For Those Who Are Still Asking Who Is Aboud Saeed
“For Those Who Are Still Asking Who Is Aboud Saeed”
an interview by Omar Andron and Jennifer MacKenzie
How does fear change a poet or a poem? In Syria until March 2011 that question was probably unanswerable, so deeply was fear ingrained in the experience of daily life—in seeing and choosing. As Aboud Saeed mentions, the protests that started that spring also inspired a radical transformation of aesthetic consciousness and cultural production. Though it continues to be overshadowed and foreshortened by brutal violence and loss, this creative sea-change has not stopped, and Saeed’s unprecedented voice puts him at its crest. His poetry is free in every sense of the word, and beside it, even the work of his contemporaries feels tradition-bound. Born and raised in Minbej, a small town northeast of Aleppo, he now lives in Berlin.
JM: How did you start writing?
AS: Basically, I had no plan to be a writer. One time I was inspired by this online magazine called Oxygen; they published really experimental stuff, and I tried to write something for them. The editor sent me a reply saying this is amazing, keep going. I laughed—what do you mean, keep going? I don’t know how to write. Then when Facebook got going, when I came back from work I’d open my computer, sign in and write short stories about details that happened at work and with my family. After a while I discovered that what I was writing is called poetry.
JM: You didn’t have any idea before that this thing is poetry and I want to write like this?
AS: Until now, honestly, some of my relatives don’t know I’m writing, and they don’t believe it.
AS: Because from where to where did you turn into a writer? You spent your whole life working as a blacksmith, how did you become a writer? We never saw you reading a book or putting a pen to paper, how did you become a poet and have books in Germany?
JM: Can you explain how poetry was in Syria before the revolution, and what the revolution gave it?
AS: Frankly, I can’t talk about Syrian literature because I’m a bad reader. But what the revolution added to Syrian literature or poetry?—clearly, so much. In Syria, until now, the regime has different faces: social, economic, political, military, and even a literary one. And it applied the same policies and style there as it did in other sectors. People wearing ties controlled the cultural societies. Editors-in-chief and heads of cultural centers, activities, and festivals were running everything in cliques, by what connections someone had and his reputation. And there was no freedom. The people writing weren’t free, and they were acting the same way the regime would with anyone who had talent—they’d get rid of him.
I saw them in Europe, these types of people who were poets in the regime days, and honestly, they kept the same regime mentality. One guy I saw here, no one had heard of him. And his mindset was still that it’s just about him and his friend and their friends who were in charge of the Damascus cultural centers. He believes only the people who participated, or whom the regime allowed to participate, in these “authorized” activities and cliques, were poets. For sure the revolution let people pass their kind by, and they left behind the chief editors and censors. People found a new space, the internet, and started writing whatever they wanted, however they liked. The figure of chief editor doesn’t exist anymore, whether he agrees or not. That’s what bothered the authorities, because this is the chief editors’ job.
JM: I was in Damascus from 2009 through 2012, and in Damascus there was fear, if someone wrote–
AS: Of course there was fear. Not only in Damascus. In all of Syria there was fear. Even the Syrians outside the country, before the revolution—no one would dare write anything on his Facebook page, if he was thinking of coming back. Of course there was fear, sure.
JM: So how did you start writing openly on Facebook?
AS: The beginning of the Arab Spring, before it arrived to Syria, was the revolution in Egypt and Libya and Yemen. I was watching–and never dared to write. Because with the [Syrian] regime, nothing happened. I was afraid, to be honest, to write something. To avoid this fear, or work around it, I was using symbolic words. But when the revolution started in Dera’a, and the regime was present in Minbej, I started writing in a direct way.
AS: It’s the least you can do–writing. It’s the only thing we can do. And the thing that let me write was the protests in the streets. The fear barrier was broken. For sure the guy who goes out and protests won’t be afraid to write on his page. After people started protesting, the concept of fear was changed. We started discovering new things. Seriously, really, there was tremendous cooperation between people. Incredible spontaneous solidarity. Say you’re running away from the security forces: you push on any door and enter someone’s house and they will hide you, host you and protect you. And people’s energies exploded. This energy came from the explosion of fear, and people dealt with it by loving each other, uniting against the regime, or cooperating to topple it. I was absorbing this energy, and it was the greatest motivation that pushed me to write and express what happened in my country. In Minbej, for example, when an airplane came by, shelling, or my mom’s reaction when she was watching TV. These events won’t repeat themselves every day, so the motivation was really high.
After that, one day the regime withdrew from Minbej and the Free Syrian Army entered without firing a shot. Here it changed; the whole country changed. People were totally at their ease. And the scope of freedom expanded, so I started writing more and more, until I had this assurance inside me that no one would come and arrest me. Especially in the beginning, there was nothing like an Islamic theme. The fighters are locals; some pray, some don’t; some drink, some don’t know anything about religion, some are bums. They’re hometown guys, the complete society. But what I want to say is, they’re really simple people. There was nothing like this Islamic motif that the revolutionaries adopted recently, sadly. There were no red lines for someone writing about political and religious ideas, about what to write or not write. The FSA won’t come to your house and arrest you because you wrote on your Facebook page “I’m a civilian and I’m for a civil state, I’m against the Islamic state”. There was no regime and the margin was really wide, for the first time ever in our lives.
JM: Can you give an example of something you wrote after the FSA came that shows the influence of this freedom?
AS: I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in those days, but in general, I don’t write directly about political or public issues. I write about how life is influenced by these conditions, situations, this atmosphere, about work, love, and family spheres, more than I write about anything directly political. But the war is present in every detail: at breakfast, at lunch, in the news broadcasts, going to work, everything is influenced by the war. So I write mostly about details.
JM: And what happened after, in Minbej?
AS: The FSA stayed in Minbej for a year and half, before I left. And despite the continuous random shelling from the regime, the life I had in Minbej was one of the most beautiful things that existed. In this year and a half, Minbej had one of the best political experiences: the most civil revolution, the most ideal experience of civil life in all of Syria happened in Minbej, I can testify to that. Minbej was the only place where change succeeded without any Islamic stamp on it. All the other Syrian cities were desperately protesting, and inside them were Islamic units—not Da’ish*, but Islamic units like Ahrar a-Sham, Jebhet a-Nusra. Minbej is the only one that was controlled by local forces drawn from the town. And there wasn’t any ideology–not just Islamic influence, there were no political organizations, even the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t there. No one cared or interfered with anyone else if he was Muslim or not. People were coming and visiting me, guys and girls from other provinces, or from abroad, from Turkey, who were organizing activities in town–Druze, Sunni, Alawi, Christian, they all used to come and sleep at my house. There was nothing like this [Da’ish] at all in Minbej before.
After Da’ish took over the city, the FSA withdrew, and [Da’ish] forced their politics and ideology on people. Not only politically and administratively but also socially, like people’s clothing, if they smoke or not. I support the FSA, l lived with them and saw them. Simple people, not ideological, without any political agenda in their heads. Of course, political commentators or analysts see this as a weak point, to not have a political program. But really it was that simple: they were calling for the fall of the regime and for freedom, and that’s what appealed to me, that they didn’t know what they wanted to do, they left those core issues for the people to decide. The revolutionaries from Minbej, at least, were that way. And there are no angels, unfortunately.
JM: And now Da’ish is controlling Minbej?
JM: To return to literature, how do you choose the language you use?
AS: I love simple, startling, direct language. And I always try when I’m writing not to fall in the trap of any surrealist images. I don’t know, but I feel someone giving me a surrealist image is fucking with me. Not always, but sometimes. That’s my personal opinion. But personally, I can’t express anything except in a way that’s very, very simple. The simplest shape, among all the poetic images. It’s not a choice, what I love or how I love to talk; I don’t choose my language, it’s present in me, from me and in me.
JM: And who are you writing for?
AS: For myself.
OA: Do you have any red lines?
AS: Oh, I have a lot. A tongue without red lines has yet to be created.
OA: That’s not what your writing says.
AS: There isn’t anyone who doesn’t have red lines, but it varies from person to person. There are people whose whole life is red lines, and people who half their lives are red lines, and people with a few red lines. And there are people with one line, a yellow one, like Obama. [Laughs]
Break everything if you want. But if you’re doing it just for the sake of breaking a taboo, it’s a weakness. At any moment I’ll strip naked and walk in the street. But at certain times, if you show your knees, it’s tacky and meaningless. So if you curse God or bring up pornography as a poetic subject, it doesn’t mean you’re talented or doing something extraordinary. For me, talking about sex, Sir, is a white line, and a really obviously white one. I was born into the world, I didn’t hear that was a red line.
OA: I’ve noticed that you became gentler since coming to Berlin.
AS: I didn’t become gentle; the change is that I started to avoid talking about cruelty. When I was in Minbej I considered my words to be legit. I had the right to talk, you know. But here, to be honest, my conscience has started bothering me, saying, now you’re sitting in Germany and talking, and this has started controlling me a little. I feel if I want to talk from here, I have less legitimacy. When I was in Minbej, there was a feeling of victory, of challenge. If you wanted to write any idea, you could write it confidently; you don’t owe anyone, no one can judge you. You’re a son of the revolution, there. Here—not so much.
OA: There was a lot of harshness in your writing, and it got more restrained after you moved to Germany.
AS: Yes, true, that’s right. It’s not about restrictions, it’s just my position has changed now. When I was in Minbej, I was making fun of all of these people who were philosophizing. So what about me now, in Berlin? I don’t even dare. The position changed, my friend—just that.
*Da’ish is the word Syrians use for ISIS.
5 poems by Aboud Saeed
For those who are still asking “who is Aboud Saeed”
I am Aboud Saeed, resident of Minbej
where girls don’t go to cafes and there are no buildings over four stories high
My little nephew, every time I ask him to say “God is great”, says, “Shame on you”
In school I used to sit in the last seat in the back
I went to university to meet a girl without a headscarf
She has a phone with Bluetooth
She calls her phone “Cat Woman” so I called mine “Meow”
even though she didn’t care
I work as a blacksmith, which means a hammer, a grinder, and a 13-14 wrench
I sleep with seven brothers in the same room and I don’t have a closet
so I hide my private letters in the chicken coop
Sometimes a hen will lay an egg over the word “I love you”
and sometimes she poops over the note you left me at the end of the letter
My mom doesn’t know how to cook lasagna
and until last year I thought a croissant was a kind of expensive food
that you eat with a knife and fork
Every night I dream I’m Hannibal Lector
and in front of me on the table is the brain of the woman I love
On the bus I sit in the backward-facing seat to eye the girl from next door
I never saw airplanes in my life except bombers
I steal electricity from the closest electrical tower
and a bourgeois girl pays my internet bills
In the alley kids are making fun of the mole on my forehead
and my oldest brother doesn’t believe I’m a poet
while my cousins, if they knew I was a poet,
would drum behind me on pots and empty oil canisters
I have a pencil and I scribble with it sometimes and I sharpen it with a knife
and I have a blue fountain pen, an expensive one, that I got as a gift
It exploded in my pocket
At weddings I sit near the singer
At funerals I sit near the coffee guy
In cafes my table is always the bums’ table
I’m Aboud Saeed
I pet the neck of the animal that lives inside me
so it grows up like a blind wolf
I am missing the heartache of Minbej
In Minbej for almost a year I didn’t go out. Freedom and shelling
Getting to Aleppo is harder than getting Salma Masri’s phone number
Heartache of prison. Heartache of fear. Heartache of fire
Heartache that God doesn’t look in mothers’ eyes
In Minbej for almost a year, no electricity
My friend in Germany, “do you know how to cook lasagna without electricity?”
Communications were dead. The dead came out of the grave on bail…and water.
I am Aboud Al-Saeed, the smartest guy on Facebook
I live without water, I live in heartache
All of this was an introduction, now I’ll tell you the story
In Minbej for almost a year, then as suddenly as a crime
in an elementary school that no one noticed until it happened
she popped up. All the women in Minbej are tall
one of them shorter than her by two hand-breadths
A shepherdess, she is shorter than a cotton plant
she carries a flute, and her hair is curly
Did you love her?
Love is easier for me than smoking, so I loved her
I became delusional, I wrote on the wall of the school:
She is 158 centimeters tall
and more beautiful than Bashar Al-Assad’s guillotine
In the house I tell my mom, at work I sing to Ibrahim
Ibrahim loved her from jealousy of me
On Google, I look for the midwife that took her out
Looking precisely for her hand, to bite it in the bathroom
on the way to hill, on the stairs to the roof, on the roof
where there’s cell phone coverage
life became only 158 centimeters
She is not a superhero, just a regular girl
a bit more than a normal girl, beautiful
beautiful with blue jeans that hurt the liver
she’s wearing culottes, as permitted under Sharia law
She jumps and doesn’t walk
She yells and doesn’t talk
She loves Smurfs and hates Maria Sharapova
She swims in a fish tank like a swarthy fish
and she’d drown in the glass that’s half full
and she’ll raise her middle finger to the Jebhet a-Nusra checkpoint
She crossed the borders illegally, with bare feet, among the cyclone wire
basically she doesn’t hurt the wire
She is a wound in the soul, and a weak password
In Minbej, for almost a year with the same women
We hear the same bomber, and we cry for the same martyrs
Every woman in Minbej became my sister, brothers in sadness
In Minbej for almost a year, if a cat came in from outside Minbej
I would love her, I would write thousands of statuses and texts about her
158 centimeters, when that teacher asked her to erase the blackboard
she left part of the date at the top cut off
and fearing her, her mom was putting lipstick on top of the fridge
158 centimeters, the distance between her breasts is less than a palms-breadth
and she always hides under the pillow
It’s not by chance that crappy destiny brought you here
and you won’t leave peacefully
I will win, I will defeat your height, I will defeat my year
in that moment you stood on tip-toe to kiss me, mocking Minbej
Heartache, heartache of shorties, heartache that you see a beautiful stranger
My aunt always said: If you’re afflicted by heartburn, eat cigarette ash
I light the cigarette, I burn through it, I eat its ashes
and write a new short status for you
My mother came into my room suddenly without knocking
In the house we don’t knock on the doors of one another’s rooms
Really it’s one room. I say “it’s my room”
my mother says “it’s my room”, the guests say “it’s our room”
my older brother when he gets mad says: “get out of my room”
My mother came in suddenly
napkins strewn here and there wet with semen and fear
the ashtray almost can’t fit another cigarette
Hasan Belassim’s book “The Crazy of Freedom Square”
music by the greatest one who ever sang metal, “Devil Doll”
Aboud, why don’t you sleep?
Come here mom, come closer, have one, smoke
My mom sits cross-legged on the floor
and puts the cigarette between her lips and lights it with my lighter
I don’t know where she learned this gesture
of tapping my hand after I light the cigarette for her
Smoke, Mom, smoke, release the fire that’s inside you like a dragon, smoke—
Mom, can you see, this is Eva Rose
the most beautiful porn star ever
Mom, I masturbated three times
and this video is of a young guy, they took him and tortured him
then they burned his body and threw it in the street
Mom, when I want to love her I hurt
I want to go to Damascus and there are a million tanks on the road
Mom, should I pour you a glass of vodka?
My mother finishes the cigarette super-fast
Mom, Paul Shawl says: “hot lips burn the cigarette before you light it with a match”
Mom, I want to be friends with the dead and with murderers
and I want to buy a kitten and a biography
I want it to be a big one, mom, a big biography.
I want to marry Selma Masri … and an ambulance
after the wedding to carry us from the graveyard to the house
My mother lights another cigarette
Mom, Paul Shawl says “a cigarette is a departure too”
Mom, today I got a present from my friend. Her jeans were blue
Mom, I didn’t give her anything, as you prefer
I told her I will give you a tongue. Mom–
“Aboud get up, wash your hands and face
and go bring bread, it’s seven in the morning.”
In school when they used to ask us to write paragraphs about smoking and freedom, or a dog-awful trip you took with your friends, or about your mother, about the father, about the Palestinian case, about the martyr, about the woman, I think like this and write:
About smoking: There was an old man carrying a bag of tobacco in his pocket, and rolling papers. He went to sit by the lake. He took out the bag of tobacco. He rolled his cigarette and licked the edge of his paper and bit off the tip. And he put it in his mouth. On the left side. And he started waiting for the dragon.
About freedom: Thirteen men came, each one carrying a gun. Inside every gun, one bullet. They lined up behind one another in the shape of a circle centered around a rabbit with a whistle in his mouth. They were closing their eyes. And pointing their guns at the sky and spinning the barrels. Then everyone aims at the person in front of him and waits for the rabbit to yell, “Freedom!” to pull the trigger. You are a murderer and murdered in the same moment. And maybe just a murderer. And maybe just murdered. And maybe neither. Life is simple as they say…Eyes squinched shut, spinning the barrel of a gun and a rabbit yelling and an awful trip you spent with friends. We ran out of school and stole a chicken. We didn’t carry knives and time was after us. Our problem was always a conflict with time. Conflict with the moment. Therefore we didn’t pluck her feathers or chop off her head, but burned her alive with her own feathers.
About the mother: I always thought moms were created by a god with golden teeth. When I grew up, I discovered that they were crowns and God can’t tell the difference between a dictator’s canines and my mom’s gold teeth.
About the father: As the fighter jet was swooping down over the town, a little girl looked up astonished and amazed. “Oh my God! A huge piece of metal flying in the sky!” Her father yelled as he trembled, “Get inside, God damn your father and the father of the plane!”
About the Palestinian case: Dear teacher: in a movie called “Lila Says” there is a young man with an Arab background. He stares at a French girl’s butt and says, “If they forced me to choose between her and the Palestinian case, I would definitely choose her.”
About the martyr: Teacher, we are Syrians and we live inside the country. Isn’t it shameful to write about the martyr? The people who are outside are writing about the martyr. We just get martyred.
About the woman: “I seek God’s protection from Satan the condemned, in the name of God the most merciful and compassionate”, the woman is from there, not from here. The woman is an ant. And the ant is a tree. And the tree opened and became a woman. The woman is unhealed wound. The woman equals a loaf of bread. The woman is the kindling of revolution, not the Syrian one, the revolution of life. The woman is a moment that we wait an eternity for. The woman is not the candle that is light for the generations, but the candle we blow out. The woman, they said she’s a bullet. And they said that she’s a grasshopper. She was a worm. But if she flies, she dies. The life-span of grasshoppers is short after they fly. The woman is the passion of the soul to fly. The woman is a paragraph that’s written without going over eight lines.
Don’t leave the bar carrying her coat in your hands
Now I know what Darwish meant in his poem “Wait for her”
I’m not a regular at the bar
and I don’t stand in solidarity
with the victims of Lampidosa Island
The bar for me is booze in a Pepsi can
I am the super-jealous hick
I start laughing when I speak English
I’m sorry that I added English to my CV
It’s a tiny lie
I pay for it with explosive laughter
I learned lying from my mom
She told me “I cannot live without you for one minute”
and she told me “My soul is a willing sacrifice for the revolution”
Four months I’m far away
and my mom is still alive
and once a displaced family asked her
to give them a blanket from the ones she saves
She answered, “Every blanket is like a daughter to me”
My mom taught me lying and I taught her smoking
No one taught me how to leave the bar
I’m ignorant of many things
I used to love many things
The Sunday bread-crust buyer and hide-and-seek
I was hiding among the burlap sacks
Do you know what burlap sack is?
A bag made of burlap that you put seeds in
Seeds, not love.
But we used to put dried bread in it
You are waiting for Santa Claus
and we’re waiting for the Sunday buyer
to take the sacks of bread and give us a plastic flower that looks like you
Many things bother me
The neighbor’s curtain, your hair everywhere in the room
and how I left the bar carrying your coat
Aboud Saeed was born and raised in Minbej, a town northeast of Aleppo, where he lived and worked as a blacksmith. His first book of poems, The Smartest Guy On Facebook, was published in German in March 2013 and in English in October of the same year by Mikrotext. The same fall he moved to Berlin.
Jennifer MacKenzie’s first book, My Not-My Soldier, was published in December 2014 by Fence Books. She lives and teaches in the Bronx.
Omar Andron was born and raised in Lattakia, Syria. He now works as a waiter in Manhattan.