Audio Transcript:

Kurt Andersen: In the Arab world, poetry is everywhere, still very much alive and kicking. School kids memorize 9th century Arabic epics, regular people quote 19th century poems and especially lately, angry citizens complain in verse. In Syria over the last two and a half years, as anti-government demonstrations became an uprising became a civil war, the poetry has flowed freely and it's changed. That's according to my next guest Ghada Alatrash. Ghada grew up in Syria, but for the last 25 years, she's lived in the US and now Canada where she teaches rights and translates. Ghada Alatrash, welcome to Studio 360.

Ghada Alatrash: Thank you for having me.

Andersen: So at demonstrations like that one we just heard and that I've watched on youtube, Syrians are chanting poetry in unison, it's like a mosh pit or some incredibly fervent political rally. As a Syrian and a scholar of Syrian poetry, does this surprise you?

Alatrash: The Syrian Revolution has for sure given birth to new voices when it comes to poetry. The wall of fear has fallen and people are writing and saying things that would not have been said a few years ago, so no it does not surprise me that poetry is being used as a tool perhaps in a different manner than before. Poetry has always been sung by younger and older generations and this can be all across.

Andersen: And sung - a given poem has a given melody?

Alatrash: Yes.

Andersen: Why do we call them poems then instead of songs?

Alatrash: Because they're written by poets. They're written by figures who are considered icons and the poem is recited from beginning to end while it's being sung to music.

Andersen: You have discovered a few poets through social media. One of them is Najat Abdul Samad. Tell us about her.

Alatrash: She's an OB GYN physician but she's also a novelist and a poet from Suwayda, my hometown in Syria, and she has actually been very outspoken in what sides she's taken and she's not afraid to speak and I could share this poem with you if you would like.

Andersen: I would love to hear it, yes, please.

Alatrash: I'll start with the Arabic and then I'll go into my English translation.

Alatrash: "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 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 bandaged 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 approximate 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 a 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 humiliation".

Andersen: And that is Ghada Alatrash reading her translation of a new poem out of Syria by the poet Najat Abdul Samad. Did you talk to any of these poets whose work you've translated about whether they fear the consequences of what they're writing?

Alatrash: Yes, and their opinions differ. Some really are beyond fear and they will write whatever, but there are others who have specifically asked me to be careful of where these are published because they do fear the lives and the consequences on their children and yes, certainly, but it was much worse before and now it's only progressing and people are only shedding that fear.

Andersen: And are poems coming out of literally all sides - poems celebrating the regime, poems celebrating the more secular part of the opposition, poems celebrating the more Islamist side of the opposition - do each of these realms and sub-realms have their own poets?

Alatrash: Well, sure. You know, Syrians are divided. At this stage, there are those that wished that the regime had stayed versus what is happening today and I think that represents many Syrians today and it represents also me. I've never been a supporter of the regime, but what's happening today is by no means what Syrians have wanted. Each is worse than the other, but regardless, yes there is a difference of opinions, a difference of expressions and quite a bit of polarity on both sides, and that also brings polarity in opinion and expression.

Andersen: Ghada Alatrash, thank you so much.

Alatrash: You're very welcome.

Andersen: At Studio360.org, you can find and read the poem you heard today by Najat Abdul Samad as well as another new poem from the Syrian frontlines.