After finishing middle school in 1972, Sobhi Dassoki moved from al-Raqqa to Homs to study in the teacher training institute. Four years later, he went back to al-Raqqa, where he worked as a teacher for one year. He began the compulsory military service a few months later as a journalist for the military magazine “Bilmersad”.
Since childhood, Sobhi had been interested in reading anything he came across - from magazines and newspapers to books. His parents noticed his passion for reading and increased his personal allowance so that he could buy children’s books and magazines. His elementary teachers also discovered his talent for writing and started asking him to read some of his stories to his classmates and other students.
Sobhi says, “In 1972, I was a grade 7 student when I wrote my first critique that addressed some of the contradictions in Nizar Qabbani’s poetry. The article was published in the Syrian magazine, al-Talia. Also in 1972, my first story was published in al-Mawqif al-Adabi magazine.”
He adds, “After publishing my first story, one of the writers told me that remuneration was available for me in Damascus. When I asked him what that meant, he clarified that it was a cash allowance for the story published in my name. So, I went to the Arab Writers Union’s headquarters in Damascus and met Mr. Zakaria Tamer, the editor-in-chief of al-Mawqif al-Adabi magazine. He was surprised by my young age and took me by the hand to introduce me to major writers and literary figures. The encouragement I received from these writers led me to major in story writing in parallel with journalistic writing.”
Sobhi’s cultural interests were not limited to writing only; theatre had intrigued him ever since he was young. He started watching all shows performed in al-Raqqa, then he took some theatrical acting roles. Later, he established a mobile theater group and started performing plays in rural areas and villages inside and outside al-Raqqa Governorate with the support of the Rural Youth League.
While studying in Homs, Sobhi made sure to attend most cultural and literary events. He also met many writers, literary figures and theater actors in Homs because during that period the city witnessed remarkable cultural activity and attracted major figures. “In al-Raqqa, literary events and evenings were few. There was no competition at the cultural level because all activities were organized by the cultural center,” he says. “Homs, however, contained many cultural platforms, such as Dawhat al-Mimas Club, al-Khayyam Club and the Cultural Center. These were very important venues and hosted weekly seminars and literary evenings. This was in addition to the Writers Union’s branch, the Workers Club and the university, all of which frequently organized cultural activities and attracted the presence of writers and major Arab and Syrian figures, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, Samih al-Qasim and Shakir al-Samawi among others.”
Sobhi stayed active in the theatre for a long period of time, during which he wrote many plays and participated in several theater festivals in Damascus. In addition, he participated in theater festivals by the Tala'i al-Baath Organization as an actor, director and writer. As a result, he built good relations with directors, actors, playwrights and writers, such as Saadallah Wannous, Mamdouh Adwan and others. Many of them supported and encouraged him at the start of his career. These relationships developed further when he later settled in Damascus.
Sobhi talks about the nature of the relationship between writers and the governing authority in Syria: “It wass well-known that our government was repressive, which led us to write in a semi-transparent symbolic way. When someone wrote a certain text, we used to advise them not to criticize directly in order to protect themselves from being held accountable.” Sobhi himself faced some harassment by the security forces because of his writing but he always tried to elude the regulators and publish stories that symbolically criticized the regime and the situation in Syria. His first short story collection contained a story titled “Pamphlets are Distributed Tonight”; the story was rejected. He started including it in every short story collection in the hope that it would be approved for publication, but it was continuously rejected. Later, a Lebanese publishing house offered to publish one of his short story collections so he sent them a collection that included that story. The collection entered Syria and was displayed at the international Book Fair at al-Assad National Library. However, only two days later, the security forces confiscated and destroyed it. Sobhi faced many other similar situations where his writings and stories were banned. For instance, between 2007 and 2009, he published two short story collections through the Writers Union, but 5 stories from each collection were removed and banned.
Sobhi says, “We were pinned down so that our writing would not spread. The maximum number of copies of any literary work printed in Syria was restricted to 1,000. Literary evenings were also partly under surveillance by the security forces, and censorship of publications had always been strict. Unfortunately, the controllers were also writers who could easily discover what we were trying to hide in our creative work. Therefore, many stories were banned after the messages they tried to convey were uncovered.”
From 1972 till 2011, Sobhi wrote articles, literary works and pieces covering cultural events in many Syrian newspapers, such as al-Ouruba in Homs, al-Thawra, al-Ba’ath and Tishreen, as well as Syrian magazines, such as al-Maarifa and al-Mawqif al-Adabi among others. Sobhi says, “In all state bodies and agencies, including the journalistic and cultural field, there was a general tendency to place the wrong people in important positions in order to achieve benefits and gains for a certain group of people belonging to a certain sect.”