Place: Syria

In Conversation: Yousif M. Qasmiyeh on Language and Liminality

Refugees and gods always compete for the same place.

Born in Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a Palestinian poet and translator who currently teaches Arabic at Oxford University. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Arabic in An-Nahar and Al-Ghawoon, and in English in journals including Critical Quarterly, GeoHumanities, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Much of his recent research, as the Writer in Residence for the Refugee Hosts Project, focuses on ‘writing the camp’ and the dialectics of hospitality in both life and death.

Last year, Qasmiyeh collaborated with the Oxford University Poetry Society, the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford University PEN to translate Arabic-language poems pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis for a small anthology, Flight, subsequently sold to raise funds for the Oxfam Refugee Appeal and an Oxford-based charity, OXPAND. It was in this capacity that I first met Qasmiyeh. The following exchange took place in late January, 2017.

—Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote

 

Theophilus Kwek (TK): You’ve just returned from Oxford to Lebanon for several weeks over the winter, visiting the refugee camps while you were there. Each of these journeys must involve a complex set of changes: not least in your immediate linguistic and cultural context. Was there an aspect of this most recent journey that was most compelling to you as a writer?

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (YMQ): These journeys have become regular since I obtained my British passport in early-2012. Their regularity is largely initiated by a combination of familial and research commitments. I mainly visit Baddawi camp (my place of birth) and the Nahr Al-Bared camp in North Lebanon. We might say that I go to the camps ‘through Lebanon’ and never ‘to Lebanon’. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in my and Elena’s research with new [refugee] arrivals in Baddawi, in so far as refugees’ “arrival in the camp” has become the ultimate dynamic that has punctuated many refugees’ understanding of the occurrence of arrival [in Lebanon].

For me, as a person born in Baddawi, my arrival in that place has always been contingent on the presence of the camp. You may also say these are seasonal pilgrimages to one’s memories and traces, as I have argued in a co-authored piece titled ‘Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation.’

When I am there I try to spend time with my elderly parents, my siblings and their families, but I also try to observe the changes that are occurring in the camps. The camps are no longer the same nor are their residents the same people. In order to acknowledge both the humane and inhumane repercussions of such places we have to see the faces in their absolute gift—the features and cuts that never lie about what is happening around them. These are the faces of those who are unsure about the definition of a place or the tenets that make a place a place. Everything in the camps seems to move both horizontally and vertically at the same time. People enter the place to contribute to the mass or masses therein but also to the verticality that has embodied itself in all these fragile buildings that are being (or in the process of being) built. Other refugees are entering their archetypal place, one might say. The city (at least in Lebanon) is no longer the only destination for all these new refugees.

In this process, I think the linguistic and dialectal dimension has become strikingly obvious. The dialects that are heard are now what avows the faces. Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi dialects are now uttered in the same space, in camps that have transcended the “gathering” sign to become the “gatherer”; the active participle, the doer whose main presence is dependent on being occupied and used. We hear the dialect to observe the face. This (dis)order has always attracted me to my camp. It attracts me for it is the dialect that we at times suppress to conceal who we are. It attracts me when such dialects are exaggerated or perhaps elongated to occupy a place that is neither theirs nor ours. The shibboleth has never been clearer.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Prose Poems by Ghayath Almadhoun

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt.

In solidarity with the refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries recently barred from entering the US, we spotlight today the work of Syria-born Ghayath Almadhoun, the poet to whom Jazra Khaleed dedicated his “The War is Coming” poem three weeks ago in this very showcase. Especially in the second poem, “Massacre,” the stark and brutal reality of war is driven home.

Shaken by the developments coming out of America in the past few days, we at Asymptote have been working around the clock to try to fundraise for a Special Feature spotlighting new writing from the seven banned countries in our next issue, in an attempt to offer a high-profile platform for those newly affected by the fallout of those developments. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at editors@asymptotejournal.com.

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.

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Translation Tuesday: “The War is Coming” by Jazra Khaleed

“On the 7th of January 2014, the United Nations stopped counting Syria’s dead.”

In this sobering poem, Chechnya-born Greek poet Jazra Khaleed vividly depicts a war “so trite and pedestrian, filled with similes and ornate adjectives, its history is written in the font Comic Sans.” For most of us in the settled world unable to imagine what it is that Syrian refugees go through, these words encompass a different but now less unknowable spectrum of the human experience.

 

The War is Coming

For Ghayath al-Madhoun
and his million Arab poets

1.

I decided to leave Syria the day a stray bullet passed in front of my eyes. That day I realized my homeland was not my homeland, my blood not my blood, and my freedom belonged to a freedom fighter who didn’t think to ask my permission before he shot me: a lack of courtesy we encounter often in war time.

2.

If they are going to kill me, better to kill me in a foreign language.

3.

On the road from Damascus to Berlin I met an old soldier from Dara’a who couldn’t carry his nightmares anymore. I wrapped them and put them in my suitcase; at the airport I paid the fine for excess baggage.

4.

Whoever is not afraid to cross the border carries the war on his back.

5.

Swap your best shirt for a bulletproof vest, your poems for the first chapter of the Koran and your house in Athens for a throne atop Mount Aigaleo so you can survey from on high the coming war.

6.

This war is trite and pedestrian, filled with similes and ornate adjectives, its history is written in the font Comic Sans, violence so limitless the war doesn’t know where to put it, one grave for every thousand corpses, one shadow for every thousand survivors, it’s an indelicate war, barrels vomiting explosives, steel cylinders filled with accessories for washing machines and car parts, the death that disseminates is an earthy death, this war is rightfully ours because in it we have buried all our loved ones.

7.

On the 7th of January 2014, the United Nations stopped counting Syria’s dead. This decision certified mathematics as the science of quality, not quantity, of living labor, not shapes, of time, not space—in other words, mathematics is the science that studies the material relations among all countable objects.

8.

By the end of 2015, according to Facebook, 311 friends of mine had died since the start of the war. I decided to shut down my account: death must have a beginning, middle, and end. I can’t spend my life in its wake.

9.

I, Ahmed, son of Aisha, although nothing more than a humble migrant, wish to apologize on behalf of the Syrians to Greek men and women for filling their televisions with our deaths as they eat their dinners and wait for their favorite shows, I wish to apologize to the municipal authorities for leaving our trash on their beaches and polluting their shores with tons of plastic, we are uncivilized and we have no environmental awareness, I wish to apologize to the hotel owners and tour operators for damaging the island tourist industry, I wish to apologize for shattering the stereotype of the miserable migrant with our mobile phones and clean clothes, I wish to apologize to the coast guard who have the thankless task of sinking our boats, to the police for standing in disorderly lines, to the bus drivers who have to wear surgical masks to protect themselves from the diseases we carry, I also wish to make a most humble apology to Greek society for exceeding the capacity of their detention camps and for sleeping in their squares and parks—finally, I wish to apologize to the Greek government who had to request additional funds from the European Union in order to pay the purveyors who stock the detention camps, as well as the bus drivers, the police, the coast guard, the tour operators, the hotel owners, the municipal authorities, and the television stations.

10.

“Don’t worry,” said the bullet, “I’ll go in and out.” I explained to her that I couldn’t allow it since when she left she was bound to take some of my memories—like the face of the girl I loved in the fifth grade, the voice of the imam the first time my father took me to pray, the smell of the freshly baked bread in my grandmother’s house, the fingers of my teacher as she taught me to write the word الحرب and Van Basten’s final goal in the Euro of ’88.

11.

It’s well known that no organization can buy arms on the black market without American authorization. This is one of the reasons I never managed to understand the difference between enlightenment and genocide.

12.

If you don’t want to be canon fodder, if you don’t want the war to catch you with your pants down, put on that thinking cap, double down the class struggle, get organized, triple down the class struggle, fight, fill your pockets with rocks, stick to your guns.
Out with the Left! Bring back the Spartacists!
Out with the NGO’s! Bring back Garibaldi’s brigades!
Out with the Humanists! Bring back the Italian Autonomists!
The slaughter is about to begin.

Translated from the Greek by Karen Van Dyck

For more perspectives on the refugee crisis, we suggest Jan Dammu in the current issue of Asymptote, and Theophilus Kwek on reading the refugee crisis at the Asymptote blog.

Jazra Khaleed (Born Chechnya, 1979) lives in Athens, writes exclusively in Greek, and is known as a poet, editor, and translator. His works are protests against the injustices in contemporary Greece, especially the growing xenophobia and racism. His poems have been widely translated for publications in Europe, the US, Australia, and Japan. As a founding co-editor of the poetry magazine Teflon, and particularly through his own translations published there, he has introduced the works of Amiri Baraka, Keston Sutherland, Etel Adnan, and many other political and experimental poets to a Greek readership. His debut collection Grozny was published in spring 2016, while his newest short film “Gone is Syria, Gone” has been selected for the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, the Kasseler Dokfest, and L’Alternativa . His poetry blog can be found at jazrakhaleed.blogspot.gr.

Karen Van Dyck is Professor of Modern Greek Literature in the Classics Department at Columbia University. She writes and teaches on issues of gender, diaspora, and translation. Her books include Kassandra and the Censors (Cornell, 1998), The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding (Wesleyan, 1998), The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2009), and The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (Graywolf, 2009). Her bilingual anthology Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (Penguin, 2016), a New Statesman Book of the Year pick, will be published by the NYRB in the US in March. She discusses the anthology as well as this new poem by Jazra Khaleed in her essay “What’s Found in Translation” (forthcoming, PN Review 234).

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Read More Translation Tuesdays:

My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

From today through Saturday, select Asymptote staff will be continuing our annual tradition of looking back on the year—specifically through the lens of literary discovery. First to go is Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who recently placed Second in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. 

It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago: on the brink of a nuclear deal in Iran, standing firmly in Europe, and with a cluster of literary titans—including Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Max Ritvo and Leonard Cohen—to light the road ahead. The intervening months have taken us around blind corners that will, undoubtedly, take many more months to comprehend.

For many, however, that tumultuous journey has been more than metaphorical. From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.

Or can we? My 2016 has brought—along with border-crossing award-winners like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation—a selection of powerful work bearing witness to the refugee experience, both by refugees themselves, and those involved first-hand in the asylum process. More than before, I am convinced that there are ways that we, as readers and writers, can know and share in these journeys. And in a publishing climate that remains overwhelmingly first-world, settled, and white, the least we can do (with our wealth and our words) is choose to look outside those brackets. READ MORE…

My 2015

Sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

It’s been a fantastic year for literature and, consequently, not such a stellar year for my bank balance as all these purchases have begun taking over my apartment. I recently discovered that there is a word for this condition in Japanese, “tsundoku”; letting books pile up unread as you buy new ones to add to the literary Tower of Babel rising ever higher in your apartment. But sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was one such book, a lucid and meticulously researched biography of the late poet, who also acted as a champion of translation and literary internationalism through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own efforts at translation. Most notable of these efforts were his translations of Hungarian poets during the 1960s and 1970s, living in ‘the Other Europe’ of the Cold War era.

In what might well be a q-memory, I recall coming across Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ at an early age within an anthology of British poetry owned by my great-granddad. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, The Hawk in the Rain would later become a touchstone during my teenage years in rural North Yorkshire. Coming from a similarly unremarkable background, Hughes was someone who didn’t forget his countryside roots, but was in fact sustained by them; in short, he was one of us. Though there has been a huge amount of press around the book for its more scurrilous content, an unavoidable consequence of the ever-profitable ‘Plath industry’, Bate successfully puts Hughes over as someone who lived and breathed for his art; contained it within the marrow of his bones, and pursued an unwavering, unforgiving dedication to his art that brought terrible costs to his life off the page.

After featuring in our summer issue, I quickly snatched up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth when Christine MacSweeney’s wonderful translation hit the shelves of my local bookstore in September. Shortly after beginning the novel, it becomes obvious that Luiselli is sitting comfortably on the edge of greatness; uproariously funny and scathing in its critique of the absurdities and banalities of modern life, the book was just a delight to read from beginning to end. For lovers of the adroit wordplay of Joyce and the ironic farces of Ionesco, this book will make a perfect stocking filler.

Another translated work that has stuck with me throughout the year, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the ongoing debates around military action against the self-styled Islamic State, has been Mary McCarthy’s translation of Simone Weil’s seminal essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’. A meditation on the nature of war and violence, it shows, on the one hand, why the classics are still relevant to our understanding and navigation of the issues thrown at us in the modern world. On the other, it reaffirms warfare and violence as a dehumanising force that strips both victim and aggressor of all humanity. Written on the eve of war in 1939, it remains one of the most moving literary essays ever written.

David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.