When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, it unleashed a glimmer of hope for possible democratic changes to a nation that was politically and economically crippled under the Assad regime. However, unfortunately, even this hope dissipated as the uprising, which had started peacefully, morphed rapidly into a devastating civil war with sectarian violence, state repression, forced displacement, and an exodus of refugees. These struggles, both in their country of origin and host lands, have inspired many writers to explore topics documenting their trauma and loss. The majority of cultural production that has been produced since 2011 discusses themes, such as alienation, displacement, traumatic experience, liminality, and constructed subjectivities. Caught in a permanent limbo, Syrian poets’ past lived experiences in their homelands, involving the repressive practices and atrocities they underwent as well as the new hardships they are facing in their new societies, including the tightened immigration policies and xenophobia, have shaped themselves and their artistic production in the diaspora. My paper is a close reading of “Homs and The Studio of Good People,” a poem written by Akram Alkatreb, a Syrian poet, who currently live in the U.S. In this poem, Alkatreb addresses the questions of refuge, destruction, loss, grief, and suffering, zeroing in on how longing for the homeland, collective suffering, distress, the effects of dislocation from home, and social alienation in a society that dramatically differs from their homelands shape his sense of identity. Alkatreb reminisces about, reflects on, and recapture significant moments from his childhood years, and vividly describes the atrocities that have plagued his native city of Homs. Alkatreb takes up subjects like the plight of living in a foreign community with its social alienation, the grim future of his homeland, and the endless catastrophe created by conflict. In short, both destruction and longing remain at the center of this poem.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, scholars of Arabic literature are revisiting Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika’s Cholera (1947), a free verse poem that was groundbreaking in terms of its innovative subversion of conventional verse. Restricted by the limitations of metrical conventions, Al-Malaika later explained that free verse was what enabled her to express the grief she felt upon hearing news coverage of the rising death toll in Egypt. The refrain of the poem “death, death, death” is repeated at the end of each stanza and is meant to mimic the sounds of the horse carts dragging the bodies of cholera victims. Through poetic language, death remains at the center of the poem and its transcendental reality is apparent in the unrelenting force of the cholera virus. Drawing upon Jacque Derrida’s work on the relationship between death and language, the paper examines the way the theme of death is reimagined in different metaphorical layers, through the use of metonymy and synecdoche. The paper will also draw on Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalism and his argument regarding the symbolic significance of death, and the role it plays in the construction of collectivities in order to examine the way the poem integrates tropes of death with questions of nationalism. The poem ends with a lamentation about Egypt: “O Egypt, my feelings are torn apart by what death has done,” suggesting an identification and solidarity with Egypt, at a time when political crises were fueling Arab nationalism. The dead body in the poem becomes a venue for patriotic sentiment in relation to the symbolic birth of Arab nationalism.