“A forger can imitate a painter’s brush stroke or a writer’s style and make the difference between them imperceptible, but he will never be able to make his own their obsession,” (Anne Dufourmantelle 1999). While Dufourmantelle speaks of writing as an obsession that drives writers to return to pieces over time and changing circumstances, in my book Tiger and Clay: Syria Fragments I tried to keep where possible the rawness of the moments and emotions. Capturing that on paper though was never an easy matter.
In Syria Fragments, I mix poetry and prose to talk of exile, love and homeland. Mixing two genres was not so much a studied decision as a necessity. I felt it necessary as I do not believe in clear cut boundaries in life, in experiences in life and I thought that the style expressed this.
The interconnectedness of the purpose of poetry and prose as genres made it possible to mix poetry and prose throughout the text. Each serves a purpose in the text as at times I felt the poetry expressed the meaning better. Some people who read Syria Fragments referred to it a memoire, and this lead me to consider that the mixing of genres reflected also the book’s content as in fragmented identity, fragmented homeland and fragmented memory. In this way, the poetry and prose became pieces that reflecting the book’s content so without the poetry it would not have expressed all what I wanted to say in the book.
I wrote the poetry and the prose at different points in time, some pieces overlapped and others did not, such as some of the poems which were several years old. The varying timeframes made me consider how to organize the manuscript and how best to do it to reflect the book’s themes, content, and my experience. A friend reviewing the manuscript in the early stages of combining the text organized it into neat bounded chapters and I found myself at odds with that manuscript. I could not relate to it and was this very refusal to the boundedness of chapters that made me realize how I wanted the manuscript to be. It made me aware of the organic flow of the writing and the moments where a reader needs to catch their breath or linger. Preserving the flow of the text was key to the book reflecting the soul of the writing.
Since I was a teenage I always wrote my diaries in English and back then I did not see it as something unnatural. The confrontation or awareness came when I published my first book in Syria in English and my mother who does not know English wanted to read it. That always stuck with me, the sense that I am excluding a part of myself and my identity in writing in English. However, writing in English was never a question or a matter of consideration for me, it was a given, and it only came up at that moment when I wanted to share my poetry with my family and since the publication of Syria Fragments when I was asked more than once about why I write in English.
Language though is not the only point of fracture or confrontation. In Syria Fragments, I draw a lot from moments of is confrontation, not necessarily argument, but confrontation and dissonance. Most of these moments are my inspiration to write and convey the nuances and subtleties. Language is one aspect of this, as writing in English is not due to a lack in the Arabic language but perhaps over time the language we express best in comes to seep into us. At the same time, Arabic terms and references are present throughout the book as I draw on themes and ideas from the colloquial terms of Syria or formal Arabic terms.
Why I think this book about Syria relates to everyone? Why I think reaching out to people who may or may not be familiar with Syria will also relate to the book?
Even though the experiences are particular to me as a Syrian national and a Syrian national living in Istanbul who came as a student and then became a refugee, even if the circumstances are bound by the specificities of the context, I believe it is relevant to many people living elsewhere, people of different identities, different experience of refuge. The experience of transformation in time, or life changes in a fast and unpredicted manner is something that can be comprehended across boundaries. Even people in ‘normal’ circumstances can experience a change due to death or loss, so Syria Fragments relates to them too regardless of the boundaries of identity or region.
As a book dealing with the limitation of belonging, I move beyond the details that I am from Syria and present in Istanbul to the abstract that I am a human being exposed to all these circumstances and uncertainties. This focus on uncertainty also influenced the title as the uncertainty created by my experiences of the war and exile fragmented my reality and ties, and those of many around me. It made me reconsider what I had taken as solid ground, and so Syria Fragments is a way of highlighting that we are trying to hold the fragments together or gather them up into a semblance once more even if different from the point of initiation.
Language though is an aspect and I describe writing in English as a form of schizophrenia but while never saying, I seem to forgive myself for it since through English I communicate feelings and moments in ways perhaps I could not in Arabic in the same manner.
An avid lover of coffee, cats and Istanbul, Rana Abdulfattah is from Damascus and currently lives in Istanbul. Tiger and Clay is her first book.
About Syrian Fragments: Tiger and Clay
A moving collection of poetry and memoir by Rana Abdulfattah, a young Syrian woman writing in exile in Istanbul. In the collection, Rana charts the destructive effects of never being permitted to go home, and takes the reader on her emotional journey towards a measure of peace.
In Tiger and Clay: Syria Fragments, Rana Abdulfattah mixes poetry and prose to present her experiences of exile, love and loss in Istanbul. Abdulfattah, originally from Syria, speaks about her life in Istanbul since the start of the war in Syria. In the process, she offers an intimate insight into what it means to watch the destruction and war from afar; an insight tinged with the inescapable change that war brings.
Humanitarianism, NGOs, and the bureaucracy of legality all meet within the pages of the book as she faces them in her daily life. Istanbul in its mosques, cats and historical streets takes prime place as Abdulfattah manages to convey her love for this city that has become her home. Love and longing are intertwined throughout the book as she struggles with love lost and another regained. The book is ultimately a testament to human resilience.
Category: On Writing