Faraj Bayraqdar: Intellectuals Are Last-Line Defenders of Revolutions

Culture is a vessel that holds the ferment of societies in terms of tradition, present and future, and that's why I don't see it as the first line of defense.

18 December 2016

Muhammad Dibo

Current editor-in-chief of SyriaUntold (Arabic). He is a Syrian poet, writer and researcher interested in Syrian culture and economy. Dibo's latest work is an autobiographical book, "Like He Who Witnesses His Own Death," about his experience in prison during the early days of the Syrian uprising. He is a regular contributor in many Arab and international newspapers.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

Faraj Bayraqdar is a Syrian poet, journalist and former political prisoner who was incarcerated for 13 years for belonging to the Communist Action Party (CAP). At a time when speaking up came at a hefty price, poetry was his weapon against his jailers, and it resonated with the world to prove that a man of resistance can still create inside prison.

He is also a winner of the Hellman/Hammett award 1998, the 1999 American PEN Freedom-to-Write award, and the 2004 NOVIB Free Word Award. In 2005, Bayraqdar left Syria for Sweden, where he currently lives.

SyriaUntold interviewed him about the role of intellectuals in the Syrian uprising. His answers conveyed a rational and willful optimism that was only surpassed by his cultural experience, which his repeated incarceration failed to tame. Exile has only brought him closer to his home country, Syria, which he still dreams he will visit again one day.

He spoke to SyriaUntold about his experiences, his activities and his activism that serve the Syrian revolution, in a senseless world that has turned a blind eye to the conflict.

SyriaUntold: You are now more of an intellectual than a politician, but also one of the few poets whose verses appeared on banners at anti-regime demonstrations. Yet in general, it seems like Syrian intellectuals struggle to grasp the reality on the ground. So what do you have to say about the effectiveness of intellectuals in the time of a revolution?

Faraj Bayraqdar: When I wrote what I wrote, it never occurred to me that I would see it written on banners at demonstrations in Syria. I was trying to belong to our people, nothing more, nothing less.

But seeing my work at the demonstrations was more than I ever dreamed about. I believe culture to be the last stand at the fighting trenches of resistance. If it manifested itself in the first, second or third [stand], then that's ok.

[Photo: A sign seen at a demonstration in Aleppo with a few verses from the work of Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar - 11-8-2012 (Bayraqdar's Facebook page)].
Setting up a culture and establishing its role needs time and patience; it's an accumulation. I might be one of the lucky few who were able to see firsthand the result of their work in a short period of time. However, culture is a vessel that holds the ferment of societies in terms of tradition, present and future, and that's why I don't see it as the first line of defense.

Despite all the confusion and problems, I believe that culture and Syrian intellectuals are currently carrying out their roles, which will be bigger and a lot more complicated in the future. Historically speaking, the role of culture is long-term and retrospective, and this doesn't contradict [Italian neo-Marxist theorist and politician Antonio] Gramsci's talk on the role of the ʻorganic intellectualʼ.

In realistic terms, if a fighter and an intellectual met at a fateful crossroads in time, then most probably the fighter would win. The latter gets no credit for having the insight to see things as they are or the consequences before they happen.

The intellectual has to be strong in terms of thoughts, analysis and emotions. However, we shouldn't burden culture and intellectuals more than they can bear. If an intellectual veered in his or her position with regards to freedom, dignity and justice in their general, rational and humane sense, then we ought to condemn them.

I think that most Syrian intellectuals are pro-revolution, Let me give you an example: in 2012, the Syrian Writers League was established. It included over 300 writers, including some of the most prominent in Syria. It's true that the association lacks support because any support given should be unconditional. However, it managed to strip the regime of its power to talk in the name of over 300 authors.

Creativity doesn't settle for anything less than beauty. Politics tries to beautify and politicizing is the degradation of politics.

Unlike many of your friends and brothers in arms during your incarceration and struggle, you didn't engage in political writing. You stuck to poetry and literature. And when it came to Syria, you were happy with writing on Facebook your opinions to clarify your stance on the current events. How efficient is Faraj Bayraqdar as a revolutionary then, so to speak?

I am not very active on Facebook, not because I'm not interested, but because I sometimes don't get the time to check it due to my busy schedule. And what I keep busy with is not separate from the Syrian revolution. I have hundreds of lectures, festivals, conferences, and interviews in Europe regarding the Syrian revolution.

I'm trying to convey the truth to the European public. My book about my time in prison [ʻBetrayals of Language and Silenceʼ, 2011] has been translated into many languages, and it talks about the oppression of the Asad regime from father to son. The book has also been turned into a play and shown in both Swedish and Italian. So now, do you think this is just Facebook?

[Photo: Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar and author Hussam Itani at a lecture in Norrköping, Sweden. Published on 22-1-2015 (Bayraqdar's official Facebook page)].
I know that I can lecture and that I'm safe in Europe, but what am I supposed to do when I've been here for the last 11 years? I'm not making excuses for anyone...This is the extent of my ability.

A lot of political prisoners spent years in detention and ʻgraduatedʼ as intellectuals or active in the cultural realm, whether in writing, translation or creativity. They moved from being political to being intellectual. However, unlike many of your friends, you were a known intellectual before your arrest. You entered politics, then you quit to return to your first love. What has prison given you on the intellectual level? Do you consider yourself as a person who became an ʻintellectualʼ prisoner, so to speak, or was your cultural makeup already there when you were incarcerated?

I think my cultural make-up began forming in high school and during my university years. Prison gave me dead time which was not possible to make use of when I was at Tadmur Prison. But things were difference in the Saidnaya Prison, where the administration allowed us to buy and bring in any book with the approval seal from the al-Asad Library.

There I spent some years, and I read new material and re-read some books. My cultural makeup preceded my imprisonment, however, prison set me free of the judgments I had about poetry and poetic form, but also in aspects of politics and life... I simply started writing monometric (ʻamudi) poetry, prose and free verse (tafʻilah) poetry without paying attention to the rules, unless it served a purpose in the poem itself.

There is another important issue that one doesn't really note, mainly because it's a given. The life shared, the conversations had and the diverse experiences of hundreds of inmates who live together for many years...That alone is a rich and diverse source of culture.

The unity of Syria is seriously in question today. Do you believe that the country with its current borders is capable of going back to what it once was? And if so, how?

Certainly, I don't believe dividing up Syria is a solution regardless of its form, and I don't believe that's the choice of most Syrians. But I don't worry about this topic at the moment. What's more important now is the fall of the regime, and then we can find a solution to everything.

[Photo: Faraj Bayraqdar at an anti-Syrian regime protest outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm - 2-4-2011 (Bayraqdar's official Facebook page)].
Germany was partitioned under unfair conditions set by the Allies, yet now it is unified and is one of the strongest European states. France wasn't able to partition Syria at the turn of the 20th century. So why would others be able to do so now? And should separation be forced on Syrians, what is stopping them from reunifying later on?

In one of your poems, you write: "It's not my life if it's not worth dying for." In that poem, you celebrate life, but reading it today in light of all the death happening in Syria, I find myself thinking about death, our own death... Does freedom deserve all this death?

Freedom, my friend, as you know, is the most precious treasure in human history. I don't say this as a former inmate, but as a human being and as a poet. If you're not free, then your life is death. A dead life isn't worthy of death.

[Main photo: Poet Faraj Bayraqdar in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Published on 5-8-2013 (Bayraqdar's official Facebook page)].

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