Ibrahim al-Jaradi: Sitting Amongst Gardens of Ruin

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Jaradi made a major mark on Syrian poetry from the late 1970s.

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Monday, July 30, 2012

Syrian poet Ibrahim al-Jaradi describes his life and writing experiences as “exercises in pain.”

The murder of his elder brother in a land dispute in the remote border village where he was raised, left an indelible mark on him as a young boy.

“Two shots. Just two shots were fired on that sad night,” he reflects. “They still echo in my soul and are lodged in my ribs. They caused me pain and anger that I have never been able to get over, even though some fifty years have passed.”

The young Bedouin boy might have grown up never questioning his tribal milieu and its inherited traditions and values were it not for a volume of classical Arabic poetry left behind by one of his elder brother’s visitors.

That set him on a journey, which led him to unexpected places. He moved from his village of Bandarkhan on the Syria-Turkish border, to al-Rekka on the banks of the Euphrates, to attend secondary school where he became immersed in culture and literature with a group of like-minded friends. They would later go on to form the Thawrat al-Harf (Revolution of the Letter) group in 1968.

Books were his chief respite from the monotony of life in that remote town, along with literary magazines which, like everything else, were late to arrive there. One day, he sent a poem he had written to the Beirut literary magazine Adab. When it was published, he secretly bought every copy of the magazine he could find.

Jaradi today is amused by his zeal as a young man, when he would catch an early morning bus all the way to Aleppo, returning at night, just to buy a copy of the poetry magazine Shiir, which didn’t exist in Rekka, to further explore modern poetry.

“Passion for reading saved our lives in that forgotten desert,” he says. It also helped turn him and his friends into rebels. “We were the generation of the June (1967) defeat. We were fired up with existential rejectionism, rebellious energy, and an urge to destroy,” he says.

Anger also prompted Jaradi to join the Syrian Communist Party, and later a communist partisan group in Beirut. He then received a scholarship to study cinema in Moscow. While there he penned a poem that lampooned Khaled Bagdash, the party’s secretary-general. Bagdash’s ire got Jaradi expelled from film school, so he opted to study comparative literature instead at Krasnodar in southern Russia.

“In Moscow, I discovered injustice shrouded in theory, which made submission a voluntary act. At the same time I became acquainted with the great classical Russian cultural tradition, despite the firm grip that was kept on Soviet culture in the early 1970s,” he recalls.

Jaradi made a major mark on Syrian poetry from the late 1970s, when he published three successive volumes of works marked by their angry eloquence, discursiveness, and novel forms of expression, including verse-prose combinations which he termed “poetic reportages.”

But he gradually drifted toward strongly rhythmic verse in his later work, perhaps reflecting the many years spent living in Sanaa, Yemen, working full-time as an academic and joining in Yemeni qat-chewing sessions. He describes his time in Yemen as “free space in a country not governed by the usual constraints, and a chance to get away from the uniformity that characterized Syria in the 1980s.”

But has he re-found his place in Syria since returning home?

“I have never been content with what I am doing. Maybe it’s the despair and uncertainty, and the use of patriotic rhetoric to conceal narrow aims and moral flexibility,” he replies. He thought he could do his part by joining the Arab Writers’ Union as an independent member who was above partisan suspicion. “But when I realized the results of that mistake, I withdrew and announced my resignation. It was an act of patriotism to quit that self-serving and submissive place.”

So Jaradi has returned to the solitude of books. He has dusted off his old study and got rid of some unwanted books, but also rediscovered old texts and re-read letters from faraway friends, and drafts of old projects that were never completed.

He has lately been doing this to the sound of explosions, which have become “an inescapable background tune” in the streets near his home in the Barzeh district of Damascus. His “portable pharmacy” meanwhile reminds him that countless illnesses have accompanied him into his sixties, most recently diabetes.

He makes no secret of his distaste for much of the new prose-poetry that is in vogue these days, and staunchly defends the virtues of meter and rhyme, while conceding that “it’s not a crime to combine the two. Poets are free to choose how to live and how to die.”

His defense of his own poetic position may be partly attributable to his latest collection, Mahmoud Darwish Awakes in which he frankly acknowledges the late Palestinian poet’s influence over his work, in terms of stripping poetry of excesses and the innovative use of language. “Mahmoud Darwish built me gardens, and I take shade in them and make use of them. He was a poetic guide of a special kind.”

Having retired from academic life, he is currently engaged in a new poetic experiment which he describes as an attempt to “eliminate differences between modes of expression, and combine forms without bringing them into a conflict.” With the working title Garden of Ruins, it is an “integrated text that defies classification, and does not settle into a stable shape – perhaps like Syria today with all its turbulence.”

But after years of traveling, Ibrahim al-Jaradi also wants to indulge in the “virtue of laziness,” without plans, projects or illusions. “The only work I feel is valuable brings no tangible return. I mean the act of reading.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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