Levi Thompson is working with Syrian poet Ramy al-Asheq, currently based in Germany, on translating a collection of his poems. Here, Thompson shares one translation and thoughts on bringing al-Asheq’s work into English:
By Levi Thompson
Ramy al-Asheq’s poetry lays bare the experience of revolution, war, imprisonment, and exile that followed the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria. Scenes of fight, flight, and unflinching determination offer the reader little chance to ignore the sources of al-Asheq’s poetic inspirations. Raised in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in Syria, he was forced again into exile after running afoul of the Syrian government. For his participation in the revolution that began in 2011, the Syrian regime arrested him and put him in prison.
Al-Asheq was eventually released, after which he escaped to Jordan. In hiding there, and living under an assumed name, he published his first book, Walking on Dreams. In 2014, he was awarded a writing fellowship by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, which led him once more into exile as he made his way to Cologne, where he now makes his home in reality and in verse. In Germany, al-Asheq has continued working as a journalist and writer. Although he faces new challenges abroad, his poetry has found a home there as well in German translation.
The poetic line—the bayt (which also means “home”) in Arabic — is where al-Asheq seeks out a place for himself, searching for things in the past to hold on to and remind him where he came from. In the poems he wrote as he made his way from Jordan to Germany in 2014-2015, we find him seeking out prophets and storytellers in an attempt to make sense out of a disordered present by looking both to the past and the future.
But his poems find their true heading out at sea, where he castigates a Lady Poseidon in the long poem “Fatma Carries Two Wounds in One Hand.” This poem, about the poet’s mother and her own treacherous journey as a refugee from Syria to Germany, imagines the mother as a safe harbor in a sea that offers only storms and false hope to overcrowded boats of migrants, likened to pilgrims on hajj as they circumambulate the sea.
Likewise, the sea in the poem translated into English here, titled “In the Sea’s Playground,” is at one and the same time “a hole” and “a solid,” so vast in either case that even “those who know the way do not know where it stops.” We might understand the poem’s speaker here to be gesturing toward the sad reality that laps at the migrant refugee’s thoughts even after setting foot once more on dry land, toward the nagging memories of that Lady Poseidon who only lets a select few pass. The poem is in the end the origin the poet seeks. It is where he starts out from as he searches for what his future might be.
In the Sea’s Playground
By Ramy al-Asheq
Translated by Levi Thompson
I see the sea
as a hole
without a lover’s face, reflection,
It sucks at the ends, like mud,
and even those who know the way do not know where it stops.
I see water as a solid
because I am scared of falling, crashing
like a sandcastle fears vanishing, I am scared.
We have met our end more than once,
yet we do not know
who has put off death.
Looking for revenge, I searched for an origin, my origin,
I have never known God so I could thank Him!
Levi Thompson (@tlthom) is currently the Artemis A.W. and Martha Joukowsky Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University’s Pembroke Center. Levi wrote a dissertation about transnationalism and modernist poetry in Arabic and Persian at the University of California, Los Angeles and holds a Masters in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches courses on Near Eastern languages, literatures, and culture. You can follow along with his fall 2017 course on Middle Eastern cinema at Brown on Twitter @FramingGender and his ongoing project to collect striking images of visual art from the Middle East @artsandadab.