I read my mother's poems thinking of Syria


Some of these drawings share a "Syrian connotation", especially from the uprising perspective. But most of them could represent anyone, anywhere, as they show Syrian people as human beings first. I would have never imagined that one day I might co-author a project as an illustrator with my mom as a poet, seeing us becoming two artists who can communicate with each other just through their art in defiance of time.

01 January 2019

© Claudia Avolio
Claudia Avolio

Claudia Avolio is an Italian author of translations, writings and illustrations.

When my mother Vincenza passed away in November 2016, I read her poems with both her eyes and mine. How deep their meaning sounded now, and suddenly so clear.

"I want to illustrate her poems", I thought soon after that. But to feel even more connected to her words, I needed to draw from a second source of love: Syria.

In fact, I have been translating articles about Syria since 2013. And although I was never able to visit the country, I always say that Syria came to visit me.

At the time, I was going through a period of darkness, feeling no one could take my hand and pull me out of the black hole that engulfed me.

But then I started being more aware about the revolution and what Syrians were experiencing. In particular, the events unfolding in Yarmouk camp during the siege gave me a flash of insight into a pain greater and deeper than my own, while also allowing me to air my own wounds. In their stories shared through social media, I found an unexpected place to breathe. Listening and being listened to, turned my individual grief into the possibility of a collective reflection and growth.

At some point I felt that translating and writing was not enough anymore: I needed a more immediate way to try to convey messages of solidarity, to inform and to make people think. That's what pushed me to start drawing for Yarmouk first, and then for the rest of Syria too. Indeed, all I illustrated before the passing of my mother are mostly Syrian people stories - the only stories that were able to connect my hand to my head and both to my heart.

So I decided to illustrate her poems as if they originally spoke of Syrian people.

My aim was both to show that Syria is not distant from our lives wherever we may be and to remind myself that poetry and art in general have the power to embrace the whole of humanity.

In the end, it was exactly the work of Syrian and Palestinian Syrian artists that taught me how powerful an association of ideas may be when the encounter of two concepts generates a vibrant third element. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for how their art offers a new way of looking at things.

The astonishing graphic designs by Ahmad al Arabi and Abed Naji gave me a big push to start expressing myself in a visual way with the use of few, effective words. The extremely witty and sensitive cartoons of Hani Abbas and Mahmoud Salameh always seem to suggest that if we consider what we see from a new perspective, we can find the perfect balance between different levels of reality. The visionary drawings of Imad al Wahibi taught me not to fear to express my authentic self and the delightful, imaginative creations of Somar Sallam made me love the use of colour.

It took me one year to create and collect almost 140 drawings, including some old ones. The illustrations that came out of this artistic experiment can be roughly divided into four groups of images featuring:

• Syrian people
• People of my life
• People whose work focuses on Syria
• People I imagined

Some of these drawings share a "Syrian connotation", especially from the uprising perspective. But most of them could represent anyone, anywhere, as they show Syrian people as human beings first. I would have never imagined that one day I might co-author a project as an illustrator with my mom as a poet, seeing us becoming two artists who can communicate with each other just through their art in defiance of time.

Only Syria could make me such a gift.

If I were born a tree

 (September 1st, 1978)

If I were born a tree
scratches and scars
would fill my bark
and cutting my trunk
no one would see
if I am young or old
counting its circles.
If I were born a tree
some of my branches
would be broken
by thunderous rains
of autumn
and there would be
dried leaves
and no memories
of flowers,
no nests and no laughters
of kids.
If I were born a tree
and I were to look at
myself
I would think that
there's nothing to do
anymore,
that I will be a table,
a chair or the warmth
of a fire,
but no rustling fronds
in the wind anymore.

Though, stubborn,
a gem is about to be born.

This drawing replicates the dramatic moments experienced by two nurses after a children hospital was attacked in East Aleppo, in November 2016. I was moved by the video footage and depicted what Al Jazeera described as follows: "In another room, nurses grabbed babies from damaged incubators, with one staff member using a cloth to protect a visibly undernourished child before trying to console a weeping colleague, who was also carrying a newborn."

In their hug I felt the most authentic expression of sisterhood. In the nurse's attempt to help and encourage her colleague, in her colleague's tears and reciprocation of the hug, that precious "gem is about to be born.” It's the gem of knowing that you resisted, that nothing could take you away from your mission, and that you are together. From Syria, I learnt that grief is a region where all those who experience it can meet and share the burden they bear. In front of the helplessness that enchains our hearts in its grip, when we feel nothing is under our control anymore, sometimes the only resource we still have is the human encounter. That's why the hug of these two women is not only a painful scene and a disgrace for the indifference of the world, but even a lesson of high value.

I painted

I painted the sun
on the walls of winter
but it wasn't enough
to stop feeling cold.
I painted a smile
on my sad face
but it wasn't enough
to be happy

The first two verses of this poem are written on my mom's grave inscription for they perfectly describe what she had to do throughout her life. The young boy in my drawing is Hassan Rabeh (25), an extremely passionate and talented Syrian dancer who during the war in his country had found refuge in Beirut. In 2016, he "committed suicide by throwing himself from a seventh floor balcony of an apartment in Hamra Street in Beirut", as Al Araby Al Jadid reported back then.

I remember reading the news about this boy whom I didn't know and immediately looking for his performances online. One short clip had a scene in which he gave the illusion of hitting a wall with his head, and perfectly simulated the recoil effect with all of his body. This inspired my drawing. As so many Syrian artists like him, Hassan’s beautiful talent gave him the power to "draw the sun on the walls of winter" as my mom wrote. In my mind flowers grew on the wall from his efforts. "But it wasn't enough to stop feeling cold…". This poem also reminds me of the Syrian prisoners and of those who feel imprisoned, and so, I dedicate it to them.

My story

My story is the story
of many:
one day I was born
out of Love or by chance,
little white stone
in the infinite sea;
I grew up slowly
with games and fears,
the anxiety in my body
to be adult.
Then, suddenly
I realized I was a woman
as a flower that becomes
a fruit
and I looked at my body
blossoming, at my heart
becoming warmer
and trembling at every
sweet feeling.
Then pain came
to look for me
and I accepted it
as the tree accepts
each autumn
to lose its leaves.
And finally Love
reached my port
little boat with golden sails,
I was happy, but then
a storm stole all I had.
I was empty and I wanted
to die, but the courage
to go on I suddenly found
again
looking at a bird
tearing off its feathers
to build its nest.
Today I am
the one I was yesterday
and tomorrow I don't think
that I will change:
a daydreamer, a crazy girl
or maybe, who knows,
a woman who stayed childlike,
who will receive a lot
for the nothing she gives.

This illustration was born as a tribute to the work of the White Helmets, when hospitals were attacked in areas like East Aleppo, and as a declaration of love to the act of survival. At the same time, I felt the need to give a delicate though bitter representation and space to those who lost their lives, too. I'm so fond of this little Syrian child whom I imagined had survived who knows how many attacks. In the middle of that "storm" that "stole all I had", the beautiful image of a bird appears: the child I drew becomes that resilient bird. I perfectly remember the day I had the idea for this drawing: I had argued with my family, and the discussion had left such a heavy burden on my heart. I took the pencil and started to draw. Initially, I had put a smile on that little Syrian girl face. But then, I rebelled and said to myself: "No. She is sad and shocked, I must allow her to be so". Learning how to transform my own feelings into something that could so strongly relate to Syria was a turning point in my artistic practice.

When I went to bed that night, I was holding the pencil in my hand, as something to grasp, or the only thing that could understand me in that moment. Syrian stories made me feel this way many, many times. That's why gratitude became my mother tongue in my communication with Syria.

A distant friend

A distant friend
is like the winter sun
that illuminates without warming you,
is like one single rain drop
for the dry, thirsty soil.
A distant friend
is like a memory of love
that is not enough to fill your life
but that you need to hope again.
A distant friend who comes back
is like a burnt plant
that all of a sudden
starts to blossom again.

When people were forced to leave East Aleppo in December 2016, someone took a picture that showed the scene I drew in this illustration. I want to send all my gratitude to the person who took that picture and whose identity I don't know. People are leaving, but in doing so they're leaving traces with their colourful pencil-shaped feet that all together form the word Torneremo (it means "We will be back" in Italian). I chose that word not by chance: in those days it was being written in Arabic on the walls by the same people who were leaving. I feel the poem describes in such a simple way what it means to be "far" and how the quenchless thirst for what or whom we left takes root in us. Just the idea of coming back or reuniting can bring that "burnt plant" back to blossom. I can now imagine that colourful word written on the ground as a seed in this sense.

You and me

You and me
sitting on the stairs
three street lamps as stars.
You and me
the two faces close together
you looked into my eye
and I blushed.
There was smell of garlic and smoke
in the air.
You took my hand
and asked me if I was shaking
while a distant child was singing a song.
You know, I would never have imagined
that love could be
so sweet and terrible.

My mom wrote about her first love in a very simple way here. That final adjective used to define love as "so terrible" resonated in me at a deep level. So I imagined two Syrian lovers taking a selfie of a moment together, but from the phone we realize something is happening in that same moment of sweetness: the city is facing shelling. This illustration is dedicated to all the people who endured war finding strength in their love. They have been a constant source of inspiration and hope to me.

Self-portrait

I am a weird girl
to talk is not my best
but I have a far-sight
and I know my fate well.
I am a sad girl
I don't laugh so often
but on magazines I've read
that it's just my age
and that it's not that bad.
I am a pessimist and I see all dark
but I have the soul of an artist
and I love the whole world.
I know there are many people
who don't like me at all,
I am a bit lunatic,
lazy and indolent too.
These are my flaws
but it comforts me to know
that no one is perfect
in this crazy world.

© Claudia Avolio

This poem could have been written by a Syrian young girl and the illustration could depict four Syrian friends.  In this self-portrait, I am surrounded by my own old friends from school, whose friendship I cherish to this day. I chose to portray us to show the power of identification and empathy.

My mom had to deal with illness almost throughout her life. She was given the role of the victim. That's why when she writes "I have the soul of an artist" it sounds so powerful to me, because how important can for a young woman be to recognize that illness is just one single part of her story and that many more exist in her? To talk about herself as an artist arrives to me like a scream from the soul of all those Syrians who have been confined to the role of victims. People who have talents and stories to tell.

The poet Vincenza as a child (courtesy of Claudia Avolio)

November 29, '76

The sound of lime and bricks,
someone blows his nose,
coughing,
a woman prays in a low voice.
Who thinks that pain
is not a dark suit to show off
moves away and maybe cries
but as a man.
Today it should be raining
and it's sunny instead,
the eternal, same old struggle
between life and death
and as usual death wins
life is never defeated, though.
Greetings, kisses, hugs
a pale smile gave as a gift
from who has got no more than this.
Then we go back home,
lonelier, a little sadder.
Now memories begin.

© Claudia Avolio

The poem must be about someone who died, although I ignore who my mother meant. I couldn't believe it when I read its date: my mother wrote this exactly forty years before the day of her own funeral.That day too, there was a sun I will never forget.

I associated these verses to the first illustration that was inspired to me by a story of SyriaUntold. It was a tribute to the article 'Widows Struggle to Overcome Poverty and Discrimination' by Huda Yahya, translated by Lilah Khoja (November 7, 2016).

I had been working on the drawing just few days before my mom's death, and the whole story helped me to see her departure as a return to her own freedom, in the shape of that same butterfly that in my illustration unites those Syrian women who becoming widows had to reinvent their lives.

They left me silence

 (October 16, 1977)

The jubilant bells
left me silence
after ending my sleep.
The clock ticks
and invites me to wake up.
I opened the window
because the cold of October
was knocking.
My same old life:
I wash myself, I get dressed,
some make-up of joy
on my not so much joyful face.
I improvise a grimace
at the mirror
and suddenly I feel happy
as when I was a child
and dreamt of weeks
made of seven Sundays.
Today is a holiday
and the world rests.
I'd like to make
my thoughts, my cares,
my unforgotten, never turned off sorrows
rest as well.
Sometimes it's nice,
after wild races on stony, steep paths,
to stop and catch our breath.

When I made this illustration, I was thinking of Yarmouk's families who were still inside the camp when it was besieged. In the scene I created, I felt the need to let the sky be a source of awe and peace, even if only for some moments. No bombs falling down, no terror, no threats: I was dreaming that the sky could just be the sky again. From the heart of the siege, many of the Palestinian Syrian photographers I got in touch with through social media in the last years portrayed sunsets, dawns, rainbows, the moon, doves. They shared such a poetic, sensitive ability to look at the gifts of light even in times of war.

Reading this poem also reminded me of the colourful events the activists of Yarmouk were able to create for the end of Ramadan (Eid al Fitr): hours of joy that were symbolically able to defy the harshest of sieges in such a generous and resilient way.

The final verses of my mom's poem ("Sometimes it's nice, / after wild races on stony, steep paths, / to stop and catch our breath.") are an emotional reminder to me of all the times in these years people in Syria struggled to create activities where beauty, community and humanity could take each other's hands and catch their breath.

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