Against oblivion: Samira al-Khalil and Anna Akhmatova in Douma

Hind Rifai reflects on the parallels between Samira al-Khalil’s diary under siege in Douma and the poems of Anna Akhmatova.

To read the notes Samira al-Khalil wrote while under siege in al-Ghouta, east of Damascus, is to experience the shock of a fresh, unadorned voice. The simplicity of language transmits the rawness of images: cold, hunger, terror, and helplessness materialize; your room darkens as the clear voice continues to intone: The present is horrific, the past—difficult as it was—is a comforting memory now, and the future is glimpsed with the clairvoyance of the free, non-blinded subject.

What do I know about you, Samira?

That you were in Assad’s prisons in the past for political leanings. I have never known of a woman who went to jail for political leanings, let alone in Assad’s prisons.

That you came out of prison and lived with that kind of past under the regime that imprisoned you. Do I have the ability to imagine that life? No, I don’t.

That you met and married Yassin—an alumnus of my university who, while I was building a life in freedom, spent his youth in Assad’s prisons for his own political leanings.

That you were kidnapped after moving to a “liberated area,” thinking yourself in safety in al-Ghouta.

That you have been “disappeared” for nearly four years now, and that Yassin is waiting for you.

That you left notes you wrote during your stay in al-Ghouta, later delivered to Yassin, who published them in a book to share with friends, against oblivion.

Yassin offered me your book in Berlin. Despite appearances, Berlin is a good place to evoke horror, extremes of cruelty and decadence—it talks of the savage past insistently and incessantly to those who want to hear. No wonder many of us feel comfortable on its streets.

When I began reading your notes, they summoned the voice of Anna Akhmatova: the two of you met in my mind. I have learned to respect those seemingly random connections; they have deep roots.

Anna Akhmatova’s voice is urgent, moral, and nationalistic. She too lived decades of personal and professional tragedies as she fell in and out of favor with Stalin. Her friends were executed; her son was repeatedly jailed, banished to Siberia, then thrown to the front during World War II.

Between 1935 and 1940, Akhmatova wrote her poem cycle Requiem, which was too dangerous to print and had to be committed to memory by her friends; not published till 1963, in Munich.

As in Requiem and other poems, Samira’s notes paint a world in black and white—the stark skeletal description of daily life under severe oppression drains the color out of the world. Both women write of the silent outside world; the suffering of those around them; fragments of conversations; the religion of the people; attempts at finding explanations and causation—above all, both are fiercely in love with their country and do not question the price that is being exacted.

Here is Akhmatova:1

 

Not under foreign skies

Nor under foreign wings protected-

I shared all this with my own people

There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

And here is Samira:

“My revolution is war in which a country and its overt and covert allies are waging war against a people—it is WWIII: on one side are countries and on the other side a people that want freedom. The enemy is the people.”

Akhmatova:

It happened like this when only the dead

Were smiling, glad of their release.

Samira:

“People who are dying daily of hunger, illness and sorrow, of a projectile that crosses their house killing them while they are preparing a meal for their kids and worrying about the next meal. A projectile that releases them of their daily suffering.”

Akhmatova:

Children were crying in the darkened house

Samira:

“Mothers, children and stories.”

Akhmatova:

With not a sound how many innocent

Blameless lives are being taken away

Samira:

“The torture of witnessing your loved ones being massacred […] The houses are without males […] no fathers, no husbands […] People work around everything and find ways to survive […] but cannot find a way around a projectile or a rocket that crosses from the heaven of al-Ghouta to its earth.”

Akhmatova:

I have learned how faces fall

How terror can escape from under lowered lids,

How suffering can etch cruel pages

Of cuneiform-like marks on the cheeks

Samira:

“The bride targeted by a sniper survived two bullets that passed through her feet, a young man who jumped to save her was shot and killed. Her father was killed, his body has not been found. The bride danced and took photos lithe in her white dress; the smile of her eyes is gladness and grief.”

Akhmatova:

The birds of death are at the Zenith2

Samira:

“A zealous pilot early this morning pursued by the eyes of the children who stopped their bicycle competition and fixed their eyes on the sky, looking to see where the pilot will discharge his bombs […] the plane flew away from the place, perhaps the pilot saw the eyes of one of the children like those of one of his kids. The plane flew away and discharged its load of death somewhere else […]”

Akhmatova:

How from its depths come cries: bread!

That reach to the firmament…

But this solid earth is pitiless.

And staring from all the windows--death.

Samira:

“Hunger is a killer, cold is a killer and lack of medicine kills”

Akhmatova:

I spent seventeen months waiting in the prison queues in

Leningrad…

There was a woman standing behind me,

Her lips blue with cold...

She said into my ear

(Everyone whispered there)- “Could one ever describe

this?” And I answered- “I can”

Samira:

“The world does not interfere with the fact that we are dying, it controls the ways we are dying: it does not want us dead with chemical weapons but does not protest our killing by starvation, closes the borders in the face of those who are escaping certain death with their children.  It leaves them to drown in their flimsy boats—a communal death in the sea, similar to the communal death by the chemical weapon.”

Karl Jaspers wrote: “What could be expected under totalitarian rule baffles the imagination, because its nature seems humanly impossible and is accordingly not believed in reality.”3

 

Samira al-Khalil's book Yawmiyyat al-Hisar fi Douma 2013 ("Journal of the 2013 Siege of Douma"), edited by Yassin al-Haj Saleh, was published in Arabic in 2016 by the Arab Institute for Research & Publishing.

  • 1. Anna Akhmatova: Requiem (Open Source). http://voiceseducation.org/node/530
  • 2. First long-range firing on Leningrad in: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschmeyer, published by Zephyr Press, 2014
  • 3. Jaspers, Karl, The future of Mankind. Trans. E.B. Ashton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961