Prison: A Geography of Despotism without a Place in the Nation
A picture of a wood stove warms hearts.
The gas stove in the picture has an odor.
The prisoner never drew a stove on the prison walls or on the screeching iron gates.
The geography of the prison is coldness and solitude.
His prison time had corroded his decayed lifetime with the disease of oppression.
Poetry, the firewood of hope.
In Syria’s recent past, most families didn’t have enough money to buy a television; they had the nourishment of books and notebooks, bread, music and song, life and lore. Each family would spend its evenings circled around the wood stove.
They would watch the fire, drink tea, nap, dream, study, and from these small, warm, humble, urban rooms and parlors, secular, religious, and diverse, came Circassians, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Assyrians, and Palestinians who would become doctors and pilots, scientists and teachers and engineers, poets and novelists and journalists, businessmen and artists, officers and workers and peasants…and the nation’s soldiers.
In Latakia, the sea was the outlet for the dreamers of the coastal community, known for their liveliness and slow manner of speech, as if they composed their words before saying them, words emanating from deep inside them, salted by suns of anxiety. Their words reached the calm ports of distant cities, an echo on the gray, absent horizon of the return of the slow-speaking, far travelling man of the house of blue.
One day, the people of Latakia awoke to a strange noise, and on the shore they saw the shadows of gigantic dinosaurs, as if they arose from an age now extinct, upon the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Latakia, into which all the seas and tears and sighs of lovers in the world poured.
These terrifying figures began to shake the Corniche and convulse the immovable, earthen building made of stone and sand, standing in the face of earthquakes and floods and erosion and forgetfulness. They shook the foundation of the fragile, delicate spirits that precipitated love through the centuries, generation by generation.
The town balcony was demolished in the sea; it became a port that dislocated the rhythm of the sea and the shore; it became engulfed by the sea and the earth, and the mast of the ship did not resurface on the shore.
The blue face of Syria, freedom of history, our endeavors and the footsteps of our childhood and the relationships of the city’s people stacked by the foundation of beauty and openness, humor and nobility and fraternity, replaced by transactions of cement and ugliness.
The people of Latakia stopped at sunset time lamenting their city, the fish of the sea fleeing into hiding in the open mouths of crocodiles at the noise of the terror.
They paved the sea…they dusted off the façade of the city, the architecture from geologic ages, a gift from human history to the people of the coast. A gift from generations to other generations.
Silence and emptiness took the place of the roar of the ocean waves that used to race to the distant horizon to reach our shore and rest upon it, leaving what they had gathered on their travels of echoes of civilizations and tales as a trusteeship,…then departing.
New cafes opened using new capital that did not run out…Cafes that were not able to be a part of the rhythm of the city. So the city converted to the rhythm of profit, money, and speculative investment.
And the people of the coast did not like their market in quick investment far from their needs and convictions and customs and sovereignty and viewpoints.
Latakians took delight in objecting to subjects, turning them upside down, and consulting each other hundreds of times upon elaborating over small detail – that their meeting was pleasure and consultancy was their excuse for a warm and constant meeting.
Their time was deliberately slow, with an afternoon nap then their evening endeavors in the breeze of the sea and the smell coffee, the shadow and imagination. That is how the city is theirs. The pulse of the city is the rhythm of its people.
Now and after 30 years that have passed since the laughs, smiles, walks and the distant of the sea from the history were paved, the old Corniche is still unbelievable. The embroidered stone that we used to rest our hands on its low fence is still unbelievable, it is unbelievable that we will not be able to sob over it because of its beauty. Still this sense of touch stirs hands passing over the cracks of age.
Since the time of prohibiting freedoms and assaulting the fabric of nature and history, no one cares about tears or smiles, not even with the wish of the sea’s wave that amuses itself as it reaches our shore...its fish would come out to feed on the grass in front of the sky’s blue eyes....and then returns back slowly, resembling only the rhythm of the conversations, the conversations of the shore’s people. They swallow the last letter of the word like the wave that swallows the step on the sand.....they are pulled to the islands of sand and the fishermen’s boats in the depths of the sea to grow there as the sacred weed of life.
From this spaciousness and blueness to this narrowness and cement and blackness.
From writing “my love” on old polar to writing on the walls of prison.
The mentality that bridged the blue, trying now to bridge the fields of freedom and paving it.
The prison is “the mentality of prohibition” that eats the green and the dry of the shores.
Prison: the geography of despotism. It is no spot with time or place in the land of the nation.
Prison: the life of the exile and the establishment of a culture of violence. It is an invasion of the culture of peaceful coexistence, law and justice, state, dignity, citizenship by the culture of exclusion, inferiority and fear.
It is the replacement of a tribal civilization by a tribe without civilization.
This other is behind high, noiseless walls of cement, and not least is it ignorance, danger, and nothingness.
An echo of me is deep is in me; the Other; the window.
The people of the coast dip out their tears from the blue sea….and from their smiles and the sweat of their brows.
Syria, I believe in you.
The Arabic version of this essay appeared in Al Hayat, 18, 2011
Translated from the Arabic by Joseph Sills