Paradise in miserable barracks

A Syrian poet?s first collection

Camp Neirab, Syria. ‘My grandmother turned the miserable barracks into a paradise.’

Hekmat Dirbas moved from Barrack Number 10 (Camp Neirab, close to Aleppo) to Barrack Number 329 (Willem
de Zwijgerlaan, Leiden). He’s been awarded his doctoral degree and now he’s published a collection of poems.

“I was born a refugee”, Hekmat Dirbas says. “And I became a refugee again in the Netherlands.” 40-year-old Dirbas, whose roots are Palestinian, grew up in a camp just outside Aleppo. He arrived in the Netherlands in 2011, where he obtained his doctorate at Leiden University for his work on personal names which derive from animal names.

Now he has written a collection of poems: 27 poems, in Arabic, published in Lebanon. “I wrote most of the poems in the Netherlands: thirty per cent in Syria and seventy per cent here”, he explains. His work is based on personal experience. “But I use poetic and symbolic language, as you do in poetry.”

Dirbas is Palestinian in origin and grew up in Camp Neirab in the countryside close to Aleppo in Syria. The title of the little book’s first part, “Barracks number 10”, refers to the place of his childhood: a container. “The military camp was established during the French mandate for Syria in order to receive the British air forces during World War II against the German forces. Later, a group of Palestinian refugees (obliged to leave their homeland) were hosted in this camp, meaning from a military camp to a refugee camp: a tragic paradox.”

“My grandparents were alloted a room in barrack number ten”, Dirbas continues. “The barracks were miserable, but my grandmother, a fantastic woman, turned them into a paradise. That’s what I call it: Paradise. She came from the mountains, which were full of plants and wildlife. She planted flowers and trees and kept lots of pets, dogs and cats. Later, I realised that she wanted rebuild her childhood home.”

At Mare’s request, he has translated one of his poems (see below).

Dirbas: “It’s about a paradox, about when I realised that Paradise was a ‘camp’. I had heard people mention that word, but I didn’t know what it meant until I was older and learnt about the political background. There’s a magical place I knew as a child and there’s an ugly, political place. I didn’t have an address. There were no street names, only the numbers of the barracks. I needed an address to enrol at university, so I put down ‘Kamp Neirab, barracks number 10‘. That’s how it’s registered in the civil records.”

He arrived in the Netherlands in 2011, as a PhD student. The war in Syria broke out two months later. “I became a refugee once more”, he recalls. “The situation forced me to apply for asylum after two years. First, my existence as a refugee was part of a collective, as a Palestinian. Now, I’m experiencing it as an individual.”

The second part of the collection is called Barracks no. 329. “Because I lived on Willem de Zwijgerlaan, at number 329.” He explains that the apartments in Leiden-Noord don’t actually resemble a refugee camp. “It’s something you leave behind. A temporary place. Not your real place.”

As we grew up, the mystery disclosed.
The paradise is nothing but a dice roll
from the aftermath of the Second World War,
a shelter for the ally soldiers.
The paradise has a number in the civilian records,
it has a name: Barracks 10.
The allies established their camp
The allies abandoned their camp
then you poured down like fear.
WE existed.

Sobbing trains, faces turning back.

Hekmat Dirbas, A Few Meters and One Galaxy.
Beirut: Al-Farabi Publishing House.

By Anoushka Kloosterman

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