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Poems on the Syrian Civil War

by Seif-Eldeine

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 2023
ISBN: 9798375000510
Publisher: Self

Seif-Eldeine’s debut chapbook acts as a vigil for the people of Syria.

Even when embedded, dedicated journalists can’t always fully capture the emotional cost of war and disaster. So, artists, writers, and poets step in to describe their impact for those who live beyond the headlines and to provide perspective to stories that might otherwise remain untold. In this chapbook, Seif-Eldeine chronicles the psychic damage of more than a decade of conflict in Syria, much like a reporter would; he oscillates between being an observer and a participant, conveying the experiences of ordinary Syrian citizens under violent oppression and intermingling them with accounts from first-person speakers who grapple with sacrifice and the sheer emotional weight of survival. In these works, war destroys even the most mundane objects and tasks. Prayer rugs become Kevlar vests in the poem “What Prayer Rugs Collect”; nuptials transpire in camps of those on the run from destruction (“Refugee Wedding”), and even the smallest pleasures vanish from everyday lives (“Who Wants French Cigarettes in Syria?”). Over the course of this collection, Seif-Eldeine is careful not to simply damn the perpetrators of violence, aside from president and dictator Bashar al-Assad. He considers what motivates people’s support for al-Assad in “Talking Politics in Syria,” and he makes no value judgments about human losses on both sides; in his works, every soldier is a “wild / mouthed child of a war” (“The First Kill”). He records and honors the experiences of farmers, housewives, the highly educated, soldiers, and foreign-born nationals alike.

It’s the way the poet conveys these stories and alludes to his own personal burdens that’s so arresting and strikes so deeply. The poems convey grief without pity and pomp; the entanglement of sorrow and fury may catch readers off guard in lines such as “the pines we chop down / for Christmas: green and red. / Did the triage doctor mark me / green, or red like the sea?” (“The Soldier’s Last Thoughts”) and “On days I am King, I give up / my lamb to my children. / Their stomachs are as empty / as a gun that has run out of clips” (“King or Queen for a Day”). In his Syria, neither death nor life has any dignity; bodies full of bullets expel excrement when retrieved, marriages buckle into isolation and abuse, and children are sold to pay for food and shelter. Concrete details are interspersed among lyrical accounts of such things as an offhandedly expressed death toll, al-Assad’s experience with dentistry (depicted as a metaphor for his tyranny), and the growth of refugee camps in neighboring countries. But Seif-Eldeine is most harrowing when he uses small moments and details to convey the true scale of suffering in an ongoing conflict, as when a woman paints in a blurry Van Gogh–like style because she lost her glasses in a bombing, or a farmer harvesting his crops remarks on his “watermelons larger than decapitated heads.”

A record of a country and people in crisis rendered in fearless, anguishing detail.