Amir Darwish in conversation with Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Amir Darwish was born in Syria in 1979 and came to the UK as an asylum seeker during the Second Gulf War. His poetry has been published in the USA, Pakistan, Finland, Morocco and Mexico. In 2014 he graduated from Teesside University and has recently completed an MA in International Studies at the University of Durham.

Thank you very much for talking to us, Amir!

1. When did you first start to write poetry? How did the most fertile linguistic inheritance help your reading and writing habit?

I started writing poetry at the age of sixteen. It was a poem I wrote about Kurdistan, the country which divided between several countries around the Middle East. It was a heartfelt piece, which connected me to my roots and brought my Kurdish identity to the surface.

As for reading, I did read everything my hand got. Nevertheless, mainly I was interested in poetry. Poets of the time were Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabani. But the most influential poet on me was the 12th century poet, Rumi. His love words and simplicity made me admire his style. The other poet and philosopher who influenced me was the 20th century figure, Gibran Khalil Gibran. I often took his books with me to school instead of a syllabus book. I also often covered the paperback with pictures from my school syllabus, so it looks like one of the books I had to bring along.

2. Being a poet gives anyone a narrow margin, in terms of maintaining both— an identity and responsibility towards that identity. What is your identity and how do you respond to it?

I like to identify myself as a “humanist poet”. I developed that after going through my education for my BA and MA degrees. Where I realised that many messages can be taken up by a poet, but only few messages can be universal.

I respond to my humanist identity by writing poems about love, peace and humanity. I often emphasis the human identity, of figures in my poetry, away from other labels such as: males, females, immigrants, refugees etc..etc.

3. Under the ban imposed by the US on several Muslim nations and the increasing death toll of the refugees—what is the most eminent crisis of humanity right now?

Your questions has the answer in it already. For me, the most eminent crisis of humanity is the refugee crisis. That crisis shall be taken as a responsibility for the whole humanity at large, from Chile to China.

No ban or visas shall be required for humans to move around. After all, the first humans on earth did not have a lease to claim that certain land belong to them. Leases/contracts are human made. Names of countries are human made too. But perhaps my vision here is too naïve or over simplistic.

4. Living with the fact that your Syria is under peril—how do you cope with that every day? In spite of being away from it, are you actually away from it—or, does the vision of exile actually burn you more from inside?

Syria is the place where I grew up. It is difficult for anyone to be away from where they were brought up. A place can be destroyed in reality, but in memory it will always live. Thus, the place will always live inside me no matter what happens to it in the actual world. I tend to watch the news less and expose myself even lesser to media news about Syria. In that way I keep the image inside me intact and unchanged from what it used to be when I last visited the country. The vision of exile does not burn me from inside. The idea of home is abstract. Thus, I developed a technic to carry my home with me wherever I go in the world. Home does not have to be connected to certain house, park or square. It can be imaginative and built with own imagination from within.

5. In the face of catastrophic violence and aggression, most of the people in the world still believe that we do not belong to any specific border or religion or sect; that we don’t need to eradicate others to make space for ourselves—which in reality makes our existence meaningful. Do you think poetry is a social phenomenon that can effectively counter this calculated violence?

Poetry has always been a social phenomena and poets often found themselves to be cultural or social physicians. I think poetry shall strive to move beyond such norm and aim to speak a universal language as I mentioned in your earlier question. To do that, the message has to touch all ages, cultures, societies, norms, heritages, traditions, etc etc. And the only message in my opinion can do that, is the humanist message.

6. Please tell us about your ongoing and upcoming projects.

I have a collection, “Strings of Love and Pain” scheduled for publication in 2019 by SmokeStack in England. In that collection, I explore the themes of love and immigrants, migrants and immigration at large. For the first (love), it is a necessary feature for all human relations wherever they are and however they are. For the second theme, (immigrants, migrants and immigration) it is the world current humanitarian crisis.

My other project, which will see publication this year (2017) is the first part of my autobiography, “From Aleppo Without Love”. Taken after the novel, “From Russia With Love”. In this work, I dig deep into myself and open up to the world in a way that makes the work therapeutical. I speak about patriarchy, abuse, sex, familial violence and love. The decision to write in such way came after my exposure to few works in the Arab world that touch on these themes to free themselves from oppression. Particularly the work of Mohammed Choukri’s, “For Bread Alone” and Rachid Boudjedra, “Repudiation” are two cases in point.

7. What is your take on Sufism? Do you think that the Sufi philosophy is more applicable in modern socio-political context than ever before?

I do not agree with any religious ground to become applicable to socio-politics in any context for any time or age. In my opinion, religion limits the imagination to certain view of the world. As after all, religions believe in the idea of “faith”. The latter does not need evidence to support it, and mainly relays on bind believe in something. When evidence neglected in that way, everything becomes possible to believe in. I totally think the contrary, where societies shall question everything from A-Z with no exception to any ideology or religious beliefs. Only in questioning more and more, societies can move forward and become transparent.

8. I felt that your poetry has an essential melancholia of love. For a generation, in which violence in every form has become the singular most significant flaw, how do you fit in?

As I mentioned before, the feeling of love is universal. The opposite of love is hate where violence springs from. Indeed, it is easy to fit love as humans born with love. For instance, a new born baby gradually develops a distinct love for his/her mother, that love extends to other family members, then to immediate environment, then to society and eventually to the world. In my love poems, I draw on that first seed of love born in humans. I neglect how the world around humans teach hate, as I am a strong believer in deconstructing social norms that was constructed during upbringing. I think more love messages shall be sent out from poets and artists to emphasis and crystallise that first love seed born with humans and bring it to surface.

9. In nations not affected by war, poets have the liberty to be an apolitical entity. But, for war-torn nations where a poet may not consider that option at all, should the poet’s choice of words be traditionally consistent with the local religion; or, should he/she use the freedom of speech to write anything that will assault the hostility of religious fundamentalism?

Each poet shall have a voice distinctive from another poet. Poetry in no way shall be consistent with religious beliefs and faiths. Poetry shall act as a physician and carefully treat social and political milieus. When I say carefully, I mean not to be over taken by a certain political message and take sides. Instead, poetry can search for a message that is acceptable and embraced by all with no winners and losers to be identified at the end. As history shown, when winners and losers identified then a forth predicament is inevitable.

10. What was the scope of art and literature when you were there in Syria?
For sure, there was no freedom to read from left, right and centre as the case in western countries. The state watched all books that were on the market and even determined the school syllabus in accordance with its aims and needs. Literature at school served the state propaganda and had only single message: to glorify the leader cult figure. Salons and literary events were also monitored closely, so they can speak with limits and not touch on what the government considered to be taboos. That said, some books sometimes slipped through the net and reached readers’ hands.

11. Does it seem sometimes that nothing is actually helping to end the suffering of the Syrians? What could be truly done to bring a change? What should be role of the Arabic intellectual world?

We shall never give up on humanity. The suffering of any human around the world, whether it is in Syria, China or Chile shall be recognised by fellow humans worldwide. Off course, there will be many tools to help ease such suffering. Literature is one. Syria falls within the Arab world, where there is a rich literary tradition goes back way before the appearance of Islam. Such fact makes it easier to use literature as a tool of salvation from suffering. I am involved in a project called, HIKAYETNA  where stories told by Syrians published on the website and translated into English. It is absolutely fundamental from Arab intellectuals to document the suffering and agonies of Syrians in that way. The more details we have now, the more we might have a chance to avoid future disasters.

12. Share a prayer with us—something that you keep hidden in your heart.

For better or for worse, poetry is good for both.

Unedited version of the interview published. 

*Photo courtesy: blackhistorymonth.org.uk

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