David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Syria’s Poets Under Threat


The debate about political poetry in the United States sometimes has an arid feel to it. Essential, yes. But fatally so? Not very often.

But poets caught up in violent political events are brethren. I believe it is essential for fellow poets to honor their struggle.

Take the Syrian Civil War that began three years ago when local protests turned into national demonstrations. Opposition, as we all know, has evolved into a violent rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party that has ruled the nation tyrannically for four decades. To date, nearly 70,000 people have been killed.

What of the fate of Syria’s poets?

In June 2011, exiled Syrian poet Adonis wrote an open letter to President Assad calling for him to end the violence and abdicate. Many praised Adonis’ firm opposition to any religious takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood after the Assad regime falls. Adonis favors secular democracy. But some critics called his letter far too muted in opposing Assad, primarily because Adonis belongs to the same Alawite religious ruling minority as the besieged president.

Inside Syria, one of the Free Syrian Army commanders is led by poet Abu Azzam, a commander of the rebel Farouq Brigades. “I picked up my gun but did not put down my pen,” he says in an interview with the BBC. “During the battle there I wrote poems about the suffering of civilians in the area.” Earlier this year Azzam was seriously wounded. Rania Abouzeid’s account in Time magazine of the day Azzad was shot and wounded is a riveting piece of wartime journalism and a must read. It’s a day that begins with Azzam sharing tea with his mother and ends with him writhing on a gurney in a local hospital

“Abu Azzam grabbed a BKC machine gun and ran out the door to intercede on behalf of his men. According to Em Mohammad, he didn’t ask any of his men to come with him but two followed him anyway. He had just reached the roundabout and stepped out of his car when a member of the Jabhat reportedly tossed a hand grenade in his direction before others opened fire.”

PEN International has been conducting a campaign to raise awareness of killed and imprisoned Syrian writers, poets, and journalists. Through a postcard protest, PEN highlights the writings of three Syrians:

Poet Dia’a Al-Abdulla was arrested from his home in February 2012, who remains missing.

Poet Tal Al-Mallouhi, jailed since September 2009 and who has remained in prison throughout the war.

Poet Ibrahim Qashoush, who was kidnapped and killed in July 2011.

Not all the news regarding poetry and Syria favors the opposition. The Syrian actress known as Raghda was attacked two months ago at a conference in Cairo after she made a statement explicitly supporting the Assad government and reading a poem that criticized Islamists in the Middle East. According to one report, “the 55-year-old actress angered some attendees at the Arab Poetry Conference held in the Opera House after reciting some poetry to show her support of the embattled Assad.”

Good to remember, in the face of this difficulty, something Christopher Hitchens says in Love, Poverty, and War: “The messengers of discomfort and sacrifice will be stoned and pelted by those who wish to preserve at all costs their own contentment.” It’s an apt definition for poets, no? Messengers of discomfort and sacrifice.

Here is a poem by Dia’a Al-Abdulla (reprinted from PEN).

The Crypt

Violence is
the means of people:

The jailor kills me with a sword
I answer with a word,
and he sets my pages alight

Oh God
I burn the cigarettes of these days
in my cell
My heart is the fifth wall;
I set it alight

Eid is coming
And it will bring
Only bad tobacco to smoke,
so I leave it aside

You promised
my heart would be made only for love;
now I am so enraged
– save me,
cover my heart with tenderness
Make it strong,
Offer him a touch
… a laugh …

The world has passed beneath me
And this place is the most terrible of all
I have begun to embrace
the sun of exhaustion

So, this is my homeland;
I became its enemy
by speaking out

Speaking out brings pain –
but how can we not?

My homeland,
if it were not for you
I would not be so brave,

and so:
they will not break me

My homeland,
I touch your hands
from behind bars

This child is a prisoner now,
and my mother screams:
Will no one bring down this oppressor?
I am strong
I scream
My mother

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →