THE WORLD MIRROR / POET’S IDENTITY CARD
Hanna Hirvonen and Shurouk Hammoud, text
Milla Selin, article translation from Finnish
Shurouk Hammoud, poems translations from Arabic
Syrian poet Soliman al-Sheikh Husain, 60, remembers well the childhood evenings he spent with his father’s group of friends, listening to the conversation and the men singing philosophical songs. “I didn’t understand the lyrics, but they had great voices. Once I wanted to try it myself, and sang a song by Mohammed ‘Abd al-Wahhab (a famous Egyptian singer). The others listened and laughed a lot. At that moment I felt like I did something wrong.”
The moment was meaningful, because it pushed Soliman to ask many questions: “Since that moment I have been trying to understand what is going on in the world”, the poet explains.
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain reads his poems to audiences across Syria. “I think these events enrich the writings, and the people become an audience for poetry”, al-Sheikh Husain says. Photo: unknown.
Hometown written by nature
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain was born in Masyaf, where he continues to live. Masyaf is a mountain town of about 45 000 people (2010) in the Northwest Syria. “It is like any other Syrian city or town, it has its own unique beauty. Masyaf is born from the mountain’s womb every morning”, the poet describes.
From his home, a view opens across the town, over the Ghab plain, and the wilderness of Homs city. Before this view, in a montane vinyard, most of al-Sheikh Husain’s poems are born. “I do not want to get away from it at all. It gives me the expanse when it overlooks the life and greenery so tenderly. This place and its trees are an endless memory of my father.”
“But I always write wherever passion touches me”, al-Sheikh Husain continues. He penned his first poem at the age of fifteen. “I wrote a love poem, like any other lover. I thought she was the one. “Soliman is not the only poet in his family, the conversations between their father and his friends influenced his brother, too: “My brother, who passed away this year, also wrote poems and was interested in philosophy and theater.”
“I write wherever passion
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain has published four poetry books in Arabic. In his own words: “The poems contain passionate dialogue which is thundering within, they also have patriotic manifestations.” On the other hand, the poems chosen to be published describe social and human matters in general. The books are called: The Naked time (1996), Things and names (2009), A Beat has grown (2009) and The question moaning (2010).
A poet in a war-torn country
Numerous poets have fled their home country as a result of the Syrian war. Soliman al-Sheikh Husain sees the longing for home in his colleagues’ work. The same can be sensed in his own writings; he misses Damascus the way the capital was before the war:
I think while going to Damascus
Does the jasmine which I used to
Scent out with
Still wants to give me its blossoms
I did not think the poor jasmine
Has been died
“The difference is that other places respect creativity and poets are free to express themselves”, al-Sheikh Husain compares the work between the poets who remain in Syria and those who have left. “In Syria, pain and loss have become part of the cultural and poetic writings overall.”
During the war, al-Sheikh Husain has become more sensitive and tends towards pain. “All of this hurts the poet more than anything else. I am trying to find balance in this sudden social division and false rationalizing”.
The last six years have affected his poems, too. “Before, my poems were long and full of metaphors. Nowadays intensity and sparing use of words are clear in my writing.” Al-Sheikh Husain mostly writes flash poetry. This style doesn’t aim to explain things, each poem focuses on one thought instead. It is a snapshot of a moment. A poem immortalises a situation in one, two, or at the most, three sentences:
How the homeland
Can be coincidence
Where time passes by
Leaving the devil seeds
To grow in such a strange way
Among the poet’s own favourites, other writers of flash poetry in Syria include Haitham Othman, Rafika al-Marwany, Farkad Sailoum and Liza Khudr. “Flash poetry is on the rise in Syria as an intense way of expression.”
Poetry shows the way
Why are you writing poetry, Soliman al-Sheikh Husain? “When I write poems, I feel like I am regaining my human emotions. At the same time, I am lighting candles on a path of happiness,” the poet answers. Two things in particular are troubling him about poetry in Syria: he feels that poets are isolated from the rest of the world, and that the human element of poetry has disappeared into fanatic slogans.
Then again, Soliman al-Sheikh Husain considers Syrian poetry to be on the uprise. “Poetry has recovered from a long recession, and movements of poetic expression are growing like everywhere else in the world.” He himself wants to write poems with a message which will reach people all over the world. “What I write about nowadays is meant to be humanitarian even if the structure of words seems local.”
Through his writings, al-Sheikh Husain wants to convey the message of love to humankind. He thinks poetry could be used to change things for the better. “Syrian poetry is screaming at the blood waterfall, but trying to open wide the doors of love.”
New book ready to be published
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain’s fifth book of poems Footsteps is meant to be published this year, provided the Media Ministry gives it the seal of approval. Censorship in Syria is severe, only the most innocent texts pass the scrutiny. When freedom of expression is limited, political views for example have to be alluded to indirectly. “I am from this strange Middle East, where words are seen as coup army.”
A poem was born after Israeli
troops had surrounded Beirut.
According to the poet, the fifth and yet unpublished book mostly contains long poems that concern themselves with common themes. A lot has happened in his life since that first love poem. The man has married and has four children, all of whom have moved abroad. Among the themes in Soliman al-Sheikh Husain’s poetry, one constant remains: Love.
“I speak of the woman as a goddess of love, and the capital of my country, Damascus. Some of the poems contain a bit of my private life, the people I love and how much I miss them.” These sound like subject matter that would be allowed to be published by the Media Ministry. “In some of them there is the human testimony of a world where brutality repeats itself”.
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain’s poems have been published in Syrian magazines and websites focusing on culture. His favourite one remains in the desk drawer, though. When we ask Soliman al-Sheikh Husain which poem among his work is closest to his heart, he answers: “An unpublished poem called Tracks on the East Margin (1982).” It was born after Israeli troops had surrounded the Lebanese capital Beirut. The poet’s pain caused by the events in Beirut is ingrained in the words. “What happened then was a huge shock to our generation.”
The ever acute question
“The place is like nature’s poem, written anew each morning”, Soliman continues on his home town Masyaf. “I would say there is a poet or an artist in each of the houses here.” The war, of course, leaves its mark on the cultural life in Syria. “We try to arrange conditions which encourage creativity. Words have become ashamed of the blood.”
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain tells us that there is a cultural forum in Masyaf, founded by local poets about 15 years ago. There was a time when the activity faded when enough people were not attending the events. These days the poets do their best to keep the forum going. “Cultural life suffers to endure.”
“Masyaf is like a poem written
by nature each day.”
Al-Sheikh Husain has additional activities in cultural and voluntary work; among other things he teaches writing classes for the youth. He thinks a poet should also do other things besides writing: “Writing poetry doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-time job. I myself am retired and I’m a farmer. Actually, we poets do not decide when to write. To me, if the writing process is too constructed, it’s no longer creative. Maybe we call it making verses then, but words don’t flow in us like dew on a petal.”
Soliman al-Sheikh Husain has written poetry for 45 years. He hasn’t tired of the wondering he began as a little boy. Everything he has written in his lifetime has included the same, acute question: “Why can’t we humans live with dignity, carrying love to the earth and to the sky?”
More translated poetry from Soliman al-Sheikh Husain is published in our SHAKE HEARTS -column: