Sunday, April 9, 2017

Syrian Poets Bear Witness

Verse by the famous Syrian poet, Nizar Qabani. A long and honored tradition.

Like most Arab countries, Syria has a long, deep, and rich tradition of poetry.  Poets are honored both for the beauty they bring to the world, but as prophets and often the voice of the poor and powerless.  Naturally over hundreds of years many poets have paid steep prices for speaking truth to power, or for merely being inconvenient. In a country with often mutually hostile Islamic sects, ethnic minorities, Arab nationalists, and westernizers there were always many painful ways to run afoul of a neighbor.  Despite this both poets and their readers have treasured that special cultural relationship.
Now that the Cheeto in Charge has thrown his fit and $70 million worth of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles Americans are turning their short attention spans back to Syria—and away from those nasty tales of backdoor shenanigans and influence peddling between Donald Trump, his kin and cronies, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and assorted moguls and mobsters.  His motives for raining surprisingly inconsequential damage on a Syrian airfield after giving the Russians due heads up. 
Perhaps, taking him at his word, he was moved by human sympathy seeing footage of those “beautiful babiesgasping for air after a chemical weapon attack.  Those would be the same sort of babies he is fighting tooth and nail to keep from ever entering the United States because of, you know, terrorism.  It would also be evidence of human empathy that he has utterly lacked in everything else he has said and done as either a candidate or President.
Then there is the real possibility he is just ragingly incompetent and completely flipped on his own policy—leave Syria to Assad and the Russians in exchange for them occasionally pausing in the slaughter of other Syrians to kill some ISIS terrorists  overnight without a forward plan.
And then there is a grab bag of conspiracy theories involving a Russian connection misdirection, cover for an Israeli attack, deals with Turkey to let them rub out the Kurds, or take-your-pick Saudi and Wahhabist plots.
The Syrian Civil War has seen to much of this on all sides.
It doesn’t matter.  The six year old, multi-sided Syrian Civil War which as displaced millions and created a worldwide refugee crisis just got even more fucked up. And it can only get worse if Trump and the U.S. keep mucking around.  The complex conflict has left no parties with clean hands and no populations on any side spared senseless atrocities or the wanton destruction of their communities.
Through it all it has been the poets of Syria who have risen to be the powerful voices of the victims.  And many of those poets have been women.  It is past time for Western ears to listen.
Dr. Nahat Abdul Samad, poet.

Najat Abdul Samad is a physician—an ob-gyn—from Sweida, about an hour’s drive from the Syria’s southern border with Jordan.  While practicing medicine she has seen much war and tragedy which she has written about in poetry and her novel Lands of Exile.  She says:
I read so that I am healed and I write so that I am healed. Today, while my homeland is covered with the color of blood, I write to bring back greenness back to the trees and height back to the mountains, and I write so that people do not die in subjugation or forget their right to live safely. I write with the hopes that the tyrants read and are ashamed of their extreme ugliness.
A friend from her home town, Ghada Alatrash who now lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has translated her poetry and promoted in North America.
When I am Overcome By Weakness
When I am overcome with weakness, I bandage my heart with a woman’s patience in adversity. I bandage it with the upright posture of a Syrian woman who is not bent by bereavement, poverty, or displacement as she rises from the banquets of death and carries on shepherding life’s rituals. She prepares for a creeping, ravenous winter and gathers the heavy firewood branches, stick by stick from the frigid wilderness. She does not cut a tree, does not steal, does not surrender her soul to weariness, does not ask anyone’s charity, does not fold with the load, and does not yield midway.
I bandage my heart with the determination of that boy they hit with an electric stick on his only kidney until he urinated blood. Yet he returned and walked in the next demonstration.
I bandage it with the steadiness of a child’s steps in the snow of a refugee camp, a child wearing a small black shoe on one foot and a large blue sandal on the other, wandering off and singing to butterflies flying in the sunny skies, butterflies and skies seen only by his eyes.
I bandage it with December’s frozen tree roots, trees that have sworn to blossom in March or April.
I bandage it with the voice of reason that was not affected by a proximate desolation.
I bandage it with veins whose warm blood has not yet been spilled on the surface of our sacred soil.
I bandage it with what was entrusted by our martyrs, with the conscience of the living, and with the image of a beautiful homeland envisioned by the eyes of the poor.
I bandage it with the outcry: “Death and not humiliation.”
Najat Abdul Samad
Translated by Ghada Alatrash

Sleek and western in Paris--still a voice of Syria, Maram al-Masri.
Maram al-Masri lives in Paris now and looks sleek and Western sitting in cafés drinking coffee.  She first rose to prominence as a poet in exile writing with searing honesty about the lives of displaced, sophisticated women like her including grappling with love, sex, and ambition.
She was born in Latakia, a city on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a cosmopolitan place that looked west as much as toward Damascus.  Her middle class parents were fluent in the colonial language—French.  She was caught as a young woman between her Arab roots and like her friends nurturing ourselves with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen.”  She studied English at the University of Damascus and was publishing poetry in Arabic journals as a teenager.  She initially moved to France in the 1980’s but continued to spend part of each year in Syria.  She published her first poetry collection in 1987.  A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor came out in 1997 and established a high flying reputation.
Before the war, the woman in me was my universe, my source of inspiration. I became fragile, I paid a price. It was like baring yourself naked in front of people. [My husband’s lawyer] used my poems in the divorce case against me. The judge agreed with him that my poetry was not compatible with marriage, with the mind of a good, faithful wife.
As late as 2009 her collection Barefoot Souls, which was widely praised was focused on her experiences as a wife, mother, and housekeeper.  The war changed that as she began to read the obituaries of old friends, many of them murdered in some way by the Assad regime.  And then the refugees began to flood Europe.  She began to go to the refugee camps because she could not go back to Syria, Her next book, published in France as Elle va nue la liberté and in English as Liberty Walks Naked is her remarkable war book.  It is powerful enough so that there is a movement in Paris to nominate her for the Nobel Prize.
The Children of Syria
The children of Syria
Swaddled in their shrouds
like wrapped sweets.
But, they are not made of sugar,
they are made of flesh
and dreams
and love.

The streets await you,
Gardens, schools and holidays
await you,
children of Syria.

It is too soon to be birds,
to play
in the heavens.

Maram al-Masri

Have You Seen Him?

Have you seen him?

Carrying his infant in his arms
advancing with magisterial step
head up, back straight …

As if the infant should be happy and proud
to be carried like this in his father’s arms …

If only he was

Maram al-Masri


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