Freedom is femininity: Faraj Bayrakdar

14 December, 2020

A free man, Syr­i­an poet Faraj Bayrak­dar now lives in Sweden.

A Dove in Free Flight, edi­tors Ammiel Alcalay and Shareah Taleghani
Upset Press 2021
ISBN 9781937357009

After he sur­vived 14 years in Syr­i­a’s night­mar­ish prison sys­tem, poet Faraj Bayrak­dar told an inter­view­er, “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.” Now, 18 years in the mak­ing, comes Bayrak­dar’s A Dove in Free Flight from Upset Press, edit­ed and intro­duced by Ammiel Alcalay and Shareah Taleghani with a pref­ace by Elias Khoury. These sear­ing poems, writ­ten in prison on cig­a­rette paper and smug­gled out to the world, final­ly trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic into Eng­lish, pro­vide a record of the human condition.

In 2002—just after 9/11 and pri­or to the US inva­sion of Iraq—a group inspired by Lebanese nov­el­ist Elias Khoury’s NYU sem­i­nar on Arab prison lit­er­a­ture decid­ed to col­lec­tive­ly trans­late Syr­i­an poet Faraj Bayrak­dar’s col­lec­tion A Dove in Free Flight. Smug­gled out of prison, the poems were pub­lished in Beirut with­out his knowl­edge, as a means of pub­li­ciz­ing the poet­’s plight as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er, and exert­ing pres­sure on pub­lic opin­ion to pay atten­tion to his case. A French ver­sion, trans­lat­ed by the great Moroc­can poet Abdel­latif Laabi, him­self a for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er, fol­lowed. More than four­teen years after ini­tial com­ple­tion of the project, UpSet Press presents this extra­or­di­nary poet­ic, human, and his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment, fea­tur­ing an intro­duc­tion by edi­tors Ammiel Alcalay and Shareah Taleghani, a pref­ace by Elias Khoury, and a lengthy inter­view with the poet him­self fol­low­ing his release on Novem­ber 16, 2000, after thir­teen years, sev­en months, and sev­en­teen days in the Syr­i­an carcer­al arch­i­pel­ago. We present Khoury’s intro­duc­tion here, along with a selec­tion of Bayrak­dar’s poems. Pub­li­ca­tion date is March/April, 2021.

 What Read­ers Are Saying

Beau­ti­ful and intense­ly emo­tion­al, Faraj Bayrak­dar’s songs of mem­o­ry, love, heart­break and yearn­ing are a tes­ti­mo­ny to the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of the imagination.The Syr­i­an pris­ons where his poems were writ­ten remain places of tor­ture and vio­lence. Yet dur­ing his long years of incar­cer­a­tion, the poet cap­tured the elu­sive bird of free­dom in poems smug­gled out and pub­lished in Beirut and France with­out his knowl­edge, words that went on to inspire the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. The impres­sive col­lec­tive of trans­la­tors, writ­ers and crit­ics behind this first col­lec­tion of Bayrak­dar’s poet­ry in Eng­lish were inspired by Elias Khoury’s sem­i­nar on Arab prison lit­er­a­ture at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and the explo­sive nature of this lit­er­a­ture in a coun­try as closed as Syr­ia. In an inter­view accom­pa­ny­ing the poems, Bayrak­dar reveals, “… cap­tiv­i­ty and free­dom … enfold in them­selves a charge that does not fade, not for the read­er and not for the poet.” 

Malu Halasa, co-edi­tor of Syr­ia Speaks: Art and Cul­ture from the Front­line, and author of The Secret Life of Syr­i­an Lin­gerie: Inti­ma­cy and Design, and Moth­er of all Pigs.

Pre-order the book from Upset Press.

Faraj Bayrak­dar’s poems, writ­ten while in prison, are a glo­ri­ous tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of the imag­i­na­tion and mem­o­ry. Every page in this mag­nif­i­cent, impor­tant book is proof of how “lan­guage at the peak of clarity/unfolds the night,” how it tran­scends time and space to cre­ate its own king­dom, one where jus­tice and love reign. Those search­ing for the right words to describe these tur­bu­lent days, and to offer hope, will find them here. Bayrak­dar is a voice we must lis­ten to, and this is a book that all of us must read. 

Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shad­ow King, short­list­ed for the Book­er Prize

These sear­ing and open­heart­ed poems, born in prison, scrawled on cig­a­rette paper, smug­gled out from Assad’s repres­sive rule in Syr­ia, and now final­ly trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic into Eng­lish, make a fresh con­tri­bu­tion to thought as much as to poet­ry. This thought is con­ser­v­a­tive in that it pro­tects and pre­serves a poet­ics that live on under oppres­sive con­di­tions. How rare it is to expe­ri­ence pride in being human in con­trast to the deprav­i­ty we have increas­ing­ly parad­ed in pub­lic. The pris­on­er, in mourn­ing for life while that life con­tin­ues out­side, is the keep­er of a buried trea­sure, thought itself and a bit of paper.

Fan­ny Howe, poet, nov­el­ist and, most recent­ly, author of Night Phi­los­o­phy and Love and I.

  Por­trait of a Poet

Elias Khoury 

At New York Uni­ver­si­ty where I taught a sem­i­nar on the prison in con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, I dis­cov­ered, through a num­ber of mod­ern Ara­bic fic­tion­al and poet­ic texts, that the prison forms a basic trope in Ara­bic writ­ing.  In fic­tion­al texts of Abdel­rah­man Munif, Son­al­lah Ibrahim, Fad­hil al-‘Azzawi, Ben­salem Him­mich, Naguib Mah­fouz, and Gamal al-Ghi­tani among oth­ers, the prison takes on the mir­ror image of writ­ing.  Prison pro­duces a lit­er­ary approach that search­es for writ­ing and/or eman­ci­pa­tion through writ­ing.  The lit­er­a­ture engages in its own approach to the rela­tion­ship of the expe­ri­ence of prison.  It also estab­lish­es a bal­ance between the desire for free­dom and a writ­ing that resem­bles a tat­too in its abil­i­ty to engrave for itself a place in the body of the lan­guage.  Lit­er­ary Ara­bic writ­ing is tat­tooed by prison.  Per­haps the title that the Iraqi Abdel­rah­man al-Majid al-Rabi‘i chose for the nov­el about his expe­ri­ence in prison—The Tat­too—is the great­est indi­ca­tion of the deep wound that oppres­sion and dic­ta­tor­ship have inscribed on the body of con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic literature.

Among the tales and the tor­tured souls, a small col­lec­tion of poems by the Syr­i­an poet Faraj Bayrak­dar made us pause; A Dove in Free Flight is a col­lec­tion which the poet wrote dur­ing his long incar­cer­a­tion in Syr­i­an pris­ons.  His friends pub­lished it in Beirut with­out his knowl­edge so that the book could become one of the instru­ments of pres­sure on the author­i­ties of his coun­try and mobi­lize inter­na­tion­al, intel­lec­tu­al opin­ion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in France, for the pur­pose of set­ting the poet free.

Both the inter­view with the poet that was pub­lished by Muham­mad ‘Ali al-Atas­si in the cul­tur­al sup­ple­ment of Beirut’s dai­ly al-Nahar, and the poems which abound with a dream and a despair made our read­ings of the poems a per­son­al expe­ri­ence for each of us.  The stu­dents chose poems in order to trans­late them into Eng­lish. Through my attempts to help them fath­om mean­ings and con­no­ta­tions, I dis­cov­ered that the poetry—as the whis­per of a lan­guage that approach­es the ter­ror of silence and elim­i­nates the bar­ri­ers between languages—was able to address the dif­fer­ent lev­els of our con­scious­ness and unconsciousness.

The poet wrote his poems with ink made from tea and onion peels using a thin wood­en stick in place of a pen.  From prison to prison and tor­ture to tor­ture, he takes us on his voy­age to expe­ri­ence the con­nec­tion between the body and the soul.  The body is anni­hi­lat­ed under the beat­ings or the elec­tric shock or the “tire” or what has no end in the dic­tio­nary of Arab oppres­sion where­as the soul pro­tects, com­mis­er­ates with, and shel­ters the body.  This rela­tion­ship resem­bles that of mem­o­ry to writ­ing; mem­o­ry pro­tect­ed from obliv­ion the poems that Bayrak­dar could not write down in Tad­mor Prison.  And when writ­ing did come in Sayd­naya Prison through ink that was not ink, it allowed mem­o­ry to be lib­er­at­ed from the need for rec­ol­lec­tion and opened up the pos­si­bil­i­ties of forgetting.

In his prison, the poet appro­pri­ates all of Ara­bic poet­ry.  It is as if he has grant­ed his expe­ri­ence to a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry craft­ed from the images, rhythms, and forms accu­mu­lat­ed in the Ara­bic lan­guage.  Thus, we come across the ten­sion of the lan­guage inter­twined with the sym­bol as in the poet­ry of Dar­wish.  Yet we also find Malik Bin al-Rayb as he attempts the echo of the dual­ism of Imru’ al-Qays who intro­duced tragedy into pre-Islam­ic poet­ry.  When Imru’ al-Qays resort­ed to the dual form, he addressed his divid­ed self as two halves—one half for mourn­ing and the oth­er for love.  But when Bayrak­dar fur­ther divid­ed this dual form, he was search­ing for the soul that had been sep­a­rat­ed from both its own despair and the body that pro­tect­ed it from ruin. 

Faraj Bayrak­dar min­gles love with poet­ry and despair with sor­row.  He presents a per­son­al expe­ri­ence about the sto­ry of an indi­vid­ual con­fronting ter­ror and death.   One becomes divid­ed in order to merge oth­ers with his frag­men­ta­tion, and the poet resorts to imagery of women and a daugh­ter in order to reveal his body as a soli­tary, locked cell.

Faraj was arrest­ed for the first time in 1978 for a peri­od of three months because, along with com­rades, includ­ing the late short sto­ry writer Jamil Hat­mal, he pub­lished a small jour­nal called “The Lit­er­ary Note­books.”  Yet his jour­ney in pris­ons began in 1987 with the accu­sa­tion of polit­i­cal activ­i­ties through his asso­ci­a­tion with a small left­ist par­ty, the Com­mu­nist Action Par­ty in Syr­ia.  In the three pris­ons to which he was transferred—Palestine Divi­sion, then the hor­ri­fy­ing Tad­mor, and final­ly Saydnaya—the poet tra­versed a pur­ga­to­ry of sor­row, lone­li­ness, and pain.  He returned to poet­ry to retrieve the air that his lungs had lost; in Tad­mor, he wrote the poems in his mem­o­ry, and in Sayd­naya, he record­ed them and sent them to the out­side.  He dis­cov­ered that poet­ry is not an artic­u­la­tion of expe­ri­ence but rather that poet­ry, itself, is an expe­ri­ence that grants the pris­on­er his free­dom inside the damp, des­o­late cells.

In his poem “Hunger Strike” (Tad­mor 1989) he reveals him­self as a tree:

                        In the last part of night

                        of blood and memory

                        in the last neigh

                                    of emp­ty stomachs

                        the human tree reveals

                                    its prophecy

                                                and pours forth our meager


In his poem “Neigh­ing,” he dis­cov­ers the rela­tion­ship between the body and freedom: 

            for my prison cell is my body

            and the ode inci­den­tal freedom

And then he takes us to a com­bi­na­tion of pas­sion and sorrow:

                        The blue of depth is sadness

                        and the depth of blue—sadness

                        and we are noth­ing but it.

                        Are we in its mirror,

                                    or is it in ours? 

Fara­j’s jour­ney has been long and dif­fi­cult:  for in his search for his threat­ened life and exis­tence, he fash­ioned a per­son­al song for free­dom.  The pris­on­er, him­self, becomes a sto­ry because the pris­on­ers’ free­dom of expres­sion and opin­ion in the Arab world becomes the only lib­er­ty in a time of oppres­sion, dic­ta­tor­ship, and the absence of civ­il society. 

A poet has giv­en us words ema­nat­ing from pain:  his words pro­ceed for­ward and then stum­ble resem­bling the embers of a scream of resis­tance com­bined with a cry for help:

I cry out

I am not search­ing for a col­lec­tive grave

Just my country

When will the coun­try hear you, poet?  And when will the grave no longer be the only remain­ing space of the nation? — Elias Khoury


Trans­lat­ed by Shareah Taleghani 

Three Poems from: A Dove in Free Flight

Faraj Bayrak­dar

Two Verses                                                                                       

 She does­n’t flut­ter like any butterfly

            to stir  his heart like a

                                    pome­gran­ate blossom —

It’s no one but him — so does he say to her: 

Enough of your blue butterfly —

Enough of my crav­ing to

                                    be shoreless!!

            *           *           *

Shad­ow rests on the trees

                                    and mem­o­ries on hard labor:

Nei­ther are you the ruins for which I cry,

nor are the poets like me when they mourn.

The wind has cloaked me 

after pass­ing through the wheat:

wind — mis­tress of the fields

wind — mis­tress of the horses

wind — mis­tress of the reeds.

            *           *           *

She does­n’t coo like any dove

moist­en­ing the sky —

oh god, my wife —

oh god, our daughter —

oh god, two fugi­tive gazelles

            kiss my soul with two vers­es of dew 

            and race on —

Oh light­ning,

            shad­ow their steps —


take my heart and embrace them

so the deluge

                                    might be delayed

                                                                            Damascus/Palestine Divi­sion 1987


                        The throne of the ode is a rose

                        who assas­si­nates her maker

                                    and serves him so he grants her speech

                        and if it is he she urges to go on he can get

                        to the far­thest ques­tion like light­ning broken

                        by the tale and the temptation 

                                                            and the shadows

                        hurl a light­ning bolt

                        and he can get the prophe­cy —  all of it —

                        from the embers of the vision

                                                            to the woman of clouds


                                                             Tad­mor Prison 1991


As Long As You Are, I Am

You can come in

with­out permission

and leave with­out permission


as long as my heart is open

            and I can be your confession

as long as you are my forgiveness


Your ques­tion

still my answer

Your rains…

still my lightning

Your time…

still my place —

So do I have to apologize

if my fate is surrounded

                                    by obscurity

and my life encir­cled in poetry? 


                        Sayd­naya 1993


Trans­lat­ed by the New York Trans­la­tion Col­lec­tive: Ammiel Alcalay, Sinan Antoon, Rebec­ca John­son, Elias Khoury, Tsolin Nal­bant­ian, Jef­frey Sacks, and Shareah Taleghani


Faraj Bayrakdar of Syria is a journalist and award-winning poet. In 1987 he was arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Party for Communist Action. He was held incommunicado for nearly seven years and was tortured. In 1993 the supreme court sentenced him to 15 years prison. 14 months shy of completing his sentence sentence, Faraj Baryakdar was granted Amnesty. He now lives in Sweden. You can read the statement he made for the press upon his release (courtesy of English PEN) here. He is a former guest writer of Stockholm City of Refuge.