GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Visiting Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, the American novelist Philip Roth reflected on what distinguished him from his peers behind the Iron Curtain: “It occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters.” Roth could just as well have been speaking about the diaspora of Syrian poets now scattered throughout the Middle East.
With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine and renewed hostilities in Gaza, the nearly four-year-old Syrian Civil War has once again slipped from our collective consciousness. But mapping a consciousness of that war is precisely what injects the poetry of Aref Akrez and Ammar Tabbab with immediacy. Both were activists in the revolution’s early days, and both are part of a vibrant scene of poets and writers whose work chronicles the conflict’s horrors while continuing to promote a vision of a democratic Syria—one that at this stage in the war is fading into oblivion.
Two weeks ago, the pair agreed to meet me at a café in Gaziantep, a city of over 1 million along the Turkish-Syrian border. When I asked Aref why he started writing poems, he didn’t talk about war. Instead, he stared down at his tiny cup of Turkish coffee, with his tattooed arms folded on the table in front of him, a smile sank across his face, pushing all the way up to his jet-black sideburns.
“A girl,” he said.
Sitting next to Aref was Ammar, a Damascene poet and lawyer in his early thirties whose complexion was slightly ashen after a day of no water or food in observance of Ramadan. I asked him the same question.
“Also a girl,” he said.
In a little less than two hours, the muezzins would sing the verses of the dua from dozens of minarets, breaking the day’s fast and filling the city’s open-air restaurants for the iftar meal. We were also a little less than a two hours’ drive from Aleppo, Aref’s hometown where, until last year, he worked as a citizen-journalist and fixer for the BBC.
Speaking first, Aref charted his literary beginnings. He was 16, and the poem he composed was for a crush. Word of his romancing quickly traveled down his high school’s corridors and a conservative teacher confronted him, demanding to see what he’d written. “At first he was angry that I’d given a poem to a girl,” explained Aref. “Then, once he read it, he claimed I couldn’t have produced something so good.” When Aref insisted the work was his, the teacher issued him a challenge: admit the name of the poet he’d plagiarized or go home and write a new poem that might—one just as good. Aref accepted the challenge and told the teacher he’d recite his work before the entire class in the morning. “He laughed at me,” said Aref. “He was very proud of this setup and thought he’d shame me in front of all my friends.”
The next day, Aref came back to school with a new poem—one he’d constructed so his authorship couldn’t be questioned. Standing at the head of the classroom, he recited his verses amid cheers from fellow students, while his teacher stood stone-faced, fuming in the corner.
“I wrote a poem to his wife, no one could dispute I was the author because I’d incorporated her name into each stanza. That’s when I became a poet.”
Ammar and I laughed.
Aref slouched down in his seat, fishing a pack of Gauloises Blondes out of his jeans.
“What happened to the girl?” I asked.
Aref sat his cigarettes and lighter on the table between us. “She’s three months pregnant with our first.” Then he excused himself and stepped onto the café’s terrace for a smoke.
With Aref gone, I asked Ammar about the girl in his first poem. He looked at his hands, which clutched a small leather attaché case filled with business cards and notes. These were from his day job within the Syrian Interim Government, the revolution’s long-exiled, Turkey-based political arm. He works as the director of the Syrian Commission for Transitional Justice in Gaziantep. With Islamist militants on the march in Syria and the Assad regime consolidating territory, ‘transitional justice’ seemed impossibly optimistic.
“My poem was also about a classmate, a girl who once looked at me.” His voice wandered for a moment. “The look was enough to inspire my first poem, but the work was a failure.”