seemed permanent, and that was the big hurdle in my way to America or Europe. But it was also the perfect way to chase my big dreams. I pulled myself together and [fought back] the tears in my eyes, and started telling her things I wanted to convince myself of more than I wanted to convince her.

“We will only be gone for a few years and then we will come back here, and live under this sky and save the lives of people of our country.”

I paused for a couple of seconds and said in a confident strong voice: “We will return!”

“I don’t think so.” Her pessimistic voice said.

The side of the road was still filled with dead jasmine plants. Ward pointed at them and asked me: “If jasmine refuse to live here, how can the dreamy, ambitious people [stay]?”

I tried to keep myself from crumbling.

“Someday, everything will return as beautiful as it was, and maybe more.”

She stopped talking for a minute. She thought about what I told her, then asked me, as if she forgot all that she was saying, “Will we really come back here?”

I smiled: “Yes, I promise.”

“But when?”

“When the jasmine returns.”

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