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Witnessing

Keith Payne

Barefoot Souls, by Maram al-Masri, translated from the French of Les Âmes aux pieds nus, by Theo Dorgan, Arc Publications, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1910345382

In this year when we need to remind ourselves of the promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally, and by natural extension, all the children of all the nations equally, comes Barefoot Souls from Syrian poet Maram Al-Masri, in translation by Theo Dorgan. Those familiar with Dorgan’s poetry will recognise that his poems do not take the same turns as Al-Masri’s, but as citizen poets, their moral and ethical proximity has gifted us this humble, graceful and gracious translation. Dorgan, as is fitting for this revelatory collection, remains absolutely invisible throughout.

It is to the invisible among us that Al-Masri guides her gaze. “I saw them,” the opening section states. I saw them, and now I am telling you what I saw. This happened. I was there. In this age of streamed and streamlined news, a reporter who was actually at the scene and not just at the copy and paste command, a reliable witness, is a rare thing indeed. Al-Masri’s being present at the event is because “I saw them” refers not just to witnessing the act, but in Maram’s case to being the victim too: “When I received my first blow, a blow that would be followed, alas, by many others, physical and moral, as is the case with numerous women on whom is practiced always this or that form or corporal or mental cruelty … what did I do? I wept bitterly in my powerlessness, […] This has allowed me to have a more acute understanding of the human condition and to communicate more closely with all those, men and women, who suffer violence. It is not only women who are victims of violence but entire peoples, children, old people, the dominated, the humiliated of every kind, in every country.” ‘I saw them,’ is as much a witness account as a revelation that I saw those times, I saw those years too.

This opening section is a series of twenty-six portraits of women like Betty, Catherine and Gladis; like Françoise, Jocyelene and Madame Chevrot; like Nassima, Atifé and Sawsan. With almost all of them, their parents’ names, their age and their occupation – if they have one – are given. This is what they are: they were born of parents, they have been alive a certain number of years and some of them receive money for work that keeps them sheltered; retired schoolmistress, housewife, librarian, literature student, prostitute, homeless person, Atifé, who “death has not permitted her to work” or “Gaza” whose occupation is “Survival”. These portraits are a moment from their day; Betty, “does nothing all day / except sit by the window.” These are portraits of boredom, desire, fear. Portraits framed by the unspoken moments in the quotidian that speak for a life; Catherine “begs / a smile from the pavement, / at every crossroads / expects / a miracle.” There is Gladis, who “Over her shoulders, / has majestically draped / a wool curtain, fastened at the neck / like Superman’s cloak,”, or Agnieska whose only wish is “a room / that would house / my freedom”.

There is an immediate intimacy with the subjects; with Betty who “diligently / keeps up her daily diary”, with Catherine who “loves her children / and tidies her house every morning”, and with Françoise, who asks her husband to “just / leave me the children”. You feel privileged at being allowed access to their lives; lives private, lonely and often restrained. Somehow you, dear reader, have been elected into the clued-in circle to learn the untold story of these invisible women. You read, as you are encouraged to do, congratulated for making it this far, for getting to this point, to this book of poems in your hand: Arabic, French and English poems no less! ‑ Arc’s Barefoot Souls is an integral trilingual version. Aren’t you something special for seeking this book out, for counting yourself among the select who now can also say “I saw them too?” Perhaps these poems are the culmination of everything you have been up till now, just as they are the culmination of everything the poet Maram al-Masri has seen and felt up till now. “Even if one knows the date of its first draft, a poem is always a long story that comes finally to inscribe itself on a white page. A poem one may read in a few seconds or in a few minutes is the result of a process that may have unfolded over many years.”

But the stuffing is knocked out of you as the blows begin to fall and the blood begins to flow. “They cut it away, / morsel by morsel. / They sewed up her mouth / so that, night after night, / she would not groan.” (Aminata, Sénégal, 45, Cook) Or Sawsan “He waits until I slide / into my bath / to block all access, / even to air.” (Sawsan, 34, Nurse) “On Nassima’s head, a scar, / three stitches. / […] Her house, / with its permanently closed windows, / is her silent witness.” (Nassima)  – Nassima has neither parents, nor age, nor job to accompany her, she does not exist beyond a name. Or she didn’t exist until this poem was written and then read by you.

As the blows kept falling, the punches and kicks landing, I asked myself why am I reading this? Why did Maram Al-Masri write this? At the time I was in a café on Vigo’s Independence Square, free to drink tea and read poetry. And again I asked myself why am I reading this, and why would you want to write this? It’s not for shock value, that’s for certain. The life of a refugee in “The Jungle” camp in Calais is horror. The life in any of the refugee “holding centres” in Ireland is horror. The life of “Monica, Nawal, Maya, Aicha, Laura, Sandra and Yoko” working as prostitutes, most likely sold into sexual slavery, who “have turned their bodies / into shops / in which they haggle” is horror. So, Adorno in mind, only an uncomfortable and discomforting poem that can barely hint at the horror for “Monica, Nawal, Maya, Aicha, Laura, Sandra and Yoko” and many others, can only begin to respect these women who Maram Al-Masri saw, and who she names here for us, one by one. The answer then as to why write this, to why read this, are the poems. As with all the important questions, the questions that need to be asked and often can only be formulated by a poet; the poem is the answer.

Following “I Saw Them” is “The Scream”, a continuation of the witness account. Children, often the children of the women we met in Part I, are the witnesses. They are all the more reliable as they don’t fully comprehend what they see; they only report it as they see it:

what has made you cry, Mother?
                               You say it’s the onion
                               and there is no onion
                               in your hands.      (SEF, age 10)

They are Innocents with the belief they can change things:

I ate up all my soup
and all my spinach
so that
I can grow up quickly
and protect you.     (FAADI, age 7, son of Sonia) 

And I wonder, from the comfort of Independence Square, if such change is possible. If life for Sef, Faâdi, Bartosh, for Flora, Salma and Samir, for Chloë, Clément and Romain can possibly be any different, any better than what they witness. And Maram Al-Masri’s response is “The end / in its bitterness / has the mysterious taste / of some beginning.”

Barefoot Souls is an important book; one of those very rare books that holds on you when it finds you. An important book. It may even be visionary, for all that these poems see, and for all they reveal of what you have never before seen and may just yet be the making of you. These are poems marked by their time, as the women and children within them have been marked by their time here among us, some indelibly and most by a man’s hand. Perhaps the women in these pages, the women seen and named here, can one day, like the poet Maram Al-Masri, become women who are “not overcome” but who overcome.

1/3/2016

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.

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