A Letter to Salim Barakat
I always think of writing to you. I just did not know what I should say, nor did I know how to send it to you. I do not even know why a reader would write a letter to a writer he likes; is it a desire to exchange writing?
In any case, as I began writing, I panicked; I was terrified that my language would elude me as I address someone so versed in grabbing language and toying with it as he pleases. I know it is unfair to reduce you to your prowess with the Arabic language, or to consider that you just “flex your linguistic muscles” with little regard to what you write about. Those who claim that do not seem to pay attention to the pictures and the worlds you create. ‘Regions of the Djinn’ is one example; what a magnificent world you crafted in that novel! What a boundless imagination!
They say you were a role model for young people in Qamishli, but I did not know this when I was a child back there. They used to say that, whoever is in the culture circles in the Syrian north would mimic your writing style, your lifestyle, and even your hairstyle.
I first met you in Damascus. Your poetry collection ‘‘Lexicon’ was the first book I read; one of my uncles put it on the table and I read it. I had known you before but been afraid of your arduous language. “Before you read Salim Barakat, make sure to have an Arabic dictionary on the side,” they used to say where I grew up. I had never dared to read you back then.
After Lexicon I read ‘The Two Autobiographies.’ O my God, you made me love the mud lanes in my father’s city. I then became an avid reader of your books, eagerly waiting for your new work. In the past, when I lived in Syria, I could not have the luxury of buying books. Can you imagine a university student in Damascus who can afford the books they wish the moment they wish them? Screw that life. Living in Berlin, today, I ask my friends coming from Beirut to bring me your books whenever a new one is out.
I have three short stories I would like to tell you. The first is what I dreamed of a few months ago. I dreamed of you winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Would that come true someday? I wish. The prize would be then as if it were presented to me.
My second story is from Kobanî. In 2015 I went on a journalistic mission to the city of Kobanî along with a German friend. Following weeks of dreadful battles, it had just been liberated from Daesh a few days earlier. It was destroyed, with no stone exceeding the size of a palm. A smoking ruin of a city. The bodies of Daesh fighters everywhere. A deadly smell.
Amid this devastation, while we were carefully inspecting the destroyed lanes for fear of mines, we saw some plants in nicely arranged flowerpots, which had apparently been cans of oil and butterfat [samn]. We approached these plants, and a man was sitting there. We soon became friends, and we spent almost every night chatting with him throughout the two weeks we spent in the war-torn city.
This man was a high school teacher of philosophy, who had fled with his family to Turkey when Daesh attacked the city. He then sent his family to Afrin, in the Aleppo countryside, and waited on the border for the time of his return. He was one of the first to return after the city was liberated. His house was almost completely destroyed. He had one small room left and a kitchen with three walls.
The man said that he had returned to Kobanî to plant some green plants. As he put it, all this destruction needed some green in order to achieve balance in the world.
He used to spend most of his time drinking arak and mate and reading the books he found in the rubble. He gifted me the first book he had found. It was ‘Translating Basalt,’ your book, Salim. He said that he loved it. He wrote me a dedication in Kurdish on its front page, which read “To my brother and guest Delair.” It is one of the most precious books to me today. What a book! What a memory!
The third story is very personal and I am a bit hesitant whether to keep it after I pen it. My girlfriend is pregnant now, and a baby girl is on her way to filling our lives and distracting us from everything around. Doctors claim that the fetus hears us and we should talk to it. “Shall I read to her?” I asked our doctor. “Yes, reading can expand her mental faculties,” she answered. I started to read to her a variety of sciences, and I am hopeful that I will continue to do so after she is born and grows into a smart girl.
Your poetry collection ‘The Great Poem of Love’ is part of what I read to her every day. “He who does not like poetry knows nothing! I want her to love poetry,” I tell myself. “Lovers are they, with or without hearts,” I read.
This year, I decided to read the books I had missed. I read ‘The Feathers, Recklessness of the Ruby, The Captives of Sinjar, The Agitation of Geese, Hefts, The Flood, and Vacant Sky Over Jerusalem (Part I and Part II).’
I was fascinated by the last one. How can you write with such eloquence, intensity and prolificity? Where do your language and your imagination come from? The truth is, I am jealous of you. Yet I also learn from you. I learn to be a prolific writer with no other purpose than writing. I learn to respect the reader, and to keep in mind that someone smarter than me could be reading this, which prompts me to bring out the best in me.
As the merchant Kreacus asked the fighter Turan in Vacant Sky Over Jerusalem “Why do you fight, then?”, someone might ask me “Why do you write, then?” When that happens, I will emulate Turan’s answer, replace warring with writing, and take off the profit element: “I write for the sake of writing.”
[Main photo: Salim Barakat (Ultra Sawt/Fair use. All rights reserved to the authors)].