September 12, 2013
New Syrian poetry emerging amid violence
by Nick Davies
With the news in Syria centered around the chemical attacks and President Obama’s plan for military intervention, Leigh Cuen reported this week for Al Jazeera about another, perhaps unexpected, result of the ongoing civil war in the Middle Eastern country: an invigorated poetry scene unlike anything Syria has seen before.
The new brand of poetry sets itself apart in two ways, in the content as well as the channel by which it’s finding an audience. Syrian-Canadian writer Ghada al-Atrash told Cuen that even after decades of studying Syrian poetry, she’s never seen anything like what people are writing now. Instead of metaphors and symbolism, poets are relying on literal images, and rallying to a national Syrian identity instead of a religious one. One poem by Najat Abdul Samad (translated by Atrash) reads, “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.”
As the conflict drives writers to create new kinds of poetry, it’s also resulted in their finding new spaces in which to debut it. Formal gatherings have decreased in favor of poems posted on Facebook and other social media sites, and read out at public demonstrations. Mohja Kahf—a Syrian-American writer and associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas—has argued in the past that government censorship and repression were prominent aspects of Syrian literature, but “that has all changed now. A new Syrian identity and literary tradition are being formed around the events of the last few years.” Expatriate writer Ghias al-Jundi says that poetry is “playing a huge role in Syria right now because the lyrics are part of demonstrations. People are singing these verses together in the streets.”
And while peaceful demonstrations are on the decline as the violence intensifies, Facebook continues to provide a venue for new poetry, and a means for people around the world to read it. Atrash says that it’s one of the main ways she finds new writers and connects with them (often in order to obtain permission to translate their work into English). She explains, “I take their poems fresh, translate them, and share them through social media. It’s not just me. Today there are a lot of people translating and spreading Syrian poems from the ground.”
Meanwhile, writing poetry (or anything, for that matter) remains a dangerous activity for Syrians. Jundi asserts that poets and writers across the country are disappearing, either kidnapped, jailed, or killed. It’s not only a problem for people in the country, either; expatriate writers have been intimidate, and Cuen reports that Maram al-Masri—a poet living in Paris—received death threats after publishing a book of poems “inspired by social media images and posts from Syria,” and her family there has gone into hiding.
Faced with this danger, Syrians continue to write. “We have broken the old phantom of fear,” Masri told Al Jazeera. As the violence continues, writers have become emboldened by their passionate audience and are defying the government censorship that once held them in check.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.