A poem can reveal more of the truth than an entire book or article. Facts and statistics can be misconstrued, even distorted in the wrong hands; but a poem says everything it needs to, candidly, thoughtfully.
If I told you that over 50 per cent of Syrian refugees were children, what would be your response? Detached sympathy? Perhaps even indifference? After all, we have enough children right here in Britain from broken families and in foster care needing help: about 64,000 actually.
But what if I showed you this:
The Children of Syria
The children of Syria
Swaddled in their shrouds
like wrapped sweets.
But, they are not made of sugar,
they are made of flesh
The streets await you,
Gardens, schools and holidays
children of Syria.
It is too soon to be birds,
in the heavens.
This is a poem taken from Maram al-Masri’s latest collection, Liberty Walks Naked which is an homage to all the victims of the Syrian war. In her own words, ‘Despite the quotidian character of the horror, this cannot be made banal, cannot be made seem “normal” ’. But, the reality is that to our western eyes, the latest BBC news bulletin about the fighting in Damascus is just another item of news, the casualties mean nothing to us.
Maram al-Masri is a Syrian poet living in Paris, France. She has been an open critic of the Assad regime, describing the Syrian war not as a ‘… civil war, but […] a democratic revolution that will end in triumph’.
At this year’s StAnza poetry festival, I was fortunate to hear a reading of the poems from Liberty Walks Naked in their original, Arabic. Although this language is completely alien to my ears, when she read each poem, it felt like the utterance of a humble prayer. The audience sat silenced by the unfamiliar sounds spoken, like whispers to the moon. An accompanying translation related the meaning, but for the first time for many of us, hearing those poems in that language drenched in blood, turned the heart towards something other; truth and compassion.
There was pain and stifled tears when this was read:
Have you seen him? …
Have you seen him?
Carrying his infant in his arms
advancing with magisterial step
head up, back straight …
As if the infant should be happy and proud
to be carried like this in his father’s arms …
If only he was
When Wilfred Owen wrote ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ he exposed the horrors of war and dying young. When Dylan Thomas wrote ‘The hunchback in the park’ he fixed an unforgettable image of an outsider, living rough like a dog with the only difference that, ‘… nobody chained him up’. So when Maram al-Masri writes, ‘To love a homeland / is a death sentence’ or ‘Syria for me / is an abandoned orphan, / a woman violated night after night / by an ancient monster’, she speaks of the sacrifice of her people for the sake of liberty. For her, liberty treads naked because by the time these people reach safety they have nothing left, but it matters not, because liberty ‘ … will not stop her song’.
Newspapers inform us of the latest developments in that ravaged country. The media confront us with unabating refugee numbers and images of destitution and suffering – to which we largely remain impervious. A poem, in the words of Maram al-Masri: ‘… gives life to the image and helps us make sense of it …’. We gain a different perspective of what it means to be a child of war, a woman impounded in a crowded prison like an animal, or a father having to carry his dead son through the dusty streets.
A poem can make us more humane. It shares a side of truth that facts and numbers overwhelm, and which ignorance and fear prefer to exclude.