Amir Darwish tells me that poetry chose him at the age of 16. Originally from Kobani in northern Syria, he was born and raised in Aleppo – making poetry not only an unusual choice for someone of his generation, but a dangerous one. It was the nineties and the Assad regime had worked for many years, and in many ways, to stamp out political dissent: “I didn’t think about the danger at the time, or the consequences,” he reflects. “The feeling that drove me towards poetry was much stronger than anything else.”
Darwish’s work came to the attention of Syrian authorities when he wrote a poem about Kurdistan, it was reported to the police and they began visiting the house. This, and the mental and psychological pressure he was put under at home, helped him make the decision to leave Syria, settle in Dubai and eventually move on to London where he claimed asylum. Here he worked as a translator then completed his BA at Teesside University then an MA at Durham. He continued to work on his poetry alongside his studies.
“At the time I was connecting poetry to politics but since then I have moved on. Now I connect poetry more to humanitarian messages, messages that can be more universal. There are poets who connect their poems to certain issues, whether they’re political or social, but in the Middle East at the moment, with everything that is going wrong, the best messages are universal and humanitarian.”
One of Darwish’s latest works, Where do I come from, is an example of a poem which has a universal message at its heart. “The poem is connected to the question immigrants face in their countries of arrival,” says Darwish. It reads like a series of answers an immigrant might give when asked, ‘where do you come from?’ The following is an extract from the poem:
From the earth I come
To the earth I come
From the heart of Africa
From the kidneys of Asia
From India with spices I come
From a deep Amazonian forest
From a Tibetan meadow I come
From an ivory land
“That message can be humanitarian and universal to fit everywhere, whether the immigrant comes from Syria or the immigrant comes from China or America,” explains Darwish, “in contrast to a political message, where for example someone will start calling and shouting for a political ideal for a certain group in Syria and writing poetry for that specific group and it will become political and certain to that specific group. Everyone will understand the agony of the human if they are crossing the sea. Whether they are crossing the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, or the Red Sea, humans are all the same.”
This is a fairly recent development in Darwish’s work. One of his more widely published poems, Sorry – an apology from Muslims to humanity, took a different direction and is a comment on the demonisation of Muslims in the West and the fact that they are consistently called upon to apologise for terrorist attacks.
Sorry for the Arabian Nights’ stories
Every time we see a star, we remember to be sorry for astronomy
We are sorry that Mo Farah claimed Asylum here and went to become the British champion of the world
Sorry for non-representational art
Pattern and surface decoration
We are sorry for all the food we brought over from tuna
To chicken tikka masala
Donnar chicken kebab right up to the Shawrma roll and don’t forget the couscous
If we forgot to apologise for something, never mind, we are sorry for it without even knowing it
But Darwish is no longer happy with the poem. “I didn’t mean it to identify one person against the other – us and them – the intention was not there to identify two parties. The intention was more to speak of discrimination but the message that is being put across in the poem, and particularly the pronouns used, I’m not happy with. If I had the chance I would change the entire poem – I don’t even know if I would write it.”
Not much of Darwish’s work deals directly with Syria, but a 2015 poem, I feel like I should speak of the city, reads like a homage to his hometown.
It is the city, where sellers of cakes roll their chariots and shout, ‘move before I strike your belly’.
Of the barbers who roll strings on fingers threading pulling and pushing back and forth unplucking hairs as they wave to passers Assalamu Alaikum.
Of the children on Eid and their colourful clothing; toy pistol guns; polished shoes; tiny fingers and bom bom they shoot and run to feast.
The intention was “to bring Aleppo back to life,” says Darwish, explaining why he wrote the poem. The image of Aleppo that Darwish paints is perhaps the opposite of how an observer might imagine Syria if we judge the city by what we see in the news – these days Aleppo is mostly known for how many airstrikes have destroyed it that week. “It wasn’t done as propaganda or a political message but it was done purely to bring Aleppo back to life as a city as I know it, instead of just seeing it demolished to the ground. So the main point was to make it alive again with all the markets and the people.”
Another aspect of the Syrian conflict often highlighted in the news is the divide between certain communities. But this is “played out” in the media and by the regime, believes Darwish. “It’s an exploitation of the situation. The way the regime and the media play, it will get into people and it will create what it’s aiming to create – propaganda.”
“Syrian society has always lived in harmony, in some way, amongst themselves,” he continues, “despite the fact that the divisions or the divide between them has been manipulated from the early 1960s by the authoritarian, dictatorial regime. Despite all the divisions and the factions, there is some sort of harmony and there is some sort of co-habitation between the people – they are not that divided and hopefully they will not be that divided. We’re talking about people who lived there for millennia together; this is different from immigrants coming in the 1960s or the 1970s and then another wave of immigrants coming in the 2000s. These people lived together for a very long time. They married each other, they bought things from each other – they cooperated.”
Perhaps an alternative narrative can be put forward by documenting people’s personal accounts and experiences. Darwish currently works with the website Hikayetna which collects stories from refugees who have been displaced, and publishes them online. “It is hard for anyone to see their country being emptied out. Perhaps to search for hope, for the strings of hope for these people and listen to their stories, and listen to what they can contribute to humanity as they are speaking of their agonies can help the situation,” he says.
On 10 July, Darwish will be reading a selection of his poems at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. The verses draw on the themes of love, peace and immigration, which are so central to his work. He says that poetry and such festivals can help explore these three concepts and offer a different picture to the war, killing and violence that is presented by the media. “If someone from the region can explore the theme of love, if someone from the region can explore the theme of peace, the theme of humanity, the theme of immigrants as a universal, humanitarian crisis, it is not a crisis for the Syrian people or a crisis for a certain group. It is a universal crisis.”