Minutes before the Resurrection, the dead-alive walked across the crooked path towards a lesser death. The soldiers shoved them, drove them, robbed them. ‘Who is you God?’ they asked each one, ‘What is your religion? What is your book?’ Rifle butts struck him. He screamed a scream the whole universe heard, except for three: God; the international community; and his people. The wounded rise up like waves before they fall again. They are resurrected, only to be thrown again into the hell that is the tent for seventy more years. There is no power for them, surrounded by nothing but desert and their own skin. (“Escaping from Paradise”)
It is, sadly, easy to turn away from the horror of war when it happens “over there” or occurred “long ago,” to turn a deaf ear to the flood of testimonies that continue to flow out of embattled zones and occupied territories; time and again immediate concern and outrage becomes just more white noise in a world thrumming with a continuous level of sustained violence too uncomfortable to acknowledge. That is why the voices of the people must be reported, shared and amplified not only by journalists, but by writers and poets—those who can deftly wield words sharpened like knives. Like Ramy Al-Asheq.
Ever Since I Did Not Die is a collection of seventeen short prose pieces that bear witness to the unspeakable experiences of war, escape and migration. A Palestinian poet raised in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria, Al-Asheq was jailed during the Syrian uprisings that followed the Arab Spring, escaped to live under an assumed name in Amman, Jordan, and finally migrated to Berlin where he now lives in exile. The pieces in this slim volume, which were written between 2014 and 2016 for an Arabic series called Syrian Testimonies, intentionally stand in a space between poetry and prose, intended by their author, to be “saved from classification.” The first lines of his Preface set the tone for the works that follow:
I gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. This randomness of body parts is real in its destruction. Bloody at times, violent, honest, imaginary, personal. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness, how the revolution made me grow, what the war broke inside me and what exile chipped away.
Breathless in its brutality, its despair and longing, this collection bears witness to an array of experiences, some recounted in heartbreaking detail, some depicted allegorically, others arising out of dreams and nightmares. The pieces are no more than three or four pages long, each maintaining a steady rhythmic pace that pulls the reader through from beginning to end with little respite, but the language is so vivid, so shocking in its poetic intensity, that it is best to read one or two at a time and pause to let them settle in.
The refugee is a central figure here, doubly displaced, identity fractured, longing for a permanent home. For some, the tent they know is preferable to the unknown, but it is impossible to set down roots. Women’s bodies are often associated with notions of homeland and freedom, sexual imagery often representing the battles and struggles over the “body” of a nation, and Al-Asheq embraces and challenges that convention while questioning and rejecting traditional ideas of masculinity and heroism. This is not to say that there is not the desire for love and belonging to be found in a relationship and family. Meanwhile, the continual pressures of living under siege exacts a harsh toll. Moments of unthinkable cruelty arise without notice, bullets pierce fleeing bodies, bombs rain down from above and in a particularly horrific scene, a bomb decorated like gift explodes blowing three of four children to pieces, leaving the survivor mute.
Mercifully, these pieces are varied and very short. The blow is swift and efficiently delivered, the language is startling, even beautiful at times. That terrible beauty only poetry or poetic prose can achieve. The title piece which closes out the collection, is Al-Asheq’s dynamic testament to his survival, his rejection of totalitarian, patriarchal countries and the necessity of redefining his place in the world in his own terms:
Ever since I did not die, I started to taste beauty. I open war’s door, the chapter of fear, and sink further into the hatred of heroism. I shed all I thought was right for love. There is no reality in believing. Believing is the enemy of reality. Identity is everything except for place, flag, race, religion and gender. Ever since I did not die, I have lost my identity. I do not care much if I carry one or it carries me!
Translator Isis Nusair conveys the emotional energy that charges these poetic prose pieces while her Introduction and Notes provide a framework for appreciating many of the elements at play. Editor Levi Thompson’s Afterword captures the spirit of Al-Asheq’s work which, as he claims, crosses borders in form and content echoing the troubled journey of its author. This powerful collection is a testimony to war and dislocation that does not easily fade into the background.
Ever Since I Did Not Die by Ramy Al-Asheq is translated from the Arabic by Isis Nusair, edited by Levi Thompson and published by Seagull Books.