This essay — on the journeys of Syrian poetry — first appeared in Arabic in al-Jumhuriya and in translation on ArabLit last June:
By Raed Wahesh
Translated by Hazem Shekho
Throughout the twentieth century, poetry dominated Syria’s cultural and intellectual landscape. Indeed, poetry and the lyrical are a generalized and deep feature of Syrian life, and, for decades, poets have been seen as belonging among the country’s most significant intellectuals. Revisiting the first two decades of the 20th century, when Syria was founded as a modern nation-state after the Ottoman occupation, we find a country emerging from a nascent rurality. This place had endured centuries of occupation, famines, wars, and corrupt ruling classes. These afflictions lent the very existence of culture a connotation of luxury.
As understood today, culture was not popular in the young nation-state. It was confined mostly to the male offspring of the bourgeois classes, who started to define themselves through the prism of the nationalist awakening. Naturally, there were also politicians, thinkers, historians, and journalists among the intellectuals of this period, but most of these people were also poets. This comes as no surprise to those aware of poetry’s deep roots in Arab culture, and fits with the idea that both traditional and modern poetic movements are legitimate methods of expressing the self. This essay will focus on poetry written within the borders of modern-day Syria as distinguished from al-mahjar – or émigré – poetry.
Stepping up to the threshold
Obviously, this essay won’t offer a comprehensive portrayal of Syrian poets’ experiences covering each decade of the 20th and 21st centuries. Instead, it aims to illuminate the overarching direction in each period, in order to serve our understanding of contemporary Syrian poetry. This is why I adopt here the imprecise concept of “generationalization,” which is merely a technique to draw an initial map.
The main purpose of critical reading in this context is to probe literary movements and schools, and to sketch the individual transformations of poets, encompassing their literary development in subsequent periods. Periodization and generationalization are a significant theoretical issue that remains to be settled by critics and scholars of Syrian poetry.
Modern Syrian poetry has its beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s, with poets such as Khair al-Din al-Zirikli (1893 – 1976), Khalil Mardam Bey (1895- 1959), Badawi al-Jabal/Muhammad Sulayman al-Ahmad (1900 – 1981), Omar Abu Risha (1910 – 1990), Shafīq Jabrī (1898 – 1980), Anwar Al-Attar (1908 – 1972), and others.
Collision with foreign occupation marks this beginning — collision that turned into social and psychological suffering. The poet was no more a mere spectator, depicting life and reaching a saying or a maxim, as opined the critic Hanna Abboud, but rather someone with a modern vision that collided with many contradictions, particularly foreign occupation and social conservatism.
It is particularly striking how the classic poets, who grew up during occupations eras, were prodigious intellectuals. Most of them practiced politics and learned foreign languages. Culture for them had representative duties, socially and nationally. Despite the change in attitude toward writing, and the poet’s role in society, feelings of respect and reverence among people toward them still overcame all of that. Shafīq Jabrī, who is nicknamed ‘Shāʻir al-Shām’ (Poet of Levant), spoke many languages, was acquainted with its literatures, and held many cultural and political offices. The same applies to Badawi al-Jabal, who was a parliamentarian; to Omar Abu Risha, who worked as a diplomat and studied chemistry; to al-Zirikli, who left many essential cultural reference books such as ‘al-Aʻlām’ (Encyclopedia of Luminaries); and to Mardam Bey who wrote a literary series about classic literary Arab writers, which became reference books for baccalaureate students.
These brief examples illustrate the cultural, political and educational role undertaken by those poets and surely others. This emphasizes, too, their unique characters and their encyclopedic cultural knowledge. For this reason, they should be reviewed as individuals; each has its own identity, even though school curriculums have shackled them in rigid stereotyping.
Badawi al-Jabal writes in 1927:
Are these Damascus’s homes and monuments?
Do they wish you well, or are you dreamy and slumberous?
Yes, this is Damascus, mother of capitals,
and these are the two courageous Ghoutas’ lions
The Nizar Qabbani turning point
Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) created a major shock in 1944 when he published his first book The Brunette Told Me, departing from the characteristics of his era’s poets. He didn’t write a single patriotic poem in that book. He went to the heaven of sensuality with rare fearlessness, and he permeated the body of the classical traditional (vertical style) poem with prosaic soul.
The writer of Childhood of a Breast (1948) continued turning and shifting poetically. He wrote free verse and later moved on to prose poetry, which his reader knew wasn’t far off, or at least that he was ready to enter its arena.
Nizar Qabbani hasn’t been read as he should be; his fame obscured his work. In addition, the theme of the woman overshadowed many of his early artistic values. On the other hand, it’s worth emphasizing his excellent sensitivity to subsequent changes made by younger poets. He was always catching up, while others were still writing in a subsequent time, as if they were writing in the past. “In the Café,” a poem in his first book, is an example of a revolutionary artistic direction during his time:
A date, my lady? She smiled
and gestured that I should take her address
and I looked around and found nothing
but the print of lipstick on her cup.
Conflicts in the 1950s
1950s-era poetry encompassed Wasfi Al-Qoronfoli (1911-1972), Abd al-Basit al-Sufi (1931-1960), and Abdulsalam Eyoon Elsood (1922-1954). Poetry then swayed between classicism and neo-classicism, but this era would witness two waves from the outside. The first is the revolution of the free verse in Iraq, and the second is the revolution of the prose poetry in Lebanon. To the second wave, we can add Adonis and Muhammad Al-Maghut, who made an essential contribution to the revolution of the prose poetry. However, Al-Maghut’s influence will transcend any other. He would become the most deeply rooted name in Syrian poetry and Arabic poetry as well. He was to become the manufacturer of poetry’s modern transformation, through his transition to the vocabulary of the city, to orality, and to the details. He says in his poem “Tinned Gypsy”:
I have no need of a wall clock
or a pocket diary:
I know the times of my screams
And while I am wandering the streets
shaking the hand of this and taking leave from that
I shoot stealthy glances at the high balconies
at the places my nails and teeth would reach
in the coming revolutions.
I didn’t fall prey to chance
and I didn’t become homeless for leisure or on a whim
There is not one single spikelet of wheat in history
that lacks a drop of my saliva.
The 1960s: Generation Abyss
This period is characterized by declaring a break with the classical style and moving from tradition to innovation. This generation is represented by: Mamdouh Adwan (1941-2004), Ali Kanaan (1936), Ali Al-Jundi (1928-2009), Mohammad Omran (1943-1997), Mahmoud Al-Sayed (1935-2010) and Fayez Khadoor (1942). They embraced the big causes, especially the Palestinian cause, and they announced their departure from classical poetry; but most importantly, they represented the ascension of another class to the front of Syrian culture.
Shawqi Baghdadi writes, in a study called “The Poetic Endeavor of the Sixties’ Generation in Syria” (1985): “An opportunity was available for a large number of young poets back then, that perhaps never existed for any other generation before them. This opportunity was the arrival of their social class to power, which consisted mostly of peasants and the petite bourgeoisie. This gave them a special audacity to challenge and cross prevailing traditions. The others, outside the realm of power, rushed with them, as did those of the same social background, like Fayez Khadoor and Nazih Abu Afash, and the Palestinian poets who lived in Syria, such as Ahmad Dahbur, Fawaz Eid, and Khaled Abu Khaled and others.”
In the same study, Baghdadi expresses the distinguishing feature of romantic optimism, which reached its fullest extent with the poets of this generation. “This optimism soon deteriorated when those rural poets, who dreamed of a nearby better world delivered by their comrades, clashed with the great paradox of an ally authority that held up beautiful slogans, but slid gradually into bureaucracy, autocracy, and the left-wing’s infantilism. Therefore, this optimism collapsed — or nearly. But not until the Six Days War in 1967 did those dreaming souls receive the decisive blow.”
Ali Kanaan cries out, in his collection Rivers of Froth, declaring his disappointment:
Your frenzied wave threw nothing on our beaches
Then what? Shall I say
and still we suffer the wrath of a bloody life
under the ruins of the floods.
Ideology was the motive and baseline of the sixties’ poets. Poetry to them was often a type of political speech constructed in a rhetorical mold. It was also an expression of nationalistic identity and a rural clash with the city. Most importantly, the poets had a linguistic battlefield on which to face the occupier. With the Six Days War, this poetry lost its pretext. Therefore, we see the poets of this period turn to melancholy, or the attempt to breathe “under the ruins of the floods.”
Another problem faced them, and that was the form of the poem. They tended to construct, to search in legends for inspiration, to over-use historical projections and form a comprehensive vision to elevate objectivism. Consequently, ambiguity spread, and sometimes contrivance; this impeded communication with their poems. Fayez Khadoor wrote in 1968:
I have copper books
I see you in them, harvesting the dates after the fruit is dried
the color of the funereal moon.
I paint your rainy face with tin, hiding the footnotes.
And you wait — the ancient wrinkles do not rejoice in you.
1970s: Time of the small person
Hafez al-Assad came to power, and after a short time the October War in 1973 happened. This was how the seventies started. However, poetry acceded to the prose poetry form, after it turned its back on politics as a reaction to the sixties. Most of that period’s generation used this form, including Bandar Abdul Hamid (1949), Monzer Masri (1949) and Adel Mahmoud (1946). Muhammad Al-Maghut was like the artistic conscience for many of them, because he wrote about daily emotions in the city. Mohammad Jamal Barout considered in his book Poetry Writes its Name that the general direction that characterized this generation was “the oral poem.” He believed that this poem posed questions about the contemporary city and caught hold of the tension of daily life. Barout put the poets of this generation against the visual poem, which poets of the previous decade had canonized. The oral poem was based on details with one dimension, one voice and one method, whereas the visual poem was whole, constructed, and used diverse voices and methods. Bandar Abdul Hamid wrote in his book Laughing and the Catastrophe (1990):
There is a small tree in the desert
like your shadow
on the land you love.
We should mention here Salim Barakat (1951). He stayed outside the maps of the Syrian critics, even though he belongs chronologically to this period. He published his first book Each Newcomer Shall Hail Me, So Shall Each Outgoer in 1973.
This neglect went on probably because his unruly text belonged outside the workshops of that era or subsequent movements, as if he were forging his own trend. Therefore, he might be by himself a poetic generation, for both the peculiarity in which he constructs his world, and the abundance of produce that almost equates the production of a whole literary generation.
His texts will remain open to many interpretations and readings, but these readings also manage consistently to torpedo them. He gives preliminary lines to a reading and then conceals them; a unique game that scarcely recurs. We can say that his most salient feature is his ability to take the Arabic reader to a different Arabic. It’s our language, and we know its alphabet and vocabulary, and yet it’s a language that we never expected to face as foreigners.
1980s: The Oppressed Voices
The eighties started with the Hama massacre, then the ferocious raids and arrests. Syrians faced the security frenzy conducted by the regime with fear and silence, whereas the poets followed the march of “the little person.” They even delved further into subjectivism, as a reaction to the previous generation. The self was recourse against the disintegration of the face of Syrian reality, as well as the Arab reality, which was witnessing the civil war in Lebanon and the Camp David Accords.
Daad Haddad (1937-1991) wrote elegies to herself. Maram al-Masri (1962) opened the door to the body by establishing a new line, which many female poets later followed. Khalil Sweileh wrote his “Preludes,” drawing almost impressionistic scenes. Poets of “the Aleppo University literary circle” were also active during this period. Distinctive voices among them are Lukman Derky (1966) and Mohammad Fouad (1961).
Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein is perhaps the most prominent highlight of this generation. He created a new fatherhood to the Syrian poetry, after Muhammad Al-Maghut’s. His poetry turned into a reference to many poets, especially those who relish the ease of emulating him.
Lukman Derky writes in his book Guests Who Stir the Dust (1994):
The first to arrive at our meeting is you
and I am always late
you know which flower I like and bring it
you know which colors
spread shadows around you as you wait.
The shadows love you
and the colors of your clothes love you
and the flower in your hand loves you
the passersby too, they see you and love you,
the buildings around you love you and the passing cars
and people who enter the post office, and those who leave it
I love you too, as I imagine you waiting for me
I love you when I think
once again, that I can’t reach you.
The 1990s: ‘The Post-Failure Generation’
We can recognize in the nineties two tracks: the first are works that completed the oral poem, as in the books of Rasha Omran (1964), such as A Pain that has the Shape of Life (1997), As If My Exile is My Body (1999). Hala Mohammad (1959) belongs to this first category with her The Soul has no Memory (1994). We can also add Aref Hamza, although his first collection Life Exposed to Sniping didn’t appear until the year 2000.
Four poets represent the second track. Three of them are from the city of Salamiyah: Khodor Al-Agha (1963) with his collection He Wrote Saying (1995) and The Femininity of the Sign (1998) and Ali Safar (1969) in The Eloquence of the Place (1994) and Silence (1999). The third poet is Akram Qatreeb (1966) in Akan, I Plough Your Body with a Flute (1995) and The Minorities of Desire (1998). The fourth poet that belongs to this track is Mohammad Al-Matroud from the city of Al-Qamishli, with his first collection The Fruits of the Storm (1997).
These four poets worked on furnishing a special linguistic lab, based on high language and metaphor, and crisscrossing with the oral poetry’s track. However, this didn’t always lead to poetry. Sometimes, rather, it went to obscurity and strangeness. Akram Qatreeb writes in The Minorities of Desire:
Intimate shells in the passage of paradise
I removed its doubts from the foolishness of my head’s altar
and the Thamud’s horns celebrated me.
In his critical work, The Lost Whiteness – Introduction to a New Poetry in Syria (2002), Khodor Al-Agha calls the generation he belongs to “The Post-Failure Generation.” He means the broader Syrian failure, which started in the 1960s, with its features finalized at the end of the eighties. He considered the essential value of this generation is experimentation.
Manufacturing the Cultural Scene in Syria
The Ba’ath party’s control of Syria started on March 8, 1963. It bore the slogans of liberating an occupied land and fighting feudalism and reactionaries. It found cultural expression for itself in the intellectuals of 1960s, especially the poets. It cleared space and platforms for them, as has been mentioned by Shawqi Baghdadi. The same happened more clearly with poets of 1970s and 1980s, by dividing missions between the culture ministry and the Arab Writers Union. The ministry specialized in prose poetry, while the Union managed the classical poetry and free verse.
The 1990s came at a time when the regime was undergoing a transformational process. It marginalized culture to focus on media. Poets of the first decade of the millennium arrived at completely desertified cultural scene, where TV drama series became the face of Syria. A meagre and neglected margin was all that was left to culture.
This offers us an understanding of why the new generations observed a contrast between the cultural movements of the previous eras and the complete death and desertification of the culture of the two decades before the start of the revolution. This led to weaving myths about the previous periods. Perhaps the question that’s worth asking here is the extent of intellectuals’ awareness, and for some of them resignation, to this matter.
The Chaos of Millennium and the Crossing to the Revolution
With entering the third millennium, a great chaos took place in the writing of many poets of this period. Aside from the oral poetry, which became a Syrian feature, the poets presented approaches to personal loss and deterioration of the self. It was inspired by a language that derived its rhetoric from the dictionary of technology and from the worlds of movies and cartoons. On top of that, we still find poetry that believes in the poem of daily details or the poem of visual detail.
A short time before the eruption of the Syrian revolution, there was a huge poetry explosion, in terms of quantity. Facebook was its platform, after many decades when poetry movements used to be born in literary journals. In Syria, poets of the beginning of 20th century published their poems in Al-Moqtabas, Arab Academy of Damascus and Al-Thaqafah magazine. Later, they divided between Majallat Shi’r and Adab magazine. During the 1960s, it was Al-Marefh magazine, issued by the Syrian Ministry of Culture. In the 1970s, poets published in the cultural weekly of the daily newspaper Al-Thawrawhen its editor-in-chief was Mohammad Omran. At the beginning of 1990s, Alifmagazine appeared but didn’t last more than two years. The scene then was obscure until the cultural weekly Abwab in the daily magazine Tishreen appeared; its editor-in-chief was the novelist and poet Khalil Sweileh. It is considered the last cultural platform in Syria before the revolution. It achieved some kind of presence and distinction through its ability to assemble a group of new voices along with intellectuals of previous generations.
Many of these poets adopted the revolution when it began and spoke for it. But by binding poetry and art with a political cause, they repeated the mistakes of previous generations, especially of the 1960s. Therefore, we could see during the years of the revolution poets who wrote with a sensitivity that belonged to half a century previous. However, you can’t convince anyone either that a revolution is a poetical cause, or that the last thing it needs is poetry.
Some of the distinguishing poetry collections that were published during the revolution include: His Name is Ahmad and his Shadow is Fire (2014) by Mohammad Al-Matroud, As If I Survived’ (2015) by Tamim Hnaidi, and With One War Strike (2015) by Nisreen Khoury. Mohammad Al-Matroud says in his poem “Diaspora”:
He bears the cross of the sides and goes, (he does not increase the earth’s capacity). In every direction is the corpse of the family.
Two Highlights of the Revolutionary Period
We can recognize two poets, Ghayath Almadhoun (1979) and Golan Haji (1977), who belong to the years of revolution and even before. They pursue two distinctive and clear projects. We see that in I Can’t Attend (2014) and Adrenaline (2017) by Almadhoun, and The Scale of Harm (2017) by Haji.
They draw a new horizon that doesn’t acquiesce to what has been achieved and respected in the Syrian corpus. At the same time, they keep a safe distance from the current in order to disentangle poetry from the immediate and from rhetoric. For clarification, we need to stop at the projects one at a time.
Ghayath Almadhoun: Exile Is a Personal War
Ghayath Almadhoun’s poetry is full of paradoxes, news, and scientific and historical information. It’s crowded with names. It’s a poetry with appetite for saying. It wants to argue, but it doesn’t want to do that immediately. It conjures more the tools of modern art, especially installation art. A poetic narration comes out of a cluster of vocabulary and miscellaneous meanings. This narration combines magic and real, eastern and western, question and answer.
Almadhoun left Syria before us. It happened because he belonged to the Palestinians of 1967, which deprived him from having even a Palestinian travel document. He says about this personal curse:
How beautiful life would’ve been
if I had an ID card in my pocket.
I’d travel with it to my mother in Daraa
without explaining to the policeman from Idlib
the difference between the Palestinians of 48 and the Palestinians of 67 —
or I’d just lose it as my friends do.
He settled down in Sweden and began to establish his texts in the new exile, “like an olive tree at the north pole,” as he once said. However, the irony is that while he was struggling alone with the northern ice, he became, after the Syrian exodus, a host in the house of exile. He writes in “I Can’t Attend:”
‘In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence.’
Al-Mahjar — or émigré — poets carried on their shoulders a renaissance burden, and their poetry was characterized by nostalgia, but they didn’t present examples of the environments and the struggles they went through at these exiles. This is what we find in the writings of the author of “Each Time the City Expanded, my Room Became Narrower.” His poetry faces, especially in his two latest books, questions entangled with the idea of European centralism. We who followed him to the north can see the reality of this struggle. The stereotypes faced on this journey can be summarized as follows: Islamophobia; anti-Arabism; hostility toward Palestinians by Israel’s supporters; the hostility of citizens – who may not have animosity toward Islam or Arabs – toward immigrants; and the resentment of previous generations of immigrants regarding the new ones, based on fear of losing their privileges. Furthermore, if a person survived all of this, then there is the impassable bump: the hatred toward the eastern men. Being an eastern man in the west means you despise women and seek to assemble wives like slaves.
On the edge of these sharp blades, the poet stands in confrontation, and converts this conflict into poet material, inquiring about the Palestinian’s rights and condemning the Mediterranean Sea, which has turned into a “predatory animal.”
Despite all the political background, Almadhoun doesn’t write political poetry. He writes about a life he knows. It’s true that its trait is violence, terrorism, oppression and asylum, but it’s true also that he searches for a horizon of possible life.
Golan Haji: Internal Life
Golan Haji doesn’t compromise on poetry in The Scale of Harm. You won’t find in his text indications of the general Syrian pain, as some might expect. There is the pain of someone who looks at life with the eyes of someone bidding farewell. Through these eyes the scene passes from fullness to emptiness, he counts the losses, trying to fumble through images left by loss as much as he possibly can.
The texts in this collection say that the narrator sees through two closed eyes, and speaks all the languages with a muted mouth. The happens while he digs within internal life, which stores all the external lives. More than one life occurs in the corners and bottoms of this life, which grew inside the individual by the will of his imagination and contemplations. This will be discovered later when man passes by a scene or image, and, even if he didn’t know it or hadn’t seen it before, he’ll find that he shares something with it. The depth of this idea is that the world is our memory, even if it was a subsequent memory, a memory that didn’t happen yet. There is a remembrance now for things will occur later, or soon. In the first verse of the poem “Restless Holidays,” called “Austerlitz,” he writes:
I left yesterday for another yesterday
Hungry as a drunken guest
tramping about in the dawn of himself.
On the road
I lay down beneath towering chestnut trees
as a baby hides beneath a bed that will be covered by clouds.
Austerlitz is one of Paris’ train stations, but the name also refers to the battle between the French and Russian empires, which Tolstoy had described in War and Peace. There is also a novel of the name by W. G. Sebald. With this hint, the hidden meaning implied by “another yesterday” reveals itself, and before that, obscurity about the work’s mechanism of the internal life that implies another disappearance. Perhaps yesterday will have a new meaning when we see how it always makes us children.
The poem “A Light in Water” reveals affection for images, which he treats as if each word had its own grammar, declension, and diction. A footnote at the end of the book explains that he wrote the poem after a visit to the exhibition of the visual artist Bill Viola in the Drand Palais in Paris. There is a conversation between the images of Viola, which create tranquillity and anxiety at the same time, and between the images of the internal life. He says:
Did the whole scene happen in the mirror? What is the difference between the original and the copy, between the image and its reflection, between sleep and wakefulness?
However, what is “The Scale of Harm”? Let’s say that one of “Scale”’s signals or indications is justice. Harm is the material this scale wants to analyze with words, to pinpoint it at first and then to get rid of it later. Still, the problem is that harm will be ongoing, and with it, and perhaps because of it, the poet continues writing, because the justice and its scale are absent. This is Haji’s affair.
A note: Choosing these two poets aims to form a personal testimony because I belong to the same generation and live its questions and anxiety. Besides, reviewing their works comes as an approach to the image of the new Syrian poetry. This is because their texts, on one hand, are full of indications of the general situation, and on the other hand, they have their respective uniqueness.
The poetics of diaspora
The Syrian revolution, and the tragedies that followed, formed a crucial point in Syria’s history and the lives of its people. Like all the other tragedies, like confronting the occupation and the Six Days War, this point of history recreates the general awareness and opens a new start that reaches all aspects of society. It also makes an opening for a new revision, a new and qualitative transformation of the gap that has expanded between the poets themselves in their views of the tragedy. Some now take the regime’s side and others embrace the religious sects and narrow formations of identity. This is contrary to the clear vision of Syrian poets during the time between the two world wars, when reality was readable because its features were recognizable and defined through a foreign authority that should leave.
The divide among poets has added a diaspora to the spatial diaspora, which scattered Syrians around the world. However, the diaspora in itself will stamp Syria with its mark. Its effects will be powerful to a degree such that it will be impossible, in the future, to restrict Syrian poetry to a specific identity.
Raed Wahesh is a Palestinian-Syrian writer, poet, and journalist who has published four collections of poetry. Wahesh has worked as a cultural editor for various Arabic-language newspapers and websites. His 2015 prose volume A Missing Piece of Damascus’ Sky is based on his experiences during the revolution. He fled Syria in 2013 and came to Germany, where he was initially a guest in the Heinrich Böll House. He now lives in Hamburg. A number of his poems can be found on lyrikline.
Nizar Qabbani, “The Jasmine Necklace,” translated by Yasmine Seale
Muhammad al-Maghut’s “Tattoo,” translated by Sinan Antoon
Al-Maghut’s “The Orphan,” trans. May Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubbs
Salim Barakat’s “Dylana and Diram,” translated by Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen
Barakat’s “Syria,” translated by Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen
Three poems by Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein, translated by Ibtihal Mahmood
Three poems by Rasha Omran, translated by Phoebe Bay Carter
Lukman Derky’s “Blackness,” translated by Ali al-Baghdadi