Syria's War Poets

Two young refugees seek artistic inspiration in civil war

An abandoned amusement park in Idlib on the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of Ramadan (Nour Kelze/Reuters)

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.

Ammar Tabbab (Ammar Tabbab)

“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.”

I expected him to launch into some description of his craft—the meter of the poem, its theme or lack of one. But what Ammar said was much simpler: “I never got up the nerve to give it to her.”

He then showed me a recent poem:

The night became long and the dark increased,

but I didn’t find starlight to indicate the path.

The trip became long, and my footsteps began 

to disappear, without them how would I find a way back. ...

I doze off with a dream petting my eyeball.

At the same time I fear the daybreak will bury me.

Don’t ask about me.

Don’t ask who I am.

"My work is political,” said Ammar. “All politics is rooted in emotion so the poet must be present at this intersection.” On his smartphone, he played me a video time-stamped March 15, 2013 in which he stood at a podium draped in the black, white, and green banner of Free Syria, reciting the same poem from memory in a banquet hall filled with several hundred people who clapped and cheered. “I was smuggled across the border to deliver this poem,” he explained. The video was from Yabroud, a restive town north of Damascus, and the occasion was the establishment of a local council. As he closed his phone, Ammar explained: “My ambition is to write poetry which can create peace.”

Aref rejoined us. He talked about the writers he admires most: the Kurdish-
Syrian novelist and poet Salim Barakat, the expatriate Syrian poet and perennial Nobel Prize contender Adunis, and the Palestinian author and activist, Mahmoud Darwish. Ammar proved more reticent on the subject of literary influences, noting, “I look less to other writers as my guide and more to the events around me.” He sketched out the concept of a novel he’s working on titled Doctor Without Heart about a Sunni man and Shiite woman who fall violently in love, but in the course of only a week fall out of love when they learn of their sectarian differences.

“I’m interested in how doctrine becomes more powerful than emotion,” explained Ammar, who is Sunni.

Looking through a ream of his poems, I noticed they all adhered to a fixed form with a set number of lines and metrical arrangements. I asked him about this and he explained: “Overcoming those constraints is what creates poetry.”

Aref disagreed. “I write poetry to escape constraints. I don’t adhere to set forms. Each of my poems is different, with no rules.” He shared a verse he had posted on Facebook:

A calming potion 

may mask pain to grow

up inside us and fall 

suddenly to reveal a dying soul.

Aref Akrez (Hamid Khatib)

The two couldn’t have been more different in their style and approach, but their themes were the same: civil war and loss. Aref left Syria nearly a year ago after the Islamic State, or Da’ish as the extremist group is known in Arabic, seized large swaths of Aleppo. Ammar, already a prominent poet in rebel circles, fled Damascus a year and a half ago after being warned that the regime was targeting him.

Musing about what it means to live and work in exile, Aref said, “From here, I can write anything I want. We Syrian poets are free.” Then he paused for a moment, as if thinking about what he’d just said. “The problem is without Syria, there is no Syrian poetry.”

“Freedom costs blood,” added Ammar. “Was my freedom to write worth it? That’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one getting killed for poems.”

There is something essential in their poetry—not just in the language they use but also in their determination to create art within the void of war. The two talk about their work, delivered in fleeting snippets in banquet halls and on Facebook pages, as if it is the only way to conjure a country that spills through their fingers on a daily basis.

By late afternoon, we had left the café and wandered into Gaziantep’s dusty streets, now clogged with refugees from across the border. I asked Aref about the tattoo on his arm, which ran in long, swooping Arabic script from his wrist toward his elbow.

“It’s a verse from Mahmoud Darwish,” he told me. “No time for tomorrow.”

I checked my watch. We still had a ways to go until the sun set—a while yet until the muezzins could sing the verses of the dua.