A Cigarette and a Poem in Damascus

A basement studio in Damascus is not where many of us would expect a bourgeoning poetry scene, but that may be because we don’t pay attention. Too much during this time of politics and governments and dehumanization, we forget that others feel the same feelings we do, that others need to express and pour out their love and pain, the same way we do. We forget that humans are really the same, all of us. And until we accept even to the smallest degree that a person we don’t know is “worth” as much as we are, peace stays a hopeful dream.

Last night in a basement studio in Damascus I fell upon a scene that I would be more used to seeing in a San Francisco café, an old theatre after hours or a college campus. No matter how hard we try we seem to forget about the human need for expression. And express they do.

Smoke, so much smoke that my eyes begin to burn as it twists and spins in the light. Not only does the poet light up a cigarette, but the whole audience follows, eyes fixated as if the smoke he exhales is visible poetry. The click of lighters is an awkward twist on the chic snap of support after the poem is done. But here there is no snapping. There is clapping and cheering and cries of “ya Allah!” and “bravo alek!” as the crowd exudes a joy that would seem contrary to the atmosphere of the basement we are sitting in.

Poetry is more meaningful in a place where words are still forbidden, where books are still banned, where freedom of speech is still a freedom worth attaining. Words and poetry become mixed with swinging arms and meaningful drags of a cigarette. They are about love, love for the universe, a child, a lover, God. Love poems written a thousand years ago in the Iranian mountains and ones written weeks ago in an artists treasure chest of a notebook.

Poems rebound the room in perfectly accented and vocalized Arabic, classicisms that only poetry can express with such eloquence. Love is the atmospheric theme, love is what sways and punctures the crowd. Love, “give me just one cup from your glass chalice.”

A few days ago, this dark room was a sweaty night club, littered with broken glass. But tonight, it’s filled with artists, poets, intellectuals, wannabes, and those that were just intrigued. Long hair and leather jackets are the uniform and a constant trail of cigarette smoke erupting from the ash tray surrounded by milky white Araq and Lebanese beer are the décor.

The basement level has always been the place for those escaping the mainstream. Dodging sun and all that is commercial in the cultivation of creativity. One could argue that there is a poet inside of every Arab, with a language that not only encompasses every emotion or feeling, but gives you the room to create and twist and pull and cover any sound or hurt or love that could come out. A language that was born in a land that was renowned for its verses and its culture of expression. It would only seem appropriate that poetry would flow through such a city, Damascus, a city that has been the heart of the Middle East for thousands of years. But what is appropriate is not always what is encountered, which makes the words that much sweeter.

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