Faraj Bayrakdar, Once Syria’s Prisoner, is Freedom’s Poet

15 October, 2021
Faraj Bayrak­dar in Sweden.

India Hixon Radfar

A Dove In Free Flight, Select­ed Poems of Faraj Bayrakdar

Edit­ed & intro­duced by Ammiel Alcalay and Shareah Taleghani

Upset Press (Octo­ber 2021)

 

The truth is that poet­ry is the antithe­sis of prison, just as life is the oppo­site of death […] The moment of writ­ing is the moment of true free­dom, and poet­ry is the vastest space of free­dom […] Poet­ry is demo­c­ra­t­ic with its writer and read­er […]Poet­ry allowed me to con­trol my prison, rather than my prison con­trol­ling me. —Faraj Bayrakdar

 

Faraj Bayrak­dar is a Syr­i­an poet who spent years of his life in Assad père’s pris­ons, before he obtained asy­lum in Swe­den in 2005. This rare and beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of Bayrakdar’s poems, avail­able in Eng­lish for the first time, was made pos­si­ble by a group of com­mit­ted writ­ers and trans­la­tors known as the New York Trans­la­tion Col­lec­tive, which includes Ammiel Alcalay, Sinan Antoon, Rebec­ca John­son, Elias Khoury, Tsolin Nal­bant­ian, Jef­frey Sacks, and Shareah Taleghani. The book fea­tures an inter­view with jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tar­i­an Muham­mad Ali al-Atas­si (trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Taleghani), and an essay, “Por­trait of a Poet,” by Elias Khoury, in which Khoury asserts, “the prison takes on the mir­ror image of writing.”

A Dove in Free Flight is avail­able from Upset Press.

Khoury fur­ther informs the read­er that, “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 truth is that poet­ry is the antithe­sis of prison,” Bayrak­dar declared in his inter­view with al-Attasi. I kept turn­ing this phrase over and over in my mind as I slow­ly turned the pages of this book. I thanked the fates of good for­tune that I have been a poet liv­ing in free­dom, which I now take less for granted.

“The free­dom with­in us is more pow­er­ful than the pris­ons we are in,” Bayrak­dar declares. If we could remem­ber this aston­ish­ing truth, how much more we would be able to do for the wel­fare of human­i­ty. Poets, writ­ers and artists are here to remind us of this inner free­dom, and when one can do that from with­in a prison cell for as many years as Faraj did, we nat­u­ral­ly want to lis­ten, how­ev­er grief-bound the writ­ing is.

What I found from read­ing Faraj Bayrakdar’s A Dove in Free Flight was very dif­fer­ent from what I expect­ed to find. He shows us that when the body is impris­oned, it is eas­i­er to free the mind.

When Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn was freed from the gulag, he left Rus­sia for Amer­i­ca, and in Ver­mont, in the stone base­ment of his house, he built a room in which to write that had the exact dimen­sions of his old prison cell. J.D. Salinger cre­at­ed a dark space with high win­dows that resem­bled a WWII bunker below his home in rur­al New Hamp­shire. He wrote there alone. No one else was allowed to enter. The artist Ai Wei­wei filmed him­self liv­ing in a space the exact size of his prison cell in Bei­jing, Chi­na, his goal being to retell what one day of liv­ing in that cell was like. Ai Wei­wei still uses the shape and dimen­sions of his cell in many of his art pieces.

But it is real­ly Ara­bic poet­ry that has tak­en the con­cept of impris­on­ment and made it a trope in poetry.

We all know that actu­al impris­on­ment is dif­fer­ent than the con­cept of impris­on­ment. Faraj lived out over thir­teen years of a fif­teen-year sen­tence, with­stand­ing tor­ture, but his poems show that he still under­stood the free­dom of the mind. He wasn’t giv­en paper or pen, like the poet Anna Akhma­to­va in her cell in Tashkent, Rus­sia. But they both found ways of get­ting their poems to the out­side. It wasn’t until Faraj’s release in 2000 that he knew all his poems had made it safe­ly out and had been col­lect­ed in one place. Once his release was nego­ti­at­ed, he made this state­ment: “After hav­ing writ­ten much for death, I would like now to write for her sis­ter, life.”

Faraj con­tin­ues to write in Sweden.

What exact­ly is the expe­ri­ence of a pris­on­er? As much as we want to see them freed, we also have a desire to under­stand. Elias Khoury and his stu­dents and col­leagues at NYU in 2002 made an effort to under­stand by trans­lat­ing Faraj’s prison poems into Eng­lish. After many years, the col­lec­tion was edit­ed by Khoury’s col­league, Ammiel Alcalay, and for­mer stu­dent Shareah Taleghani, and made avail­able to all in 2021 by Upset Press. And what do we find in these pages? We often find exact­ly what our hearts were hop­ing to find; that even in the dark­ness and near death of his prison cell, Faraj is writ­ing about free­dom. “For my prison cell is my body / and the ode inci­den­tal freedom.”

“Earth isn’t a prison cell, but you are soli­tary and bereft,” Faraj says to a howl­ing wolf, hav­ing already dis­as­so­ci­at­ed him­self from the wolf’s mis­ery. “Since my cell is a body I claim / and a free­dom that claims me,” “I face you as a way out.” 

He writes a lot about the women in his life: his wife, his daugh­ter and his moth­er, often com­bin­ing them with images of birds and but­ter­flies and oth­er things of beau­ty. Some­times he writes about the wounds he is receiv­ing: “For­get­ful­ness wounds,” “the moment is wound­ed,” “every wound a man­i­festo.” Only once does he devote a whole poem to his interrogator/torturer:

Por­trait

The curse said to him be
so he was
his eyes two dirty cop­per buttons
his nose an excla­ma­tion point
drawn viciously
his mouth the shape of a silencer
and his tongue in the bar­rel of the gun.
On his shoul­ders pea­cocks rest
bloat­ed with defeats
he owes debts that would
bank­rupt even the blood banks —
He tends to us
with a blind heart
and guards us
with barbed wire
his inten­tions are booby-traps
and his smile her­alds a massacre
his wis­dom is death
and his jus­tice hell…
For­give me… I’ll stop.
I’m about to faint —
Maybe he’s not exact­ly like that —
Yet,
he is…
Sayd­naya Feb­ru­ary 1993

But there is one metaphor that comes back repeat­ed­ly, and that is of the bird on wing:

“…does cap­tiv­i­ty test the 
wings a bird uses to 
swoop down freely, 
find­ing no mean­ing that isn’t
far from their twin meanings?”

It is a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion, but after read­ing Faraj’s book, I think we can say yes. Once Faraj dis­cov­ers this, “The uni­verse cel­e­brat­ed by adding two extra skies.” And we are left imag­in­ing, puz­zling, glad that Faraj’s devo­tion to free­dom in these poems has become his reality.

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