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Al-Asheq’s new collection of prose pieces translated by Isis Nusair defies boundaries and genres at the threshold of prose and poetry. They could be classified as prose poems, flash fiction, or even a new genre of poetic prose. Poetic lines intermingle with vivid, sometimes brutal, descriptions of war during the Syrian conflict. Displacement and loss haunt the writing and trace the protagonist’s journey from Yarmouk’s refugee camp in Syria to Germany. The seventeen pieces are a fragmented recollection that witnesses in a visionary way the cruelties of war and the sufferings of refugees. Their experiences become universal and they long for global justice; this simultaneously exposes the often-failed attempts to make this justice happen.
Ramy Al-Asheq is a Syrian-Palestinian writer who was persecuted during the Syrian revolution. He was imprisoned in Syria and in Jordan and eventually released. In 2014 he won the Heinrich Böll fellowship, which allowed him to move to Germany. He currently lives in Berlin where he is the founder of FANN, a German-Arabic cultural magazine, and is a curator for Literaturhaus Berlin. Ever Since I Didn’t Die was written between 2014 and 2016 and was published in 2016; it has now been translated into English. His most recent poetry collection, My Heart Became a Bomb, was published in 2021.
Al-Asheq describes the appalling realities he witnessed during destructive times but he also creates beauty through language. This is a way of resisting and opposing totalitarian regimes and their oppressive and violent outcomes. It is a way of surviving, since he did not die and since there was no sacrifice he is not a hero. Death skipped him by chance, a situation that challenges the concept of heroism and the importance of sacrifice from a male perspective. Stereotypes and boundaries are therefore broken in a world that has become a wasteland – it is merciless and open to death. Women’s bodies are the symbols and victims of this destruction. They are the objects of recurrent rapes, abandonment and torture, and death penetrates them violently:
The water is red. Her face drowns in his blood. Her ears are cut off. Her nose is bleeding. Her breast is pieced with a bayonet. Her belly button is torn open and her guts are a noose from which she alone hangs. Cigarettes put out on her skin. Tyrant’s slogans written on her neck with blood. The “Allahu Akbar!” of an elder trying to beat the tyranny to get to her mouth. From head to toe, her body has turned into openings for death to penetrate!
Fear is a recurrent feeling that arises from these experiences, “the most honest feeling I’ve known and a sincere friend.” Death is the sound of explosions followed by silence, and blood penetrates the air. There is no solution to this confusion, no healing or compassion but only continuous desperation and destruction that are emphasised in the form of short, sharp sentences in which opposing concepts of good and evil, right and wrong coexist. In this constant bewilderment and displacement, “Everything changes. Nothing remains fixed except for the refugee. Even a temporary homeland becomes a prison.” The refugees are called “without”, that is, without a homeland, which is considered “a death verdict.” They are the Other and this Otherness causes a void and makes them enemies of one other. The process of effacing or of being self-effacing can be overcome only through memories, despite the fact that they are painful, where past and present merge in a longing for what is definitely lost.
The protagonist refuses to surrender, but eventually yields to the deconstruction of meaning in the meaninglessness of the massacre. This decomposition of the reality that surrounds him involves the body as well. The aftermath of this destruction is a partially aesthetic reconstruction through poetic language and the love that the protagonist shares with a woman, which interweaves with the narrative of the war:
I love that I am writing for the first time about something beautiful in the midst of all this ugliness, like a womb from which I have not yet been born. I love how I care about the shape of her fingers, the colour of her nails, her voice, and her constant attempts to conceal her happiness in what I say to her.[…] I’m looking for happiness, not love. I stumble onto her body. I pull from her patriarchy into the femininity of my words, and poetry comes out.
Killings haunt memories and revenge becomes urgent at times. Fleeing from the massacre, the refugee can only attempt to reach salvation in a different country and build a new identity in a place that might become home: “leave your home and build another,” the protagonist suggests. Bridges can be rebuilt but the stories and the names risk being effaced forever: “You refugee: displaced, uprooted, persecuted, exiled, martyred!”
Language also implies the exploration of the roots of some Arabic words: “I am the seller of love, and I’ll die one day. When I do, don’t tell my bed new secrets. Who was it that made these words so similar? Sirr—a ‘secret’; sarir—a ‘bed’; asrar—‘secrets’; asirra—‘beds’.”
The bed that wraps the refugee in a protective cocoon seems to be his island of secrets, his new home where he recollects his past and meditates on his memories, constructing a possible future.
The conclusion is open to further developments: “I was born when I did not die,” the protagonist remarks, which points to a sense of renewal or a different way of facing reality. These statements are apparently contradictory but actually question the status quo that has been destroyed by the absurdity of war. This compelling collection of stories of war, displacement and a search for justice is therefore characterised by harrowing experiences that transformed the protagonist. In his journey from the wasteland of the dead to a resurrection of sorts, he explores his ordeal through poetic language. Al-Asheq gives voice to the lost and broken, to the ‘without’ or stateless who are looking for a better place to live, ever since they did not die.
Ever Since I Did Not Die
by Ramy Al-Asheq
Translated from the Arabic by Isis Nusair
Seagull Books, 126 pages
Carla Scarano D'Antonio
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She has a degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and a degree in Italian Language and Literature from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. She obtained her Degree of Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2012. She has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Her short collection, Negotiating Caponata, was published in July 2020. She and Keith Lander won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 with translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She completed her PhD degree on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021.