Syrian Poet and Actor Fadwa Souleiman, 45

Fadwa Souleiman died overnight, in the early hours of August 17. The fearless Syrian poet and actress died following a battle with cancer in Paris, where she has lived since 2012:

Image from the poet’s Facebook page.

Born in Aleppo in 1973, Souleiman’s first career was as a beloved and acclaimed actor of film, TV, and the stage.

In March 2011, Souleiman left this work to join the nonviolent uprising, quickly becoming one of its most well-known faces. In  Homs, Souleiman gave speeches to rally and inspire the crowds. She also became a popular spokesperson for the Syrian people to the media of other countries.

Souleiman was, as poet-translator Marilyn Hacker writes in the most recent issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, frequently “interviewed by Egyptian or Jordanian television and newspapers (there are innumerable YouTube clips of her in Syria and afterwards).”

Disowned by some of her family, and moving from safe house to safe house, life in Syria became increasingly difficult for Souleiman. She was smuggled out of the country in early 2012, first to Jordan, and then to France, where she began to write.

Souleiman wrote poetry, film scripts, and other texts. Her first book of poems was published in Beirut in 2013. A French translation by Nabil El Azan appeared in 2014 as À la pleine lune.

Three poems from Souleiman’s debut collection appear in the current issue of Modern Poetry in Translation: The Blossom Shroud.

In her introduction to the poems, Hacker writes:

I knew Fadwa first as a political icon and then as a friend. I worked with her learning to recite Arabic poetry, Darwish especially, the way she had in drama school in Damascus, and she wrote an article about our friendship for An-Nahar. I was delighted when she gave me her collection in Arabic. It seemed like reciprocity to translate some of these poems.

The poems, in Hacker’s translation, read like a powerful will to beginnings, even when they despair about the future of a united Syria. The first poem, “For Lana Sadiq,” is dedicated to the Palestinian activist, and ends:

And what have I done, Father? My brothers don’t love me
And don’t want me among them.
What victory there for us, what victory for them?

In the ending of “Image,” the poet finds the beginning that has not yet arrived:

among the days, within me, that moment when the heart claims its eternal rest
so that everything ends
and there begins within me
what has not yet begun
to begin

And the final poem in MPT, “When the Moon is Full,” calls on the reader: “Take off your clothes / Wash yourself with the light[.]” As she exhorted in Homs, so she exhorts the reader to move forward, not be afraid, “grasp a skein of sunlight.”

Don’t be afraid
In your right hand, hold
The colour of the tribes, not of bombs
And tint your left hand
With the colour of an oak-tree in April
And the colour of dawn
So that you can cross over
For if you have crossed
So have we all

In another translation by Hacker on A Public Space, the poem “Genesis” has an incantatory, al-Sayyabesque effect, with “Rain on rain / And mud on mud,” as though al-Sayyab’s iconic “Rain Song” were re-written in a female voice, in contemporary Syria:

On the café terrace
Torrents of rain
Violent wind
The flame in my lighter went out again and again
I couldn’t light my cigarette
The rain came down in torrents
And the wind was violent
With one touch of his finger on the trigger
The soldier launched the missile
Torrents of rain did not put out
The flames in the building on fire
And the violent winds
Carried away rags of flesh I loved
And scattered them far from here

There were many tributes to Souleiman on social media, including one by Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, who writes, roughly, that the “completion of a great tragedy comes in a sad and silent death. Good bye, Fadwa,” and Syrian writer Rime Allaf, who wrote on Twitter, “Today Syrians are mourning actress Fadwa Suleiman, early icon of revolution who led peaceful chants in Homs before Assad bombed it to rubble”

Interviewed in Midi Libre in June 2016, Souleiman said, roughly translated, “Even if they erase everything, we should not let them erase our dream. If there is only one Syrian who remains, I am sure they will build the Syria we love. Syria is not a country, a geographical entity, it’s an idea! We bring our revolution. The white revolution, of mind and soul. This will survive across space, across time.”

Also: Rami Jarrah’s portrait of Souleiman.

Read “Genesis,” trans. Hacker, on A Public Space