Voices above the chaos: female war poets from the Middle East
The Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles into rubble, assailed by Russian bombs, government artillery and chemical weapons. In the heat of battle, Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters turn on one another, fighting their age-old war, though both are supposed to be fighting a common enemy, Islamic State (Isis), advancing on the battered, tortured civilians of Aleppo and other Syrian and Kurdish communities in a murderous pincer movement.
So the Middle East continues to implode – but amid the chaos emerges a further force, perhaps incredibly, a poetic and literary one. It comes in defiant journalism, like the story televised last week of a gardener in Aleppo who was killed by bombs while tending his roses and his son, who helped him, orphaned.
And it comes in the verses of two female poets, part of an emergent school of verse, much of it written by women: Bejan Matur and Maram al-Masri – Kurdish and Syrian respectively. Matur and Masri are the two most illustrious and cogent of this new generation of female poets; their verse combines to create a devastating but richly composed verbal landscape that it is at once epic and intensely human. Raw and lyrical, of the moment but seeped in the memories of their people, immediate and for ever.
The two women write very differently. Masri’s poetry vividly encapsulates the frailty of our human condition in a brutal society. It can flay you at first reading. It is fair to see Masri as a love poet whose verse spares no truth of love’s joys and mercilessness, to whose work war then came, as it tore her native Syria apart, and overwhelmed it, and her.
I’m Kurdish, and you learn early that others do not regard or accept the land in which you are born as your own
Matur’s verse is more mystical: it sublimates the political and politicises the sublime; it locates her people’s wandering within a philosophical meditation on both the meaning and emptiness of being. While Masri’s verse is modern, and modern war poetry of the cruellest order, Matur’s evokes the Romantics, Coleridge and Emily Brontë. Both record, with power and sentient humanity, the vortex of war in our world today, and the millions these wars scatter and shatter across it, not least to Europe’s shores. Advertisement
‘For me, only through writing poetry can I reach my own horizons,” says Matur. We’re talking in a cafe by the river Lee in Cork, after a discussion of her work in the city library. During the discussion, she had confronted the fact that all her poetry until now was written in Turkish, rather than her native Kurdish, the banned, therefore private language of home and family.
But in the library, she had read aloud her first Kurdish poems. “My mother corrected me,” she told the audience. “She pointed out, for instance, the different Kurdish words for ‘to turn around’ and ‘to return’ – I had used the wrong one. So there was my mother, who cannot read, becoming my editor!”
Now Matur reflects on these origins. “We lived a happy life, but it was always confined; even as a child I was aware of this. I’m Kurdish, and you learn early that others do not regard or accept the land in which you are born as your own.”
Now, repression in the wake of the failed coup against Turkey’s President Erdoğan moves against all Alevi Kurds, like Matur’s family – seen not only as enemies of the state, but also as heretics by its aggressive Islamicisation. “No one feels safe,” she says, as pro-regime mobs stage incursions into Kurdish communities.
Matur was born in 1968, in the ancient Hittite city of Maraş, in Turkey’s south-eastern corner, Iraq to the south, Iran to the east. “I was a bookish little girl,” she says. Advertisement
Her student days in the late 1980s were dominated by Saddam Hussein’s persecution and gassing of Matur’s fellow Kurds across the border in Iraq, and Turkey’s less dramatic but unrelenting persecution of Kurdishness, let alone its political expression. “And so my idea, my notion, of being Kurdish became more fundamental to me.” As a law student in Ankara “Kurdish students were suspected, and arrested for their activities, and I was one of them.”
Matur, arrested and jailed for 12 months in 1988-9, explains how she began writing poems in prison. She recently went to a family wedding in Switzerland, at which she met her parents and relatives and friends she had not seen since childhood, such is diaspora life. “At the wedding, my father and I were trying to calculate how long I had been held in solitary confinement during my detention,” she says. “I thought it was for 18 days; my father corrected me – it had been 28. And that was very strange for me, because there was no way of knowing. I was held in total darkness, alone – a place in which there was no time. It was up to those outside, my father, to count the days.”
It was “in that dark cell that the interrogations began. That’s how your world is taken from you, in pure, total darkness. And when the interrogations stopped, I thought: ‘I can’t just try to count time in this timeless dark, I have to find another way to feel my being’. That’s how I started writing poetry. In my head. To bring back to life an existence they were trying to obliterate. My poems are about the reconstruction of a shattered being. Advertisement
“I started to focus on this way of survival. Words – and with them the reality of being – became visible to me. I had a pen and paper in my head, and was speaking the words silently to myself. As in our oral tradition, the words had rhythm, a kind of music – in jail, you cannot feel the energy to sing, but the words gave me balance in the darkness. I was not theirs any more.”
Matur and her fellow students had been arrested for suspected membership of the insurgent Kurdish political movement, “but they couldn’t find anything – being Kurdish was enough to get arrested”. After being held for eight months, she was cleared by a court hearing – “but when I got to the prison gates, my father waiting for me, the police arrested me again, for nothing. They even burned all the poetry I had written while in prison after solitary confinement. When I was finally released by the police, I ended up back to jail for another four months, depressed, collapsed, broken – I wanted to die.”
But in the aftermath of this nightmare, Matur spoke at an Amnesty International conference, and for the first time “found the energy to share my story”. She wrote what became a defiant bestseller in Turkey, Looking Behind the Mountain, a collection of Kurdish voices, simply but intelligently – therefore explosively – collated. It begins with an essay, in which Matur says: “We need a person like Mahatma Gandhi”.
Matur has been writing poetry for many years – her first book was published in 1996, winning many literary prizes, and there have been more awards since. The critic John Berger writes of her work: “Its aim is to outwit nonsense by outflanking it. It does so, it succeeds. Once everything was and so nothing existed. This nothing then broke into fragments, into shards which were real. And on these existent shards were written obscure phrases, which she, the poet, today transcribes. The reader does not follow word by word, but hand in hand, to touch and recognise piece after piece in the dark.”
A first volume of her poetry, In the Temple of a Patient God, was published in English in 2003. “To read Bejan Matur”, writes Maureen Freely in the introduction, “is to walk in a windswept desert strewn with bones and broken bodies and stones stained red by absent gods … It is a haunted, desolate and fragmented landscape.”
Both Freely and translator Ruth Christie invoke Wuthering Heights in Matur’s references to “mansions howling with winds”. As with Beckett, whom Matur admires, “I understood /time passes./Going is not going/staying is not staying”.
Poetry should be an anti-weapon, a means of abating the weapons
Then, inescapably, there is war. “These are not autobiographical works,” writes Freely. “Matur is writing about a people, not a person.” Matur writes of a refugee people, like those who haunt our nightly news bulletins now: “Birds hovered between earth and sky./Now the tribe cannot possibly survive/they said and flew away./We believed the birds/in their flurry,/that the tribe would not survive./With the tremulous souls/of all migrant peoples/we peered about us./First at the mountains/then the plain.”
Matur speaks with a curious combination of passionate engagement and ethereal quality. As befits her poetry: the rock of ages, the sources of rivers, the counsel of ancestors are as much a part of the cast as she is.
“I don’t use a political language, but my poetry is very political. Poetry is about the meaning beyond, about why we exist, what is the meaning of our being? At some level, these inevitably become political questions too.
“I have travelled like a nomad,” she says. “but when I return to my village and sit with my mother, I am back among my people. I want to say: we are not invisible, as Turkey says we are. We have a culture, we have a language, and we want to be seen. What I try to understand is the meaning of our existence, and if you do that, you take a political position, you state an act of resistance.”
After her ordeal at the hands of the Turkish regime, and now renewed threats to her friends and colleagues, Matur seeks to establish herself in the UK, where she has family. Some months after our meeting in Ireland, walking in Kenwood, London, she says: “The moment you fight against the terrible order of things on its own terms, you join it. You have to find another way, and poetry is about finding another way.”
Maram al-Masri remains at the table outside a cafe in Paris while I go in to pay the bill; when I return, her eyes have filled, and she licks a tear from the corner of her mouth. “Look at him,” she says, of a handsome, smiling face on her phone. “He’s just been killed. By murderers from the Assad regime. A journalist, and photographer. Yet another one, another friend. It happens every day, every time I check the news from Syria.”
His name was Khaled al-Issa, “a lovely man, good at his job, kind, gentle – look!”, she says, and shows me a video of Khaled feeding a songbird perched on his finger with birdseed placed on his own tongue.
“It’s like prolonged torture,” says Masri, “waiting, knowing, not knowing, wondering: who next of my friends and family? And all the other people, every day.” It is only later that Masri informs me that her own son, whom she has not seen for 13 years, was among the rebels when the demonstrations started. “I asked him: did you join the revolution? And he said yes, and I was so happy – I would have felt bad if he’d said no.”
With the noose tightening around Aleppo, Masri says: “Aleppo is the final revenge against the city that was the cradle of the peaceful revolution – a genocide against everyone that does not flee all they have, and the graves of their families. I follow every moment.
“They say poetry is a weapon, but I don’t think so,” she continues. “Why should poems be weapons? If they are, they simply take us back to the war. Poetry should be an anti-weapon, a means of abating the weapons.” The implosion of her country tears at her every waking hour “and my sleep too. I dream about the war. I am there and I’m not there. I am here, but my family and friends are there in Syria – most of all, my people are there.”
Masri’s poetry is not Sassoon for our time – it’s more complicated, postmodern, differently tortured than that: this is war poetry from the diaspora, from those who are not there, scattered into limbo. There is a poem about how “We are the exiles/we live on the pills of sedation/… We sleep embracing our mobile phones/To the light from our screens.”
Later, Masri picks at dinner: “I can feel the thirst, the hunger, as though I’m living with them, even though I’m here.” She occupies a tiny room in Montparnasse, “with hardly any daylight – but I like this neighbourhood. Half of me is here, half of me is there. It’s a kind of double way of living.”
Masri was born in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, where she grew up in what she describes as a crossroads between Arab roots “and nurturing ourselves with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen”. An avid reader and writer as a child, her parents knew French and she studied English literature at Damascus University. Masri began publishing poetry in magazines across the Arab world during the 1970s; during the 1980s, she moved to France, living between her native and adoptive countries. In 1987, she published a first volume, followed 10 years later by a singular book called A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor. Advertisement
These are love poems with a difference, which helped Masri claim the Adonis prize, named after the world’s most famous living poet in Arabic.
The book deals not with broken hearts, nor even bruised lust, but with passion – never ambivalent, but often taking ambivalent, even perilous, directions. It deals with adultery and lies, indeed subjugation to lies: “Give me your lies/I will wash them/and tuck them in the innocence of my heart/and make them facts.”
“Before the war,” says Masri, “the woman in me was my universe, my source of inspiration. I became fragile, I paid a price. It was like baring yourself naked in front of people. [My husband’s lawyer] used my poems in the divorce case against me. The judge agreed with him that my poetry was not compatible with marriage, with the mind of a good, faithful wife.”
Masri was honoured in French literary circles for a fourth collection in 2009, translated into English as Barefoot Souls. “I wrote about my small world, what I had: my heart,” she says. “And then there were the windows I had opened on to other people’s worlds, as a woman, mother, wife, housekeeper.”
The book establishes the poetic world Masri had wrought before Syria’s carnage, before her theme of love was engulfed by what is supposed to be love’s nemesis, war. Only Masri’s account of love is so painfully as well as sensually layered, they are not opposites at all. Advertisement
The book consists mainly of portraits of women and thereby womanhood, each short poem representing the voice of an individual. We are taken into the worlds of her cast, starting with a droll, poignant poem that recalls the Beatles ballad Eleanor Rigby – about Betty the retired schoolmistress and her cat, Katheline, which is “detested by everyone/except Betty/who loves nobody/except Katheline”.
Then the poetry transgresses boldly into the taboo of doctrinaire Islamic customs that would become a part of Syria’s nightmare, and latterly that in France: Fatima, aged 12, is “confined to a corner/to make her understand that from now on/she is/eligible for marriage and childbearing”. She ends up finding her man, but abandoned and “selling her gold bracelet” in order to “purchase a new virginity. But her childhood/that/she can never buy back.”
In another, Atife asks whether her love of life and a sense of her womanhood are crimes: to “touch the essence of earth”, “let my hair float free”, “put colour on my lips/to say that I have a mouth.” The poem reads like a celebration of existence itself, until that existence is abruptly ended in the final stanza: “Is it a crime to live in a country/where freedom/is hanged by the neck?” The country is Iran; the story is true; the girl was hanged for her feminine joie de vivre.
Masri tackles the barbarism of female genital mutilation: Aminata from Senegal has “a living sorrow/that bleeds” between her legs. “They cut it away/morsel by morsel … They said proudly: ‘We have cut off the head of Satan.’”
But now comes the war: now the shells start falling, the chemicals burn, the sieges begin and continue in Aleppo, Homs and Masri’s home town. Her friends and family are caught in another, real-life void, in what began as the Syrian spring, became the Syrian revolution and is now a fight to the bitter end for survival.
“Then came the war, and now that world of my heart has become vast,” says Masri. “It started with the revolution – I felt it every morning, I felt myself change and long to be there.” I ask about a particular poem, whether it is for her son. “It is for all the mothers who have children in the revolution.”
Now Masri has but one love, her country and its suffering people, dying by the hour, like Khaled and for all she knows her own child – or else fleeing to face the deathly depths of the Aegean, the part-embrace of Germany and refugee camps across Turkey and Lebanon that Masri tours, reading from her book of war poetry, the astonishing Liberty Walks Naked. Advertisement
“I have to go to these camps,” she says. “It’s all I can do. I can’t go into Syria – I’d be put straight into prison, or else killed. There’s nowhere to hide – this is not really war, there’s no real battle between equal soldiers, there’s only massacre.”
Reading to the refugees, Masri says: “I met a woman who had been raped by six men; all I could do was hold her. Some of the raped women are killed by their own families – they’re said to have brought shame on them. One woman in Turkey told me she had lost her three boys, lost everything – home, children. There was so much suffering in her eyes – how can I help such a person ? You can give money, I can read them what words I have. I’m not a heroine, nor could I be one. But they listen carefully; often they cry when I read, and talk to me about what has befallen them. I never know what happens to them afterwards, but I still hear their voices.”
The book, published in France as Elle va nue la liberté, is in the process of translation into English and it is one of the great recent collections of war poetry. Masri has won eight poetry prizes, including the Dante Alighieri award in 2015; there are moves in Paris to nominate her for the Nobel. “I get sad too when I see the soldiers dying,” she says. “They are just Syrian boys too – there is no victory for anyone. The west proclaims its values of democracy and freedom,” she reflects, “but it doesn’t bring them to Syria – it left the revolution as an orphan.”
Beneath the falling bombs, Masri’s people, those with whom she lives in her mind’s eye, continue their lives and deaths: “In a Suzuki mini-car/He laid the body of his wife, on the floor/He tidied the cloth of her torn dress across her/As if she were asleep./In a high place close by/He carefully placed the packet of bread/Which she went to buy/To feed the children today/So her death would not be/In vain.”
The poems “began after the bombing of the university,” she says. “With a picture of a lady with the shoes of her little daughter in her hands. All she has are the shoes, the girl is dead.” She now produces an appalling picture of a boy lying dead in rubble, “another Alan, back in Syria, who never made it to the Greek island”, she says of the famous picture of the drowned child. “For me, these are poems in the making. Scenes that play out in my head. If only so that there is some monument in words, some memory – it’s important to Assad that there be nothing afterwards, and there has to be.” Finally, in the last poem, there is Liberty: “My name is Freedom./ She walks naked … / She crosses the land / Her children, clinging to her arms … / They slit her throat / But still she sings”.
Posted on The Observer, poetry 2016
Feature image: Syrian poet Maram al-Masri, ‘New York Daily News.