“Through my translation, I am attempting to build bridges between East and to fill in the gap of the almost total absence of an Arab cultural or literal position in the West,“ said Ghada Alatrash on the occasion of her translation of the poems of the Lebanese-American Youssef Abdul Samad (Alatrash). Al-Atrash is a Syrian-Canadian writer and translator. She has been studying Syrian poetry for decades.  An international public speaker, poet, and storyteller Alatrash reminds her audience of the importance of thinking of “the Other“ in our disconnected humanity. Her cause is to amplify the voices of the silenced through the universal language of poetry, music, and story telling and to build communication bridges between East and West.

Ghada Alatrash

Photo: PechaKucha Night, Calgary #21

About the Author and Translator
Ghada Alatrash is from Sweida in south of Syria. Daughter of former Syrian Ambassador Jabr Al-Atrash, she immigrated with her family from Syria to the United States in 1986. She worked as an op/ed columnist for Gulf News/UAE, and was previously op/ed columnist for the Cranbrook Daily Townsman. She taught English at Abu Dhabi Women’s College, UAE, and was an Adjunct Lecturer of Arabic at University of Oklahoma. She is a member of the New Pen League, New York.

When Ghada Alatrash visited her family in Sweida, about an hour’s drive from the country’s southern border with Jordan, she met a friend, Najat Abdul Samad, who was working as an obstetrician and gynecologist there. The two kept in touch and Alatrash began translating Samad’s work from Arabic into English. Her translations of Samad’s work have been published in the LA Times and Alatrash discussed them on Public Radio International and Studio 360. She contacted other writers from Syria and was granted permission to translate their works into English:

I take their poems fresh, translate them, and share them through social media,” she said. “It’s not just me. Today there are a lot of people translating and spreading Syrian poems from the ground. Civilians in Syria and around the world are using social networks to share these new poems without censorship. (Leigh Cuen)

Although Alatrash said she believed that the revolution had rejuvenated Syrian poetry, both in the Middle East and around the world, she also said that language barriers between global readers and Syrian writers on the ground keep international audiences from accessing many of these new works. It is not just language barriers that hinder accessibility. The Internet is not accessible for large swaths of the Syrian population, especially as between a quarter and a third of the country’s people had been displaced. (Leigh Cuen) However, social media tools are among the only platforms for new Syrian writers to connect with each other.


Ghada Alatrash reads  …

“When I’m overcome by weakness“ by Najat Abdul Samad.

„And The Poem Remains“ by Youssef Abdul Samad, transl. by herself

An excerpt from „Think of Others“ by Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish

„Do Not Die“ (Sound Cloud) zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


On Reading and Reciting
Ghada Al Atrash organised poetry readings in her neighbourhood in an effort to spread Arabian arts and culture. Accompanied by music, she first recited the original verses in Arabic and then followed it up with her translated version in English. The feedback, she said, encouraged her to continue in this endeavour. For Al Atrash, poetry reading and recitation is a passion that dates back to her childhood days when her father introduced her to verses.

Reciting poetry, she said, is missing from the Western curriculum. As Arabs, they were exposed to poetry through music. Many of the mainstream songs were poems from well known authors including Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. So it was a common thing and easy too, to recite a poem from the beginning to end:

“My identity is an amalgam of East and West, and with this I have taken on the cause and responsibility to fill in the almost total absence of Arab arts and culture in the West,” said Al Atrash, who holds a masters in English from the University of Oklahoma. “Unfortunately the western media has used prejudiced lenses, often equating Arabs with extremists and terrorists, providing a one-sided misrepresentation; but in reality Arabs also abhor religious extremism, terrorism, and violence.” (Mythily Ramachandran)

Here is an excerpt of a review of one of Ghada Alatrash’s performances by Nick Rubidge, President and CEO, College of the Rockies, Cranbrook, BC:

There is a very rich history and culture in the middle east that we in Canada know so little about. Mostly all we see is angry scenes of violence on our news, but we never learn about their rich history and culture. It was such a privilege to spend an evening with Ghada Alatrash, to hear her reading excerpts from the rich literature of Arabic poetry and share her love and passion for land of her birth. It was such a treat to be introduced to the music and rich poetic culture of this ancient culture. Ghada is such a delightful and vibrant individual, her ability to communicate her love of her birthplace while still being a passionate and proud Canadian is such a wonderful example of what makes this the best place to live. I am sure an evening spent listening to Ghada share her poetry, her culture and her life will leave you culturally and perhaps even spiritually enriched.

Clearing Misunderstandings
“Syrian poetry today is an outcry. It is a plea to humanity. It embodies that human tragedy, the raw pain, the loss and the defeat“ said Ghada Alatrash (Jeffrey Brown). Quoting the late Palestinian Edward Saeed (“Islam Through Western Eyes“ The Nation, April 26, 1980), she continued, “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” However, Ghada Al-Atrash believes that Arabs can clear this misrepresentation by the West by presenting their culture and art to a Western audience (Mithili Ramachandra).  And, using the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: „All human hearts are my nationality / so rid me of my passport.“ 

Al Atrash, Ghada. So that the Poem Remains, a translated work of poems written by Arabic poet Youssef Abdul Samad.

Al Atrash, Ghada. “The Hapless World of Syrian the Syrian Children“ Special to Gulf News (December 18, 2013).

Al Atrash, Ghada. “Letter from Syria: Cry the Beloved Country.“ Special to Gulf News (August 13, 2013).

Batchelor, Bruce. “Unveiling the Middle East: An evening of Arabic poetry, music and stories presented by Syrian-Canadian Ghada Alatrash.“ Agio Publishing.

Andersen, Kurt. “Interviewing Ghada Alatrash“. Audio transcript. PRI.

Brown, Jeffrey. “Surrounded by violence, Syrians seek solace in art“. PBS (March 11, 2016).

Cuen, Leigh. “A ’new poetry‘ emerges from Syria’s civil war“ Aljazeera (Sep 08, 2013).

Segal, Corinne. “’Imagine our helpless feeling’ — a Syrian writer’s plea to the world“ PBS (January 21, 2016).

Ramachandran, Mythily. “Putting Arab verse on the global stage“. Gulf News Special to Weekend Review (Jan. 2, 2014).




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