Exiled Syrian author wins literary courage award

Tue Oct 9, 2012 12:13pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Syrian journalist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was forced into exile after criticizing President Bashar al-Assad, has won PEN's Pinter International Writer of Courage Award.

Yazbek, who fled her homeland late last year after repeated run-ins with the state security services, was recognized for her book, "A Woman In The Crossfire", an account of the early stages of the Syrian revolution.

In line with the late playwright Harold Pinter's Nobel speech in which he spoke of casting "an unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world", the prize is awarded annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.

"The great thing about this prize is that it highlights figures who might not otherwise get the recognition they deserve," Heather Norman Soderlind, Deputy Director of English PEN, told Reuters.

Yazbek insists, though, that while grateful for the honor, she doesn't see this as a personal accolade. "I felt that beyond me this was a prize for the Syrian Revolution," she said.

But with recognition comes responsibility, and Yazbek seems very aware of the potential pitfalls posed by her increased acknowledgment by international community.

"It places a certain weight on you," she told Reuters through an interpreter at Free Word House in London's Farringdon district. "It does give me more influence outside Syria, and it may give me more recognition inside Syria."

But despite having met former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé in April to discuss an alternative Syrian opposition, she rejects "utterly" the possibility of assuming an active role in the Syrian opposition.

"I'm not a politician. I don't want to play a political role; I'm a writer. I'm with the revolution and I'm part of it, and so I defend it."

Yazbek insists that the international media are ignoring the plight of the Syrian people-- "the people of the revolution are dying silently," she said.

As a consequence, despite having fled to France with her teenage daughter, she continues to regularly and secretly sneak back into Syria over the Turkish border.

Contrary to perceptions in the West, Yazbek maintains that the Syrian Revolution has not devolved into sectarian conflict. "We're all still in this together," Yazbek says, herself a member of President Assad's Alawite clan.

Last night, in a ceremony at the British Library, she was presented with a cheque and prize by Lady Antonia Fraser, a historian and Harold Pinter's widow.

Unlike a number of past winners, Yazbek was able to receive her award in person.

In a measure of the sort of life many Pinter prize recipients live, last year's winner, Roberto Saviano, who writes on the Italian mafia, said he was unable to travel as he would not have received police protection in Britain.

(Reporting By Peter Schwartzstein, editing by Paul Casciato)

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