New Poetry in Translation: Fadi Azzam’s ‘If You Are Syrian These Days …’

By Fadi Azzam

Translated by  Ghada Alatrash

Fadi Azzam

If you are Syrian these days,

you stand shielded and exposed, 

you are the awakening and the delusion, 

and the dream and the nightmare, 

all in one breath. 

You are a breath that freezes in the sweltering heat 

and melts in the chill of this world.

If you are Syrian these days,

you are a symbol for a tent, disappointment, fear, betrayal, 

and the purling of a streaming wound as it runs from your body, the Tigris, and from your eyes, the Euphrates.

If you are Syrian these days,

you are urged to attend etiquette schools, where everyone is there to civilize you, to advise and guide you, to speak for you and silence you, to identify your class and where to classify you, to put you together and disperse you, and to release and restrain you–

schools where they teach you lessons about how God creates heavens and things from carnage;

how the victim should ask to be pardoned by the executioner;

how a country is burnt in the name of the son;

how to kiss the hand that kills, the shot that assassinates, and the missile that obliterates;

and how flowers are accused of treason.

. . . 

If you are Syrian these days,

you will be approached by those who pity you and asked for a photo amidst the massacre.

Meanwhile your brothers in the Gulf are cloaked in their whimpers, and strangers continue to shed their fleeting tears on your sacrificed child—tears that send you sailing in barren dinghies and onto waters whose depths thirst for you.  

And you become glorified in your drowning, while the world vomits up more tents for you to sleep in—just to sleep.

And the heavens grant you free visas, every minute, without even checking your identity papers for as soon as you begin to speak, you are identified as Syrian—“from there, from hell itself.”

If you are Syrian these days, and someone asks your country of origin, tell them: 

This is where I am from.

My ill-fated and extraordinary fortune has brought me to hold onto a country where there is no place, 

yet I cling to the very place as the country betrays me. 

I am from Syria, an end worthy of history, and a beginning worth living.

I am from an abundance of pain, 

from blood that continues to run and has not yet coagulated nor become sticky, and I come with an unexplainable arrogance.

I am from there, where you will find reflections, victims, captives and gifts stacked under “The President’s Bridge.”

I am from a country where all is renewed—the Exodus, the crossing of Moses, the crucifixion of Christ, the pains of Muhammad, the plight of Al-Hallaj, the killing of Suhrawardi, the beheading of John, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the revenge of Joshua, the detaining of Zenobia, the revelation of Zainab’s breasts, and the rolling of Hussein’s head amidst a contemporary drama that no longer needs to resort to history.

To be Syrian these days,

you might as well announce the World’s death certificate 

and speak out in the face of all the suspicions and condemnations.

You are a calamity that the universe has not yet witnessed.

You are a nobody.

You are the blazing scandal in the face of this era.

To be Syrian these days is to be overcome by an unexplainable sense of pride, 

one that will never be understood by the perpetrator, the victim, the spectator, the clown, 

or anyone for that matter who does not know what it means to be enamored of Syria.

To be Syrian these days is to experience things in their extremes. 

If you love, you are murdered.

If you hate, you cannot be reconciled;

If you remain silent, you will die; 

and if you speak, you will kill.

If you have an addiction to Syria, you have no options for treatment, for neither leaving nor staying can be of help.

Syria is the epic of history,  

an amalgam of pain mixed with regret, 

and the pleasure of seeing things for what they are, the shock giving us hope.

Syria is the novel that de Sade did not dare write,

the poem that could not be penned for its extreme violence,

and the narrative whose inscription is tattooed on the guarded tablet of God.

To be Syrian is to be forced to accept Syria as Assad’s Syria or as God’s Syria, 

for today no one accepts her as Syria.

To be Syrian is to need to dilute the purest of Syrian alcohol to preserve the intoxicating taste in the sublimity of her wine.

And you cry, “O, Syria!”

Your heart spells out her name letter by letter. 

And you are answered with showers of bullets.

To be Syrian these days, whether you like it or not, you know all too well the meaning of death and hardly any of the joys of life.

To be Syrian these days is to be something and its opposite and to be destroyed by your other half. 

To be Syrian these days is to be a Palestinian for eternity, 

and an Egyptian until the last Pharaoh, 

and a Tunisian dragging Bouazizi’s wheelbarrow on the path to Golgotha while continuing to burn every day, 

and a Yemeni with a heart that beats once for Sanaa and another for Aden, 

and a Libyan keeping the commandments of Omar al-Mukhtar, and a Meccan carrying the spirit of Abu Dhar al-Ghafari with his stick and the curse of having to live alone, to die alone, to be resurrected alone.

To be Syrian means to be a lock that lost its key, abandoned by the door, forsaken by its home, and punished for being locked up!

If you are Syrian, then regardless of how hard you try, you will not escape.

You cannot escape.

To wherever you may have fled, no matter how much you deny or disclose, or how you may have thought you escaped, 

the accusations will find a way to sneak up on you, 

pounce on you, 

and arrest you,

for nothing more than the honorable charge of being Syrian.

For no matter how far you may have wandered away from her,

Syria is always wondrously and readily with you, taking on anything and everything.

It’s astonishing how the regime continues to cling to her while she birthed the revolution, 

and how thieves claim to be her “protectors” while liberators are enslaved within her.

Much ink bleeds at her doors.

A new sea was born from the spilt salt, from the purity of the raw wound, from the silk of her saliva flowing with the alphabet;

from the rustle of her seductive apricots and the whispers of her precious pollen; 

from the unfolding fragrance of her panic-stricken jasmine flowers as the massacres strike; 

from the chimes of secret kisses from beneath the balconies of her humble homes;

from the names of her breathtaking rivers;

from the eloquence of her seductive sighs and moans;

from her ten lakes and thousand hills of charm;

from her abundance and voluptuousness;

from the weeping of her church hymns as they embrace the calls of mosques and melt together in a frenzy of glorious wailing;

from the burning glow of her fire, from her destruction, from her innermost secrets, from her chagrin and pride, from the shrines of imams and saints, from her greater blue-eared starling, from her ravenous locusts feeding on her bliss submerged in “Qamar al-Din;”

from the alabaster in the souls of her children;

from the ecstasy of being in the presence of her Lote-Tree of the Farthest Boundary;

from a wet soil that does not have a chance to dry before it is re-drenched in her sacred blood;

from the scandal of eternity, from the manifestation of oppression, from a stain of love met with utmost cruelty, unscathed by the cleaver, manifesting into sour rain dripping in the color of plums.

O esteemed one, O Syria.

The laughter of your kind women is talisman set loose in the wind.

Your clouds, entrapped with fragrance, scatter it in the shape of a Damascene woman moseying along on the edge of light,

or as a woman from Aleppo emerging from the end of the day,

or a woman from Homs overflowing with all kinds of rhymes and at whose feet all languages bow,

or a woman from Deir ez-Zor soaring over the Deir ez-Zor Suspension Bridge and perching at the height of a palm tree weighed with morning dew,

or a Kurdish woman whose heart overflows with the morning songs of Kaveh the Blacksmith,

or a woman from Hama steering the waterwheels to the pulse of her longing,

or a woman from Hauran listing the names of martyrs in a verse of Ataaba, pronouncing to the world the miracle of patience, 

or a woman from the coast suddenly emerging from the waves of Arwad, 

or a Bedouin woman whose face-tattoos were forgotten, in an embrace, on the shoulder of a knight from Raqqa, 

or a woman from the Golan who welcomes those who have come in place of the ones who left their dreams hanging on clotheslines, 

or a woman from the mountains trapped between the groans of grapes and apples.

I am from the country of a million stories and one ruler.

I am from a country whose wounds are demeaned into laughter, and whose similes, metaphors, and rhetoric debased into ugly poetry.

I am from a country of the utmost cruelty, of expired love, and a bounty of looming deaths.

I am from Syria, my brothers and sisters; but don’t you dare pity her, 

for in her dwells enough life to reconstruct the entire world and enough graves to accommodate all of you.

I am from a country that will be loved until the end of repentance, but has been forsaken to the ends of grief.

Those who hold her waist will feel grass grow on their wrists.

Those who dance with her will be swept off their feet.

Those who embrace her will assuredly be overcome by a light-headedness and may be carried away by a breeze.

Those who kiss her will bring misfortune upon themselves, for every passing day will feel like a fallen tree, their dreams besieged by pine needles.

Those who accompany her must acquiesce to being both victim and prey, must be trained in all possibilities of life and all scenarios of death, and must know how to deviate from the rules.

No one can begin to fathom this daring, arrogant, and beloved named Syria, 

a beginning at any given moment and all ends at once.

O my country, O Syria

O, you, my country.

I see you how are attempting to erase the saddening memories and how you are seducing me with your irresistible charm.

I see that you have forgotten how to sing although your trees are the notes to music.

I see how the hearts of your lovers have resisted a history of hateful invaders and have refused to be polluted by their poisons.

You are a homeland bombarded with stray and thundering birds, 

with groans of suffering humans in every direction, 

with barbarous worlds not yet visited by documentary film cameras, 

and with sailors sailing ships of bitterness, ones who once sang a national anthem to the “Guardians of the Homeland” but today are chanting “Jannah Jannah Jannah. Heaven, heaven, heaven.  Heaven, O our homeland. O beloved homeland, with the most sacred soil.  Even your hell is our heaven.  ”[1]

I see you how you rejected false poets and phony poetry.

I see, with a lover’s protective eye, crowds flocking toward your sacred abyss, 

swarming into the curve of your armpit and onto the slope of the arch of your breast, 

on the edges of your acute wit, 

and near the rivers of your abundant tears streaming from your sad gaze and quenching a fertility promised in the days to come.

O how fertile, O how majestic, O how wondrous, you are my country.

Light a fire under me and awaken me, for the stench of blood has put me to sleep.

Bring us back less Syrian and more human.

All the criminals will depart;

the one who laughed at us will depart;

the deceived ones will depart;

the one who caused us all this pain, the maker of nothingness, the one who unjustly pressed charges and distributed blood shares—

He will depart.

And you, O Syria, will rise like a middle finger in the face of this world!

You will roar at those who killed you and ate baklava while your blood streamed, and you will cry out:

I am the country who never dies.

I am the country whose young men and women rise to its skies dancing.

I am the country who is not fit for mourning.

I am the country whose tailors sew, with the patience of her mothers, burial garments for every executioner.


Note: All modifications of the original poem were made with the permission of the poet.


Fadi Azzam is a Syrian novelist and writer, and is the author of Sarmada (2011), longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as Huddud’s House (2017), longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.  He was the Culture and Arts Correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. His opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times and a number of newspapers across the Middle East and Arab Gulf.  His piece, “If you are Syrian these days” was recently published in Gutter magazine.  

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds her PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree is in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma.  Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

[1] A translation of the opening lines for the song “Janna Janna Janna [Heaven, heaven, heaven]”—a song that became an iconic chant sung across peaceful protests in the Syrian revolution.  

Also read:

Fadi Azzam’s ‘This Is Damascus, You Sons of Bitches,’ tr. Ghada Alatrash