Sunrise on the Horizon

Dr Ahmed Halil


Dr Ahmed Halil, a Syrian literary theorist, translator and Arab/Turkish linguist had the good fortune to know and write about Walid Ikhlasi, one of Syria’s greatest and most surrealistic writers: “He spoke about different aspects of Syrian society, and you can find amongst his work, short stories about nationalism, society, and even fantastic stories about animals talking.” Halil wrote a doctorate on his techniques on time and narrative, then published a book on Ikhlasi’s short stories, following him until his death last year aged 86. “Walid refused to leave Aleppo. I had a talk with his son. Walid was an old man and said he would rather die in Aleppo than leave! He left for a few months but returned. He preferred to stay there until the last days. One of his friends was my professor at the university, and a few years ago, we had a chat. He said that Walid was very upset. He is very old, and nobody visits him, but he still refuses to leave. The last years of his life were not easy.” Helping to keep Walid’s stories alive is a testament to his contribution to Syrian literature.

“Syrians like stories”, he says, “they have a passion for reading, and they read a lot. I once worked at a local bookshop in Aleppo, and if you said to someone that you didn’t have a book, they would come again and again to check if it had arrived. In 2004, I used to read the literary journal Al Arabi, and I remember walking around for almost half an hour to find a copy.” Halil was born in Aleppo. His father came to the city from the rural area of Jarablus before Halil was born. The eldest of nine children, Halil grew up in the city, and studied Arabic language and literature at Aleppo University. Even now, despite a decade of war and exile, he remembers how optimistic the future seemed then.

In 2011, when war broke out, the family moved from Aleppo to Jarablus, postponing dreams of an academic career in Arabic literature at Aleppo. “My father was a pilot and couldn’t work at that time, and there were five or six students in our house and only one income.” The military were also after him. “It wasn’t easy, but I am an optimistic person and always prefer to look at the bright side, the optimistic side.” 

At 23, with only one friend in Turkey, he went first to the southern border town of Gaziantep looking for work and then found his way to Konya, in the centre of the country. He worked in a factory selling macaroni for two years, sending money and savings back home to get his family out of Syria. At first, his siblings were worried about leaving. “Generally, people like their home,” he smiles. “They do not want to leave if they know they are not coming back. But ISIS showed up, so they had no choice. First, you ran from Assad and then from ISIS. ISIS did horrible things. They forced girls to get married to soldiers and after that, you lose them, which was a risk for my young sisters.” By 2014, Halil had managed to get his entire family out of a spiralling situation. Years later, someone sent a picture of their house in Aleppo; it was a burned-out shell. “Psychologically speaking, I am afraid of seeing Syria in that situation. I would like to keep a good picture in my mind,” he says. Having lost everything, they still had each other.

Determined to resume his academic career, Halil embarked on a master’s degree at Selçuk University in Konya. He had already begun teaching part-time at the university, mentoring students on the curriculum, slowly becoming bilingual and discovering his aptitude for Arabic/Turkish translation, even gaining certification in Osmanlıca – Old Turkish. He published an article in Turkish – The Demographic Structure of Syria and Manner Toward Revolution (2017) while working on his doctorate in Arabic Language and Literature and the stories of Walid Ikhlasi, which he completed in 2019. He began to delve into literary translation from Arabic into Turkish, translating several short poems and stories for local magazines and for Türkpress. When he graduated it was no surprise that he was appointed to an assistant professorship at the Higher Institute of Languages, Arabic – Turkish. During his time spent in Turkey, Halil had become a Turkish citizen, completed his military service, got married and had two children. 

 The university town, however, was not immune to the discrimination Syrians face. “Whenever I pointed out unfair treatment, I was told, “but you are Syrian!” Usually, people are uncomfortable admitting this” he laughs, “but I have been told, ‘You are Syrian; so, you need to be grateful and thankful for having a job!’ There is no law here against discrimination. You can’t complain. Only you will lose out, and perhaps it will be worse than before, so it is better to focus on new goals. I was done with the racism. So, I chose to use my energy on better things – ideas.”

He and his young family left Konya for Istanbul. “I am still very new here. I don’t have a regular income, but psychologically I feel better.” From Aleppo to Jarablus, from Jarablus to Gaziantep, to Konya, and now to Istanbul, it’s been a journey. Four of his siblings have finished university, with two who are still studying: one in business school and the other interpretating and translation. None of it was a waste, yet there have been tragedies and losses, particularly that of his father last year during the pandemic.

Now he works freelance in Istanbul with ideas for the future: Arabic literature, Turkish/Arabic literary journals, and publishing presses where there are none, research ideas for studies on translation and ideology, bilingualism, the language of migrants and code-switching. He is currently collaborating with Dr Jerome Devaux, from the Open University School of Languages and Applied Linguistics, on a study – Interpreting during migration crisis: The case of interpreting for Syrian refugees in Turkey; “In translation”, Halil says, “ideology is crucial. A translator can translate in several ways but will choose to translate in a particular way because of ideology, which shows the power of translation; the way you translate a sentence will affect your reader and their whole idea, and translation is crucial to the understanding of the idea.” 

Halil found out about the Cara Syria Programme in 2018 through a colleague at his old university. “To be honest there are a lot of NGOs working with the refugees, and when you try to find out what they are doing, you don’t find anything. So, in the beginning, I wasn’t excited; maybe my colleague did not explain it well, but when he told me Cara had given him an instructor to teach him English one-to-one, I liked that. I am so glad that I did join. It has offered much more than language teaching. Cara has assisted in several aspects. They brought us all together and gave us inspiration and good ideas. We were losing hope, but Cara made us believe that we could do something, that we could produce. They connect people of different backgrounds together to do research. Several of our colleagues are now teaching in other countries and wouldn’t be there without Cara’s support.”

In 2019, he attended Oxford University on a Cara Syria Programme research incubation visit, which had a positive influence, he says. “It changed my point of view and my views about the academy. I attended several courses about teaching. More recently I conducted research with Syria Programme supporters from Oxford, Edinburgh and Reading universities and presented on our joint work at a conference in Padua, Italy, in 2022. Cara also put several Syria Programme colleagues forward for an Open University consultancy to develop an online Arabic Language and Culture course. The OU chose me, and I am very happy that I am doing it. They are very supportive, and I am thankful to them.” Perhaps the greatest thing he says that Cara has done for him is that he is not alone, and that now he has many friends who have broadened his horizons and brought him some hope and clarity.