Speaking His Mind: An Interview with the Poet of Za’atri

Originally published by Between Borders on 17 January 2017. Available here.

Between Borders sat with Amjad Al-Masri, a Syrian refugee and poet who runs a library in Zaatari Refugee Camp, to talk about his story, about his past, and about the interaction of poetry, personal development, and psychological trauma.

Zaatari Camp
Zaatari Camp, Mafraq, Jordan. May 2015.

Tall and painstakingly well-dressed for each day at work in his library, Amjad spends much of his time balancing recollection and forgetting—an act intimately familiar for many who have suffered violence. The last time Amjad and I met, he was sitting at his desk quietly reciting lines from a collection of Mahmoud Darwish poems. In a place that would gladly remove the vibrancy from the soul of most men, Amjad oversees a library that is, ostensibly, an act of defiance in the Za’atri Camp for Syrian refugees in Mafraq, Jordan, where he offers his art, and his personal story, to help younger generations deal with their experiences in Syria and in the camp.

In Syria, poetry was a side hobby for Amjad. He was a student, first and foremost, and almost lost his life in the early days of the conflict. At his family home in Dara’a, his bedroom was full of notebooks filled with unfinished novels, romantic notes to unrequited loves á la Nizar Qabbani, and inner monologues about hope, nostalgia, passion, and sensuality. In early 2013, as the conflict intensified in Southern Syria, Amjad fled to Jordan, leaving behind his life as a student and abandoning his notebooks in a house now destroyed. Arriving with just a suitcase, Amjad made a home for himself in Za’atri, where he now runs literary and writing activities at the Questscope Youth Center, funded by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA Jordan).

Each day, dozens of young men and women come to Amjad’s library, some in search of knowledge, some seeking to express themselves on paper, and others in search of a quiet space to sit and think or finish homework. For any and all these needs, Amjad tries to serve, knowing full well—often to the point of tears—the extent to which writing has been critical to his survival in the years since he left his home, his books, and his loves behind. Like countless therapists unknown to him, Amjad has used poetry as an outlet for both self-expression and advocacy after a life of front line loss, and has found fertile ground among young Syrians eager to speak and write what is on their minds, and what troubles their hearts. Many organizations around Amjad have made effort to connect him to bigger and better resources for this type of therapy, though Amjad’s personal journey remains his greatest asset above and beyond any specialized training.

Amjad’s aims, and his means, are part of a rich history of therapeutic poetry, even if unbeknownst to him. In 1917, British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen famously and mockingly appropriated a line from Homer, suggesting that those who had seen the horrors of WWI’s trenches would never dare repeat the phrase “Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria moriIt is sweet and right to die for one’s country. Despite his critiques of the war, Owen continued to write and criticize while in active service, partially at the suggestion of his Edinburgh-based therapist, Arthur Brock, who urged Owen to translate his lived experiences and traumas into poetry as a way to deal with “shell-shock.”

Mentor and friend to Owen, Siegfried Sassoon was, similarly, a decorated British soldier and a virulent anti-war activist, known for his recklessness on the front lines. Like Owen, Sassoon spoke out harshly against the war and its effects on soldiers—carrying as evidence himself, his friend Owen, and countless others subjected to experimental treatments for their “shell shock.” Sassoon, too, eventually made his way back to the front lines where he authored a number of wrenching poems about the impact of war on memory, mind, and country. His poem “Aftermath” reads:

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Now arguably the most famous of the WWI poets, Owen and Sassoon emblemize a generation of young men whose experiences in infamous battlefields inspired poetry laced with sharp criticism, deep cynicism, and confusion about the state of the world and the state of the soldier during and after the First World War. Intimately familiar with post-traumatic stress, Owen and Sassoon fought and suffered in an era less in which clinicians were less aware—beyond the observational level—of the mind and body’s response to the trauma of armed conflict. Indeed, WWI-era research on shell shock greatly contributed to our modern understanding of PTSD, but the WWI poets—albeit unintentionally—pioneered what has since come to be called poetry therapy, or basically the marriage of poetry and self-care in the context of trauma (see Mazza, 2003 for a review of poetry therapy/bibliotherapy).

Born of the necessity for effective and innovative coping, war poetry has since informed countless techniques that seek to use poetry—and narrative more broadly—in service of exploration and treatment of various forms of psychological trauma (see Malchiodi, 2014; see also Journal of Poetry Therapy). Among practitioners, the practice of narrative expression broadly complements some of the fundamental aims of post-trauma recovery, including the restoration of a sense of control and agency (see Herman, 1997). Specifically, practitioners suggest, the ideation, creation, and verbalization that are central to the process of narrative expression confer agency to the author, and, as Psychiatrist Robert Carroll (2005) says, also provide a degree of psychological distance between the person and their pain. While empirical evidence has yet to indisputably verify a causal benefit of poetry in trauma recovery and coping, entities like the National Association for Poetry Therapy, Proprioceptive Writing, and Expressive Arts Therapy degree programs suggest that intuition and science are rapidly converging and that there is growing support for narrative practice as a form of, or complement to, trauma therapy.

Removed from Sassoon and Owen by decades, and thousands of miles from the hubs of modern bibliotherapy, Amjad Al-Masri follows the legacy and purpose these World War I poets, working on the front lines of therapeutic interventions with those affected by war. Between Borders interviewed Amjad about his work, about his past, and about how he continues to innovate hope and coping for those who he encounters.

Amjad Al-Masri in the Questscope-UNFPA Youth Center Library, January 2016.

BB: When did your love and appreciation of poetry begin? What role did it play in your life before the conflict?

AM: Well, I can’t say that I was a poet, per se, as a child. I’d say I was just a young romantic, a young secret admirer. My story with writing began at an early age when I would save everything that I would write, especially poems from school that I had written for “that girl” that I had fallen in love with from my chair across the elementary school classroom.

You know, there was always a great emotional energy inside me, an energy that had no other outlet other than writing. Though, writing poetry was not met with much encouragement at that young age, and I think that stifled my writing early on. The impact of that lack of encouragement was obvious, as I really had no way to move beyond the limited stockpile of words I had at my disposal. But, these hurdles didn’t stop me from writing and memorizing poetry.

Okay, perhaps I was writing for a girl, but over time, I began to need to write, as an outlet and expression for my desires that I could neither act on nor resist. I decided that I had to develop my poetic arsenal, because the words I had at my disposal could not articulate my feelings well. For anyone who wants to write well, the obvious and natural first step is to learn to read and interpret internal feelings—the things that lie behind my, and others’, eyes—as a way to develop the appropriate words. As I sought to improve my writing, I began to read some of the books that my father kept in our house. Luckily, he was very interested in poetry, so I began to devour those books. And, basically, that’s how my life took this turn, and, as I grow, I carry in me the same young kid who wrote poems from his school desk.

BB: How did the role of poetry change in your life during and after the conflict in Syria?

AM: Writing is just one of many creative paths, and within every person there is some degree of creativity. We are all born creative, but perhaps just different degrees. Sometimes, we need some specific event to ignite that creativity or turn on the valves of that fountain. But, when this disruptive event in someone’s life is tragic in nature, the creativity awakened by it has a different taste, a different color. So, it would be wrong to say that the war changed the role of poetry in my life, but rather that the recent events in my beloved Syria changed the trajectory my poetic evolution.

Just like when I was a young boy in school and I had no outlet to express my emotions, except through writing, writing has been my salvation from depression and from the sadness I feel for what is happening in my country. For me, writing was where I found refuge when people were seeking safety during the war. I saw countless scenes of bloodshed that disturbed me deeply, and what I saw unearthed words from within me that made their way to my small notebook and serve as indicators of my pain.

I have invested time fighting the wounds and loss of war with my pen. Initially, I wrote for myself, and I guess for others who cannot write, but I’ve now begun to write a great deal, chronicling the effects of this catastrophe in Syria.

BB: In your opinion, what is the relationship between poetry and an individual’s psychology? Do you think poetry can play a role in coping with trauma?

AM: In my opinion, writing plays an important role in the process of achieving emotional balance and taking care of personal mental health. My experience—the journey of leaving Syria behind and fleeing for asylum—was deeply traumatic. At first, I found it very difficult to get used to this new label I had been given—refugee—this label which has shaken my world and my view of myself, of those around me, and of everything around me.

When I arrived in the camp, I felt an intense longing for my homeland and for the family I left behind, and once again the only outlet I had was writing. So, I resorted to my pen and my paper, and I began to write, reflecting on this whole journey. The writing process changed my perspective on this place, and the conditions in the camp, giving my writing a different taste, like I said earlier. My writing is now characterized by deep feelings of longing, but also hope for my eventual return. My writing became my medicine for the pain of the refugee journey. So yes, definitely, I think that writing is one of the many possible treatment options for people who suffer from anxiety, stress, and deep traumas—from my experience, at least.

BB: I remember when you once quoted to me an expression along the lines of “the pen is stronger than the sword….” What do you mean when you say that?

AM: The pen is stronger than the sword. Of course. I think that hits the nail on the head, because over the centuries, no weapon has ever been strong enough to silence the pen. And honestly, isn’t the bigger war we all face the war for culture, for minds? See, a weapon harms once, with limited impact, whereas words have continued impact perhaps for millions of years.

Take for example the Holy Books, when they were recorded here, on earth. Imagine if they hadn’t been written down, if we simply never wrote down these words that guide our laws, guide our paths, and show us our limitations—we would have gone extinct, or would live in darkness and ignorance. We use words to write the documents that end wars between two states, whereas the use of weapons to end a war completely destroys one or the other. Think about it, how many great minds lifted a pen to draft words, and how many great minds have been destroyed by a single bullet?

Amjad Al-Masri, “The Poet of Za’atri,” May 2016.

BB: Can you tell us a bit how all of this plays a role in your work with young people in the library?

AM: I work with a number of children and young people, and whenever I start with then I have no details about their past experiences. But, for me to do my job well—for me to be successful and unique in what I do—I try to uncover as much as I can about them, and their past. I use creative writing activities with the majority of young people I work with, and as they write about themselves and their lives, I get a closer look at them, their past, and their attitudes. I invest my hobby and my skills in writing to work with these young people, usually with positive results. Of course, not every kid that I spend time with uses writing the same way—no doctor would give the same medication of all diseases.

For Amjad, poetry is not the panacea for his or anyone else’s mental health. He recognizes it, however, as in important part of his personal journey, a journey he willingly and vulnerably shares with others in the hope that it will resonate. In that space of displayed vulnerability, Amjad shares the stage with many who have come before him—like Owen and Sassoon—whose personal tragedies and sufferings, and unresolved traumas, mobilized others for good and filled in silences with words longing and needing to be spoken.

In Arabic, the word for “poem” comes from the same root as the word for “intention.” Interestingly, the entire ethos of poetry therapy centers on restoring intentionality and control over words, and eventually, mind and behavior. In times of chaos, then, poems take on a new intentionality as they become a part of a process of aligning heart, mind, and language as a way to make sense of the world—inside and outside. As Amjad says, poetry was a vital part of making sense, of retrieving and expressing the depth of grief and of loss, and thankfully, for him and those around him, his love of narrative arts, and his willingness to publicly reflect on his wounds, has helped him heal others—but starting with himself.


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