- In the Wake of the Syrian Revolution: Poetry
- Bridging Cultures, Building Peace: Mohja Kahf
- Unveiling the Middle East: Ghada al-Atrash
- “When I’m Overcome With Weakness“: Najat Abdul Samad
- “My Sect is the Scent of My Homeland“: Youssef Bou Yihea
- “Waiting for Spring”: Hala Mohammad
- “In Syria Even The Deaf Can Hear War Crimes”: Amal Kassir
- HipHop for Justice and Peace: Omar Offendum
“Just living is not enough, said the butterfly, one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower” (Hans Christian Anderson). In the poetry of the Syrian poet and documentary film maker Hala Mohammad, the butterfly is a major symbol describing an aspect her poetical process. No wonder that when talking about the state of poetry inside Syria after 2011 she said: “The most beautiful poem written this year (2011)” is ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated’”. “The Syrian people will not be humiliated” was the slogan of the Syrian Revolution. Today (2015), four years after the “Syrian Revolution”, most observers agree that the Syrian tragedy cannot be solved by military strikes against the ruling regime. What is left to oppositionists in Syria and outside is, among other traditions, poetry. Hala Mohammad, exiled Syrian auhor, takes this tradition seriously.
About Hala Mohammad
Exiled in Paris since 2011, Hala Mohammad was born in Latakia/Syria on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. In her memoirs she remembered (2011) the five steps that separated the door of her house from the street: This space occupies a central place in the memories of her childhood. After the protests in 2011, she seemed to have rediscovered the connection to the street of her childhood she had apparently lost. However, Latakia today is for her no longer the space of childhood games: The place has become a space of freedom, a space of life as well as death. (Mohammad, “Prison“)
Hala Mohammad grew up in a liberal family (“My parents were idealistic”), studied film making at the Université Paris VIII Vincennes-Saint-Denis and then worked as a costume designer for two well-known Syrian films, al-Lail and Sandouq al-Dunya. Since 1994 she has been active as a poet. Her earlier work includes five poetry collections: The Soul Has No Memory (1994), Over That Mild White (1998), A Little Life (2001), This Fear (2004) and As If I Knocked On My Door (2008).
Today (2015) she lives in Paris, France. She had left her country in 2011 and settled in France to obtain treatment for breast cancer. She does not consider herself a political poet. What gives her poetry its unique character is
… its spontaneity. Instead of complex reflections there are ideas which flicker momentarily into life: colours, sense impressions, smells and movements are evoked and connected to the manifold and recurring themes which flow through Mohammad’s poetry like leitmotifs. These include memory, which also plays an important role in her fimic work, emotions like fear, alienation and loneliness, as well as a profound sense of grief and having lost one’s way (Poetry Festival of Medellín)
In Waiting for Spring she explains how she thinks poetry is central to the political change under way in the Middle East.
Hala Mohammad wrote “This Fear” after she did her documentary about political prisoners in Syria (Journey into Memory, 2006). About her motivations:
As a poet and as a filmmaker, I have always found utterly shocking to forbid freedom of expression. In Syria, it has become normal to silence people for the interest of a political or a ruling party. I couldn’t help but ask myself: is it possible that in the 21stcentury people are still fighting for the freedom to express their opinions? (Waiting for Spring)
She made a casting of political prisoners, saw approximately 500 prisoners before she could cut it down to three people. She chose Yassin al Haj Saleh, Faraj Baiqdar and Ghassan Jibai … They agreed not to talk about politics but to focus on humanistic issues. They also agreed on the fact that this movie was about the future of Syria and not about dwelling on the past.
During the projection of the movie she said she was scared:
I was so scared that when I was standing in front of a window, all I saw was darkness. The freedom that I had been working on so hard during the movie was drawn in fear in this particular moment. Of course, secret services attempted to intimidate me by interrogating me on a daily basis. It was meant to make me feel watched. But I don’t like to complain about it, especially right now during the revolution because I feel it is my duty to fight for freedom, justice and equality.
Here some lines from “This Fear”:
I can’t handle this window
that opens to alienation
It’s like a wall
I see nothing through it
I can’t handle this window
that opens to alienation
In Waiting for Spring, her filmed biography, there are – accompanying the poem – windows which open to Paris.
The Butterfly Said
Her to date last and sixth collection of poems, The Butterfly Said (2013), comes from period of sorrow during which Hala Mohammad continuously followed the events in Syria but was unable to write. The deteriorating situation in Syria made it impossible for her to return, reducing her to a state of passivity difficult to manage. The shock, however inevitable and necessary, dissipated when she realised that her voice and the strength of her words might count. Conceived as a “documentary collection”, The Butterfly Said reflects her views of the revolution as a human act “for freedom and equal citizenship” and her willingness to translate the horror in “words of love” (Margaux Bonnet).
According to the publishers the book is divided into two parts: “The Butterfly Said” is the first part and it contains seventy-one poems telling stories about Syrian cities, the absurd war, the displaced and the immigrants. The second part is titled “Mothers”, where the poet chose several mothers to be featured with a brief introduction about each one of them, and a touching lament.
“A Butterfly from Jisr al-Shoghour”
Poetry is a genre of verbal art in its own right. It does not claim – at least not according to the contemporary state of the art – to represent realities. It works – mainly – with verbal images which invite readers to participate in thought connections that are “off the beaten roads.” The butterfly plays an important role, in the narrative context but also on a moral abstract level. For Margaux Bonne, literary critic, the butterfly is a fragile creature that has all the strength to make it a powerful symbol:
“You can not kill the symbol” Hala assures me. Its space of existence is the light, and the colors it wears is its contemplation field. The butterfly is silent and its silence admirable. That makes it eloquent. … The poet, who identifies with their fragility, wants to do justice to these beings without speech. But the world admires the noise and will not listen to the silence of the butterfly … (translated from French).
On the narrative surface the poem is about the story of a refugee girl who, one morning, discovers a butterfly that had landed on her hand. She engages in a conversation with it. The butterfly said: “I am Turkish. . . and you?”. The girl tries to answer all the questions of the little creature, questions about her age, her home, her mother. And as the girl grows older and her hair turns white, she comes to realise that “(a) refugee is not entitled to history or geography”:
To a land just beyond the border
With blue skies
And no boundaries
She spelled her name letter by letter
She kissed her name letter by letter
Kissed the bank of the river
And said: my mother is Syria
“Not at the doorstep”
“Not at the doorstep” from the second part of Said the Butterfly is an excerpt from a longer poem by Hala Mohammed which is dedicated to the mother of Ghayath Mattar, the martyr who handed flowers and water to the Syrian army and security forces in Daraya. Matar was abducted on August 9, tortured and killed on September 10, 2011. His body was placed at his parents’ doorstep. (For the full text of the poem you may want to visit El Jadid Magazine on Facebook)
The speakerin the poem appears to be another woman and mother who imagines what Matar’s mother must have felt after the first pain subsided: Her son was expecting a child:
Not at the doorstep.
In the hallway of the house
Your warm laughter
Plays with your expected child.
You will not be absent
For no father abandons his unborn.
She would not have her son, who so heroically committed himself to the cause of the Syrian people, be doomed to die:
Heroes die in my life, my son,
Death does not become you.
Do not die
”The Swallow” is also about Gayath Matar. It continues where “Not on the Doorstep” had stopped. Why the swallow is at the center of the poem (title, references: “Oh, swallow …”) and why the swallow should “slow down” doesn’t disclose itself from the text, but one does not have to understand everything in a poem to be drawn to its message. The message is about preserving the memory of the martyr:
With the feather in the
the martyr’s picture
and death flew out of the picture.
The martyr is not avenged, but remembered. The end, somewhat cryptic, might be a reference to the role of poets, who -with their contructs – are keeping the memory of martyrs alive:
Slow down, Swallow.
the nest belongs
to whoever builds it.
Poems have sparked revolutions. In poems that have effectively entered the public sphere, a lot is said, but a lot is also unsaid. This makes poems a powerful tool of protest. For Hala Mohammad poetry is an element in a larger vision. Poetry, she explains in Waiting for Spring “really does leave an impression. . . A poem of love can have an effect, can help you feel beauty. . . Until now weapons are stronger than us. Maybe they are faster. . . But I think poetry will endure”.
Bhattacharya, Aritra. “Between laughter and revolution”. The Hoot (30.09.12).
Bonnet, Margaux. ”Des mots pour dire le silence: La poésie de Hala Mohammad.“ From.sham.with love.
Dinh, Jean-Marie. ”Pour Hala Mohammad: La vérité et la liberté sont l’oxygène de la paix”.
Fedda, Yasmin. “Hala Mohammad: Waiting for Spring,” Artscape Series, Aljazeera English video, (September 8, 2012)
Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín. “Biographical Information of Invited poets to the XX International Poetry Festival of Medellín
Klappert, Hartwig. “Hala Mohammad Portrait”.
Kalamu ya Salaam. “Hala Mohammad: Waiting for Spring” (Interview and Video). Al Jazeera English.
Mohammad, Hala. “On Syria”. Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (07-16.09.16).
Mohammad, Hala. “They are stealing the soul from our revolution”. Qantara (11.05.2015).
Mohammad, Hala. “Prison: Geography of Despotism” (Translated from the Arabic by Joseph Sills). Al Jadid vol 17:64.
Scottish Documentary Institute. Waiting for Spring (2012). Produced for Al Jazeera’s “Artscape: Poets of Protest’ series”. (First broadcast: 7 September 2012)
Stolton, Sam. ”Poetry – Syrian Poetry: Revolution, Freedom and Breaking the Old Phantom of Fear”. Poejazzi (January 31st, 2014).