The memory of how we felt is maybe one of the strongest memories we can have.
Syrian poet and writer Rana Abdulfattah is all about language and the written word. In Istanbul, where she has lived for the past ten years, she translates technical documentation between Arabic and English for work (these days, accompanied by two cats relishing their lockdown time with her). She has two master’s degrees under her belt – in English Language & Literature and Modern Turkish Language – and has also studied Persian. Her affinity for the rules of language underpin some of the most evocative moments in her most recent publication, Tiger and Clay: Syria Fragments, a book of poetry and prose that offers a raw, powerful account of a young woman trying to build a new life while war ravages her home country.
She talks to Qisetna about love, loss and belonging – and how the most telling language can sometimes be silence.
One of my favourite lines in Tiger and Clay is, “To belong is to have a grammar”. In what way have you experienced this?
It’s about the grammar of society – the social norms. I grew up in a very conservative city. In conservative societies, things keep happening underneath. It’s like you have the society and a sub-society. To belong, you need to understand the grammar of a society, see the same things or nurture the same values.
You also describe silence and muteness as its own language.
“‘A delicious fear of being silent with you lest you understand the language I have never mastered. Forget our holy language and let us converse in its interpretations.”
As humans, we always keep things to ourselves because of the social grammar. Because maybe they’d say you’re weird, you’re too honest.
So sometimes I am silent, over a particular issue. I can’t talk. But I choose not to talk for a reason. And maybe my mother, let’s say, doesn’t want to talk about this issue, but she knows [what I mean]. We share the silence. We understand the silence. It is almost a form of communication.
Tiger and Clay often delves into loss – of love and of family – and yet, how you carry what you have lost within you. Can we really “live on with the memories we have”?
Yes. I was fascinated with the idea that this woman, who told me her story, really loved someone yet she was married to someone else for forty years maybe. After her husband died, she still loved that person and started talking to him. I think some things we always carry with us. No matter if it worked or it didn’t work. There is not just one love throughout our life – I’m not talking about family love I’m talking about love-love. So some loves, yes, stay with you. Even if you have a relationship and you’re stable with someone, it doesn’t go away. It’s just a thing inside of you, the memory of the feeling.
The memory of how we felt is maybe one of the strongest memories we can have.
You describe why it’s easier to write in English: “I do not have to carry my legacy, consciousness, tree, divinity while typing. I still do not understand why I cannot write in my mother tongue.” Do you still feel this way?
Yes. I feel free when I write in English. I have this complex relationship with Arabic because I always felt like I have to think a lot when I write in Arabic – is this acceptable, is this not acceptable, and who’s going to read it? That’s part of it.
I love the language – in terms of expression, Arabic is a lot more powerful than English because we have a lot of different concepts for things and the language is richer in words for concepts and feelings.
What’s one of your favourites?
‘Kaynonah’ – it’s like to have this sense of peace with someone, a sense of home with them.
Would you consider writing in Arabic?
I do write some stuff in Arabic but I never focused. During school, I had the worst teachers and I couldn’t feel a connection with it. Then I studied English at university so I didn’t really have an Arabic education. Of course I can read and write as much as the average person, but to be a poet or a writer in Arabic, you need a lot more than that. You really have to be good with the language – and the grammar. Arabic is very difficult.
You also speak Turkish, Persian, and some French. What’s your motivation for becoming good at a new language?
So actually the interest in Persian was, I had a very good friend who would put on a lot of nice music and read good literature, so I was fascinated by Persia. When I studied it, I got even more interested, because I was like, this language is amazing. In Persian, you could maybe express the concepts of atheism and belief in one or two sentences. It’s powerful.
I finished my six months’ study, and I told my parents I’m going to Iran. And they were like no. Then Turkey came up, and they were like, OK, you can go to Turkey.
What writers have influenced you?
The main ones that influence how I think about things were the Romantic poets. Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth. Also the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the way he writes about history, oppression and love. And Emily Bronte, who I would read every day when I was young.
Philosophy-wise, William Blake and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He talks a lot about experience and innocence, which really influenced me when I thought about Tiger and Clay. I don’t think that got through to a lot of people.
The tiger is the experience, the wanting more. And innocence is the clay, the frozen part of being human. Any minute in time, you can be very weak – that’s the clay, the fragility. The tiger is eveqrything powerful in us.
Does fiction inspire you as much as poetry?
One of my favourite novels is Koolaids: the Art of War, by Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American writer. So yes, fiction does inspire me, but it has to have a lot of powerful sentences, things that you would remember beyond the story. The way that it’s written, you know, the words that have been used.
What are you reading now in lockdown?
I was reading Gilgamesh, in Turkish. But it’s been a long time that I haven’t read because of work. At the end of the day, you’re just like, let me watch Netflix.
How do you take a piece of writing from start to finish?
Well, I don’t have a discipline. So how it happens is, I’m triggered by a feeling, something I saw or something I read let’s say, and so I start thinking intensely about it. Then I start writing and it usually comes, fluently and smoothly. I love to write and it makes me very happy – sometimes it feels like there’s so much in my head, I just have to sit down and write.
Then I’ll edit, see what happens. But it’s not like I sit and write every day for two hours. Because I think I’ve never believed I’m a writer. Because if I believe that I am a writer, then what – I have to take the risk? Of failure? Of making a living from this? Of not being good enough?
lockdown affected you creatively?
Has It makes it even more difficult to have that trigger. Because you’re not really socialising, not going out, you don’t see anything. I just watch my neighbours, that’s it. But social interaction is way more interesting than observing. My work is based on interaction most of the time.
What’s something that inspires you out of writer’s block?
A really good book or movie. The most amazing scene I have seen in a movie is from The Hours, when Nicole Kidman, as Virginia Woolf, is about to get the train to London.
Her husband was always taking care of her because she had mental health problems, and she had tried to commit suicide before. But she wanted to go to London because she wanted the noise, she wanted the social life, and he was keeping her in the village in the countryside. So she tells him something like, I know what’s wrong with me, and he says, everything we did was out of love, to protect you because I love you.
It’s full of suppressed emotions, and the breakout of those emotions. It’s really inspiring.
What’s coming next?
My next stories will have similar ideas to Tiger and Clay, about human relations, home, belonging. But I am also planning to explore fear in my future work. The things that I feared the most in my life, and not only fearing them but the fear itself. I have always thought about fear and observed fear in myself and others. I think it is one essential drive of human life and experiences.