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Rasha Omran: 'Now Death For Me Is No Longer Abstract'.

Celebrated Syrian poet Rasha Omran talks with acclaimed Canadian author-translator Kim Echlin:

By Rasha Omran, Abdelrehim Youssef, and Kim Echlin

RashaOmranwas born in 1964 inMalaja,a villagein ruralTartous, Syria.This provincehad a small population of some eight hundred people whenRashawas growing up.Home to the Alawi sect, it wasaculturallyand sociallyprogressive,highly educated community, withprofessionals as well as writers, musicians and artists.The village ofMalajahas been subjected togovernmentsurveillance and ispoliticallycategorized as an "oppositional Alawi illage."Omran'sfather,MohamedOmran,wasawell-knownpoet, activist and journalist. WhenRasha wasgrowing up,their home was a culturalgatheringplacefor writers, artists and journalists.

RashaattendedDamascus University where she studiedArabic Literature. After she graduated shewasdirectorof the Al-SindiyanFestival of Culture foreighteenyears.The festival wasan annualinternationaleventfor poetry and arts inMalaja. Events included workshops onvisual arts, sculpture,photography, dancing and writing for children.

RashaOmranhas publishedsixcollections of poetry in Arabic.She hasedited andintroducedan anthology ofcontemporarySyrian poetrywith selections from thirty-five poets publishedbetween1988 and 2008.Her work has been translated into Swedish and English.

Since the beginning of the revolution in2011,RashaOmranhas publicallyopposed theAssadregime.When she left Syria,shesettled in Egypt where shewas part oftheTahrirSquare demonstrations, participatingwith other Syrian womeninfront of the Arab League.RashaOmranis the mother of one daughter, who was arrestedin a demonstrationin Syria, released,and now lives in Paris. She has writtentoher mother, "The international silence on Syria is deafening."

This conversation was translated byAbdelrehimYoussef.

Kim Echlin:You come fromMalaja, a village known for its education and cultural sophistication. Can you tell me about your familyand growing up there?

Rasha Omran: My village is small and beautiful. Sincethe1940s, ithas been well-known for itsmanyculturalactivities. The surrounding villages were moreconservative and subject todoctrinal and social authority. Withour smallpopulation,thepeopleofMalajahave beenmore interested in knowledge, culture and politics. In 1950s,they founded a theatre when there was no theatre inmostSyrian governorates. Out ofthis movementartists were able to develop, inacting and directing, and in other art forms. Very few youth ofMalaja, in the past or now, do notknow how to play the oudor someother musical instrument.Manyyoung peoplehavegraduated from university. A numberhavePhDs andhavetaught in the Syrian universities.

My fatherand mother bothcame from this village.My father was a well-known poet in Syria andthroughoutthe Arab world. He died in 1996. Hewas the editor ofseveralcultural periodicals. My mother was not a cultural activist, but she was an excellent reader and she had a very beautiful voice. She madeseveral recordingsof songswith lyricswritten by my father andmusiccomposed by their friends from the village.

I have a brother and a sister. MybrotherWa'dOmranstill lives in Syria. He has a PhD in engineering and works as a teacherat the University of Damascus.My sisterHalaOmranis a well--known theatre actress who moved to Francein 2006, longbefore the revolution. She works in both Arabicand French-languagetheatre and she has acted in severalfilms. Sheis nowa Frenchcitizen.

KE:Do you rememberhowyou were first drawn to poetry?

RO: I cannotremember details of myearlylife withoutseeing poetry present in them.Ourhouse was a meetingplace forpoets, especially after the family moved to Damascusin 1968 when I was four years old.We movedwhenmy father changed his career from teaching to journalism. At that time the only newspapers in Syria were in Damascus, the capital.Books of poetry were scatteredeverywhere inourhouse. I remember thevoices of poets reciting poems at the endof weeklysoireesat home. For me, our house was not a normalone, it wasmore likea library.I wasa real bookworm,andread anythingthat fellintomy handswhether it suited my ageor not.No one tried to tell me what was suitable.Our house was a cultural gathering place for intellectuals andother kinds ofartists. Therewere bedrooms for those who wanted to sleep and a kitchen for those who wantedto make food. I remember that period of my life with much longing. Thoughit was characterisedby acertaininstabilitybecause there was some illness in my family and we madefrequent moves in the city, it was also a time of my growing andflourishing cultural awareness.

KE:Was your family politically active? Were you aware of danger because of political or cultural activism?

RO: My father was a political activist in his youth and he was imprisoned, later, because of his political opinions. Before the Hafez Al-Assad regime, my father was politically active. When the Ba'ath Party took power in Syria on March 8, 1963, he abandoned the party to devote his efforts to writing and journalism.Aftervariousdefeats of Arabs by Israel, many intellectualsfrom the period of my childhoodlooked for individualanswers outside of organized politics.Creative and cultural work wasone of theirsolutions.

There were very rare opposition groups in Syria and my father was not part ofthem. Hafez Al-Assad, the founder oftheAssadidictatorship in Syria knew how to satisfy the intellectuals. He did not imprisonthem for their opinions.

The detaineesat that timeopposed the regime andbelongedto organized parties such as theMuslim Brotherhoodand other socialist or left-wing parties. Somewere exiled,others(specifically Islamists) wereimprisoned in Syria for about fifteen years, orkilled in prisons. It is an historical fact thatHafez Al-Assad did notimprisonintellectualswho were not associated with politicalparties.He did, however,establish limits that people would not go beyond. He knew how to keep intellectual voices in check.He was a dictator, unlike his successor Bashar Al-Assad who does notmerit even this title.In my opinionBashar Al-Assad is more like gangster. He does not have his father's understanding of Syrian society's complexity.Hehassurrounded himself withamafia-like power structure in whichcorruption has spread to a horrible extent through Syria.This is my opinion.In spite of the dangers, revolutionhas risen to oppose his regime.

KE:What did you study at universityand when was the first time you understood poetry and politics to be connected as a form of resistance?

RO: When I first starteduniversity I studied English literature. Then Imeta young man,fell in loveand we got married before I finishedmy studies. I gave birth to my daughter and got divorced beforeI was25 years old. I neglected university for a long timeand whenI registered againin 1990,Istudied Arabicliterature.

In our region, not only poetry,buteverything related to culture, thoughtand creativity is closely linked to politics.I wasborn in a region that lives in the shadow ofongoingstormy political events. The existence of Israel,in the heart of our region, has created reasons formilitary regimes to takepowerwithvariouscoups d'etatsthat have beenfalselycalled revolutions.It is my opinion that under the pretext of resisting Israel andZionismin the region,these regimeshave transformed from self-identified nationalist regimes into corrupt totalitarianones. They have subjugated or eliminated their own peoplewhile Israelcontinued to occupymore Arabland. There have been both secret and open peace conventions.

Throughout my lifetime, and under both Syrian presidents, political work has been forbidden in Syria.Assad(senior)founded a totalitarian regime,forbidding political parties and civil society. His son, Assad(junior), has inherited and perpetuated this structure.The penalty forpolitical activism has beenexile or long term detention.

Everything in our livesis linked to politics. In Syria, any talk that did not use the discourse of the regime was seen to be opposed to the regime.Such talk has been taboo. Censorship of both religious and political writing iswidelypracticed.Whateverthe censorsdo not approveofwill notbe published.Writers canalsobe investigatedand this creates an atmosphere of fear. Youcan imaginehow writershave had tocamouflagetheir ideasin order to write without raising theobjectionsof the censor.The three principle taboos are religion, politics and sex.

KE:In 2015 you wrote,"In history, no other revolution has managed to remain so beautiful for so long, when confronted with such brutal crimes." You added, "Now blood is the only memory of Syria, as everyone has conspired to bury this beauty."Can you explainwhat you mean by the "beauty" of therevolution?What did people feel?How did theyexpressit?

RO: Atthe beginning of 2011,afterthe Arab springin 2010, no onepredicted changein Syria.There was a split perception of Syriain the region. On one hand, some in the Arab world saw Syria as a stable, and cultivated country. On the other hand, Syrians were also seen as fearful and silenced by a regime they were afraid tospeak freely about. People were not seen as free to protest.

What happened was a surprise to everyone. For sixconsecutivemonths, Syrian youth turned the country'sstreets into stagesforsong and danceand peaceful protest.Have you ever seen protests anddemonstrations in a Muslim countryin which the protesters turntheir slogans into songs withsuchvivid temposthat participantsare inspiredto invent matchingDabkeh dances? That happened in Syria.People chanted slogans and songs calling for the overturning of theregime. Theydemandeda pluralistic democratic civil state under the authority of the law.This wasthe languageof their revolutionary songs.

And then, police shot bulletsdirectlyat thedemonstrators. Youth were shot during demonstrations. Some were rescued. Otherswere killed, and their funerals turned into new demonstrations with moreshootingand more victims.Thesedemonstrationscreated an unprecedentedsocialcoherence in Syria. Those whowereparticipatingin the revolution feltasuddenbond. They feltthat they belongedto each otherandto the revolution. They felt that their blood wasnowmixed into the soil of Syria. TheSyriathey grew up in was nolongersuitableto betheir homeland. They were looking fora Syrianhomelandtheyhaddreamed of, one in which they could belong to each other.

Now all that beautyis lost. It is drowned in the sea,disappeared intoprisons, buriedand turnedinto dust.

KE:You have been politically active and a vocal critic of both the regime and the war. Others have suffered death and imprisonment and disappearance--poet IbrahimQashoushwas kidnapped and killed, writersDia'aal-Abdulla and Tal al-Mallouhi areimprisoned, KhaledKhalifawas physically attacked. Your own daughter was imprisoned when she appeared at an anti-regime rally. Writing is dangerous. Can you comment on thisand your own exile?

RO: Yes, I was forced to leave Syria at the end of 2011. I was officially askedto leaveby the security serviceswhowere running the state.At first I refused. Iwas recalled by them several times. Each time I refused the idea of leaving.Then,threats began toclose in onme and my daughter.The authoritiesdid not want to arrest me.But they wanted me to leave.

Arresting writers for supporting the revolutioncancreate ascandalbecause the regimehasdeclared that theyarrest only terrorists. I asked my daughter to leave Syria,andIsaidI would stay. But my daughterrefused. She insisted thateither wewouldstayin Syriatogether orwe would go into exile together.So we left. I don't know today if this was theright decision,orif my fear then was justified. But Ican besure now thatif I had stayed I wouldhavebeensilenced or arrested.

KE:Forced migration because of war is heart-wrenching.Can you comment on the migrations we see today?

RO: The dream of travelling and immigration is an old dream for many people.For some it has not been stimulatedby the demand for a safe and stable life;ithas been created out of adesiretosearch for andtodiscover unknown worlds anddifferentcultures.Manyplaces onearth have been discovered because of this desire. Travel and immigration havealso sometimesbeenmotivated by boredom,or thesimpledesire to changeour lives.In these cases, adaptation to new places is more relaxed and enjoyable.

In the case of Syrians, and Iraqis and Palestinians beforeus, travelthrough the world has beentotally different.These immigrantshave beenafraid, andwehave beenescapinghunger and death.Inthesecases, immigrationmeans survival, means protecting ourfamiliesand children, means looking for our lost security. It alsomeans a future.

The mechanisms of dealing with thiskind of immigration are differentfrom those of voluntary migrations. Theyaremixed with caution. Immigrants must prove their eligibility to stay in a country they do not belong to and look forself-realization.I think thattheSyrians whohave movedto Europe and America will be, intime,good citizens of thesecountries. However, their dreamswill be alwaysofSyria.

KE: Thank you.Let's talk a little more about your writing.Why did youchoose poetry as yourgenre?

RO: I don't know. My father, who was a poet, used to say to me that I would be a novelist. He knew that my memorycan holdmany details, bothsmall anddistantones.Myfather died without knowing that I write poetry. I have never tried writing novels. I am not against the idea, but so far I haven't written fiction. Ithink it needs a kind of persistencethatI admitI do nothave. My inner dialogues with myself are short. They are continuous but they are short. I never make a long dialogue with myself. I always interrupt it with something else. Such a mind is not suitable for writing a novel, or at least this is what I think.

KE:Before the war, and your exile, did you write about the same kinds of topics?

RO: No, never. This is the first time I write abouttheisolation andsolitudelived by a lonely woman. I used to write about death, but from an abstract perspective. Now death for me is no longer abstract. I have seen youth killed before my eyes. Their blood stained my clothes. My memoryholdsthe smell of their blood. Icanwatchthepeople of my country dying ontelevision. Death is no longerabstract. It is afact.

Moreover, for the first time in my life,I have been living alone. I have been aloneforsevenyears now. Totally alone!Before this time,I always lived with someoneelse,my family or my daughter, andI wassurrounded daily by friends. All through these pastyears Ihave beencompletely and literally alone. It is the first time Iunderstandthe meaning of someone living alone, of the different fears, of howobsessionsare magnified andmultiplied, of how sensitivities are moreintense. I am alsopsychologicallyalone.A woman, atthe beginning of her fifties,isinadangerousstage,psychologically.It is atimeofhormonal changes that may alterher moodscompletely. For me, it is a real opportunity to write aboutthis condition.In addition to successive failures in love, and a growing feeling ofthe rapidloss ofeverything I love and adore. Couldtherebe any more tempting subjectfor poetry?

KE:Yourbeautifulpoetry collection, "The Woman who Dwelt in the House Before"uses the theme ofa lonely, exiledwoman who lives in an apartment where she feels the presence of a woman who was once therebefore her.Do you see this as thepoetry of exile?

RO: I really don't know if it would be classified as poetry of exile. I am exiled from my country. The authorities ordered me to leave Syria.ButI am living in a countrythat isnot strange for me(Egypt) either in language or custom,or even in thepublic mood. The concept of exile, I think, is usually accompanied by a feeling ofalienation. I don't feel alienatedin Egypt.I don't feel that I am a stranger. But had I been in my country in this age, would I have written about my loneliness? I am not sure. I tend tothinkno. So, perhaps this collection can be included in the poetry of exile.

KE: Your themes of loneliness, forgetfulness and alienationcan also be universal. You bring your personal experience to them.

RO: Yes, they are of course universal themes. The man of modern times in general is a lonely man. The revolution of modern communication has increasedourloneliness. We spend long hoursin front of computer and mobile phonescreens, speaking with people we don't know. Whilewe do this, wegradually losecommunication with the immediate reality surrounding us. Couldthere more isolation and alienation than that? Moreover, the reality in our worldhas becomeso sick. It isdominated by hatred, wars, death andthedesire to impose power and oppressionon others.It is aworld ruled by mafias dealing in weapons that create terrorism and fabricate wars under the pretext of facing that veryterrorism. Imaginewhatthis world we are living in looks like. We need another parallel world. We needan imaginary or virtual world, an anti-world tothis daily worldin order to be able topushthis madness away. We need to forget that we are part of this world, even forshorttime. Poetry opens a window for forgetfulness.

KE: Theimageryin your writingis very beautiful.For a Western reader who may be unfamiliar with Arabic literary tradition can you introduce us to yourinfluences.

RO: Actually, my imagerycomes frommy readings ofbothArab and international literature. I, as a poet, belong to the world with all its cultures. Of course the Arab literary heritageis primary because it is the language I write in.It is the language in which I have heard the folkloric tales and epics of heroes and princesses and witches. It is the language in which I have memorized the old,long poems of the Arabian Peninsula and Andalusia. It is the language in which I have read the originalArabianNightsbefore the scissors of Arab religious censors cut parts of it and deformed it. It is the language in which I have read KalilawaDimna (The Arabic version of the Panchatantra ), the old Arab epic of TaghribatBaniHilal ,and mystery books andmyths,and in translation, The Iliad and TheOdyssey , and Don Quixote . That wasalong time ago when I was a childwhen I read all that.My readings variedas I grew older.They have been varied, complicated and mixed. Allthese readings have shaped my own imagery, in addition to my personal experiencesin life and my attempts to contemplate their effects on mein poetry.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian novelist, journalist, teacher, and translator. Her most recent translation is Inanna: A New English Version, a collection of sacred songs and myths from ancient Sumer. Her novel, The Disappeared has been translated into twenty languages. Her most recent fiction is Under the Visible Life.

Abdelrehim Youssef is

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