Assad has reduced Syria to a point where Hell pales in comparison
This is a shorter version of an interview made by Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies with the Syrian poet and the Tucholsky prize winner (2007) Faraj Bayrakdar.
Bayrakdar, who had first experienced prison under Al-Assad senior in 1977, for running a literary magazine presenting the work of young Syrian writers, was arrested in 1987, imprisoned, and tortured for seven years, before a court order was issued sentencing him to an additional 15 years for belonging to an illegal organization, the Communist Action Party.
In the late 1990s, when the Le Comité International contre la Répression (CICR) put a request for his release to the Syrian regime’s embassy in Paris, an embassy official stated that no one by the name of Faraj Bayrakdar existed. So an international campaign was launched to liberate him. Leading French poets and writers such as Maurice Blanchot, Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Dupin, Michel Deguy and Bernard Noel got involved, along with the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the great Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi.Under increasing international pressure, the Assad regime was forced to release the author of Mirrors of Absence in November 2000, five months after Hafez al-Assad’s death, and after he had spent nearly 14 years on his final journey through the darkness of the Assad security squad’s prisons.
Bayrakdar lives in Stockholm since many years.
First of all, how would the poet Faraj Bayrakdar like to introduce himself to readers?
- Unfortunately, I am Faraj Bayrakdar, the Syrian poet and journalist, with all his fate and destiny, and the curse of his arduous circumstances. How I wish I could be someone else, or that Syria was different.
I was born in Homs on February 11th, and next year I will reach the age of 70 stabbings, or flowers, or dances on the edge of the abyss.
I have lived in Stockholm at the margins of sadness and subsistence since 2005, still untouched by nostalgia, perhaps to a unique extent that I would not wish on my enemy, or even the eternal Lord.
Let me now take you back to the first place, to your birthplace Homs – capital of the Syrian Revolution – what do you still remember of it, and of your first home?
- Homs refuses to go away, and refuses to come close except in dreams, coincidences, and lovers’ ambushes. I don’t usually pray, but when it comes to Homs I’m prepared to pray to it and for it. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Kingdom of Zenobia was established in the oases that later became known as the Badiya (desert) of Homs or the desert of Palmyra. And perhaps it is not surprising that our Homs grandmothers, the daughters of Zenobia, ruled Rome. What I’m saying about Homs is my personal opinion, my own feelings and reading of it, and I don’t insist on trying to convince others. Let those who want to believe believe, and those who want to disbelieve, let them disbelieve too. But no one can dispute that Homs is the mother of the Orontes River, and this river is master of the rhetoric of disobedience. In fact it was my first teacher, and I can’t help but be loyal to it, even if it runs dry or evaporates, or villains machinate over it. Homs is more beautiful than all its names and titles, including the title “Capital of the Syrian Revolution”, which in fact it actually shares in fraternity with many Syrian cities.
Homs was not exceptional in revolutionary terms, but the impositions and the casualties Homs paid were the most burdensome, which was naturally going to stimulate and provoke more than just horse’s tears among free people. Homs is a story to which no one can do justice, but maybe that’s because it was my first love, not because it’s really like that.
Whoever said Homs is a city didn’t explain well
I would call it a woman and a mirror and a cypress towering in the wind.
I would call it a river well versed in the rhetoric of disobedience.
Whoever said Homs is about its people, its fertility, its candles, and its tears,
I believed him, and I followed his views so that I see that crescents are like crosses.
Between life in a country and your roots in another, bearing the brunt of nostalgia and diaspora, how do you write about places in your country and the pain there while you are far away?
- From a personal perspective, I’ve taken what I want from my roots, things no tyrant can take from me. Droughts and desertification in Syria make roots resist by striking deep into the ground. Trees in Syria can shake the foundations of buildings. Sweden is a country blessed with all kinds of good things, including snow, and rain, and lakes, so the roots of trees don’t have to go down to the depths in search of water and nutrients, so trees in Sweden can fall at the slightest gust of wind. Of course that doesn’t mean I’m calling for a drought, whether natural, political, or in terms of livelihood, just to strengthen the roots, as the availability of water, food, freedom, dignity, justice and morals is more important than how deep the roots are. But I don’t know how can I write about that. Mostly when I’m writing I feel there is someone inside me who is writing what I want better than if I were the one doing the writing. My long-term memory is still fine and solidly rooted; but as for my short-term memory, it seems as if some demon is forcing it to run away or refuse to perform its proper role and function. I suppose if I suffered memory loss, dreams wouldn’t stop waking my memory and recalling things to refresh it. I’m not obsessed with writing about specific places in my country, or about specific pains and aches. When I breathe, I don’t know, I’m not aware, I don’t notice how I breathe. The sign of life is that I’m breathing, and the sign of breathing is that I am writing.
Today, after spending long years of your life in exile in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, your writings are no longer subject to the threat of prison or the censor’s scissors. Have you escaped from self-censorship, now that you’re free of official/security censorship, so that you can write whatever you like without red lines?
- The systems of control in Eastern regimes all look the same; they breed and dress themselves up like a Russian matryoshka doll, that toy in the form of a woman with the same woman inside, but smaller, and smaller, and smaller. But in prison, as in exile, control generally diminishes, especially political control, even religious control, but social control remains present even if there is no one imposing it. I am not opposed to this control as long as it is not imposed by force but rather in response to motives of kindness, tolerance, love and respect. For example, I respect my mother’s personal beliefs even if I don’t share them, but that is not about changing my beliefs, it’s about choosing the best possible way not to hurt her feelings or cause her distress. Unfortunately I haven’t always succeeded in sparing her anxiety over our different beliefs. My mother was over 60 when she decided to learn to read and write, and we all encouraged her, but the burden of teaching her fell mostly on my brother Ibrahim. My mother managed to become literate remarkably quickly, and what I am about to say may be embarrassing for her if she reads it, but something inside me makes me want to say it even if this isn’t the right place and it doesn’t relate directly to your question. In the early 1980s I was wanted and in hiding, and none of my family could reach me except my mother. A party contact brought to me news that an old woman had come to him and asked to meet comrade Saif Abu al-Majd – that was my nom de guerre. At that time our party was under heavy security pressure and there’d been a widespread campaign of arrests throughout Syria. I took my mother to the house of a friend, the musician Turki Miqdad, who lived in Yarmouk Palestinian camp. I left my mother with him, then went back to follow up rendezvous with correspondents from the regions of Aleppo, Latakia and Homs, and to deal with the campaign of arrests. Later in the night I went back to take my mother to my house in the Rabwah area, and I didn’t have anything in the house to eat, so I went to the nearby Mazzeh neighborhood only to find all the stores closed because of the Prophet’s birthday. I remembered a small shop near the university that used to stay open late to wait for students returning around midnight. I found the owner getting ready to close the shop, and I begged him to sell me something to eat. And he said: No sale, no purchase, but I have my dinner that my family sent me, and I don’t need it since I’m going home, so I hope you will accept it from me. It was a gift worth much more than its material value. I prepared dinner and invited my mother to eat. I had poured a small glass of arak, which I used to drink before bed to relax from the stress and dangers of the day’s events. I noticed that my mother’s face had turned pale, so I asked her, “Are you feeling unwell?” and she said no. I asked her, “Has anything happened to the family in Homs?” and again she said. “So what’s the matter, mom?” She said, “The smell of this thing you’re drinking is stopping me breathing.” I drank the whole glass in one go and took it to the kitchen, and my mother’s face relaxed. If my mother had told me from the beginning “don’t drink that because it’s haram, or because it smells bad”, I would not have drunk it. These are the restrictions of social control that I’m talking about. Either way, the East will take a long time to get rid of its red lines, but I see no harm in getting over them one situation at a time. Red lines at the social level are neither planned, nor ideological, nor erratic. That is, they are more a matter of emotions than a matter of control, coercion, law and oppression.
The Assad regime has torched even the memory...
What images came back to mind when you read Amnesty International’s 2017 report about what happened in “Assad’s human slaughterhouse” in Sednaya prison?
- When they transferred us from Palmyra to Sednaya prison at the beginning of May 1992, the director of the prison received us and gave us an abominably stupid and ingenuous lecture, which can be summarized like this: Listen carefully to what I’m going to say. You’re now in Sednaya Military Prison, my first (he was happy when he said “first”). If anyone is hungry, I will feed him; if anyone gets sick, I will treat him; if anyone thinks of escaping... round the prison there are minefields, but before he ever gets to them it I’ll shoot him and say it was an escape attempt. We thought this was just psychological intimidation, until we heard the sound of an explosion, and we climbed up to the high-up windows and saw that one of the guards had walked past a mine and it had killed him. Nevertheless, transfer from Palmyra to Sednaya prison was the equivalent of a half-release. However, the relatively easygoing regime in Sednaya compared to Palmyra didn’t alter the fact that the prison facilities were prepared at any moment to turn it into a place that would make even Hell seem trivial.
I wasn’t subjected in Sednaya prison to harsh punishments, as was the case with our lovely, gentle comrade Ihsan Ezzo. When they took him down to the isolation cells in the basement and denied him his heart disease medication he died, I mean they killed him. I wasn’t subjected to lesser punishments like my brother Ibrahim, who spent a month in those cells. When he returned, the cloak one of the guys had given him before he went down into solitary was torn to shreds like paper soaked in water.
Despite all that, Sednaya prison at that time wasn’t so bad. At least it was a prison, not a slaughterhouse. After the revolution, Sednaya prison did become a human slaughterhouse, according to the Amnesty report. And since I, like others with whom I shared the ordeal and experience, know the entrances and exits and the details of the prison, I automatically started to recall the layout of the prison wings and the likely locations for the killings and burials. The Assad regime has torched even the memory that says “transfer from Palmyra to Sednaya prison was the equivalent of a half-release”.
Your destiny was to go into battle, first in the darkness of a prison cell and now in the cold West. I’d like to ask about the role of poets, writers, and intellectuals there, and what scope there is to influence things from exile?
- All the cells I’ve even been were colder than “the cold West”, assuming that the West is indeed cold in the spiritual and emotional sense that your question implies. The measure of coldness, in my opinion, has several degrees. I have many relationships with Swedes that are not lacking in warmth, but their ways of expressing intimacy are different from ours in the East. Eastern culture tends towards courtesy and exaggerated kindness and apparent interest, but also a lack of frankness or clarity. And bear in mind that I was coming to Sweden from Syria, of which – setting aside family, friends and reminiscences – I don’t have any good memories. And so apart from family, friends and reminiscences there is nothing for which I feel any nostalgia.
But I think nostalgia is different from caring, as I care about our people, and their interests and their future; they are a part of me just as I’m a part of them. I’ve been arrested three times in my life in Syria, and I don’t think I could feel nostalgia for that that unless I was a masochist. As for the role of Syrian writers, poets, and intellectuals in exile, it is still too soon to tell. The tragedy of the Iraqis fleeing the oppression of Saddam predates the Syrians by at least three decades, so Iraqi writers, artists and intellectuals have been able to establish and organize a certain level of cultural, literary and artistic activity in their exile.
We as Syrians will have to wait for years to see the role of intellectuals and their influence in exile. But the individual energies and creativity of Syrians fill the world, and the media have not been slow to highlight them. A simple rundown of the number of important prizes won, or the significant presence in cinema, fiction, poetry, and music, gives us the answer.
In your opinion, what role does poetry play in the current Syrian situation? And does poetry have to be political in any given place, in the sense of being at the heart of the social and political struggles going on around us?
- With the demise of the Abbasid era, the role of poetry declined, as did the role of culture and politics, and the economy came to be about consumption rather than production. In short, the decline began back then; all respectable manifestations and phenomena have ended or regressed at a general level, and only a few individual experiences have survived from one stage to the next, for reasons we don’t need to discuss here. It is not in the power of either the poet or his poetry to determine for himself a political or social role – that is conditional on many circumstances and interactions. But generally speaking, I tend not to assign literature and the arts any active or influential role in dealing with people’s burdens if people do not place their cloaks and their hopes on it. I was and still am against Assad, and in favor of the choices of the popular majority – this is my political position; my poetry deals with many matters, and revolution is one of them. But to take another tack, where can we find literature, or art, or an economy, or sport or anything else that can be kept free of politics? Isn’t bread politics, and flowers, and knives, and unbelief and faith, sport, singing, cinema, theater, prostitutes, hunger, national and religious trafficking, Al-Manfaluti, Adel Imam, and any other instances, possibilities and patterns you care to mention?
To what extent can poetry go beyond the outpourings of blood and propose its own way of confronting political and religious tyranny? And how do you see Syrian poetry today, after ten years of this carnage? And before that, what impact did the revolution have on your poetic experience?
- Poetry can, historically, and by its nature, have greater resonance than fiction. Yet poetry is only poetry, and these days, for all the “noble” motives of poverty, ignorance, fear, and profit that inspire it, and however much meters and values are broken down, poetry is no longer anything but elitist.
At times of tension, crisis and revolution, images, songs, movies and sound effects become more accessible and more influential than poems. None of my poems has had more than three thousand readers, while a recording of a song I wrote, or a documentary, or a video of a speech of mine, has tens of thousands of followers. This isn’t just something objective; there’s a subjective level that takes effect if it can, or decides to, act. Unfortunately, however, until now the Syrians who are in favor of freedom have not had suitable political and cultural vehicles.
As for the impact of the revolution on my poetic experience, I leave it to the critics to assess that, if they see anything in need of assessment. What I do know, and has actually happened in my life before my poetry, is that I am one of hundreds or thousands of Syrians who started their revolution in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and on into the early 21st century, and for all our political and social formations we were defeated. My poetical lexicon relating to the revolution dates back a long way, and when the revolution came in March 2011, my poetical lexicon became better understood, and by wider segments of society. That doesn’t mean the revolution was at fault or lagging behind, but rather that I was the one who was hasty, and whose light bulb had burned out.
What is your reading of the impact of the revolutionary movement on the Syrian literary and cultural scene?
- The effects of the revolution or uprising, or the revolutionary movement, as you call it, have not been consistent in all areas. The impact on cinema, painting, music and singing was evident on the creative and aesthetic level, and indeed stood out and did well in many international festivals. Poetry varied according to the different poets. Fiction is taking longer, although some novels have succeeded in their mission of presenting aspects of the revolution, and with time series of novels will inevitably follow on and complement each other to provide fitting coverage of what happened. We have great Syrian novelists who only lack opportunities, not creativity, and of course we have poets, painters, directors and musicians in the same position. This is my conviction, and not blind bias towards Syria, for I am basically not a fanatical patriot; indeed I have forfeited even my Syrian nationality until Assad falls, after which I know that I will get it back free and honorable.
The Syrian revolution formed a crossroads, politically, culturally and in life. How do you evaluate the revolution today, now in its tenth year? And what is your vision for the future of Syria, now that it has been torn apart by the wars of the tyrants and the men with the black flags? What is the solution to restore the country as we all want it be?
- I think the most significant thing the Syrian revolution has achieved, despite all the losses, casualties, and calamities it has suffered and the shame on many levels, domestic, Arab and global, is to close the “eternity” phase of the Assad regime. It’s true that the world has largely colluded against the Syrian people, and was silent about many of Assad’s worst crimes, but neither Russia nor America, “Israel”, or Iran, can any longer market the idea of Assad going on for ever, as eternity has become a collapsed currency, a collapsed economy, and a plague that will infect everyone who stands by Assad.
As the revolution enters its tenth year, Assad has become a burden on everyone. The sacrifices and casualties of peoples throughout history are terrible and shocking, but I have never seen or read or heard about anything more terrible and shocking than what the Syrian people have gone through. Never since the Second World War has an American base existed alongside a Russian base anywhere in the world except Syria. The European and American media have made a lot of noise about the story of the civil war in Syria. Military bases on Syrian territory for Iran and its followers from Hassan Nasrallah’s party and numerous other Shiite militias; military bases and airports on Syrian territory for America and Russia; open airspace for Israeli aircraft; and finally Turkish bases. This mini world war, or war by proxy if you will, is described in the global media as a “civil war”!
The United Nations was required to waste time, or to play with lost time, so it graciously sent us its delegate Kofi Annan, then Lakhdar Brahimi, then Staffan de Mistura, then Geir Pedersen, and we don’t know who next.
For the first year of the revolution we didn’t see any black flags or Islamic factions. The young men and women and their organizational arrangements were civilized to a degree never attained by the French Revolution, which still has the world singing its praises. The regime’s arrests during the first year of the revolution focused on liberal nationalists, democrats, secularists, and the front ranks of the leading organizers, and the world knew and was silent.
Even when “Caesar” defected, and showed the pictures and documents he had about detainees who died under torture in Assad’s prisons, the world remained silent despite all these atrocities and the facts that it had in its hands. Years later, the American administration adopted a resolution called the “Caesar Act” that would sanction all those who supported the Assad regime.
While Assad was arresting secularists, democrats and liberal nationalists, he was also releasing extremist Islamist detainees. Abu Muhammad al-Julani was released to form Jabhat al-Nusra, and Zahran Alloush was released to form Jaysh al-Islam with two brigades whose leaders had been detainees in Assad’s prisons. But after half the Syrian population had been forced to flee, Europe became fed up with the Syrian refugees, and the refugees became a card which Turkey and others could play to apply pressure and embarrass Europe and the world; and the costs of reconstruction became the subject of an international struggle for profit rather than a matter of responsibility. In addition, Russia and Iran became exhausted and incapable of defending their monster Assad. All of these tragedies and casualties, however horrendous, are still less deadly than Assad remaining in power for ever, because he and his descendants will in time arrest, displace and kill many more than they already have. The situation of the Syrians seems frustrating right now, but everything will be different the moment Assad’s end is announced. Germany and Japan suffered tremendous devastation in the Second World War, yet here they are now among the world’s leading countries. The Syrians are no less a people, and their history gives evidence of that.