Damascus Cafés’ Shadow Poets Live Their War

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Members of the Free Syrian Army play backgammon at a cafe in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district on 8 September 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Zain Karam)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Just a few steps beyond Yousef al-Azma Square in central Damascus lies a different world of ancient alleyways, sidewalk cafes, and a burgeoning new generation of muthaqafeen, Arab intellectuals.

These young artists are not the establishment poets and thinkers of yesterday, scribbling in notebooks from the corners of tiled coffee houses.

They are commonly referred to as the “Sarouja Market poets,” but Wael Qais, 25, prefers “shadow poets.”

"We came from the shadows of slums, unemployment, and lack of certainty," says Qais, who works as a book distributor for publishing houses.

These young people do not share the references of the older generation of cafe intellectuals. They draw inspiration from the digital world. They read and write, but rarely visit traditional libraries. They download books for free, quote Muhammed al-Maghut, Mahmoud Darwish and Ghada al-Samman (whose work they read online), and collect art films on pirated DVDs sold in the nearby al-Bahsa market, known locally as “Silicon Valley.” Before the revolution, many attended workshops at the nearby “Work and Art,” an open studio founded here by Muhannad Deeb.

The area was not always the scrappy bohemian enclave it is today. The cafes started springing up when foreigners studying Arabic in Damascus began moving in, attracted by the cheap rent and charming older buildings. The nearby French Cultural Center also attracted young people looking to take classes or, in some cases, pick up French girls. When the cultural center closed and the foreigners left, the area was taken over by young Syrian poets, writers, thespians, and artists of all stripes.

La Rouche Café is a favorite haunt of this group. One recent evening, Al-Akhbar visited La Rouche and found dozens of young people engaged in heated discussions over the ongoing crisis and its possible solutions.

Talk of revolution, betrayal, checkpoints and raids soon fades as the night wears on and the focus turns to clandestine romance and spliffs.

While the uprising may have injected urgency into their art and conversation, the violence and division has also taken a toll on the community. Conflicting allegiances drive wedges between former comrades, and many have fled the country, been arrested or gone into hiding.

Qais has to pass through a number of checkpoints getting from Rukn al-Din to Sarouja just to spend time with whatever friends he has left. He recites his poem inspired by his new daily reality.

Qais says he is influenced by the late Syrian poet Riad al-Saleh al-Hussein (1954-1982), but draws on his own experience and style to create something new.

"When I phone a friend and find that his number is no longer in service, it means that he has been arrested; so this should become part of my work," he explains.

Husam Milhem, 26, a waiter at La Rouche, is also a poet who was recently released after serving five years in Saidnaya prison. He says he does not believe in disconnecting from the past experiences of others, but that the established cultural elite have failed the street.

Milhem describes the youth of Sarouja cafés as children of the virtual world who bury themselves online while their real-life experiences fade away.

"Most of these people here have nothing to do other than unload excess talk around the scattered tables,” he says.

Milhem says his generation has recaptured some of the lost zeal for grassroots mobilization, recalling when he and other university students launched SHAMS (Youth for Syria). He wrote a book of poetry which he had planned to publish before his arrest, and continued writing from prison.

A 21-year-old eager to join in, recites one of his own pieces, a somewhat incoherent poem that fails to impress the assembled crowd.

Qais, laughing and taking a drag from his cigarette, says: "Facebook convinced most of the youth that they are poets, so you should ignore the weaknesses, the grammatical and spelling errors, and even the punctuation; otherwise, delete him from the list."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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