Title: Ever Since I Did Not Die
Author: Ramy Al-Asheq
Translator: Isis Nusair Editor: Levi Thompson
Publisher: Seagull Books
The Refugee and the Other,
the Other Refugee
War is vast. It reaches across the horizon, loftier and older than peace. Killing came before war, but it might also be that refuge preceded war. It got attached to war like a child holding on to its mother’s dress with one hand, the other waving to those it does not know. The refugee: a flute weeping over its original image before there was a camp. The camp: ginger on the back of humanity’s infected throat. The camp is necessary, sometimes, for remembering that the lands across the river dropped off the face of the map when we weren’t looking. The map: geography on paper, its borders drawn by the tank and the mortar shell for eternity. The mortar: a tiny cosmic explosion that re-arranges habitats by the whims of whoever launches it. One night, the mortar launcher awakened superstition from its sleep and dragged it away with an F-16 saying, ‘I cannot exist . . . unless there is a refugee.’
Is it our instinct to always blame the victim? Is it customary for the victim to keep playing this role even after the decided time has passed? The victim might even like it and consider it a privilege. That way the Other—but not every Other—will have reason to regard the victim as a scapegoat. The victim sees the Other as a potential enemy, a current friend who is ready to attack at any moment. This has become an essential existential component of the dualities of the universe that are always, as they say, subject to unilateral rule. Good is sometimes evil, and wrong is right. A supporter could be an opponent on another side, and night might be day. The Other is not an Other elsewhere. ‘There’ is only ‘there’ here. Likewise, the refugee could become the Other someday, and responds to another who has become a refugee just like them. Dualities are suspended in conflict and change. Absolute unilateralism lies at the root of this conflict as creator and caretaker and is one of the main reasons for its persistence.
The Other asks the long-time refugee, ‘Do the people in the camp really live in tents?’ The refugee doesn’t respond. Instead, the refugee camp responds, ‘Nothing has anything to do with its name!’
The tents tricked time and stretched their necks until they blocked out the sun. People came to me for pilgrimage from every corner of the earth. They were crowded, since the ‘earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’
So, why are you still called a ‘camp’?
How would the Other recognize me if I were to change my name?
The Other branded them and marked their pictures in red: ‘You have no place here in the long run.’ Others contributed by adding features in bright oil on their foreheads, so the Other named them. They liked the new name—at least, they liked it until it didn’t please them any longer. It became as ordinary as death in this vast war. The Other did not tell them anything. They did not know the place or the time when yet another Other would rename them. They made a point of not asking. Perhaps fewer questions mean less pain.
One of them says, ‘I’m a refugee who was born here, the son of a refugee who was born here. We know nothing but “here”. Fifty years of my dad living “here” were not enough to change what he was called. My mother’s nationality wasn’t enough for me to change what I’m called! That’s why I hate children—my children, not those of others—because I do not want them to be refugees.’ He does not want them to be like him: different! Even in revolution, the Other wins when he turns those who are alike into Others from themselves.
The refugee opens the door of his tent (his palace) to the Other (the non-refugee). The Other becomes part of this camp that was destroyed except for its name. The Other grows up saying, ‘I am from there,’ and the refugee says, ‘I am from “here” and from another “there”. I am from my temporary “here”, and my original “there” until the day I return!’ Should things get hard one day, the Other will scream in the face of the refugee, ‘You are not from “here”. You are from “there”. You and your camp are in the “here” that belongs to me, so leave!’
So, he leaves, and not much leaves with him. When he remains, nothing will be left of him. The fiasco does not stop here. Indeed, the Other, who used to be a brother, becomes an informant, an enemy. The refugee goes back to repeating the story and playing the role of the victim. The victim is another victim, and the criminal is, of course, an Other!
Everything changes. Nothing remains fixed except for the refugee. Even a temporary homeland becomes a prison, borders surrounded with barbed wire tightly connected to the sea on one side, and to stolen electrical lines on the other. This homeland-prison becomes more merciful than the neighbour-prison. The next camp becomes a real, not metaphorical, prison. The escapee becomes a wanted man, accused of infiltrating paradise. They are tossed into the hell of war seventy times. He ages like fruit. The newspapers sleep on his story through day and night. The people of the land, the sky, and those in-between ignore him because of a royal decree.
Several long-time refugees were rescued along with some Others. They sang the anthem of death to sea and land. The weather picked up, and only those who were already buried could be saved without the camp. The partners of refugee and tent were separated, but they were allowed to return if the Other approved. The Others were called refugees. The long-time refugees are now called ‘without’. This is not about nothingness or nihilism but about a death verdict. He carried many names, as many as his migrations. They put them all to death with another Universal Declaration. The ‘without’ remained nameless, just like they will always be!
With this separation and change in the structure of dualities, some refugees received a nationality and became citizens. They might not want to admit that they are half-citizens or second-class citizens. The original defence mechanism of denial always wins out over confirmation. Having gained their nationality, they were considered to be part of the Other, and they practiced their Otherness on Others. Whenever war smiled, they screamed at them. As they were transformed, they forgot their past: ‘O Refugees!’
This is how one refugee killed another when the first became an Other. The second had to hold onto the title to avoid turning into nothing.
About Ever Since I Did Not Die:
“I gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness—how the revolution made me grow up, what the war broke inside me, and what exile chipped away.”
The texts gathered in Ever Since I Did Not Die by Syrian-Palestinian poet Ramy Al-Asheq are a poignant record of a fateful journey. Having grown up in a refugee camp in Damascus, Al-Asheq was imprisoned and persecuted by the regime in 2011 during the Syrian Revolution. He was released from jail, only to be recaptured and imprisoned in Jordan. After escaping from prison, he spent two years in Jordan under a fake name and passport, during which he won a literary fellowship that allowed him to travel to Germany in 2014, where he now lives and writes in exile.
Through seventeen powerful testimonies, Ever Since I Did Not Die vividly depicts what it means to live through war. Exquisitely weaving the past with the present and fond memories with brutal realities, this volume celebrates resistance through words that refuse to surrender and continue to create beauty amidst destruction—one of the most potent ways to survive in the darkest of hours.
About Ramy Al-Asheq (Author):
Ramy Al-Asheq is a Berlin-based Syrian-Palestinian poet, journalist and curator. He has published five poetry collections in Arabic, and many of his texts have been translated into Bosnian, Czech, English, French, German, Kurdish, Polish and Spanish. He launched the German-Arabic magazine FANN in 2017, and was recently selected as a fellow at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and Academy Schloss Solitude.
About Isis Nusair (Translator):
Isis Nusair is associate professor of women’s and gender studies and international studies at Denison University, Ohio.
About Levi Thompson (Editor)
Levi Thompson is assistant professor of Persian and Arabic literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL