Sunday, April 15, 2018

Voices from Syria—Poets Stand for Humanity Amid Madness

Cruise missels fall on Damascus on Friday.
On Friday Donald Trump, teetering on the edge of a collapsing Presidency, ordered the launch of swarms of cruise missiles armed with allegedly smart bombs a three selected targets including one in Damascus that were supposedly associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program.  Never mind the Cheeto-in-Charge’s incoherent ramblings announcing the strikes, adults at the Pentagon assured reporters that the strikes were limited, and not the beginning of a larger campaign, active entry into the multiple-sided civil war, or aimed at regime change.  Word was more quietly put out that the action came only after days of quite back channel communications with Syria’s Russian allies in which Western intentions—the attacks included symbolic British and French participation.
That means the whole damn thing was largely a charade.  The Russians would have plenty of time to relocate any of their official military advisors or supposed civilian contractors,  unless they decide to leave a handful of the latter in place as sacrifices to be used as martyred bargaining chips in future negotiations.  Likewise the Syrians had time to move sensitive supplies and equipment.  The result would be like an earlier showy attack on an airbase after the last use of chemical weapons, where lots of explosives cratered tarmac and sand and collapsed empty hangers.  The airbase was fully operational again in weeks.
This time in the crowded city most of the casualties would be among the civilians living near by the not-so-perfectly-surgical-s strikes. 
Now two days later as I write this the retaliation that Vladimir Putin and the Russians threatened before the attack have failed to materialize.  Incoming ordinance was not shot out of the air, and no revenge attacks have been launched on “the sources of the attacks,” presumably American and Allied ships and land bases of aircraft.  That direct attack on American forces would ignite a full scale war that could easily escalate to a nuclear exchange.  For now, everyone seems to have stepped back and be content with a bloody mummery.
All of this assumes no massive miscalculation by somebody.  The situation remains so fraught with danger that any foolhardy move or even an accident could lead to cataclysmic consequences.  In such a situation the fact that one key player, Donald Trump, is erratic, impulsive, and may be seeking a war to prevent impeachment and possible criminal prosecution, leaves the world on edge.Allies, finally seems to be winning the Civil war.  The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has been crushed and all but driven from the country.  It was targeted not only by the Assad regime but by rebel groups sponsored or supported by the Russians and the West as well as Kurds who remain in possession of most of the North.  To complicate matters, the Saudis have backed Al Qaida related Sunni rebels to fight ISIS, the Assad Regime, and it Iranian and Shi’a allies.  U.S. and Russian backed rebels have clashed and the Russians have given material and military support to Assad in bloody assaults of the civilian bastions of “our rebels.”  Meanwhile Turkey has invaded Kurdish held areas near its borders and has attacked Russian, Syrian government, and American allied Kurds indiscriminately.  

The Russian backed Assad regime has been winning back teritory from a number of rebel groups some of which are also fighting each other
Millions of Syrians have been dislocated by the civil war and are living as refugees either within the country or in crowded camps in Jordan and Lebanon.  Many have tried to find safety in Europe along with Iraqi refugees  and Kurds creating the refugee crisis that has rocked governments in both Eastern and Western Europe and helped fuel nationalist neo-fascist backlash.
The scope of the still unfolding human tragedy is vast and almost incomprehensible. 
Syrians both in exile as refugees and in the country have turned for comfort and as a means of expression to their rich tradition of poetry.  Schoolchildren recite epics, pop stars set poetry to music, and literary parlor games can go on for hours in the culture said poet and translator Ghada Alatrash back in 2013 when the Syrian Uprising against Assad was already two and a half years old.  “The wall of fear has fallen, and people are saying things that they never would have said before.”  Before poets would leaned heavily on metaphor and allegory, but both inside and outside Syria have begun speaking out about the conditions they see, using vivid imagery and strong words.
Poet and translator Ghada Alatrash shares the work of Syrian poets in Canada.
Alatrash now lives in exile in Canada where she collects, translates, and performs the work of those daring poets .   Here is one example.
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,
 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

And this one:

I Am Syrian

I am a Syrian.
Exiled, in and out of my homeland, and
on knife blades with swollen feet I walk.
I am a Syrian: Shiite, Druze, Kurd,
and I am Alawite, Sunni, and Circassian.
Syria is my land.
Syria is my identity.
My sect is the scent of my homeland,
the soil after the rain,
and my Syria is my only religion.
I am a son of this land, like the olives
apples pomegranates chicory cacti mint grapes figs ...
So what use are your thrones,
your Arabism,
your poems,
and your elegies?

Will your words bring me back my home
and those who were killed
Will they erase tears shed on this soil?
I am a son of that green paradise,
my hometown,
but today, I am dying from hunger and thirst.
Barren tents in Lebanon and Amman are now my refuge,
but no land except my homeland
will nourish me with its grains,
nor will all the clouds
in this universe
quench my thirst.

—Youssef  Abu Yihea , Translated by Ghada Alatrash

Amineh Abou Kerech was thirteen years old when she won the 2017 Betjeman poetry prize for 10- to 13-year-olds in Britain last November.  The young Syrian refugee had been raised mostly in Egypt before moving with her family to England a year earlier.  Since that time she quickly learned English and wrote her submitted poem  half in half in Arabic, and translated fully into English with help from her sister, her teacher and Google Translate.  At the competition she read the first part of the poem in English and switched to Arabic
Lament for Syria

Syrian doves croon above my head
their call cries in my eyes.
I’m trying to design a country
that will go with my poetry
and not get in the way when I’m thinking,
where soldiers don’t walk over my face.
I’m trying to design a country
which will be worthy of me if I’m ever a poet
and make allowances if I burst into tears.
I’m trying to design a City
of Love, Peace, Concord and Virtue,
free of mess, war, wreckage and misery.


Oh Syria, my love
I hear your moaning
in the cries of the doves.
I hear your screaming cry.
I left your land and merciful soil
And your fragrance of jasmine
My wing is broken like your wing.


I am from Syria
From a land where people pick up a discarded piece of bread
So that it does not get trampled on
From a place where a mother teaches her son not to step on an ant at the end of the day.
From a place where a teenager hides his cigarette from his old brother out of respect.
From a place where old ladies would water jasmine trees at dawn.
From the neighbours’ coffee in the morning
From: after you, aunt; as you wish, uncle; with pleasure, sister…
From a place which endured, which waited, which is still waiting for relief.


I will not write poetry for anyone else.


Can anyone teach me
how to make a homeland?
Heartfelt thanks if you can,
heartiest thanks,
from the house-sparrows,
the apple-trees of Syria,
and yours very sincerely.

—Amineh Abou Kerech

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