Interview with Syrian Poet Maram al-Massri
“The president’s family really took Syria like a big chicken, and they eat it alone.”
On Jan. 26, a man from the Syrian city of Ali-Hasakah, Hasan Ali Akleh, covered himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in protest of the Syrian government—an act mimicking the self-immolation of a Tunisian man that sparked the “Arab Spring.” A week later, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal that Syria was immune to the kind of social and political upheaval coursing through the Arab world. But Syrian human rights groups have estimated that, in recent months, security forces have killed 1,200 citizens who oppose Assad’s regime and the emergency rule that, prior to the unrest, had limited civil liberties since 1962.
Poet Maram al-Massri was born in the same year that emergency rule began. She left the country in 1982 after studying at the University of Damascus, and she has published six collections of poetry—two of them, Red Cherry on a White Tile Floor and I Look at You , have been translated into English in the UK and also the US. Though Massri has been living in Paris for the past 28 years, she has been staying in contact with writers in Syria during the unrest, which has devolved into violent clashes between protestors and government forces.
Massri spoke to Sampsonia Way about the unrest in Syria, the importance of democracy, and her brief experience as a female poet in Syria.
How does it feel to watch Syrian citizens partaking in this Arab Spring despite the violent opposition?
People asked me “Do you think it will happen to Syria?” I said “No, I don’t because the regime is so awful.” The regime, after 48 years, has the same political system, and they don’t accept any opposition. They [the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his family] really took Syria all for themselves—like a big chicken that they eat alone while the Syrian people, at the heart of things, are poor in regards to social services, property, and dignity. Then, people started to say “No, now we will be free.”
What is happening in the “Arab Spring” throughout the Middle East gives me a lot of happiness—a feeling of pride in those people who are really without any weapons, without anything except feeling disgusted with oppression. They decided to wake up and refuse all kinds of conditions.
But I also see the people who are dying, and the regime has on its hands a lot of blood and a lot of guilt. This is not war because the people do not have anything. They do not even have stones. They only have their belief that this regime has to be stopped. Certainly there are people who protected Bashar, which profits and strengthens them. They make excuses and make the Western world afraid by saying that the opposition is small-minded. I am not political; I have no political party— my party is humanity. My interest is that those people who seek the liberty and who seek democracy have a chance to live a good life. To make a society just and equal , you have to respect them. Freedom is beautiful and sacred.
So you don’t think, as other people do, that the religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic but secular rule is overthrown.
No, I believe in my people—in those people who give their soul and their life for this revolution. And I believe that this revolution is a revolution only focused on ousting this regime, a pure revolution. For the Christian, Jew, and Muslim , Syria is the birthplace of religions, a common ground. I don’t think that they will sink into religious warfare. Certainly, some people will try to attach to it, but the street is pure and we have to support those people to allow freedom in their country. The Assad regime is trying to scare Europeans by saying that, under the regime from 84 years ago, Syrians were prisoners of big monsters that put us in small prisons and that now—under Assad rule—is freedom.
People have said that technology like Facebook and the internet helped the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. How has it affected Syria?
Even though Facebook is forbidden in Syria, people have still managed to connect to it. Now, with all this internet information that we can collect from here and there, we don’t have the right to act as if we don’t know. We know that we can’t ignore what the knowledge calls us to do—can’t look at Syria and then turn my head to go shopping. We have to be responsible with our knowledge. But if the international community doesn’t help, we will not have freedom. Syrians do not have any way to stop the advancing regime or the killings, and international forces must say to Assad, “Stop and let your people live.” I can cry to God with all my power to help the people, but I think sometimes that no one moves, no one runs to help us.
Before moving to Paris three decades ago, you studied English Literature in Damascus. What was your experience as a female student in Syria?
It was 28 years ago, and my experience was relatively nice because, at first, I wasn’t conscious of the greater problems. But after the first year in Damascus, I discovered that it wasn’t easy for a lot of people to live or to speak. I was working with the American studies department and had to translate some interviews with a lot of official departments, but the Syrian Gestapo was looming all the time. We could not speak freely and everything that we said we had to clear it with them; it was like being imprisoned by the government. The Syrian citizen was not free to do anything—only maybe to eat and to sleep, and even that wasn’t easy. If you didn’t agree with what happened in the country, or with the regime’s ideas, you were jailed for almost all your life. I remember stories about men disappearing.
Still, at that time I did not have the same political conscience that I have today. I didn’t feel any political injustice because I was kept far away from political action even though I had a girlfriend who was in prison. So, when I went to Paris in 1982, I was only writing poetry and dreaming about love. But political poetry and opposition to the regime wasn’t my aim.
So, you wrote poetry while in Paris. Were you able to write and publish when you lived in Syria?
Yes. I was privileged because I had a brother who was a big poet and helped me get published. But my first book had been published in Syria when I was in Paris. But my second and third were refused, and I wasn’t told why. I did not know that they were dangerous. At the time, my boyfriend was a Christian boy, and in a small city, they cannot bear this relation because a Muslim woman with a Christian boy is unacceptable. But this was my first way of being revolutionary: to say we are from same country, we are from same city, we are from the same earth, and we can be in love despite our different religions. My books were forbidden—I could not do them in Syria.
What role can Syrian intellectuals and writers like you play in this revolution?
Personally, my poetry is a message of love and peace, not of war. Now, I have another book of poems that Syria won’t publish because, maybe, they are dangerous. And I agree: because the love that I describe is a danger for them. But I have a lot of friends who live in Syria and have the courage to speak. Here in France, my friends and I say, “We’re safe, and we don’t put our life at the mercy of a gun or weapon.” But we are here and safe because we are in a democratic country. Every time I open my Facebook, I am afraid to find that some of those friends who live in Syria are in prison or killed. All kinds of Syrian citizens are a lesson—they are artists and students who, like me and my friends in France, want to stop the genocide of the Syrian people.