Great Read

'Poetry is a witness' to suffering wrought by Syria's civil war

The words are bound in blood and speak of graves and broken bones.

The poetry radiating from the Syrian civil war echoes with nostalgia, bombs and betrayals; it slips into the lives of torn-apart families and boys of defiance who have grown into men with bandoleers and Kalashnikovs. It is the verse of the forsaken in a nation of madmen with black flags, cities of ruin and rivers of refugees.

The poems flow in slipstreams of syllables, beats and rhythms composed by writers, doctors, mothers, activists and Syrians who live abroad but are compelled to articulate the suffering in their ancestral land. They are all connected: The old man in a Turkish refugee camp clings to a few pages of his scribbled verse. Syrian American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum riffs through songs of admonition and loss. And Amal Kassir summons the blistered hands and shattered orchard on her grandmother's farm.

My grandmother knows Syria better than anyone.

It is the arthritis living in her knees.

She had a farm whose dust she knew by name.

... And the tyrant,

The dirt is waiting for him.

Like the rest of us,

He will learn his grave,

Feel the weight of the entire country on his chest.

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A 20-year-old Syrian American college junior, Kassir wrote "My Grandmother's Farm" while waiting tables at her father's Syrian restaurant in Littleton, Colo. She and her family lived outside Damascus from 2002 to 2005, and these days Kassir travels the world drawing attention to Syria through rallies and slam poetry performances. She carries a book bag and wears a hijab; when she reads, her voice blooms with a girl's pitch tempered by a woman's wisdom.

The war has "captivated all of my poetry," said Kassir, who is finalizing a collection of poems titled "Scud Missile Blues." "It's something profound when you can compare the color of a pomegranate to the color of blood on the ground. There is color and scent and sound involved."

But years of relentless conflict and human rights abuses have at times silenced her verse. "I had a dry spell with my poetry for nine months," she said. "I was rooted in depression. I felt the world had betrayed us."

Since the revolution began in 2011, more than 200,000 people have been killed. More than 4 million refugees have spilled from Syria's borders; at least 7.6 million others have been internally displaced. The war has spun into a confusing roulette of air strikes, chemical attacks, rebels, Islamic militants and the designs of the U.S. and Russia over what will befall President Bashar Assad.

"Poetry is a witness," said Mohja Kahf, an Arab American poet and literature professor at the University of Arkansas. She praised the work of Syrian poets Khawla Dunia, an activist, and Fadwa Suleiman, an actress who led protests against Assad. Kahf said one of Suleiman's poems felt like "stumbling through the streets of the city in a new language. It was about displacement ... in this bizarre, twisted revolution."

Dunia became known for her Facebook posts on the plight of women and those who vanished in Syria's prisons. She contributed an essay to the book "Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices From Tunis to Damascus," in which she wrote, "No voice can be heard above the gunfire." Kahf has been translating Dunia's poems into English, including a draft of one called "Sniper":

Finger that does not rest

Limb that leans on fate,

a fate ruled by a dumb rifle, and you

Have you known who I am?

Who taught you what you are doing to me?

Who froze you in the blunder of this moment?

This moment which joins us:

your eye,

a bullet,

and me

It is this moment, then,

that unites us.

It divides me from my dream

and gives you your name,

Sniper.

Syria's souks and salons have long echoed with storytellers and poets, including Buhturi in the 9th century and Adonis, regarded as one of the best Arabic poets of the 20th century. Many writers and intellectuals were persecuted during Assad's regime and the preceding 30-year rule of his father, Hafez. Political discourse — and the inherent poetry that emanates from it — was muffled or disguised in code until the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 that swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

"We Syrians had been silenced for a very long time," said Ghada Alatrash, the daughter of a former Syrian ambassador who lives in Canada and translates poetry from the war zone into English. "But in new language since the revolution, something powerful was articulated. It captured everyone who was Syrian. I saw a lot of courage. There was nothing to lose."

One of the most searing voices from inside Syria is Najat Abdul Samad, a doctor from the southern city of Sweida. "When I am overcome with weakness, I bandage my heart with women's patience in adversities," she writes in a poem Alatrash translated. It continues:

"I bandage it with the upright posture of a Syrian woman who is not bent by bereavement, poverty, or displacement as she rises from the banquets of death and carries on shepherding life's rituals. She prepares for a creeping, ravenous winter and gathers the heavy firewood branches, stick by stick from the frigid wilderness. She does not cut a tree, does not steal, does not surrender her soul to weariness, does not ask anyone's charity, does not fold with the load, and does not yield midway."

The final line reads: "I bandage it with the outcry: 'Death and not humiliation.'"

The vigor of the revolution's early days, however, has been sapped by years of barrel bombs, quickly dug graves and the feeling of many Syrians that their nation has been cut adrift by the international community and turned into a land of barren fields and proxy wars.

"Longing has become my religion, just as humanity is my religion," Samad wrote in an email to Alatrash. "Today our country smells of all seven continents, but it remains orphaned."

The writing has become "little glimpses of the real tragedy that are taking place on the Syrian ground," said Alatrash, who has been asked by some poets not to reveal their names for fear of reprisals. "Now, it's sons going off to war and not returning. It's become more real."

This brutal tableau is conjured in Offendum's hip-hop songs. In the early days of the revolution, Offendum, who grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, delayed the release of an anti-Assad song until his family members escaped Syria. "I had to hold my tongue for a long time," he told The Times. "I couldn't release a song like that without their blessing."

Offendum's new song, "Crying Shame," speaks to how intractable and mind-numbing the war has become:

Now they say Syria's confusing

Can't decide which of the sides

They really should be choosing

Here's a thought:

How 'bout you recognize we're all losing

And there's nothing civil about a war

Where kids are stabbed to death and mothers smothered on a kitchen floor.

Millions have fled the shattered Syrian landscape, escaping by boat, foot, car and rail into Lebanon, Jordan and across Turkey to Europe. One refugee wrote: "On knife blades with swollen feet I walk."

Kassir visited a refugee camp in Turkey this year, amazed at the rows of tents and the immense scale of those forced into exile.

"There were no young men, only little kids, women and old, old men," Kassir said. "One old man walked into a tent and came out with three pieces of paper." On them, she said, he had written the meticulous verse of the dispossessed. "The war," one line read, "is a monster that has devoured the green."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

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