By Eve Chayes Lyman
Was that the heart of Syria that came beating into a small hushed room in West LA's Levantine Center on July 15? I felt it throbbing inside of me, ushered in by the ringing words of Dr. Mohja Kahf, a Syrian American poetess from Arkansas, who read her work in a benefit performance as part of an initiative to raise funds for a brave new project, Syrian Freedom Waves, a radio station that will broadcast from a ship in International Waters off the shores of Syria, attempt to penetrate the media censorship and counteract the propaganda and lies churned out by the Syrian State media.
It seems that all we hear about Syria these days consist of body counts and massacres, so gruesome that we must sometimes turn away in helplessness and impotence. But the poems of Mohja Kahf brought us Syria in all of its rich complexity, its colors and heady smells, its many languages and music, its traditions, myriad religions and ancient mysteries; its passionate struggle and yes... its hope.
Listening to Dr. Kahf, I remembered what poetry is for. They say that in times of grief and loss people turn to poetry. Ordinary words fall short. Her words rang true.
...And the Horani said as he lay dying in the pool of rain mixed with his blood,
"It's worth it to have lived these last days free."
And though it was not I who cradled his head,
I hear his words, and his blood runs into the soil of my dark,
dark heart like the rain in Syria... *
She had prepared a Powerpoint presentation for the event and the projector was left on as she stood in front of us to read her poems. Images of activists and crowds and protests and the colors of the Syrian flag were projected onto her face as she read her poetry. The effect- striking, as if she herself embodied the Syrian Revolution and was a vehicle for all those brave souls to materialize in the room before us.
As much as we hear about the war of tanks and guns, Mohja insists that this is also a "war of narratives." And her point is an important one. Faded from the news reports are the pictures of nonviolent activists waving white roses in the face of the army and images of children marching with candles claiming "We are all Hamza Al Khateeb." Instead, our visual access into the revolution is mostly comprised of bloody body parts and angry shouting men, and we often hear confusing stories of unverified massacres. The Syrian government fans fears of ethnic cleansing and genocide of minorities, of instability in the region and proxy wars. These fears are what keeps the international community immobilized and so many Syrians sitting on the fence, while the bloodshed goes inexorably on without a foreseeable end in sight.
There is a tarnish on the hope and promise of the Arab Spring, the media tells us. A year has come and gone. Tunisia is slogging its way towards democracy, walking a tightrope between religious extremism and corruption. Egypt held elections, but the military has only tightened its grip on power. Activists are languishing in Bahraini jails. We hear nothing anymore of Yemen's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakul Karmen, in the murky transition of that is somehow supposed to make Yemen a model of democratic reform. Libya is tearing itself apart: militias run wild as guns from its revolution destabilize the whole Sahara region.
In the face of all this, how can the struggle in Syria end in any way but badly? The revolution is already corrupted by violence on all sides ... At least this is what we hear.
But Mohja Kahf and her friends feel otherwise. The spirit of the revolution lives in them. They are not blinded by idealism or hope. They know what is happening on the ground in Syria, and yet they speak passionately for another voice, one that they assure us is also still alive and vibrant within Syria and affirms the four original principles of this revolution: demanding the fall of the current regime, rejecting sectarian bigotry, pursuing non-violent resistance and rejecting foreign military intervention.It is a narrative that we do not hear enough of these days. But Mohja and her friends are in constant touch with nonviolent activists whose spirit is still strong, they say, and who are intent on building a new Syria. "This revolution is about life" she says, "about Syrians finding a new life amidst the destruction."
She tells us that despite the emergence of the military and the political wings to the resistance, democracy as a grassroots cause continues as the bedrock of the revolution, working towards the original principles of an inclusive, non-sectarian Syria. The FSA (Free Syrian Army) and the SNC (Syrian National Council) exist because of this movement, and they garner what legitimacy they have from it. The men in suits are not building a new Syria, nor are the men in arms. "The street is not divided, the suits are divided" she says.
But if the audience of Syrians in the room was any reflection of the streets, it is very divided. Obviously, many have moved away from the original non-violent, non intervention roots of the Syrian uprising. Many see the only way forward is to meet violence with violence, guns with guns.
Mohja Kahf answers them in this poem:
My friends, we will probably lose the fight
to keep the revolution clean.
Already, the mad-eyed
are gesturing wildly, as if they owned the scene.
The head of a flesh-torching evil is ripening,
tottering, ready for the final swipe,
and in this we must not fail -
but we will keep struggling,
before during and after
the fall of the regime.
First we struggle against the great Worm
then against the multiple heads that will sprout
in place of its head. Giant monsters do that ,
give birth to little monsters. The seed
of evil is inside us, ever ready to bud,
fed by blood and anger. Justice is the sword
raised high, but reason is the shield. **
Hers, of course, is not the only voice. The purpose of Freedom Waves, set to launch this fall, is to amplify those voices, both inside and outside of Syria, through news reports, music and arts and call-in segments. Their goal is to raise awareness of Syrians killed or imprisoned and create a debate to enact democratic principles and begin building the foundations for a new civil society.
Projected costs for two weeks of broadcasting are estimated at around $300,000. Dr. Mohja and fellow activists don't seem daunted by the enormous sum. As are their counterparts in Syria, they are willing to face overwhelming odds with complete faith in their ultimate goal:
"These are the days of freedom-building for Syrians
Are you among those who stand by saying,
"This is impossible"? We know it is impossible.
Each one bring one trowel, one brick.
Are you among those who say, "This is hard.
Give me a cheap shortcut."
This is how freedom is built. Pain
and blood are its mortar. What if this
is the unbearable suffering
that will make us love each other? What if
these are the burning coals we must cross
to reach most in the world?***
For exclusive Aslan Media video coverage of the event, please visit this link.
To donate, or find out more, visit Syrian Freedom Waves.
* From ‘My people Are Rising' by Mohja Kahf
** ‘The Vigil' by Mohja Kahf
*** From ‘The Heave Into Freedom' by Mohja Kahf