Walk on the sands
Toward the lake.
They come forward to the water
To clean clothes
Full of blood and mud.
The mud was brown on the white fabric
The dry blood as well.
The beholder’s eyes see them as one thing.
But the barefoot women
Know the difference between them
When they seep away
With the lake water
Under the old golden bracelets.
When you hear Mosab al Nomairy recite poetry for the first time, it’s as if you are listening to the sound of the mist hanging above the open plains of Syria. Each word hangs in a chasm before and after the next, like islands dotting out a message floating in the sky. The Damascus native’s deep, patient baritone mirrors the candor of his poetry and the imagery it presents; his poems are skeletal and lean; you’ll find nothing superfluous in them. Mosab’s work, and indeed his life, have been shaped by a sense the liminal, and, given the developments in his home country in recent years, a feeling that the idea of home is something that can truly be lost.
“People talk about home like it is a place that you go from and then come back to. But no one talks about why the people decide to leave, or come back. I think home is stability, in a psychological way. Where I can bring food to my family without fear – anywhere I can do that can be home for me.”
Mosab grew up on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, and spent his childhood swinging between the hustle of the city and the emptiness of the country, a paradigm that has followed him throughout his life. The subtle uneasiness that comes from never quite knowing where you belong murmurs throughout most of his work.
“I grew up between the city and the fields. The close places and the wide ones. You see, you don’t belong to either of them, and you belong to both of them at the same time. This is a major point in all my life, because all the important events are coming from the differences between two places.”
This holds true even more poignantly for him today. Leaving Syria in 2010, just before major unrest began in the south of the country and then spread elsewhere, Mosab found himself working and studying in Dubai. Once the demonstrations turned violent and war broke out at home, he moved to Turkey. Currently residing in Istanbul, he has few options for building his life in the way that he’d like to. Stuck in a country that refuses to grant him basic legal rights, yet unable to go back to Syria due to the filthy and convoluted war still raging there, the young writer teachers Arabic to make ends meet while he works on publishing his first book of poetry.
“It would be great if me and the Syrian people had rights in this country, as any people in any country should. To be allowed to travel, to have documents, in time, not to stay as a stranger. If you go to Europe or America, it’s a right for people to have identity. I think that the Syrian people are not only lost physically. After things got bad there, the global system should be ashamed enough to offer something to the people who are still alive. Not money, I’m talking about dignity. It’s so difficult to still feel that you are a stranger. I want to be able to feel safe that, if my mother gets sick, she won’t die from something simple. If this place doesn’t offer me this, I will leave it.”
Despite his frustrations with the Turkish government’s shortcomings, he is fond of Turkey, and of Istanbul especially. A city of nearly twenty million people, it is a place for endless relationships and connections, which, according to him, always involve some degree of pain.
“Injury is something you cannot avoid in human relations. There is no way to be in contact with another person in a neutral way. The relation itself, not just romantic ones, is a conflict. It’s shaped to be conflicted. The circle of values is designed on competition. Competition means win and lose. And every win and every loss has its psychological effect, which is injury. Even happiness is injury.”
The stark and rather spartan lens with which he views the world has been defined by the remarkably devastating violence that Syria now witnesses almost daily. Even when he speaks of his family and his childhood, his words are couched in the rhetoric of conflict and opposition.
“I was a brother to three sisters. In our culture, if the family has a boy, he should be the one who gets everything. It was bad for me, to be cared for so much. I believe that life is a battle. When life is a battle, you need nails. You don’t need someone to trim them for you every time. Life needs humans to be strong, not just physically, but psychologically. I got free from this [treatment] after the tremendous violence that happened in Syria. The great shocks that happened to each of us.”
Those great shocks to which he refers largely stem from how the governmental structure of Bashar al-Assad’s predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, was designed. Coming to power in 1973, and after establishing a ruthless dictatorship bent on eliminating any and all opposition, great future turmoil was only a guarantee.
“After Hafez came to power, he started to build his dictatorship. Killing and jailing opposition. Things didn’t go as he wanted until 1982. That year there were armed militias, 200 armed people in a city called Hama, some of them belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The government killed 35,000 people in the city to silence them, but not just people from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a famous massacre. After this crime, Syria transformed and became, as they say, ‘The Kingdom of Silence.’ Since then, there has been no opposition in the Syria. He controlled the country by iron and fire.”
In a beautiful and subversive way, you can almost hear that kingdom when Mosab recites his poetry, rising in the negative spaces between his words. Tragically – brilliantly – his work turns that silence back on its head to speak out against the atrocities of the war.
When Hafez died, people had hope that his predecessor, Bashar al-Assad, would usher in change for a better, more democratic society and system of rule. These hopes, however, were short-lived.
“Everyone was hoping he was different. He studied in England and seemed more open. He tried to do good in the beginning for a few years, but then he changed his mind. Because it’s not the structure of the regime to be open-minded. It’s a State built on violence. Hafez Assad had brought into power all the people who don’t understand how to talk or understand someone else’s opinion.”
Mosab’s and others’ suspicions with Bashar al-Assad were confirmed in 2011, when a small anti-government demonstration in the southern town of Daraa sparked what would become the dreadful conflict we see today.
“All of us thought that the problem [with Bashar Al Assad] was with the people around him. Until 2011. The Arab Spring was happening all over. Some kids in Daraa wrote [graffiti] on the walls: “It’s your turn, doctor.” They wanted to change the government. And what did he do? Security took these children and pulled their nails out.”
The detention and torture of children struck a chord for the people of Daraa, a town known for looking after their own. People marched to these detention centers and demanded their children be released, only to be met with brash authoritarianism.
“They went to the security centers to take their children out. [The security forces] said to them, we won’t give you your children. They said, if you want, your wife can make more. In Syria, people don’t accept it when you commit such an injustice. They started to go to the street, saying they don’t want this regime. And other cities joined them; Homs, Latakia, Aleppo, supporting the idea that they are our brothers and we will stand with them until they get their rights. And then, he started killing people. With snipers. Jailing them. So the original face of the regime showed itself.”
According to Mosab, the demonstrations were peaceful in the beginning, but then people started arming themselves to protect the protestors. Eventually, after the number of armed participants increased and those unarmed decreased, things escalated to a point where civil war broke out, and the demonstrators became what we all now know as the Free Syrian Army. While all of this was going on, however, players in the international field sensed an opportunity to move in, and did so.
“Then the most harmful thing happened, which is, other countries started to offer weapons to the Syrian opposition. The countries said to the opposition people, we will give you weapons, but with terms. Your principles will be ours and you will raise our flag. Like Qatar, they were supporting the people only if they raised the Islamic flag. The people in Syria don’t care about the flag, any Islamic flag, we just needed something to protect our children. But there is no way to prove to the West that we are not extreme Islamic. People are religious, they don’t drink beer, women wear hijabs – but they are not extreme, they are just normal people.”
Once the war got going, terrorist groups in the region like Al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda) and ISIS took advantage of the unrest, going to towns and proclaiming they would protect people if the government attacked. This provided the Assad government, in conjunction with Russia, the rhetoric it needed to quash an otherwise legitimate rebellion against his regime.
“The main idea that is promoted from Russia, is that Assad is fighting Islamists and extremists. No! He is fighting the society. It’s strategy. Al-Nusra came to the Free Syrian Army and started its project. Normal people didn’t know the difference. They really only cared about whoever can protect them and their children. Since ISIS and Al-Nusra came, things got really fucked up. To justify all the killing of more than 500,000 people at this point, the Syrian government says, ‘There is Al-Nusra and ISIS! And everything that comes from there, you have to doubt it. You have to doubt the hospitals, which we bomb. You have to doubt the children who are dying!’ This is the main idea of Russian propaganda. I don’t blame anyone who thinks like this because this propaganda is so strong.”
Normally a very measured and calm individual, he speaks with great animation when talking about his home and what has happened to it. The course of the war seems to have irrevocably altered his ability to believe in what he used to.
“I lost my faith in everything. When you ask me where my home is, I don’t trust it. I don’t trust anything anymore. I was believing to get free is not a dream, that it’s a right. It should be a value of the modern world. But I saw everyone destroy this value by saying that Assad shaves his beard, so he’s better than the others before and we have to support him.”
His bitterness is understandable. Before his country can be free, he says, it faces an almost impossible uphill battle.
“Before the rebellion fights the regime, it has to fight ISIS, then Al-Nusra, then the regime. How can they do it? There is no way that any human in this world can accept or justify killing the innocent. There is compassion between humans that shouldn’t be lost in any situation. But this is far away from many people. It’s not their concern. The most damaging idea in the world is not feeling the other. This is the worst thing a human can do.”
As Mosab writes in one of his poems:
We are the smoke from the fires/ That you don’t see/ Behind the hills.
Healing Through Words
Mosab started writing when he was a teenager and hasn’t stopped since. When he first arrived in Istanbul in 2014, he serendipitously found his way onto a spoken word stage one night and, after spontaneously translating one of his poems for the performance, silenced the room. However, being the center of attention is not quite something he seems to enjoy.
“I don’t like celebrating any achievement. I don’t like the Oscars, Grammies. All of this is fake, when someone goes to the microphone and cries and people clap. Everybody seeks appreciation. I think it’s a trap. When somebody waits for someone to thank him, or appreciate him, he thinks that this is the last point. But after this, there is time. It’s not the end, you have to continue your life. This will be in the past. To remember it is like masturbation. For me, there is no goal.”
“When I write, I feel that there is fire inside me, or sadness, and I have to take it out. This is the only way to heal myself.”
While Mosab writes from time to time in English, his love of Arabic is great, and he spends a large amount of time playing with the words, rhythms, and unique linguistic properties it provides. He is currently thinking about writing a book based around a single Arabic word, that if altered only slightly, has significant repercussions to the reader in meaning and understanding. But the real challenge with words, he says, is in their shelf-life.
“It’s not something everyone can do, writing. Of course it has a relationship with emotions and being honest, but also, it’s a profession with tools. Something can get old. Words, expressions get so used and have to go to the trash. So the smart writer observes this. He should know the game. I’m trying to observe the changes in the language every day. Especially now with social media. You cannot affect people with the same words. Something gets consumed. The words, like a t-shirt gets big and old. You must search for new words, new expressions, but say the same idea. Everybody can write, of course, but the smart writer is able to read the text before he writes it.”
A major theme running through his work is the dichotomy in perspective of those who live through something and those who only observe it. He inhabits, as ever, a space in between, having seen his home destroyed from afar while at the same time being acutely aware of the suffering going on there.
“Nobody feels an injury except its owner. In Arabic we have a phrase that goes, “The one who is getting slapped is different than the one counting the slaps.” When I write about women washing the blood and the mud from the clothes into the lake, only they know which is one and which is the other. The pain of this woman is doubled, knowing that nobody is feeling this but her.”
Rather than creating a chasm between individuals, Mosab believes that recognizing this can be a force that bring people together.
“When an earthquake happens, the person from afar doesn’t feel the shake. He only sees the birds flying off. He knows that something happened, but the physical shock is far away. This is a major point in all my poems. But everyone gets affected by the earthquake. For example, people in Paris can understand people in Syria, because they lost people, too. We are in the same boat. I want to put the idea of nationalism, and everything that separates people, behind us, put injustice in the past. It’s so difficult.”
When asked if he thinks this is possible, he offers the answer of someone who knows not to deceive themselves.
“If I say it’s possible, I would be dreaming. There is a problem in human nature – selfishness.”
And through all of this – his manner of speaking, his slow yet significant physical gestures, his resignation about the state of the world and the tragedy that visits it- one gets the sense that this is a man who is set on making do with what he has in life in quiet, selfless action and kindness towards others. This is perhaps best exemplified in one of his poems, in which the sense of loss of one’s home has never seemed so melancholy.