Ghayath al-Madhoun and Marie Silkeberg: Damascus in Two Voices

Article originally published on yesterday’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair magazine “Show Daily”

till damaskus cover bigThe late Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932), known as amir al-shu‘ara’ (“the prince of poets”), once wrote in one of his poems that the promised land was here on Earth and it was Damascus.

It’s been three years since the Syrian revolution started, and after three years of brutal repression, Damascus may have lost many of the things that reminded Shawqi of heaven, but it certainly has not lost its position as a source of inspiration for many poets and writers, from the Arab world and beyond.

Author and journalist Ghayath al-Madhoun, born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, and now resident in Sweden, and Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg have dedicated a poetry book to the Syrian capital, written in Arabic and Swedish. The book’s title itself, To Damascus (Till Damaskus in Swedish) is a crossroads of cultural references, referring both to the famous play of the same name by Swedish playwright August Strindberg and to the conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. 

The book was published last February by the Swedish publishing house Albert Bonniers Förlag and it marks the first time the two poets have cooperated on a poetry book, although it is not the first time they have worked together. Previously, they have written and produced “poetry films”, a different form of cultural expression where the words are as important as the sounds and the images on the screen.

For a long time they used this type of artistic expression as a “transitional place” where they could meet, confront their differences, and create something new out of the encounter. Producing poetry films worked well with respect to their own different cultural and geographical backgrounds: “I don’t think it would have been possible even to write without this distance,” said al-Madhoun. “The struggle to write something true without the fear of having your expression invaded and erased would have been too hard without it. It’s more the energies that fuel writing that we share, the curiosity and the joy in taking risks as poets and persons, and a concern for detail in a very wide sense.”

Al-Madhoun and Silkeberg felt compelled to write a book to and for Damascus and about the Syria of today both by the brutality of the repression exerted by the Syrian regime over its population and by life in Europe, where the echo of what is happening in Syria is somehow choked and distorted. But the city portrayed by the two poets in their poems is not just Damascus: it “looks like Damascus, but it’s a Damascus of today, where every line becomes a disaster.”

In the words of al-Madhoun, who lived there until 2008, the Syrian capital is the very first city of the world:

I still think that all the cities in the world are a reflection, or a copy, of the first, which is Damascus.

Today, however, he finds difficult to compare it to the paradise envisioned by Shawqi, because, as he says “there is no paradise without freedom.” The Syrian revolution has also affected his writing: “It has affected my memory, and my poetry is related to my memory and my experience.” The tragic political events there have influenced him to the point that he divided his last poetry book into two parts: before and after March 18, 2011, when the first peaceful mass protests took place in Syrian cities.

Marie Silkeberg’s writing about Damascus starts from a very different point of view: not having ever visited the city, the former capital of the Umayyad dynasty, she drew her inspiration from multiple sources, literary, geographical and real: “My whole experience of Damascus comes from reading and translating Ghayath’s poems, from our many discussions about them, and from his stories,” she said. “But my poems in the book are not about Damascus: they take the city as a focal point, or point of gravity almost, which to me, coming from Europe, meant a slow and somehow radical shifting of point of view from which to think about the world. My poems grew from my many journeys inside and outside Europe.”

And with more and more Syrians fleeing their country to escape death and violence, crossing the Mediterranean in makeshift boats in the attempt to reach Europe’s northern countries, Silkeberg has had the chance to meet many of them, as well as Syrian intellectuals invited to lectures and debates: “I listened and wrote down their words and voices and stories and incorporated them into my poems. I felt that I had to do it, to make these voices heard, to write down what was told me.”

For both poets, their hope is that, with their poems, somebody—outside Sweden and beyond the Mediterranean—will read and listen to those voices, and that Damascus will be again that paradise recounted by Shawqi in his beautiful verses.

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