Rasha Omran: ‘Now Death For Me Is No Longer Abstract’

Celebrated Syrian poet Rasha Omran talks with acclaimed Canadian author-translator Kim Echlin: 

By Rasha Omran, Abdelrehim Youssef, and Kim Echlin

Rasha Omran was born in 1964 in Malaja, a village in rural Tartous, Syria. This province had a small population of some eight hundred people when Rasha was growing up. Home to the Alawi sect, it was a culturally and socially progressive, highly educated community, with professionals as well as writers, musicians and artists. The village of Malaja has been subjected to government surveillance and ispolitically categorized as an “oppositional Alawi illage.” Omran’s father, Mohamed Omran, was a well-known poet, activist and journalist. When Rasha was growing up, their home was a cultural gathering place for writers, artists and journalists.

Rasha attended Damascus University where she studied Arabic Literature. After she graduated she was director of the Al-Sindiyan Festival of Culture for eighteen years. The festival was an annual international event for poetry and arts in Malaja. Events included workshops on visual arts, sculpture, photography, dancing and writing for children.

Rasha Omran has published six collections of poetry in Arabic. She has edited and introduced an anthology of contemporary Syrian poetry with selections from thirty-five poets published between 1988 and 2008. Her work has been translated into Swedishand English.

Since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, Rasha Omran has publically opposed the Assad regime. When she left Syria, she settled in Egypt where she was part of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, participating with other Syrian women in front of the Arab League. Rasha Omran is the mother of one daughter, who was arrested in a demonstration in Syria, released, and now lives in Paris. She has written to her mother, “The international silence on Syria is deafening.”

This conversation was translated by Abdelrehim Youssef.

Kim Echlin: You come from Malaja, a village known for its education and cultural sophistication. Can you tell me about your family and growing up there? 

Rasha Omran: My village is small and beautiful. Since the 1940s, it has been well-known for its many cultural activities. The surrounding villages were more conservative and subject to doctrinal and social authority. With our small population, the people of Malaja have been more interested in knowledge, culture and politics. In 1950s, they founded a theatre when there was no theatre in most Syrian governorates. Out of this movement artists were able to develop, in acting and directing, and in other art forms. Very few youth of Malaja, in the past or now, do not know how to play the oud or some other musical instrument. Many young people have graduated from university. A number have PhDs and have taught in the Syrian universities.

My father and mother both came from this village. My father was a well-known poet in Syria and throughout the Arab world. He died in 1996. He was the editor of several cultural periodicals. My mother was not a cultural activist, but she was an excellent reader and she had a very beautiful voice. She made several recordings of songs with lyrics written by my father and music composed by their friends from the village.

I have a brother and a sister. My brother Wa’d Omran still lives in Syria. He has a PhD in engineering and works as a teacher at the University of Damascus. My sister Hala Omran is a well–known theatre actress who moved to France in 2006, long before the revolution. She works in both Arabic and French-language theatre and she has acted in several films. She is now a French citizen.

KE: Do you remember how you were first drawn to poetry? 

RO: I cannot remember details of my early life without seeing poetry present in them. Our house was a meeting place for poets, especially after the family moved to Damascus in 1968 when I was four years old. We moved when my father changed his career from teaching to journalism. At that time the only newspapers in Syria were in Damascus, the capital. Books of poetry were scattered everywhere in our house. I remember the voices of poets reciting poems at the end of weekly soirees at home. For me, our house was not a normal one, it was more like a library. I was a real bookworm, and read anything that fell into my hands whether it suited my age or not. No one tried to tell me what was suitable. Our house was a cultural gathering place for intellectuals and other kinds of artists. There were bedrooms for those who wanted to sleep and a kitchen for those who wanted to make food. I remember that period of my life with much longing. Though it was characterised by a certain instability because there was some illness in my family and we made frequent moves in the city, it was also a time of my growing and flourishing cultural awareness.

KE: Was your family politically active? Were you aware of danger because of political or cultural activism? 

RO: My father was a political activist in his youth and he was imprisoned, later, because of his political opinions. Before the Hafez Al-Assad regime, my father was politically active. When the Ba’ath Party took power in Syria on March 8, 1963, he abandoned the party to devote his efforts to writing and journalism. After various defeats of Arabs by Israel, many intellectuals from the period of my childhood looked for individual answers outside of organized politics. Creative and cultural work was one of their solutions.

There were very rare opposition groups in Syria and my father was not part of them. Hafez Al-Assad, the founder of the Assadi dictatorship in Syria knew how to satisfy the intellectuals. He did not imprison them for their opinions.

The detainees at that time opposed the regime and belonged to organized parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other socialist or left-wing parties. Some were exiled, others (specifically Islamists) were imprisoned in Syria for about fifteen years, or killed in prisons. It is an historical fact that Hafez Al-Assad did not imprison intellectuals who were not associated with political parties. He did, however, establish limits that people would not go beyond. He knew how to keep intellectual voices in check. He was a dictator, unlike his successor Bashar Al-Assad who does not merit even this title. In my opinion Bashar Al-Assad is more like gangster. He does not have his father’s understanding of Syrian society’s complexity. He has surrounded himself with a mafia-like power structure in which corruption has spread to a horrible extent through Syria. This is my opinion. In spite of the dangers, revolution has risen to oppose his regime.

KE: What did you study at university and when was the first time you understood poetry and politics to be connected as a form of resistance?

RO: When I first started university I studied English literature. Then I met a young man, fell in love and we got married before I finished my studies. I gave birth to my daughter and got divorced before I was 25 years old. I neglected university for a long time and when I registered again in 1990, I studied Arabic literature.

In our region, not only poetry, but everything related to culture, thought and creativity is closely linked to politics. I was born in a region that lives in the shadow of ongoing stormy political events. The existence of Israel, in the heart of our region, has created reasons for military regimes to take power with various coups d’états that have been falsely called revolutions. It is my opinion that under the pretext of resisting Israel and Zionism in the region, these regimes have transformed from self-identified nationalist regimes into corrupt totalitarian ones. They have subjugated or eliminated their own people while Israel continued to occupy more Arab land. There have been both secret and open peace conventions.

Throughout my lifetime, and under both Syrian presidents, political work has been forbidden in Syria. Assad (senior) founded a totalitarian regime, forbidding political parties and civil society. His son, Assad (junior), has inherited and perpetuated this structure. The penalty for political activism has been exile or long term detention.

Everything in our lives is linked to politics. In Syria, any talk that did not use the discourse of the regime was seen to be opposed to the regime. Such talk has been taboo. Censorship of both religious and political writing is widely practiced. Whatever the censors do not approve of will not be published. Writers can also be investigated and this creates an atmosphere of fear. You can imagine how writers have had to camouflage their ideas in order to write without raising the objections of the censor. The three principle taboos are religion, politics and sex.

KE: In 2015 you wrote, “In history, no other revolution has managed to remain so beautiful for so long, when confronted with such brutal crimes.” You added, “Now blood is the only memory of Syria, as everyone has conspired to bury this beauty.” Can you explain what you mean by the “beauty” of the revolution? What did people feel? How did they express it?

RO: At the beginning of 2011, after the Arab spring in 2010, no one predicted change in Syria. There was a split perception of Syria in the region. On one hand, some in the Arab world saw Syria as a stable, and cultivated country. On the other hand, Syrians were also seen as fearful and silenced by a regime they were afraid to speak freely about. People were not seen as free to protest.

What happened was a surprise to everyone. For six consecutive months, Syrian youth turned the country’s streets into stages for song and dance and peaceful protest. Have you ever seen protests and demonstrations in a Muslim country in which the protesters turn their slogans into songs with such vivid tempos that participants are inspired to invent matching Dabkeh dances? That happened in Syria. People chanted slogans and songs calling for the overturning of the regime. They demanded a pluralistic democratic civil state under the authority of the law. This was the language of their revolutionary songs.

And then, police shot bullets directly at the demonstrators. Youth were shot during demonstrations. Some were rescued. Others were killed, and their funerals turned into new demonstrations with more shooting and more victims. These demonstrations created an unprecedented social coherence in Syria. Those who were participating in the revolution felt a sudden bond. They felt that they belonged to each other and to the revolution. They felt that their blood was now mixed into the soil of Syria. The Syria they grew up in was no longer suitable to be their homeland. They were looking for a Syrian homeland they had dreamed of, one in which they could belong to each other.

Now all that beauty is lost. It is drowned in the sea, disappeared into prisons, buried and turned into dust.

KE: You have been politically active and a vocal critic of both the regime and the war. Others have suffered death and imprisonment and disappearance—poet Ibrahim Qashoush was kidnapped and killed, writers Dia’a al-Abdulla and Tal al-Mallouhi are imprisoned, Khaled Khalifa was physically attacked. Your own daughter was imprisoned when she appeared at an anti-regime rally. Writing is dangerous. Can you comment on this and your own exile?

RO: Yes, I was forced to leave Syria at the end of 2011. I was officially asked to leave by the security services who were running the state. At first I refused. I was recalled by them several times. Each time I refused the idea of leaving. Then, threats began to close in on me and my daughter. The authorities did not want to arrest me. But they wanted me to leave.

Arresting writers for supporting the revolution can create a scandal because the regime has declared that they arrest only terrorists. I asked my daughter to leave Syria, and I said I would stay. But my daughter refused. She insisted that either we would stay in Syria together or we would go into exile together. So we left. I don’t know today if this was the right decision, or if my fear then was justified. But I can be sure now that if I had stayed I would have been silenced or arrested.

KE: Forced migration because of war is heart-wrenching. Can you comment on the migrations we see today?

RO: The dream of travelling and immigration is an old dream for many people. For some it has not been stimulated by the demand for a safe and stable life; it has been created out of a desire to search for and to discover unknown worlds and different cultures. Many places on earth have been discovered because of this desire. Travel and immigration have also sometimes been motivated by boredom, or the simple desire to change our lives. In these cases, adaptation to new places is more relaxed and enjoyable.

In the case of Syrians, and Iraqis and Palestinians before us, travel through the world has been totally different. These immigrants have been afraid, and we have been escaping hunger and death. In these cases, immigration means survival, means protecting our families and children, means looking for our lost security. It also means a future.

The mechanisms of dealing with this kind of immigration are different from those of voluntary migrations. They are mixed with caution. Immigrants must prove their eligibility to stay in a country they do not belong to and look for self-realization. I think that the Syrians who have moved to Europe and America will be, in time, good citizens of these countries. However, their dreams will be always of Syria.

KE: Thank you. Let’s talk a little more about your writing. Why did you choose poetry as your genre?

RO: I don’t know. My father, who was a poet, used to say to me that I would be a novelist. He knew that my memory can hold many details, both small and distant ones. My father died without knowing that I write poetry. I have never tried writing novels. I am not against the idea, but so far I haven’t written fiction. I think it needs a kind of persistence that I admit I do nothave. My inner dialogues with myself are short. They are continuous but they are short. I never make a long dialogue with myself. I always interrupt it with something else. Such a mind is not suitable for writing a novel, or at least this is what I think.

KE: Before the war, and your exile, did you write about the same kinds of topics?

RO: No, never. This is the first time I write about the isolation and solitude lived by a lonely woman. I used to write about death, but from an abstract perspective. Now death for me is no longer abstract. I have seen youth killed before my eyes. Their blood stained my clothes. My memory holds the smell of their blood. I can watch the people of my country dying on television. Death is no longer abstract. It is a fact.

Moreover, for the first time in my life, I have been living alone. I have been alone for seven years now. Totally alone! Before this time, I always lived with someone else, my family or my daughter, and I was surrounded daily by friends. All through these past years I have been completely and literally alone. It is the first time I understand the meaning of someone living alone, of the different fears, of how obsessions are magnified and multiplied, of how sensitivities are more intense. I am also psychologically alone. A woman, at the beginning of her fifties, is in a dangerous stage, psychologically. It is a time of hormonal changes that may alter her moods completely. For me, it is a real opportunity to write about this condition. In addition to successive failures in love, and a growing feeling of the rapid loss of everything I love and adore. Could there be any more tempting subject for poetry?

KE: Your beautiful poetry collection, “The Woman who Dwelt in the House Before” uses the theme of a lonely, exiled woman who lives in an apartment where she feels the presence of a woman who was once there before her. Do you see this as the poetry of exile? 

RO: I really don’t know if it would be classified as poetry of exile. I am exiled from my country. The authorities ordered me to leave Syria. But I am living in a country that is not strange for me (Egypt) either in language or custom, or even in the public mood. The concept of exile, I think, is usually accompanied by a feeling of alienation. I don’t feel alienated in Egypt. I don’t feel that I am a stranger. But had I been in my country in this age, would I have written about my loneliness? I am not sure. I tend to think no. So, perhaps this collection can be included in the poetry of exile.

KE: Your themes of loneliness, forgetfulness and alienation can also be universal. You bring your personal experience to them.

RO: Yes, they are of course universal themes. The man of modern times in general is a lonely man. The revolution of modern communication has increased our loneliness. We spend long hours in front of computer and mobile phone screens, speaking with people we don’t know. While we do this, we gradually lose communication with the immediate reality surrounding us. Could there more isolation and alienation than that? Moreover, the reality in our world has become so sick. It is dominated by hatred, wars, death and the desire to impose power and oppression on others. It is a world ruled by mafias dealing in weapons that create terrorism and fabricate wars under the pretext of facing that very terrorism. Imagine what this world we are living in looks like. We need another parallel world. We need an imaginary or virtual world, an anti-world to this daily world in order to be able to push this madness away. We need to forget that we are part of this world, even for short time. Poetry opens a window for forgetfulness.

KE: The imagery in your writing is very beautiful. For a Western reader who may be unfamiliar with Arabic literary tradition can you introduce us to your influences.

RO: Actually, my imagery comes from my readings of both Arab and international literature. I, as a poet, belong to the world with all its cultures. Of course the Arab literary heritage is primary because it is the language I write in. It is the language in which I have heard the folkloric tales and epics of heroes and princesses and witches. It is the language in which I have memorized the old, long poems of the Arabian Peninsula and Andalusia. It is the language in which I have read the original Arabian Nights before the scissors of Arab religious censors cut parts of it and deformed it. It is the language in which I have read Kalila wa Dimna (The Arabic version of the Panchatantra), the old Arab epic of Taghribat Bani Hilal, and mystery books andmyths, and in translation, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Don Quixote. That wasa long time ago when I was a child when I read all that. My readings varied as I grew older. They have been varied, complicated and mixed. All these readings have shaped my own imagery, in addition to my personal experiences in life and my attempts to contemplate their effects on me in poetry.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian novelist, journalist, teacher, and translator. Her most recent translation is Inanna: A New English Version, a collection of sacred songs and myths from ancient Sumer. Her novel, The Disappeared has been translated into twenty languages. Her most recent fiction is Under the Visible Life.

Abdelrehim Youssef is