In Damascus I have amnesia.
It’s 2:00 a.m., and I am standing on the cold floor of the balcony looking over the flickering lights of the Umayyad roundabout, where cars swerve smooth and strong into the circle, joined for a moment in a dance around the fountains before they drive away in different directions. I don’t remember that the same scene was washed over by the sun only hours ago, white-hot, everything the same color until the western horizon took the light.
In Damascus I have a photographic memory.
From right to left I see: the Sheraton Hotel like a decapitated sphinx, its music echoing in the late night like a ballad serenading the city’s insomniac lovers; the bullet-studded walls of the Syrian National News Agency; the deep red and blue lights of the Umayyad sword; and the National Library, my mother’s beloved second home.
When they ask me, I say, no, I do not know Syria intimately. When my mama and tayta weave their conversations through Damascus’s neighborhoods, its streets, and its families, their personal geography of the city remains out of reach. Instead, to me, Damascus is one endless road I take from Souq al-Hammidyah to my grandmother’s house. Where I am standing, at 2:00 a.m., overlooking the Umayyad roundabout.
The stream of constant traffic that comes from all directions and leaves in all directions. As though I were standing here at the center of Damascus, my grandmother’s balcony marked off like a sign, a place to point to and say: it begins here.
For my mother, who grew up with the taste of Syrian cardamom on her tongue, those long flights to Damascus every summer of my childhood were homebound, a return. My connection to Syria was a tenuous one; it was a place of perpetual vacation. My mother would disappear without effort into Damascene society. She felt at home—she was home—while my clumsy childhood dialect betrayed me.
Part of growing up somewhere different from where your parents did is that you feel disconnected from things that grow there. Fruits and herbs whose names I can’t translate into Arabic, because I never needed them in that language. I hardly taste my parents’ Arabic on my tongue.
And when you write about a place you didn’t really know, but your parents knew, you sense that you somehow aren’t entitled to feel that exile—you are what Jhumpa Lahiri calls “exiled even from the definition of exile.”
T asks me how I feel about what’s happening in Syria. She means because I live here in the United States and not there; because I’m the daughter of two Syrian immigrants who, without fuss, found themselves in America before any of what’s happening in Syria showed itself.
T doesn’t say any of this. Her question smothers other ones: How do you relate to Syria? How do you find it? Where?
In the Arabic poetic tradition, a poet who expresses grief over separation from a homeland—who writes home into verse out of longing—writes a ritha’ al-mudun, a city-elegy.
The city-elegy took its cue from that giant and ancient poetic form, the pre-Islamic qasidah, in which the poet contemplates traces of a past life, calls up the memories of his beloved, and cries out for deliverance from perpetual suffering. Separation proves unbearable.
The opening of the qasidah is infatuated with dwelling. At the beginning, often at the site of an abandoned encampment, the poet looks back at the past: lingering over ruins, at the traces of his beloved manifest in her apparition. What signs did the poet miss? How could this loss have been anticipated? Trying to right a wrong.
This is what the city-elegy takes from the qasidah—a sense of retrospect, a looking back (I see it now)—an overwhelming feeling that drives wordless anguish toward verbal articulation.
I see the stars rose dimly on their horizon
and the sun and moon turned dark.
I see the lofty mountains, shaken
both men and jinn were trembling.
And the once stable earth, distraught,
now inclines precariously.
Do you think the nights, after what they have done to us,
will ever grant us reunion and nearness?
Elegies are not only about mourning the dead, or the past, or the ruin. They also summon memories of eminence, ascendancy, and glory—they are praise poems. They become the bearers of what was beautiful about the past.
Their language of loss, like the city, belongs resolutely to the poet, but also to everyone else. The words of grief, the structures of mourning, the patterns of remembering are a language shared across time, summoning a past language, a past city. The new places are mixed with the old, the many versions of this city, your city, condensed into one moment: its fall.
This is Damascus and this the glass of wine and of comfort
I love and certain kinds of love are like slaughter
I am the Damascene, if you cut me open
grape vines and apples pour out
the minarets of sham cry when hugging me
and minarets, like trees, have souls
Jasmines have fields in our homes
and the house cat sleeps where it can rest
the coffee grinder is a part of our childhood
so how can I forget? When the fragrance of cardamom wafts?
Here are my roots, my heart, my language
how can I clarify, is there any clarification in love?
–“This is Damascus,” by Nizar Qabbani
I slept through the days of my last Damascus visit, in the summer of 2010. It was Ramadan, and the heat stretched out my languid days. The hot air that took me like a trance, in and out of sleep, made fasting a blur. My grandmother, who hated air conditioners, never turned on the one she had. I tell myself it was the heat and stretches of boredom that made me eager to leave, when really it was the promise of romance in the small college town I was returning to.
That was almost ten years ago, and like Qabbani, I can still taste the ripe peaches of summer and remember that sweltering night heat that woke me up minutes before it was time to eat the pre-fajr meal.
They say that when Abd al-Rahman, the vanquished Umayyad prince fleeing Damascus, arrived in the strange land of medieval Iberia in 791 AD, nothing could console him. Despite its attractions, Iberia could never truly make up for the loss of his home in Damascus. In his state of longing, any connection to his homeland became saturated with meaning. So when Abd al-Rahman came upon a date palm so many miles from Syria, he was moved (or so they say) to recite these lines:
A palm tree I beheld
In the middle of al-Rusafah
A tree alone in the West
Remote from the land of palm trees
And I said to it:
Like me, you are in exile
And long separation
From kin and family
You have grown a stranger
In a foreign land
Displaced like me
And far far away from home
May the mourning clouds water you
And may abundant rain
Forever comfort you
In the beginning, the akhbar, news, from Syria was: snatches from a phone conversation / my grandmother’s resigned voice telling us things are fine / posts on social media quickly deleted / family and friends leaving through the Lebanese border / video clips leaked onto Youtube, passed through the ether of the www / my father’s voice on the phone in the other room / journalists calling to ask for his thoughts / aunts and uncles leaving / cousins taken in the night / no new news /
The news from Syria now: territory regained / fewer checkpoints / more bombings / this time chemical / Eastern Ghouta under the rubble / Hallab under there too / “Whatever happened to them?”/ “It’s better that he stays, or we’ll lose our country” / The terrorists have been defeated / Syria is now free / Syria is…
The elegy also trades in akhbar, reports or anecdotes passed along by word of mouth. Whole stories of cities moving through the world as facts or as rumors passed along in that peculiar mode of preservation: they said.
But now, they say: “He was involved” or “He wrote it against the regime,” or “He’s a traitor to his country.” Unverified, the reports have grave-deep consequences.
The pre-Islamic poet stands before the atlal, the ruined campsite that is the last trace of his beloved’s home—her caravan gone, nowhere to be found. Atlal, from tala, meaning to look over from above, to search desperately for signs overlooked. When the first poets stopped to cry at the campsite ruins, they inscribed their beloved’s separation into the land. The separation becomes this abandoned dwelling; it takes shape as the ruins themselves. (Imagine first its roaring flames, and now its dead embers.) What is left is scattered by the wind across the desert floor.
The atlal delineate a boundary. As traces, they hold on to the historical by marking it. Here, in this place, you are standing at the border between past and present, between presence and absence, between union and separation. You can see it now, in retrospect, because in marking the boundary of here—of the atlal—you can traverse there.
I am like the poet of the qasidah, who stirs only after the beloved’s departure, facing the embers of the campsite; the poet who wants so desperately to find answers in these traces.
Here in this last place, for the last time, the question on the poet’s mind: where?
In the city-elegy, the loss of and yearning for a city become an emblem for all losses and yearnings: a common heartache that contains a whole people’s historical reservoir. Which is why, in the city-elegy, the city looms large, but its desolation, and its sense of isolation, are not only the results of its physical ruins. Weeping at the campsite is the only bearable way to express the loss of something greater to which the ruins point. The beloved leaving home, displaced, now wandering across the earth, reaching for different shores on rafts, arriving just short of unfriendly shores.
My friend O tells me there is no nuance when it comes to Syria. When people talk about Syria slouching towards civil war, the headlines are enough: the conflict between the rebels and the Assad regime, ISIS and its caliphate, a proxy war, a crisis of refugees. No longer a revolution, full of purpose, but instead the depth of senselessness, in civil war. The revolution has been buried alongside its deepest supporters.
And this word, “conflict.” What does it touch? Weddings? Funerals? Everyday life? Miles away from it, I am touched by this “conflict,” but only barely (like I need to bare some part of me to it). How can my cousin’s arrest and his death, which touches me to my being, only come to me as sounds from faraway, voices of the people I love draining their tears into the phone line? How can my answer to those in Syria who tell me, enough, khalas, bas, we’ve been ruined, be: change requires sacrifice?
When the destruction in Tadmur (Palmyra) came to light, I was not sad that these Roman ruins were turning to rubble (even the ruins were not safe from ruin). I found it hard to stop and cry over them, to look back at their past when the present was on fire. Instead, I ran my thoughts over the rubble, tracing them into a poem, summoning the cries of Arabic verse from the ruins.
For O, there is no nuance when people discuss what’s happening to Syria. He means politically. I want to mean poetically.
What can language write that conveys even a little of the suffering of those living in Idlib, or Ghouta, or Halab? How do these Latin letters speak the pain of a thousand dead cities, of millions of lives ruined?
Arabic is the only way for me to understand and speak to my mother, and to speak to the rest of my family who are still in Syria. But my shami Arabic communicates my love to them and not much else. What could I tell them about what they’re experiencing? They would tell me that I don’t understand what it’s like over there, until I fall asleep to the smell of jasmines wafting through the window and wake up to their ashes with the sunrise.
I have to believe that poetry can say something across languages, no matter how difficult the translation. I have to trust that the Arabic poetry I read, with my clunky contextual understanding, can express in English the loss, even as it sheds some of itself in translation.
And still, I am writing this to them in a language that we do not share.
In the early months of the revolution, they said: hope, tragedy, resistance, death, hope, anger, more death more tragedy more hope.
I heard: your cousin is dead.
I heard: they pulled out his fingernails.
My cousin Hisham was accused in the early months of the uprisings. His alleged crime: sympathy with the revolution, through words written somewhere on the city’s walls. Acting in good authoritarian fashion, the Syrian intelligence, the mukhabarat, took him for questioning. They work closely with Assad’s thugs, known as the shabiha. O tells me their name comes from the car they used to drive: a white Mercedes that people in the 70s nicknamed shabah, the ghost. Like ghosts, Assad and his regime hover above the law.
In a state with declared emergency law, due process or proper investigations take too long. Mukhabarat, from the same root as akhbar, never goes beyond they said. Who are they? Did what they said turn out to be true? How do you keep an entire population afraid to speak up? You haunt them.
Hisham left a prescient message on his Facebook wall. He had posted it the day before they took him, as though he had known we would never hear from him again. The message:
Please forgive me.
We learned he had been reported by someone he knew. They had taken him because they thought he had written something else entirely on a different kind of wall.
For a long time, I thought that they had not returned his body.
Damascus—The Festival of Water and Jasmines
by Nizar Qabbani
I cannot write Damascus, without feeling the jasmines on my fingers.
And I cannot say her name, without my tongue blazing with the juices of apricots, pomegranates, berries and quince.
And I cannot mention her without a thousand doves landing on the walls of memory, and a thousand doves taking off.
The road to Damascus can’t hold itself up anymore; it swells sporadically, overwhelmed, the heavy weight of vehicles carrying the tired and scared, young and old. The animals wander indifferently. Metal and rubber press against it; the hot sun glares, makes the asphalt shimmer. There are new obstacles on it. They call them checkpoints, and they herd people, forcing them into specific directions. They say it’s for security.
Keep Out, or maybe, Stay In.
The road circles back onto itself, leads back to itself, like an embrace that only it can feel.
And then there is the sea. Syrians being shuffled between shores. Their sea legs have become strong, but sometimes the water still takes them.
Suffering Syrians, beautiful Syrians, Syrian brothers fleeing death. You won’t reach the shores on rafts but will be born on beaches with the foam.
–“A Boat to Lesbos,” by Nouri al-Jarrah
My Syrian parents, speaking shami Arabic, on our road trips to the South, listening to the tunes of their youth punctuated by radio static. The sleepy voice of the Lebanese singer Fairuz, her songs dedicated to Sha’am, Ya Shaam.
Ya Shaam, If I still conceal what I suffer, the most beautiful love is love yet untold.
“When Syria is liberated…” This early refrain of the revolution declared resolute hope among the Syrian diaspora. When becomes if becomes a pause and then silence.
That haunting silence everywhere. International community? Silence. Dead children? Short outcry, then Silence. But Silence is familiar to Syrians, who knew more than 40 years of Silence under Hafez al-Assad.
Six young boys decide they’ve had enough, but in Silence. They take their anger to the walls and etch it there for permanence, in Silence. The walls take this pain, tell them: but you are language’s dream. Liberation will not be, then Silence.
In the early 12th century, an earthquake shook a city in Syria, shuddering the life of poet Usama Ibn Munqidh, who dealt with the utter ruin by compiling an anthology of poems, “making it my tears shed over my home and loved ones.”
Centuries and miles away in the city of Granada, in Andalusia, the poet Ibn Zamrak’s verses are carved onto the walls of the Alhambra palace. He won’t live for a hundred more years to witness the fall of his city. But even after Granada was lost, poets would continue to write its name, an errant placeholder for other losses too unbearable to utter.
Books, walls: they translate our impressed affections, offer them to the other as a sign of emotional solidarity. I have been here before, I know how it feels. Language—words or gestures—carries the full force of mourning (think of elegies, think of weeping), but even they are only the excesses of grief, much of which remains untranslated, untranslatable.
My worry, in another’s words (those of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish): “And in the end we will ask ourselves: ‘Was Andalusia here or there? On the land…or in the poem?’”
Syria does not appear explicitly in the collection, but the country’s predicament inhabits and haunts Rasha Omran’s Panorama of Loneliness and Death, as though her poems were the annotations to a massacre. In the very last poem of her book, Omran can no longer ignore the “events” happening over “there.” She, exiled in Cairo far away from her home in Syria, writes:
my friend who is still there
he guards his poems from the details of the killing
while I am here
certain of the events
in order to say:
is not a poetic text
just a certainty that the events
are happening there daily
and I, the distant one now
do not stop being certain
The terrifying feeling of startling awake to the events actually happening, to their certainty. And your distance. The very fact that you are far away proves to you that they are, in fact, happening. And that you are not there.
I am struck by the image of the Andalusi poet Ibn Zaydun, leaning against the ruins of Madinat-az-Zahra (The City of Light), the oasis of the Umayyad rulers only a few kilometers from the city of Córdoba, left ravaged in the aftermath of a civil war. The poet wants to write an elegy to the city he loves, the city of memories of his lover. Rather than writing an elegy to the fallen city, he instead sends a poem to his beloved, asking her to meet him.
Perhaps in thinking about restoring the city from its ruins in his poem, he notices another absence just as urgent as the destruction before him. The walls that separated them in the time before are now rubble; maybe this devastation augurs another kind of consolation in the arms of the beloved.
(She does not come.)
I thought that they hadn’t returned his body, that it was too disfigured, that the evidence on his body would testify against them where he couldn’t. That it was so disfigured that his body was no body, that there was nothing to return.
His body did bear witness against them, but they did return it, a spectacle of their torture. In between bearing witness (shahada) and the spectacle (mushahada) is the martyr (shahid).
The poet cannot always write a ruin, because a ruin is sometimes a body rushing breathlessly to safety but never arriving.
It’s not the theme of the elegy to mourn; it is itself the act of mourning.
Fajr, dawn, I wake up to the call of prayer coming in faintly through the window, a soft voice in the orange-glow calm. Then, my grandfather’s voice in the next room, almost to the end of his prayer, reciting the last ten verses of surat al baqara—a plea to God already nestled in the verses and in his voice.
Retrospect: I see it now. This is the space of the elegy, the anguish in the voice of my grandfather is in the Quranic articulation: our lord, do not impose upon us what we have no strength to bear.
Seven months before the first protests in Damascus, I walk past the park of my summer childhood. It is Ramadan, and the sun will set soon. The street is characteristically warm and uncharacteristically empty (later, it would come alive with prickly-pear vendors, young people leaning against its fence smoking and eating, children darting in and out of the gate towards the playground).
Retrospect: I think of the empty street now—stretched between my two grandmothers’ homes in Damascus–in light of what happens seven months later, when the city comes alive with a different kind of warmth, as the prickly-pear vendors, young people, and children chant al-shaab yureed isqat al-nizam (the people demand the fall of the regime).
I know that no matter how many planes I ride
and how many oceans I cross
or between continents I danced
I still wander in the Damascus alleys
where I was born, coming and going
since my childhood until my death
and no matter how many times I was myself
in the waters of the Thames, the Danube, and the Seine
the Mississippi, and the Rhine, the waters of Barada alone
still wet me and don’t dry up.
I know that no matter where I am, I am still in my Damascus
home, under the shadow of my only beloved
ya zayn al shabab, forever Qasiyoun.
—“Damascus,” by Ghada al-Samaan
Qasiyoun, the mountain that is to my back as I stand on my mother’s childhood balcony facing the Umayyad roundabout. The mountain we drove up every summer alongside my aunts, uncles, and cousins, with falafel and shawarma sandwiches that we picked up from the many vendors that circle up to the top. Once there, we looked out over all of Damascus, but from that height it could easily have been Ghouta, Idlib, Hallab, Hamma.
And if I remember hard enough, I might have come up there with Hisham, when we were both much younger, still the children my uncle had pushed together as we held tightly to the swing (and to each other).
And my mother—how many times did she drive up to the top of that mountain thinking it would happen again next year, and the year after that?
How does the poem keep us there? in memory? in the traces? keep us coming back?
Who was it that said, we must leave, but in leaving we are no longer ourselves.