by Ammar Haj Ahmad
It was the summer of 1998. I was excitedly packing my bag to go to Homs, travelling from my home town by the Euphrates river. The river is also known as Furat in Arabic and the adjective Furati is ascribed to every one who lives by or drinks from the waters of al-Furat in Syria and Iraq. I could not wait to meet Lara in the students’ poetry competition in Homs. Lara was 18 and I was 16. I had met her earlier that year in Aleppo where I attended another competition and three days was enough for me to know that I had found the love of my life. Of course, why not think that way? For me at that time everything outside my tiny hometown was international and mysterious…and to meet a girl from a different city and to fall in love was a triumph!
I arrived in Homs with my ripped “Adibas” bag, a rubbish copy of Adidas…that black Adibas bag was the same one I used when I went fishing, played basketball and most importantly when my friends and I went camping 100 or so feet away from our neighborhood.
I fetched the keys from the reception of the campus and I ran to my room, or rather our room, as we were three students from different cities in the same space. I put on some cheap deodorant, stowed my bag away, and walked quickly, each step the size of three. I looked for new comers to the competition. Some I knew, others were unknown to me. I still remember my outfit, how could I forget it?! We used to think that we were the best writers in the whole world: all the guys had the same Che-Guevara-Bonnet without a star, and a long scarf around the neck, hoping to grow a beard soon and have a pipe and the girls, all of them, didn’t like make up and loved to look sad!
“Lara is not coming” one of the ‘future-poets’ told me, without looking into my eyes, as if he wanted to exploit the moment for poetic purposes. I tried to digest or at least understand this brief piece of news that my friend had poured into me like boiling oil. It was only for a short time, a glimpse, before a girl broke the moment running in to tell us that Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati, the great Iraqi poet, was going to give us a two-part lecture on how to refine and polish our writing.
“This is absolutely insane! The timing is unbelievable!” I thought as not only had I never dreamt of meeting the great man in person, but the last letter I had sent to Lara was not actually a letter but a poem that Al-Bayyati had written to a girl also named Lara, which expressed my feelings towards ‘my’ Lara. At that moment one decision remained flapping its wings around my head: whether or not to travel back to my hometown, as I was simply terrified. But also how to find Lara and ask her where she was? I had no cellphone or phone-booth to call her from. Me, the sixteen-year old, Adibas poet! During this moment (which at the time I experienced as pure suffering) a fragment of Al-Bayyati’s poem burst through my head like an arrow:
I am exiled to my memory,
Imprisoned in my own words
I wander aimlessly under the rain and shout: Lara!
And the terrified wind responds: “Lara!”
In the Al-Hambra Palace,
In the rooms of the King’s fair harem,
I hear an Oriental ‘oud and the crying of a gazelle.
Awed, I approach the Arabic letters plaited with a thousand flowers.
I hear moaning,
Lara, is under the seven moons and the shining light,
She invites me to bring my face closer to hers. I cry feverishly
But a hand stretches out and throws me into a well of darkness,
Leaving behind on the carpet my harp and a ray of light from a dead morning…)
“She did not leave her address” the manager of the theatre said,
As a sixteen year old it was fascinating for me to grasp this specific understanding of love, the ‘Furati’ one, where love is a tsunami that threatens to completely destroy life or create paradise and turn everything into utter happiness. In this vision, emotions are described openly and courageously, embracing the vulnerability of the Furati Lover.
Al-Bayyati was one of four Iraqi poets, along with Nazek Almlaekah, Bader Shaker Al-Sayyab and Shazel Taqah, whose work challenged the rules of the classical Arabic poem to create free verse inspired by the measures and music of images, rather than the conventional metres of classical Arabic poetry (known as bouhour). This approach creates imagery without boundaries or borders and gives the poet a stellar canvas to paint on with a brush made out of a planet or two!
In this poem, I am born then I am burned, dedicated to Lara, Al-Bayyati does exactly that, through the repetitive engine of words like crying, looking, suffering, dying, begging, losing, running without direction. He allows his vulnerability to be exposed in front of the lover, escaping the traditional image of the man, replacing strength with courage. By allowing his soul to speak freely, he paints the true colours of the human spirit.
Did I have similar feelings towards ‘my’ Lara? Did I feel the same rushing to Homs to see her, and then deciding just as quickly to go back to my hometown because I wanted to escape the tragedy of her failure to show up?
That meeting with Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati took place just a few months before he passed away. I learned a lot from him, especially how to write freely, yet with authenticity. I never told him about Lara. The overwhelmed, scared, weak and insecure teenager inside me kept everything to himself.
It is almost sixteen years since this story took place.
I never heard from Lara after that.
And now while I’m here in London, nearly half of Homs has been destroyed.
Only the poem is alive and dynamic, like water.
Ammar Haj Ahmad is a Syrian actor and poet based in London.
©Ammar Haj Ahmad and A.M. Qattan Foundation, 2014