“Poetry has always been central” in Syria, according to poet and translator Ghada Alatrash.
Schoolchildren recite epics, pop stars set poetry to music, and literary parlor games can go on for hours, she says. Now, in the 2 and a half years since demonstrations became an uprising and then a civil war, poetry is pressed into a different kind of service.
“The wall of fear has fallen, and people are saying things that they never would have said before,” Alatrash said.
While in the past, poets would lean heavily on metaphor and allegory, now poets both inside and outside Syria have begun speaking out about the conditions they see, using vivid imagery and strong words.
Alatrash, who lives in Canada, has begun translating the new Syrian poetry into English. She read a poem by Najat Abdul Samad, an OB-GYN physician (see video). Samad lives and works in Sweida, in the south of Syria. Sweida has been spared much of the violence, and has served as a haven for refugees. Still, Samad’s poetry is haunted by their images.
“When I am overcome by weakness,” she writes.
I bandage my heart ... 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.
The new freedom is not without danger. The poet Ibrahim Quashoush was abducted and killed in June 2011, and two other poets are being held in prison. Some of the poets Alatrash is working with “do fear their lives and the consequences for their children,” she said.
Nonetheless, they have agreed to let Alatrash translate and publish their work.
"When I am Overcome By Weakness"
Written by Najat Abdul Samad / Translated by Ghada 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 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.”
"I Am Syrian"
Written by Youssef Abu Yihea / Translated by Ghada Alatrash
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,
and your elegies?
Will your words bring back my home
and those who were killed
Will they erase tears shed on this soil?
I am a son of that green paradise,
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.