Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Ever Since I Did Not Die
Author: Ramy Al-Asheq
Translator: Isis Nusair
Publisher: Seagull Books
How does one write about the experiences of war, escape and migration? For one who has not died and has lived on to tell the stories, what form of language can justifiably give voice to the atrocities endured or horrors encountered? Can the ugliness of wars be borne by poetry or the distress experienced, articulated reasonably by prose?
Ramy Al-Asheq, a Syrian-Palestinian poet who writes in Arabic, was born in Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. In 2011, during the Syrian revolution, he was imprisoned and persecuted by the Assad regime. After being released from jail, he was recaptured and imprisoned in Jordan again. He escaped the prison and spent two years under a fake name in Jordan during which he won the Heinrich Böll fellowship, which allowed him to move to Germany in 2014. He currently lives in Berlin. He has founded a German-Arabic cultural magazine, called FANN, and is a curator for Literaturhaus Berlin. Ever Since I Didn’t Die was written between 2014 and 2016 and was published in 2016. It has now been translated into English. His most recent poetry collection, My Heart Became a Bomb, was published in 2021.
Refusing to classify this collection as prose or poetry, in the preface of the book, the author says:
“I gather these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag. This randomness of body parts is real in its destruction. Bloody at times, violent, honest, imaginary, personal. It looks like me with all my madness and sickness, how the revolution made me grow, what the war broke inside and what exile chipped away.”
The author’s voice aches with pain. In a world where nations are maddened by the desire to seek control and exercise unquestionable power, war ‘reaches across the horizon, loftier and older than peace’, leaving behind lives fractured by violence, displacement or exile, lives shattered and left crippled; their stories do not belong to an individual but map out the collective grief of all those forced to flee their homes.
Al-Asheq recounts the tragedies brought about by wars and oppression, by militarisation which seeks to replace the God of people by God of death, resulting in a place inhabited not by those living but by people dead-alive, turning a paradise into a wasteland. Those who escape the paradise are compelled to find shelter in distant camps. He also writes about the othering of refugees in a refugee camp, about how even after being born or living in a camp for decades, they are still seen as others, as people from distant lands who do not belong and cannot become citizens of the country they seek shelter in.
He writes of a mind in delirium which after having witnessed a massacre, becomes frenzied as if touched by jinn. His pen assumes the identity of a woman who cuts her braid and fights for revenge against the oppressor. With trembling words, he speaks of the bodies of women which are turned into sites of violence, where ‘from head to toe, the body turns into openings for death to penetrate’. He does not shy away from admitting his own cowardice which made him flee even when he wanted to scream with revenge, anger and hatred.
Al-Asheq tries to conjure up his lover as if to meet her in the sentences he weaves. His words reverberate with a yearning ‘like the sound of a lute when strummed’. Conversely however, they also deliberate on killing loved ones in his imagination, if only to get rid of their memories which do not leave him.
The seventeen texts which make this collection are marked by dualities which become part of everyday living of those wrecked by the violence. They cling to life in the face of death, their moments of relief tinged by the pain of loss, the longing for love accompanied by a despair as dark as a bleak night in prison.
In his narrative, the idea of homeland doesn’t assume the accepted notion of a place of belonging. He believes in the idea of a world where countries are without borders and humans can travel as freely as the migratory birds do.
For someone who did not die and lived on to tell his stories, Al-Asheq admits that fear has been the most honest feeling he has known. If not for that, he would have died and become a hero. And because ‘there can be no hero on a land sown with injustice, he thinks there is nothing deserving in heroism’.
“Ever since I did not die, I have lost my identity” he declares in the last chapter, an identity which was imposed upon him by a totalitarian regime and an affiliation to which only meant a life threatened by violence and shadowed by death. Loosing that identity and transformed by his experiences, the author returns to life to chronicle those sketches which may be identified with stories of millions of displaced people around the world. Perhaps texts like these can give voice to those voiceless and move the humankind to heal this world broken by injustice.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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