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The island of Lesbos, also called Mytilene, is on the edge of Europe. You see Turkey three and a half miles away, on the hazy horizon. Being so close to Troy, it suffered in the Trojan war: Achilles plundered its cities, and nine of its beautiful women were offered to him in an attempt to end his quarrel with Agamemnon. Until 2015, though, the island was most famous for three things; its petrified forest, the best ouzo in Greece, and poetry. The head of Orpheus supposedly washed up there, and in the seventh century BC two geniuses, Alcaeus and his younger contemporary Sappho, inaugurated the Western lyric tradition. Both belonged to the governing aristocracy and both spent time in exile: Sappho, supposedly, in Sicily.
Since September 2015, Lesbos has become world famous as a tragic frontline for refugees. Over a million Syrians arrived in small rubber dinghies, escaping war in Syria. Their journeys and deaths, the people smugglers exploiting them, their orange life jackets (sold extortionately in Turkey but often not even sea-worthy) littering the island’s shores, made headlines over the world.
Now a Syrian poet has forged his own unforgettable lyrics from those landings and from the myths, history, poetry and tragedy already surrounding the island. The delicate, heart-breaking poems in A Boat to Lesbos find in Sappho’s exile a common bond between the island’s most famous poet and Syrians escaping civil war. You fight for life on the boats, says Sappho’s voice, and the sea swallows you before you land in Lesbos, while I die in Sicily fleeing home. Out of the love lyrics which Sappho made famous, there are still further links possible to dream: ‘Sappho, lover of youth, here are your young/ lovers from Syria. They come to you silently,/ lightly, / And their beauty is a flash of lightning that dwells in a window. / Set the table for them/ and confess that this is their last supper.’
Nouri Al-Jarrah is an important Arab voice in Europe. He was born in Damascus in 1956 and has lived in London since he was thirty. These poems, published in Arabic by the Milan-based al-Mutawassit Press in 2016, are in many voices but underneath all of them is the cry of the grieving survivor. In ‘A Boat in the Harbour’, for instance, dated ‘Lesbos, 2nd August 2016,’ we read, ‘That’s me, there, / as if a ghost, or spectre, or vision/ a trace/ of/ the cry/ of someone drowning,/ and my reflection in the bathroom mirror/ of the hotel/ at the port/ is only the face of one who sailed and did not return.’ Sometimes we hear the voice of a Greek tablet, Greek traveller or writers, but all the poems move towards a final cry of guilt and loss, that the poet was not there to share his city’s pain.
‘I wasn’t in Damascus when the earthquake hit,/ I wasn’t on a mountain or a plain,/ when the earth shook, images cracked,/ and the world split apart.’
These poems weave exile, death and the sea into many journey myths. Not only Greek journeys, but the Daughters of Na’sh, an alternative Arabic name for al-Dubb al-Akbar, Big Bear, the seven stars which the West calls the Big Dipper or Ursa Major.
In myth, Na’sh was killed by Canopus, who fled to the southern hemisphere. His daughters will not bury him until they have been revenged on his killer, so there the stars are, seven daughters, forever carrying their father’s coffin. A haunting image for the survivors of September 2015. ‘Suffering Syrians, beautiful Syrians, Syrian brothers/ fleeing death. You won’t reach the shores on rafts/ but will be born on beaches with the foam.’
The book throbs also with nostalgia for Damascus. ‘I’ll sit with you in the garden and you’ll sit with me in my dream . . ./ I’ll write to you, Damascus, imprisoned behind the sun. Damascus is far more present, here, than the hills of Lesbos. I stand in the Umayyad courtyard/ and flagellate myself with chains, says one poem. I am in this small port/ here in Lesbos,/ in thrall to the smell of the sea,/ my hair all over my face/ and my hands, pierced by light,/ asking tourists and refugees/ about my fugitive face/ and gouged eyes.’
In September 2016, I revisited Lesbos myself, I must have arrived just as Al-Jarrah left, for his poems with a Lesbos by-line are dated August 2016. Greece was in recession, many islanders could not even afford coffee but evening restaurants were full of foreign aid workers, who could afford food which Lesbos islanders cannot. Everywhere I saw potential ingredients for resentment against refugees. And yet cafés offered free charging for mobile phones, and graffiti said “Refugees welcome”. This was due not only to Greek hospitality and humanity, but to memories of the Smyrna Catastrophe, 1922, when Greeks fled massacre in burning Izmir and came mostly to Lesbos, where they became grandparents of the current generation. I talked to a newspaper editor who had waited for dinghies in the dark and pulled Syrian children from the waves, and said their stories were exactly like those told by her grandmother, who escaped from Smyrna as a child.
Nouri Al-Jarrah brackets the destruction of Izmir with the fall of Troy: ‘Thanks to this sea/ to sad Izmir/ to the virgin wave/ that bore me from my mother’s arms/ to give me back the earth/ rot the earth, for all earth, from this day, to be my grave./ Thanks to my gods who died on the ramparts/ to Troy that burned/ to the Greek ships that didn’t see me.’
His Lesbos is the place where death and wreckage wash up, like the head of Orpheus. ‘I wasn’t in Damascus/ I wasn’t in Damascus./ And now/ at the end of the Earth/ I listen to a waterwheel weeping in the orchard/ and the wind describing it to the mountain.’
A Boat to Lesbos is a voyage to the place where loss is forever made manifest.