Letter to America: Mortar Shells, Lunch, and Poetry
By Scott Minar with a Poem by Riad Saleh Hussein, translated by Saleh Razzouk
My friend Saleh Razzouk sits having lunch in his apartment in Aleppo. He may be working on poems he is translating by Raid Saleh Hussein or Linda Abdel Baki, when a mortar fragment finds its way through his kitchen window. I think we can imagine the crackle of glass, the stinging thud of its passage through a wall on the other side, the shrug of shock he instantly makes and the quick turn of his head. Saleh does not live in Aleppo’s worst neighborhood, far from it. But this is his reality nonetheless. His reality, his life. I think when I hear from him sometimes that the depression is far stronger than the fear. His son has been missing for years, his wife gone to Dubai. He is a secular Muslim educated in England and Poland, a university professor. He grew up in a village in Syria that was half Muslim and half Jewish. He has no prejudice; he wasn’t raised with it. He writes short stories with a modernist edge: a man is in the Turkish bath recently reopened in Aleppo while his home is burning down. Saleh’s character enters the bath to give him the news—the steam, the hot water, the nakedness.
A war zone is a place where people are murdered, where buildings are calved to rubble, where the noise is unbearable. Yet people live there. It is not really a “zone” at all, but a place where people live: civilians, the old, children—an artist translating poems and fiction into English because he loves it.
The first of Saleh’s translations that I saw was this, “Smoke,” which begins:
Depressed and open like the sea, I stand, angry, coherent and continuous, to tell you about the sea, when the window has two eyes to see my despair the walls fingers to touch my ribs the doors tongues to talk about me.
And when the water becomes the taste of water the air the taste of air and this black ink the smell of ink and when print houses produce poems instead of sleeping pills and the fields grow wheat instead of opium and the factories make shirts instead of bombs
This piece is by deceased Syrian poet Raid Saleh Hussein, whom Saleh Razzouk knew personally and who died at 28 years old in the 1980s. He had been exiled to Iraq, imprisoned and tortured by the regime there, and ultimately succumbed.
I write a lot: poems, essays, some criticism. But none of them are as important as this. I am writing to say there are consequences for our actions in the world. Americans graze on news and events, certainly process our concerns and cares as most people do in countries with significant access to news, generally speaking. We do this at a distance. When the emergency comes to your door, through your kitchen window, it changes things. Saleh Razzouk’s life is not the worst in Syria. That would be the Sarin gas attacks, the mindless destruction of bombs, and the mindful killing of snipers and frontal attacks. But his life is nonetheless tragic by our or any standards. Relativity is useless there. My connection with Dr. Razzouk is through literature and art, as strange as that may sound even to me.
The truth is that Saleh uses his translations, his correspondences, his literary discussions and speculations, even his own history and story, as a survival mechanism and a purpose for his life in such circumstances. And that, from my point of view, is truly remarkable. To find solace in a thing so ephemeral is understandable, but to find purpose and life there in the middle of death-dealing and despair is extremely hard to fathom. Yet here we are.
Consequences are interesting things. I open my lunch box from Starbuck’s: half a peanut butter sandwich, sliced cucumber and carrots, ranch dressing, a few chocolate-covered coffee beans. When I write to Saleh about what I am doing, where I go, I am conscious of what I say. I know he can’t do the simplest of things: sit in a coffee shop and talk to a friend or colleague, drink coffee regularly. His electricity works three hours a day; water flows sometimes through his pipes. He is alone. Money, his pay, is an issue. Yet we write each other several times a day. He sends poems and stories he has translated; sometimes I make suggestions. We work to publish these in the States, England, and elsewhere. He translates my poems and commentaries into Arabic and publishes these in a number of venues across the world. In all of this activity, I can never forget where he is and how he lives. But I want to. It is very pleasant working with him. He is extremely learned and skilled, a superb writer himself. He helps me more than I help him. I think about that.
It is interesting to me that all we need to know about Syria may be found in Saleh’s translation of “Smoke.” Depression, despair, talking doorways, and walls that touch—and these are merely the opening stanza. Dictators and prisons; millionaires, children, thieves, and rulers. The rather startling disdain the speaker has for even his own speech in the last line—first the cigarette, then I’ll speak. Everywhere in the poem is the feeling and presence of humanity in both senses of the word: the collective and the compassionate.
I started writing poetry as a result, in part, of growing up with Holocaust survivors in Cleveland in the 1960s and 70s. Eventually, I turned to Paul Celan’s poetry, which I felt I understood perfectly past a certain point. But this had nothing to do with whom I knew growing up. It had to do with my personal experience with despair from another source. Despair can bring us very low, or it can make us smarter and stronger than we have ever been before. It is not sorrow, but sorrow’s Platonic sphere. In “Tenebrae,” Celan writes, “Bete Herr, / bete zu uns, / wir sind nah.” The lines translate as, “Pray Lord, / pray to us, / we are near.” This remarkable inversion—that God should pray to us, perhaps ask our forgiveness—is the wise result of despair caused by perceived or actual abandonment. How is this abandonment, Celan’s in his poem, effectively different from Hussein’s or Razzouk’s? Writers and people under these circumstances begin to dig in and push because their feet are on the ground. Technique is not the point, aesthetics are not the point, fame is certainly not. The remarkable achievement of Hussein’s “Smoke” and Razzouk’s introduction of the poem to American audiences is to plant us on the ground alongside them and show us where they are existentially, psychically.
Beyond despair, through it, and out to the impossibly tough sunlight and darkness of the other side.
What is the point of literary criticism? Of translation? If not to expand humanity and to succor, then what? Art itself is a balm of remarkable effectiveness. And a purpose, of course. A single human being is a very small thing. We can water our dirt, comfort those immediately around us, try to live for a day and be in the moment. But the circles of our influence radiate. This globalism has positive and negative effects. It is in some ways terra incognita. The last poem I received from Saleh Razzouk is Riad Saleh Hussein’s “A Moon”:
Everything the shepherd said to the mountain And the river to the trees And everything people said or did not say In dance and in wars and in yards I told you about.
The girl who was singing behind the window The gravel that was crushed under the train’s wheels And the grave that is still sleeping happy for centuries I told you about.
Here’s what the shepherd said:
My body’s flower: each morning I harvest it, then throw it out into the street, Allowing leaders, wise men, and thieves to step on it.
And my body’s flower—each evening I collect its scattered petals for you And tell you of everything that happened to me.
Can we hear in this poem something of the poet’s country? The sound of his voice in his own language would surely surprise and confuse us. Yet, the translation reaches across. Whose flower? Whose scattered body telling us everything that has happened?
Scott Minar is consulting translations editor at Crazyhorse, the author of four books of poetry (two of which have been translated into Arabic), and author or editor of three textbooks on poetry writing. His essays and poems have appeared in Poetry International, The Paris Review, Ninth Letter, The Newfoundland Herald, Alquds Al-Arabi (Arabic Jerusalem/London), and other journals.
Riad Saleh Hussein (1954-1982) was a Syrian poet from Aleppo province. He was mute, worked in Cinema Life magazine in Damascus, later for the Tishreen Daily until his death after a brief arrest for unspecified reasons. He published three collections of prose poetry; the fourth appeared after his death. He was considered a pioneer of Arabic prose poetry in the post-Adonis era.
Saleh Razzouk is a fiction writer and translator living in Aleppo, Syria. He was educated at Aleppo University, Gliwice Polytechnic of Poland, and several universities across the UK. He is the translator of a study on the Arabic novel by Win-Chin Ouyang. Currently he is an associate professor in fiber sciences at the University of Aleppo.
Header photo of Aleppo by Smallcreative, courtesy Shutterstock.