This piece originally appeared in our MIRRORS issue, which you can find at in print at Khan Aljanub, Gumroad, Amazon, and select bookshops, and digitally at Exact Editions and Gumroad. You can also subscribe via Patreon; institutional subscriptions are available via Exact Editions:
By Hilal Badr
Translated by Ghada Alatrash
Art by Hilal Badr
A shout awakens me; someone is yelling, “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime].” Does anyone believe this? I don’t.
I think that the voice came through the window. No, not through the window. My wife is flipping through TV channels, one after another. For some reason, she stops for a moment, and then continues. Surely the shouts must’ve come through one of the channels.
I look at the bird that I’d bought a short while ago and listen as it chirps, hoping that it might console me in my distress. It is at this moment that a silly analogy comes to mind—that in the best states of my being, I resemble this bird; and that my country, in all of its states, resembles this cage. The bird suddenly interrupts my contemplation and shouts, “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam. [The People want to bring down the regime].” I stand in disbelief.
Hoping that she will validate my insanity, I ask my wife if she heard the bird shouting “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime].” She does not reply with a yes or a no, but with, “And what do you expect a bird in a cage to shout?”
I bend over the sink in the bathroom where the crazy washing machine is spinning. I have not washed my face for a week. I hear a rattling noise, Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime]. I wonder if the words are pouring out of the faucet of the sink or from the drainage hole. There is no other mouth in this bathroom! Or perhaps they are coming from the washing machine that continues to spin, shouting out its angry cries, while pretending that she has nothing to do with what’s happening. But who does she think she’s fooling!
I hear this cry like a song echoing in my ear. I hear it like a chant made with the chaotic noises of the day, the horns of cars, the voices of merchants strolling through the streets, and I hear it in the panting of the people. I hear it like a song sung to the beats of their anxious footsteps: “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime].”
I don’t want anything. I don’t need anything. I have fulfilled all my life’s ambitions. I fell in love, got married, had children, held a secure job for 30 years, and I sketched and wrote down every thought that has crossed my mind, most of which were trivial, although a few proved to be great. I have produced enough books, and I have taken time to rest. What more can I want? I want nothing but what the people want, and I have heard the people with my two ears, shouting at the top of their lungs, “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime].”
As for me—as a poet who has nothing to do with politics, has never belonged to a political party in his life, and is neither pro or anti-regime—I confess to you that I may not fully grasp the meaning of this cry and whether it came at the right time or if it were a product of mere excitement. But what I do know is that it came following all the other cries, “We love you, Syria,” “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,” “The Syrian people will not be humiliated,” and “There is no fear after today.” One cry that harvested them all; one cry that bundled them all together as one and clenched its fist tight around them; one cry, the mother of all cries, shouted by the people. An outcry, as in the words of those who like poetic metaphors, that darted from the furnace of their hearts, passing through the lining of their larynxes, solidified and hardened by their clenching teeth, anointed with the saliva and oil of their tongues, and shot like a bullet from the nozzle of their mouths. And here I am, standing at my windowsill, hidden in complete darkness, and I can hear an outcry from a man I do not recognize. I stare at his reflection in the glass, but I don’t see him, for he is still hiding inside of me, “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam [The People want to bring down the regime].”
Hilal Badr is the pen name of a Syrian poet.
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 a PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.