“…. Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers….” writes Ghayath Almadhoun in a poem called Massacre (translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham).
Almadhoun, a Palestinian born in Damascus in 1979, has become one of the significant voices of conflict in the Middle East through four collections of poetry, the latest being Adrenaline in 2017. Almadhoun was one of the speakers at the recent Pune International Literary Festival (PILF), in a session titled War, In So Many Words. Excerpts from an email interview:
What were the conditions that made you leave Damascus? Your poems speak of the trauma of war as well as the discomfort of living in exile in Stockholm.
Dictatorship was the only reason that forced me to leave Syria. I went to Sweden in 2008 to participate in a poetry festival, and I stayed there. Now I’m a traveller, a vagabond, based in between Berlin and Stockholm.
The discomfort is not something only connected to Stockholm, I love Stockholm in the summer, it is connected to my way of thinking, I’m mostly discomforted in any place in the world, I think it’s my nature as a poet. Because you ask me about the discomfort of living in Stockholm, so let me tell you a little about the Swedish winter. The winter in Sweden has three levels of difficulty as I see it. The first one and the easiest one is the cold, and that something I can somehow deal with. The second level is the darkness, long nights in a very very long winter, and this one is tough to survive. The third one and the most difficult one is the reflection of darkness on the people, that is hell.
How has the global health crisis compounded the problems of war and conflict across the world?
I don’t think that humanity was anyways in the middle of the process to make world peace and suddenly COVID-19 arrived and destroyed the plan. War and conflict are our normal situation. It seems to be part of our genomes, our nature that we gained during evolution. What makes COVID-19 so bad is that it came as an extra, only to make the situation worse. Think about Syria, you had war and, now, you have both, war and COVID-19.
How did the pandemic affect the poet?
The pandemic has affected me personally, my thinking and how I see the world. Because my writing is so connected to my memory, feelings, and life, it will be reflected in my text. What is the result, what will change, I don’t know yet.
I’m writing a poem I haven’t finished yet. I call it The Blue Marble and I used the same name of a photo taken in 1972 by Apollo on their way to the moon. They turn the camera towards us on earth. This pandemic directed me to think of The Blue Marble, how tiny, isolated, and vulnerable we are; it shows and reminded us of our real size.
Regarding the books, right now I’m reading Taha Hussein and many long essays every day.
Do you read any Indian authors or poets?
From the classic, I read Muhammad Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore, from the contemporary Salman Rushdie, and from my generation Tishani Doshi.