Monday, Aug 15, 2022

Banished Voices: The Poets Of Exile From Conflict Zones

Poets from Kashmir, Palestine and Syria evoke the sense of loss and longing that keeps perennially gnawing at their hearts. In the face of the all-encompassing loss, poems by Kashmiri poets betray a sense of urgency and immediacy.

Banished voices: The poets of exile from conflict zones. (Representative image)
Banished voices: The poets of exile from conflict zones. (Representative image) Shutterstock

‘World is an exile/There is no home, no homeland/no faraway, no closure/Then why don’t we mourn or/are we mourning by living?’ These lines by Uzma Falak, a poet from Kashmir, appear in her poem ‘Mourning is Loving,’ which equates loss — of lives, home and hope — with love. It seems to come from a visceral, bleeding place, and exposes a raw, powerful feeling. In the conflict-ridden land with bruised, damaged people, mourning is hardly an occasional act, but as every day as the act of loving: ‘We cradle the ache through all seasons…’ Home may be a safe space for others, but for those in Kashmir, it is the site of oppression. Like their homes, their ‘memory is a room invaded/and turned into a battlefield/memory is the battlefield…’

For Kashmiri poets, exile is a constant state of being. And their poems are the arcs through which they trace the topographies of pain. Srinagar is both their city and their elegy, as Falak, who is interested in exploring memory through poetry and photography, writes in yet another poem. In the face of the all-encompassing loss, the poems by Kashmiri poets betray a sense of urgency and immediacy. While the mention of Kashmir, in the public imagination, may evoke concertina wires, pellet guns and bruised people, some of these poets refuse to yield to the general atmosphere of gloom. They sing of hope. 

In the poems in her debut collection, Serpents Under My Veil, Asiya Zahoor, who teaches literature at Baramulla College in Kashmir,  writes: ‘…before they lay barbed wire/across our tongues/let’s sing of almond blossoms.’ Though she writes poems on the politics of the place where she lives, her poems are also enmeshed in the undercurrents of exile, the kind that is produced out of a feeling of strangeness with your environs. If Zahoor is given to experimentation, Subhash Kak, Regents Professor Emeritus at Oklahoma State University, settles on simplicity to write poems about the cycles of arrivals and exile, love and estrangement, beauty and solitude.

Edward Said, in his essay ‘Reflections on Exile,’ defined exile as ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. . . . Like death but without death’s ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography.” Few poets in recent times have dwelled on the pain and poignancy of exile as much as best-loved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Syria’s Ali Ahmad Said Esber, who writes under the pen name of Adonis. To Darwish, “my village is my latest poem.” Adonis finds his abode in his verses: “I open a blossom and live inside it.”

Hailed as the most revered poet of his generation in the Arab world and widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet, Darwish draws on the most intimate individual experience and the burdens of history and collective memory in his poetry. US poet Naomi Shihab Nye once wrote that Darwish ‘is the essential breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging.’ Watan (homeland) is the central theme that runs across his 30 volumes of poetry and eight books of prose that can be seen as receptacles to his dispossession as an exile.

Birwe, the Palestinian village near Haifa where Darwish was born, was erased from the map by the Israelis, along with 416 other villages. To Darwish, Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden. “His poems universalised the Palestinian predicament. Palestine was not only the concrete, particular, torn place it really was, but a metaphor for all human loss, dispossession, and exile,” wrote Ruth Padel in the Preface to A River Dies Of Thirst (Diaries), translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham. According to Edward Said, they transformed ‘the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return.’ Like the twentieth-century Irish poets (Paul Durcan, Seamus Heaney) alienated by sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, Darwish became an ‘inner émigré’ at a young age.

In 1948, the Darwish family had fled to Lebanon to avoid the massacres that followed the creation of the new state. A year later, they returned to their country “illegally,” and settled in the nearby village of Dayr al-Asad, but they could no longer be counted among the Palestinians who had survived and remained within its borders. “We lived as refugees in our own country… I carry exile everywhere, as I carry my homeland. Exile is not a geographic state,’ said Darwish. Denied the recognition of citizenship in the new state of Israel when he was only seven, Darwish eventually settled on language as his identity, his homeland. ‘Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer. I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language. I am my language,’ writes the poet, who lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris, in ‘A Rhyme for the Odes.’ Darwish was aware that poems couldn’t ‘establish a state’ but they helped him build ‘metaphorical homeland’ in people’s minds: ‘I think my poems have built some houses in this landscape.’

In ‘Who Am I, Without Exile?, which appears in Darwish’s 2008 collection, The Butterfly’s Burden (translated by Fady Joudah), he seems to reconcile himself to exile as his fate, without which he could not have been the Darwish he was. He does not allow himself to be either enchanted or intrigued by the promise of return. “Nothing/carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing/and not promise. What will I do? What/will I do without exile, and a long night/that stares at the water.’ Exile changed the contours of Darwish’s poetry in tone, angle, voice and theme. ‘Driven by brilliant artistic restlessness, he opened new territory with each collection,’ wrote his critic and translator Munir Akash.

It is the same artistic restlessness that informs Adonis’s unending inquiry with complex questions about exile, identity, language, politics, and religion. In his hands, the pain and otherness of exile becomes a state so complete that ‘absence replaces identity and becomes the exile’s only presence. In the preface to The Pages of Day and Night, translated from Arabic by Samuel Hazo, Adonis writes: “I write in a language that exiles me. The relationship of an Arab poet to his language is like that of a mother who gives away her son after the first stirrings in her body.” He explains that Arab writers lead a different life, which from its inception is an exile from language and the religious system. They are forced to contend with many exiles: “censorship, interdiction, expulsion, imprisonment, and murder.” To them, poetry becomes ‘a question that begets another question.’

Though Adonis has written 20 volumes of poetry and 13 books of criticism, I pick The Pages of Day and Night because it carries some of his deeply felt poems about being unmoored. The 120-page volume is filled with poignant and stark imagery that shows us the depths and intensity of emotions that loss of home engenders. In the very first poem, he gives us a sense of his rootlessness: ‘I sought to share/ the life of snow and fire. But neither/ snow nor fire/took me in.’ Incarcerated in Syria in the mid-1950s for his political activities, Syria’s most famous poet whose name, like Haruki Murakami’s,  does the rounds for the Nobel Prize every year, has spent most of his life in Lebanon and France. In the Arab world, his prose poems have ruffled many a feather for being ‘provocative.’ Widely credited for being a harbinger of modernist revolution in Arabic literature, Adonis has forged a powerful syntax, breaking free from the diction and style of traditional Arabic poems. His form deftly blends Surrealism with Sufism. He is never afraid to experiment, wreathing his poems with density, tension, metaphors, and rhythm.

Seized with the feeling of captivity on foreign soil, in one of his poems, he finds himself ‘imprisoned by the buds and grass’, building an ‘island in my mind by weaving branches from a shore’. As he passes between the ‘barriers’, he feels ‘the jailed astonishment of every butterfly that falters in a fluttering of dying wings’. Writing poetry is often an all-consuming affair: ‘My song/is everything I see and all/I breathe.’ Exile becomes an incantation that produces poems of grief and longing: ‘Chanting of banishment/exhaling flame/the carriages of exile/breach the walls/Or are these carriages/the battering sighs of my verses.’ Away from home, the past feels like ‘memories pierced like deserts/prickled with cactus.’