Essay: Sing for the Lost Souls by Philip Terman

“I do not like you to waste your time on me.”  

Just yesterday an article was posted on the website with the headline: “Syria conflict: World ‘turning a blind eye’ to Carnage in Aleppo, Says Doctors Without Borders.”  Muskilda Zancada, the head of the mission in Syria, “is deeply concerned about the growing death toll in the Northern town of Aleppo.”  It’s not difficult to find images of Aleppo’s buildings bombed to rubble, cars set on fire, air full of smoke and debris, a photo of a hospital after an airstrike in which the last pediatrician in the city was killed, showing a man holding a dead baby boy, back-dropped by the reduced-to-bricks-and-mortar hospital.  The article states: “one Syrian has been killed every 25 minutes in the past two days.” Many—including US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Rami Addul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, blame the Syrian regime for “engaging in a concerted effort to destroy services in the area.” It’s unimaginable that one’s own government would deliberately destroy a hospital.   

Meanwhile, I’m writing on a June morning on the deck of my writing cabin and pond, a short walk away from our converted one-room schoolhouse that looks out onto our garden.  I’m serenaded by robins, orioles, finches.  My life, like everyone’s, is not without its daily struggles, some serious—my wife’s illness, nurturing our two daughters through their teenage years, battling the occasional personal, professional, and cultural challenge. So why am I also thinking about a person in a place 5,775 miles away that is undergoing sufferings so incomprehensible that I find it difficult to know how to talk about them?

I was first introduced to Saleh Razzouk when he emailed me to request if he could translate a poem that I had written about Franz Kafka. He had discovered it online. Naturally, I was thrilled—and a little surprised and confused when I went on to read that the language in which Saleh wished to translate the poem into was—Arabic.  I looked more closely at the email: Saleh also informed me that he is living in Aleppo, Syria, is a university professor, and has translated other American writers into Arabic. After the initial excitement subsided a bit, I wondered:  A Jewish writer translated into Arabic?  From a Syrian?   A smattering of fear mixed in with the thrill, stirred, no doubt, by the cultural paranoia about Arabs in general, particularly in this era of ISIS.  Is this for real?  Can someone from Syria actually send emails, particularly to an American Jew?

Naturally I did what anyone would do in this day and age: I googled him, and sure enough, there he was, with several entries. According to the “Author’s Den” site, Saleh was a “writer and journalist interested in postmodernism, with 17 books of stories and criticism and 2 text books on technology.” Born in Syria, he started writing in local papers and later became an editor of a political paper. Some of his published books and articles are out in both languages, Arabic and English. He works as a fiber technologist. Among his works are “books that were translated from English into Arabic.”  The information was hopeful, but what also won me over was his photograph: a slightly built, unnamedscholarly-looking man with a moustache, grinning, cradling a large white cat.  A terrorist disguised as a professor of fibers, holding a white cat, feigning a fascination with my poem about Kafka? Not the image of an ISIS terrorist that would be drawn based on the conventional cultural descriptions.

I was intrigued that someone so distant from myself as an American Jew—and considered by many in my position as a so-called ‘enemy,’ shared an interest in Kafka. Kafka was Jewish, of course, but was one of those rare writers whose work is open to multiple and opposing interpretations and reflects multifaceted themes that transcend ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries. Like Kafka, my Jewishness is complicated—loving the scholarship, the rituals, the stories and poetry, the questionings about God and our place in the universe, but dismayed by the extremists, the notion of “chosenness,” the “tribalism” that separates and insulates rather than expands and connects. Ultimately, Kafka’s writing embodies the fundamental human condition of exile—and this is the theme that draws writers and readers from all cultures. Who doesn’t feel on trial?  Who doesn’t long for the castle? Particularly, perhaps, a writer living in what is generally agreed to be one of the most horrific places on earth, such as Aleppo, Syria.

So, it was not surprising that Saleh, too, shared an interest in Kafka, and that his work created a space in which two writers from vastly different cultures could meet. Imagine my surprise, then, when, later, Saleh wrote that “[he does] not agree [Kafka] was a jew.  He reflected the universal terror.  He is a jew as much as I am a muslim.” Perhaps, I thought, Saleh wasn’t aware that Kafka, towards the end of his life, explored Judiasm more fully, studied Hebrew, and desired to move to Palestine. Saleh, I think, was focusing on the existential side of Kafka, which, it seemed, touched on his own condition. Interestingly, Saleh had spent time in Poland, and in the email in which he shared his thoughts in response to a poem I had written about the Holocaust, he mentioned, that he had “been once at AUSCHWITZ” [his caps].  That he did so was another indication that Saleh did not fit the “Jew-hating Arab” stereotype; rather, his reaching out to me to translate the poem reflected our mutual literary passions and his open mind.

Nevertheless, as the news about Isis and the terrible Syrian tragedies heated up on a daily basis, I wondered.  Who really is Saleh? Friends cautioned me to be careful—surely any correspondence coming from a place like Syria would be monitored?  Might he be an infiltrator seeking who-knows-what information? When I, in so many words and in as polite a way as I could, inquired, he replied:  “in theory I am an assistant prof of applied technology.  But hardly I am allowed to teach…so I fill my time by writing, by translation some times.  To my name 12 books of stories and criticism.  That is all.”  And, he added:  “the good news that I enjoyed your poems.  very nice.  please write more brave poems.  sing for the lost souls.  All the best Saleh.”  

If he was some kind of terrorist or Assad government agent, what writer isn’t swayed by flattery?  He had also told me that he read and wished to translate other poems of mine, and would even try to get them published. Yet, I wondered: there are so many poets of greater reputations, why is he translating my poems?  Certainly not a poet of national reputation, no major (or even minor) awards—just another poet with a few books published by small presses.  Surely, if he could find my poems, he could locate more by others more esteemed.  And what happens to the poem after it’s translated?  

It didn’t take very long to find out what happened to the Kafka poem. In a matter of just a few weeks, Saleh emailed me to request permission to publish the poem in an online journal called To-Ila, which, according to its website, “is a cultural magazine published by the art and culture foundation ‘Cross-Over’. The purpose of TO is to discover and create relationships between visual genres and their intellectual meaning and in that way to make room for establishing a base for art in our daily life.”  The magazine publishes work in Arabic, Spanish, and English, contains, besides writings, art works, criticism, and reviews—in other words, it appeared to be an international journal.  The journal seemed legitimate, and so I gave Saleh permission.  It wasn’t long before he sent me a link, and there the poem was, in beautiful, flowing Arabic that reads, like Hebrew, from right to left. The only words in English were my name, the poem’s title—“My Kafka”—and an acknowledgement to the publisher.  The introduction included a small photograph of Saleh– thin fragile frame, thick lensed glasses, sweater over button-down shirt, posed in front of shelves of books:  though those same friends continued their caution, I felt certain he was, though I still wondered about the role of our cultural and religious differences, who he said he was.

Saleh continued to translate other poems—poems about our garden and home and one that gave homage to slate roofs.  They also appeared in online Arabic journals, journals with strange exotic names like Qabaqaosayn and Aleftoday and Alaalem and published in the unlikely cities of Bagdad and Damascus. Though I of course couldn’t be sure about the quality of the translations, I was pleased—and still a little frightened— to see my poems in this florid, beautiful language, and was a bit overwhelmed by the idea that people so fundamentally different could be reading about those subjects most personal to me—my family, our children, my parents, my first wife who years ago had tragically taken her own life, which I addressed in a poem entitled “Elegy.” About that poem, Saleh wrote:  “we liked it.” That Saleh chose such an intensely personal poem to translate must indicate that, of course, love and loss transcends any cultural, religious, and political differences we might have.

By this time, Saleh and I were communicating more regularly.  My new book, entitled The Torah Garden, had just been published, and I asked if I could send him a copy.  He was quite pleased, and shared his address.  A few weeks later, the envelope was returned, opened, without the book. Of course –with a title like “The Torah Garden”—and which contains many poems inspired by my Judaism—I should have suspected that there would be trouble.  I mentioned as much to Saleh, and his response:  “the tone of your religion is clear that is why the censors interrupted the book.”   Though I would wish for my poetic use of “religious” language (such as the word “Torah,” for example), to have multiple metaphoric connotations, of course the censors would interpret it in no other way than in their literal (in this case, “religious”) sense, and so confiscated the book and returned the envelope.  Apparently, though there were clearly religious and political barriers, their censoring is confined to snail mail, as I was able to email a PDF version, which he received and commented on: “You have faith in religion.  I have only a little bit because of the bloodshed and the struggle for power which is not my priority.  I am on the side of being creative.”  Now it seemed clear that, while at the same time our respective governments were in a real sense at war, here were two writers communicating beneath the radar.

         As we began to email more regularly, his views on the Israel/Palestine conflict became for me more clarified, and they challenged my own cultural upbringing. Though I believe strongly in a negotiated peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and in the creation of a Palestinian homeland, I couldn’t help but be a bit taken aback when I inquired about the journal a few of the translations had appeared in, and he responded that it was “edited by a leading figure of short stories who happened to be from palestine.  A victim of 1948 war when he lost his house and fled the conflict to lebenon.”  So, in fact, the creation of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, one of the most significant of my parents’ dreams (and which was taught to me throughout my upbringing)—resulted in the ultimate loss of house and property of the very person who published my poems in his own language.  The irony was compelling and a bit heartbreaking, as I was culturally and religiously exposed to the “other side” of the Middle East Conflict: my parents’, relatives’, neighbors’, Hebrew teachers’, along with so many American Jews who lived at the time of the Holocaust, fervent desire for the creation of Israel.  The narrative was (and still is, of course, to so many other Jews): because of the Holocaust, we must have the State of Israel.  But, like many other Jews, I began to consider other narratives, and I hoped that my experience with Saleh and Arabic literary culture was another way in which I could both develop our literary relationship and learn, among other things, more about those other narratives.

I wrote to Saleh that it was fascinating to me that my poetry was translated into Arabic, a language I couldn’t hope to understand, that it was a testament that poetry itself transcends borders and barriers, and, because he had translated so many of my poems, I wondered if “a short collection of my poems” might be worthwhile. It didn’t take long for  Saleh to respond that he inquired about a collection, and that a “deputy” in a “house press” had encouraged him to translate a selection of my poems, which would include an introduction from me. I thought that in my introduction I could talk about my influences and poetic inspirations, which would, by necessity, include those that are Jewish. I asked Saleh if that would be a problem.  His response was: ‘No, we do not consider this an issue.  You are an example of the modern and contemporary poetry.  That is all.  I discuss the religion issue with the representative of the publishing house he said we do not need to refer to Israel if we want to get through. It is Israel the complex not the religion.” That it didn’t seem to be a problem surprised me, and furthered my desire to continue our relationship and, besides—unlikely as it appeared—I might even be getting a book of my poems translated into Arabic.  Who would have thought?  

Clearly Saleh and the editor drew a distinction between Judaism, the religion, and Israel, the Zionist political entity.  It seemed that my Jewishness, in the way they read it, was perfectly acceptable. In fact, the one Jewish-themed poem that Saleh commented on was the poem, entitled “Our Jerusalem,” that explored my thoughts on Israel—a kind of buildingsroman that traced the development of my perspectives on the “situation,” as many in the Middle East call it.  Late in the poem I devote a section to the words of Rachel Corey, a 19 year-old American who protested the Israeli army’s destruction of houses in the West Bank.  Standing in front of one of the houses, she was bulldozed to death. About this section, Saleh wrote: “you mention Rachel, is it an attempt to dissolve the previous poems in which you promised to make Jerusalem your home?”  Here I think Saleh is asking about the evolution of my use of the concept of “Jerusalem.”  In the early stages of the poem, I write about how I was brought up in the Jewish conventional views of “Jerusalem-as-Homeland” (the first section is called “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the mantra spoken at the end of each Passover sedar), but as the poem progresses, the incidents, such as the one involving Rachel Corey, question that initial attitude.  Saleh’s query is correct in that, yes, my early attitude towards Jerusalem, if not “dissolves” completely, becomes more complicated.

This new project of a book of selected translated poems brought Saleh and me closer.  As the news from Syria became more and more horrific, and I became more curious about him, I invited him to feel free to tell me more about his life.  Besides the basic facts of his job and his love for literary activities, who was this mysterious person who was spending so many hours— without the hope of any material benefits—translating poems written by a Jew from Cleveland, transplanted into rural PA—poems about car lots and shvitzes and blueberry bushes and shofars?  Though I read almost daily that Syria was being bombed relentlessly, and that Isis was gaining a stronghold in Aleppo, at no time had Saleh asked for any assistance of any kind. But I didn’t only learn about the troubles in Syria through the impersonal sources of CNN and online newspapers.  After sharing with him that I read about the fighting in Aleppo and that I was thinking of him, he responded:  “It is a war street.  Ugly.  But I can not help it.”  In the same email in which he responded to some of my newer poems with “you have faith in elements of nature,” he said, before signing off:  “I am still reading but in circumstances where water is like a fantasy.  We have no water in 4 days in a row.”

Though intellectually I knew how difficult his situation must be, the power of our different circumstances hit me full force: while he was reading about my riding horses with my daughter, or swaying in a hammock reading Proust, he was deprived of water and his house was “hit by a shell.”  And what should be my response to this difference?  All I could think to reply was:  “I wish I could send some water to you.”  In other words, there was nothing I could say; I could only be speechlessly astounded that, during this time of depravity, he could still read, write, translate.  Perhaps these translations were his way of coping?  Other emails spoke to the fact that he was, indeed, living in a war zone.  “No electricity in my room,” he wrote. “rubbish is everywhere. I surrender.”  And then he added:  “I would try with the poems because I liked the book.”  A few weeks later the subject of his email was “My office” and—for Saleh's Officethe first time—he attached a photo of his office, which was clearly trashed and ransacked.  “Dear prof,” it began, “Look what they have done to my office at the university.  Garbage.  Two days ago I hosted a rat.  The book is just an illusion in my recent life.  But I survive.”  

The fighting in Aleppo was not the only source of Saleh’s troubles. While early in our correspondence, Saleh expressed a sense of hope: “I like to keep in touch hoping things would improve,” this changed as we continued to be in touch, and I learned more about his home life.  Gradually, he told me more about his personal circumstances even in the same emails that he discussed our projected book—“I had two positive answers from Damascus and Saudi Arabia for our manuscript. I am getting ready to having it done with pretty cover and reasonable quality”—and about his personal sufferings:  his son is “missing,” and his wife “left the house altogether and since I know nothing about her….she can not come back unless her son is with her….it is a night mare.  Thanks for caring.”  Only knowing Saleh through our email correspondence, I don’t know how much these sufferings have to do with the overall chaos that is Syria, or to what degree it is associated with his private life (I suspect a bit of both), but I do know how much heartbreak these loses express.

So that I might learn a bit more about him and his life, I asked if he could send me some photos.  In one of them, he is holding his Saleh and his soninfant son, grinning and proud.  In a more recent picture, Saleh is sitting at his kitchen table, alone, thinner. At one point Saleh mentioned that he hoped to rejoin his wife, but his “son is still a problem.”  Naturally, I can’t know all the circumstances behind this intolerable grief; I can only continue to encourage him to tell me more about his wife and son if he wishes, and to offer palliatives, such as, “It sounds like a terrible situation, but I always would like to think that there is hope, but that is easy for me to say from where I am.”  

A few months ago, about a year after Saleh began the project, five copies of a clean white paperback book arrived in the mail—from Aleppo, Syria, by way of Singapore. Like a prayer book, I had to turn it over and look on the ‘reverse’ side, and there I was—a photograph of me—taken from the Internet, I was a dozen years younger, beard black not gray, a bit more hair all around, looking straight into the camera, with Arabic lettering above me and below. The picture, when I show it to friends, often inspires the response that I “look like a terrorist” and a quick chuckle. I chuckle with them, but perhaps what they are seeing is the fact that I really am related to those Arabs they see in the news.  Perhaps they forget that not all of them are terrorists.  It’s length, by poetry standards, was substantial at 142 pages, including two introductions (the one I wrote, the other Saleh contributed) and 30 poems.  It was published by Ninwa Press in Damascus, Syria.  

Naturally, I was delighted, but not in the same way as a “normal” book of poems.  Here was a collection of my poems that neither I nor none of whom I knew could read.   Yet, there was the mysterious truth that there existed a whole Arabic world—a whole culture about which I was ignorantly unfamiliar— that could read them—and perhaps some of them would.  On occasion Saleh sent me links to ads that contained the book in Arabic newspapers and journals, and he encouraged me to show it to any Arabic scholars or writers that I knew to verify the translations, because, he often reminded me, he was a professor of fibers, and not a translation scholar.  After much inquiry, I eventually recalled that a former colleague was now a Dean at the American University in Beirut, and indeed, he put me in touch with their Arabic translation scholar, who pronounced the translation quite successful. Saleh was particularly pleased.  

Throughout our correspondence and what I can now call our friendship, I always wondered why Saleh, given the enormous hardships he faces everyday, doesn’t leave.  I understand the challenges—we’ve all read about the boats overfilled with refugees, many of which end tragically. In so many words, I’ve asked him periodically about his thoughts about leaving, and he’s given me several possible reasons (the difficulty of giving up his university position; his age; leaving would be “undignified…”), the one about his missing son the most heartbreaking:  “I am afraid that my son is liquidated.  In this case I have nothing left to wait for.  No wife, no home, no country. All are meaningless if I lost my only connection with tomorrow.”  More recently, he has lamented that fanatics are taking over his university, who want to control his teaching: “Religion is not my choice any more. I am a secular person with literary interests.  Just laugh with me. I think this life is too small for my ambition. Death could bring more freedom.  But there is a fine thread of grace which I follow.” Given his attitudes about religion, I was a bit surprised by that response, though of course was happy that he chose grace over death. And just yesterday he mentioned that he was fasting for Ramadan. I shared how Jews fast at Yom Kippur to assuage our sins, and asked again about his religion. “Yes i fast,” he replied. “But i take it as a soul redemption. Not an act of religion.”  “A soul redemption”—from our correspondence, I suspect that Saleh, like so many of us who reject the religious extremes, is a highly spiritual (and ethical) spirit and, like myself, enacts the rituals with which he was brought up.  

Saleh has become a cherished correspondent, close enough that I can share with him some of my own troubles, and he has consoled me sensitively about my wife’s illness.  It’s painful when I think we will probably never meet, and even more immediately, that his life is most likely in constant danger, and that our friendship will end and I will have no idea what will have happened to him.  Just a couple of months ago, for Holocaust Remembrance Day, instead of the expected Holocaust survivor, my university sponsored a Syrian human rights worker who was brutally tortured, and he was not shy about the details of his imprisonment.  And I still worry about the information Saleh shares with me—can any of it get him into trouble? He has never refused to answer a question nor address an issue—often raising them himself, writing in ways that have gotten others in other, similar environments, into serious trouble.  My cautious friends—and I’m forced to reluctantly agree with them—occasionally warn me from probing too deeply.  Can something I say to him, or something he’s said to me, end tragically?

Yet we continue.  Earlier today he criticized Islamic Law, adding: “Just tell me can i imagine my life without kafka for example. He is a blasphemy in their constitution.”  And though he is often self-effacing and says that I should “find a stronger connection with Arabs” than himself, I have grown to realize that Saleh Razzouk is heroic, and that, in spite—or because—of the piercing loses of his family and his country, he still writes (“I am working on a novel but there’s no way it will be published”), translates, recommends books (“My life is based on writing and reading. Relatives call me the mad, the girl…they mock me. But I am going on.”).  When he was working on my selected poems, he wrote, “I am dropping in sweat to meet the deadline.  We have no water during last 24 hours but I can mist a towel and clean myself with.”  I read that sentence as I was overlooking our half-acre pond.  

Why do we write?  Why do we read?  Why do we translate?  How is it that two humans, considered enemies, across the world from each other, against all odds, against discretion, in their respective languages, live and connect, can be absorbed in the same poem, can share their passions and troubles?  And what is gained thereby?

I asked Saleh if he would respond to a few questions, a kind of personal interview.  His reply:  “I am a hopeless case more or less.  But here are below the answers for you.  I do not forget the time you gave me during this span of loneliness.”

Nor do I, Saleh.  Nor do I.


Philip Terman’s most recent books of poetry are Our Portion: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House Press) and Like a Bird Entering a Window and Leaving Through Another Window, a hand-sewn collaboration with an artist and bookbinder. A selection of his poems, My Dear Friend Kafka, has been translated by Saleh Razzouk into Arabic and published by Ninawa Press.  His poems and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Sun Magazine, The Georgia Review, Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine, and 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. His poems have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. He teaches at Clarion University and is co-director of The Chautauqua Writers Festival.

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