‘What I am is not important, whether I live or die—
It is the same for me, the same for you.
What we do is important. This is what I have learnt.
It is not what we are but what we do,’
Says a child in exile, one of a family
Once happy in its size. Now there are four,
Students of calamity, graduates of famine,
Those whom geography condemns to war[.]
These lines are from the poem and book Children in Exile, published by James Fenton in 1982. The poems are based on his time as a journalist covering wars and revolutions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and several other countries in South East Asia. Throughout the book, what remains of daily life attempts to exist in parallel with war occurring beside it: old men taking fishing boats out for the morning’s catch; families making dinner and talking; soldiers trying to hide their nerves behind short laughs and long cigarettes. He views these events — and their aftermath — as an outsider, able to leave but not able to put aside the memory, or the guilt at being able to survive.
Memory of war — and the guilt of escape — is the subject of Mohamad Kebbewar’s Children of War. Unlike Fenton, Kebbewarn did not travel a warzone as a journalist; he was born and raised in Aleppo, an ancient city that was known for its architecture and is now known for its atrocities. The city as it was, is, and will be is presented in vivid lines, such as these from the title poem:
Sheep’s wool stretched on a tin line.
An ancient wall of the souk dripping with time.
Crushed cinnamon, black peppers, prayer-goers
spill into the street like broken prayer beads.
my people are on the wave of another’s spoils.[. . .]
Azan on the horizon
a child makes his home in the rubble.
At age 19 Kebbewar immigrated to Calgary. In the poem “Canada Day”, the sounds of fireworks and whirling helicopter blades take him back home, recalling “images of barrel bombs dropped / on civilian buildings and neighbourhoods”. Memory becomes another salvo that cannot be evaded, and a luxury that must be gotten rid of. The book’s final poem “Under Siege” outlines his guilt of being safe while his parents and extended family try to eke out a meager survival as the city crumbles around them: no fuel, no electricity, and bodies at each checkpoint. Those that could escape, did; “inflatable boats carried entire cities to Europe”. As a remembered conversation with his parents puts it:
You were in Canada
we forgot about you
because we knew no matter
how bad your situation was
you couldn’t be worse off than us.
There is an immediacy to Children of War the recalls the best poetry on the subject of conflict and fosters in the reader an important effect, not of something condescending such as sympathy but something far more important: understanding. Like Fenton decades before, Kebbewar has filtered his personal remembrances through poetry to create a document to preserve the memory of who was there and how they were taken, and ensure they are not forgotten.
Children of War by Mohamad Kebbewar is published by Grey Borders Books (an earlier version was published by Prism International). It can be ordered on their website at greybordersbooks.jigsy.com/bookstore.