For this Book of the Month, we’ve decided to read Faraj Bayrakdar’s collection of poems, Mirrors of Absence. This book collects poems that Bayrakdar wrote while imprisoned in Syria for “belonging to an unauthorized political association”. Since November is the month of the International Day of Tolerance, and in light of the refugee crisis emerging from the Syrian conflict, we decided that Mirrors of Absence would be an important and timely read for our Book of the Month.
It is important to say a little bit about Faraj Bayrakdar, and the translator of Mirrors of Absence, John Mikhail Asfour. Bayrakdar was born in Homs, a city north of Damascus, and spent almost 15 years in Syrian prisons. Before he was first arrested, he had already written three collections of poetry. He wrote a fourth while in prison entitled A Dove with Wings Outspread. In 1998 Bayrakdar was awarded the Hellman/Hammett award, and the American PEN Freedom-to-Write award in 1999. Asfour explains how Bayrakdar “wrote the manuscript Mirrors of Absence, a collection of 100 short poems, while in solitary confinement in Syria and smuggled his verses out on the lips of prisoners who committed his verses to memory during short meetings in the prison yard. He also made ink from tea and inscribed his words on onion skin and cigarette papers with a stylus of match wood.”
John Mikhail Asfour is also an accomplished writer and translator. He is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent being Blindfold which speaks about his experience being blinded by a grenade in his native Lebanon at the age of 13. He was the editor and translator of the anthology, When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, which was shortlisted for the Canadian League of Poets Award. One Fish from the Rooftop was the recipient of the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize and Fields of My Blood received the Canada Council for the Arts Joseph Staufford award. Asfour died on November 2, 2014 while his translation of Mirrors of Absence was being edited.
The poems in Mirrors of Absence are breathtaking. Asfour succinctly describes the collection as a reflection of “three under-examined subjects: issues concerning how the poet survives under tyrannical regimes; how the notion of ‘imprisonment’ affects identity; and the concept of freedom that is so essential to every human being”. Each poem is compact and economical, the precision of word choice and use of space speaks to the conditions of scarcity and survival in a Syrian prison. Yet Bayrakdar’s poems do far more than bemoan captivity. Instead, his poems artfully represent the desire for freedom as analogous to love, while also reflecting on existential themes of identity, and staunchly refusing to lose a sense of humor.
Bayrakdar’s poems are like sonnets for freedom, even resembling Arabic ghazal poetry that uses hyperbolic imagery to illustrate the suffering of desire. Freedom is the Laura to Bayrakdar’s Petrarch, the object of desire that is forever out of reach.
In a year or two,
ten years or twenty,
freedom will wear her short striped skirt
and come to meet me.
Yes, her short skirt,
I simply do not love her
in mourning clothes.
While the poems portray the harsh conditions of imprisonment, the poems also reflect on other forms of captivity, especially that of “a captivating woman”, and the joys of these other constraints:
Now, I try to forget a captivating woman.
How pessimistic of me!
I will never be able to be her slave.
Slaves, what a world is yours.
As can be seen in these excerpts, Bayrakdar is not without a sharp wit in spite of imprisonment. Each poem, even the most melancholy, retains a light-heartedness that stands against the darkness of oppression.
Today they released a prisoner
who was incarcerated 19 extra years.
How dogged they are
they should have let him complete his twentieth year!
Most importantly, Mirrors of Absence reflects on very existential questions, especially identity to oneself and the slipperiness of meaning. In this sense, Mirrors of Absence recalls other existential works written under conditions of incarceration, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Prison causes words to lose their meaning: “I asked the sheik / as I was leaving / whose funeral is this? / He answered, / my son, it is for the meaning / and he remained in his place / as a grave stone.” Imprisonment is more than confinement – it is also a place of absence, an empty space that Bayrakdar calls “No Place”:
There’s a place named No Place.
An attractive woman took me to it
Loss suits you.
In this place, one’s desire for freedom can become so strong that they begins to other themselves in order to escape their lot. The desire of the prisoner is to be somebody else, which forces the prisoner to regard themselves as something strange and alien. One is no longer identical to oneself in prison, instead they are “bare / without a self”. Bayrakdar reflects on this condition in “18”:
For God’s sake,
how can I see myself
when I am always with me
and how do I know me if I go away from myself?
Do not tilt the mirror towards me;
mirrors hold nothing,
not even the one I am writing,
but to multiply me
or turn me into just one
while I am not –
I am –
not in any condition to be defined,
not in any.
Mirrors of Absence reflects the nothingness that is produced by withholding freedom from people. In this sense, although Mirrors of Absence is very rooted in a specific context, its themes are universal. Asfour makes this point in the introduction of the collection, where he states that Bayrakdar’s poems “are heart wrenching and painfully beautiful. Their thematic expansion enfolds the bulk of human experience and illustrates the triumph of a man who refused to abandon his writing and principles”.