The Great Fighters

Dr Saad Vafai Baaj


All human beings contain multitudes, Whitman wrote. And the eternal problem for creative people such as Saad Vafaibaaj during wartime and in its aftermath is navigating the balancing act between innate radicalism and studied neutrality to avoid being targeted by people who believe indeed that all human beings are linear. It’s like walking a tightrope without a safety net, knowing how to navigate ideological and military silencing with grace.

Vafaibaaj knows he is a son of the culture, the religion, and the nation-state, and because he respects cultures, he stays within their limits. But listen to him talk about his work, read his work on the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, and you see that his interest soars above the idea of a nation-state; his easy openness is a foil for insular definitions xenophobia, racism and misogyny. As a skilled multi-linguist mediating between cultures of all kinds, he is fascinated by their reproduction, not their death.

When he left Syria in 2013, his wife led their journey abroad. She searched for new opportunities and convinced him they should move their small family to Turkey. She had lost her job in medical quality assurance when the factory where she was working was utterly destroyed. Overnight her financial independence was stolen from her. Ten years and two more degrees later, she resumed work and now works between Germany and Kuwait, teaching Arabic to Syrian students, supporting the family and supplementing the income that he gets from being an assistant professor at their diaspora. Saad had always travelled and lived in different places – Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and now Turkey, but it was intense to leave with such finality, and when his courage faltered, she bolstered him. He tells this story and others. Of the two female professors based in Turkey and Lebanon who supervised his PhD as he struggled to complete it during the first seven years of the conflict, and of the translation work he does for the UN now as an accredited UN translator – 50 articles in total, all about women and children. They are now his principal focus, the women and children, “the Great Fighters, I call them. They sacrificed their studies, education, jobs, to keep their families intact”.

Now, Vafaibaaj is an accomplished linguist, simultaneous translator, journalist and academic. Still, to understand his profound response to “the vulnerable part of society,” it’s worth remembering that he resonates with literature’s moral and ethical strains, that he is a storyteller, and a hard worker. By the age of seven, he knew that he wanted to learn English. He was living in Kuwait at the time. His father took him to visit his friend, an Indian, who spoke Arabic and English very well, and this intercultural conundrum must have left an imprint on his young mind. The man introduced him to Shakespeare and agreed to teach him English by giving him a giant rubber pencil, almost half-a-metre, that was to be used for English words only. “Come back in a week and let me see what you write,” the man instructed. So Vafaibaaj went away and wrote down every English word he could find, without understanding the meaning. He then went to the library and was able to find originals and translations of Russian and English literature; then he read stories from around the world, from Japan, Poland, from across the Middle East. He read first in Arabic, then in English, and his passion and imagination for stories grew. By the time he was 14, he knew that he wanted to study English, and by 16, he “wanted to become a doctor of English! When I was 18, I decided I’d visit England one day.”

And now that he is in England on a Cara research trip, having never been here before, I ask him if it is what he expected. “Yes, yes, it is.”  In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, there is an absurd moment when the protagonist returns home to Sudan from England and installs a chimney in his home. “Can you imagine he built a chimney in a hot country like Sudan. And it seems like the house he built is like the houses I see here. It is this very beautiful mixture of cultures that I am interested in”. Now thanks to Cara, he has experienced it. 

He studied English literature for his undergraduate studies and a diploma in advanced literary studies, specialised in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Then, between yet another master’s degree and a doctorate, for which he looked critically at Tayeb Salih’s Wedding of Zwein, a 1969 classic of Arab/ African literature, he gained degrees in translation and interpretation, and for one of his theses, wrote about language and power. When he was doing simultaneous translation, his performance was like the narration of a story. His audience would knock on the translator’s booth and ask him to give them the paper because they didn’t believe it. He translated for many international agencies and embassies. Lately, he has been thinking more about Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer whose work he would like to write something about one day.  

But for now, the stories of the Syrian diaspora claim his attention and haunt him.

“Many nurses, many doctors, many parents, many kids migrated. Universities are missing many of their professors, and schools are missing teachers. Businesses are missing the people that used to run the country. Now, I need to serve my society and the Syrian diaspora and detect what is happening to them. I feel that is the duty I should shoulder, within limits drawn within the society I live in. I am very cautious but meticulously working on getting something that would serve generations ahead so that one day they would read what it is like to live under war and what would happen if suddenly millions of people migrated. How would that affect the receiving society and the country of origin, for example?”  

Why are fluent young people still discriminated against because of their accents? What pushes them to leave destinations chosen by their parents? It’s a rarity in the literature of migration, for migrants, after three years, usually want to stay. Why do second-generation Syrian children lose their Arabic speaking skills, and what does it mean for Syrian cultures if the way they dream, and draw is all not in their heritage language? What is cultural exchange without fear?

In Vafaibaaj’s world, the great fight is one against the tragedy of displacement.

He feels blessed to have discovered Cara through his mentor, Dr Mahar Jesry, a Syrian academic. After his PhD, Vafaibaaj realised he needed help between countries, legal restrictions, careers, and fields. He was an academic without an academy. When he wrote his first article, he could find nowhere to publish it. The emotional pressure from the conflict was proving too much. Cara helped with practical steps. Put him in touch with another writer, Emily Downes, who specialised in English academic writing and in a matter of three months, the article was completed, and in six months, it was published. Since then, he worked on three Cara research papers related to Syrian women, youth and children, which explore language policies, employment chances and educational levels in the diaspora.

“Cara’s most important fingerprint on my career was that it shortened the time it would take me to make connections. It would have taken me many years to reach those people had Cara not been there. It is not easy to see a professor, a scholar, or a researcher without having someone introduce you to him or her; this is what Cara has done. It has shortened the time. As it says on its website. It’s a lifeline, but it’s also a guideline. You know you are lost, and you are missing something, but you are not sure what, and Cara comes in and guides you. If someone is serious enough, they will achieve so much.”