Syria’s Jailed Poet: “Assad’s prisons, a hell of a particular kind!”
Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar began his literary activism early on in his life. In 1977, at the age of 26, he was the editor of a literary magazine that published the works of young Syrian poets. Later on, he joined the Party for Communist Action, an opposition group; his activism led to his arrest without charge in 1987. He spent 14 years in prison, living the horrors of torture and solitude in the world’s most notorious jails. Faraj was released in November 2000, following an international campaign. He now lives in Sweden. The Arab Digest had the following interview with him on prison, torture, and the Arab Spring.
In previous interviews and in your poetry, especially “A Dove with Absolute Wings,” you spoke about your long period of imprisonment in Syria. You said that you were not alone but that it was an experience shared by many Syrians, many of whom are still in prison. When the Syrians write this regime’s history after its demise, what will they say about its dark jails?
I imagine that the transitional period following the revolution’s victory will focus on treating the effects of human (the martyrs, the injured, the imprisoned, and the affected), psychological, cultural, and general economic destruction caused by the regime. After the necessary initial aid for these levels of destruction, the older circumstances and situations responsible for accumulating the subjective groundwork for the revolution will surface. The prison and prisoners will acquire the primary share.
In the late 1970s to 1980s, and to a lesser extent the 1990s, the jails of Assad’s regime were a hell of a particular kind. Hundreds of thousands of human beings entered this hell. Dozens of thousands died under torture or after military trials which lacked minimum rights, logic, and ethics. Dozens of thousands spent twenty years, more or less, in prison, while others were relatively lucky if they spent less than 15 years in prison. I was among the “lucky ones,” owing to an international campaign for my release. After 14 years of incarceration, this campaign succeeded in driving the regime to release me without conditions; it was a precedent for the regime’s intelligence to never release a political prisoner, even after the completion of his sentence.
They keep each prisoner for a few months, and sometimes for a few years before they release him under compulsory conditions like committing to the support of the tyrant’s wise politics, abandoning political activism, periodical assessments by Security agencies (you could call them horror agencies), and informing them of his whereabouts and names of visitors… etc.
These circumstances prevented most of those released from making any statement or interview or even writing anything on their experiences. This meant complete isolation from the outside world for years. After the dictatorship ends there will be thousands of survivors capable of unloading their memories on paper or through different media outlets. Then the world will know that Syria, in the era of Assad senior and his heir, was one of the bloodiest and most cursed dictatorships in the world.
In your poetry and prose, you describe many tragedies in this regime’s prisons. What experiences affected you the most?
It is very difficult to answer this question. I do not know the experience that has affected me the most. Sometimes I say meeting my youngest brother after 6 years of imprisonment–he was the first I saw from my family. And at times, I say it was my oldest brother who spent 11 years in prison without us knowing whether he was dead or alive.
Some other times, I think it is the story of a prisoner who had his first family visit after 12 years of incarceration. He did not recognize any of his family members in the visiting hall; the military policeman walked him to an old couple. After he recognized his father, the woman wept in grief. He asked her “Mother, why are you crying, I am fine. Are you ill, mother?” She replied “I am your sister. Your mother passed away a long time ago. My condolences, brother!”
You speak of whips and cruel torture tools. What do they symbolize?
Prison is extreme predatory masculinity. Freedom is extreme merciful femininity. I cannot express the symbolism of prison and its whips in more than these words.
Many Syrians feel they are alone these days amid massacres. What do you tell them?
The first book of poems I published in 1979 was titled You are Not Alone.
I believed in that then, and my belief was reinforced following the revolution. My faith in my people increased as well.
Regarding our contemporary world, I know it is greedy and monstrous. A wide gap separates its technological advances and its ethical backwardness. This is why I am not surprised by its rascal/unethical stance to the Syrian people’s revolution.
I speak of the general outcome of our world, but at the same time I differentiate between degrees of rascal-dom in morals and interests. Accordingly, I see that Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and Northern Korea take the lead in the absenteeism of ethics and morals.
What did Faraj Bayrekdar feel when the revolution started? Did it change anything in you?
I am grateful for my people who started their revolution; I have been waiting for its maturity for 30 years … But my principal gratitude is reserved for the children of Deraa city, who have written on the walls of their schools and city slogans similar to what they have heard on Satellite TV channels during the unfolding events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. They were children or younger generations whom were not, like their parents, instilled with fear or tamed by models of horror, whether the bombing of Hama city in 1982, the massacre of Masharqa neighborhood in Aleppo, the massacres of Idlib, Jisr al-Shoghoor, or the military prison of Tadmur.
The current situation is best described as a type of an Arab political tsunami which started in Tunisia, reached Egypt, only to spread in many other countries. This tsunami will not stop before toppling all Arab Tyrannical regimes, and I think that its repercussions and effects will reach many Islamic countries in the region. It might not stop on the doorsteps of old Europe; it will knock some doors and open others at least.
It is the Arab spring, the spring of the peoples … the autumn of tyrants.
I feel the strength and pride of my people, and pain over its victims.
What changed in me is the level of hope in people; it is now clearer, stronger, and bigger.