A Controversial Syrian Poet Finds Asylum in Mexico City
Mohamed at his apartment at Citlalépetl Refuge House in Mexico City
epending on your definition of danger, at this very second Mexico is the only country that could arguably be considered more perilous and hopelessly fucked than Syria. And even then, it’s a blood-soaked toss-up—but while Syria is dangerous for journalists, reporting on certain topics in Mexico is quite literally a death wish.
Over the past six years, 67 journalists have been killed for getting entangled with narcos who don’t appreciate the attention or digging too deep into President Felipe Calderón’s drug war—which has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 47,000 Mexicans according to the government. Things have gotten so bad that some reporters have even applied for asylum in the US and Spain. Which makes it odd that Mohamad Alaaedin Abdul Moula, a talented and prolific poet from the war-torn city of Homs, decided to flee his home for crime-and-violence-ridden Mexico.
Just before the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s forces decided to turn Homs into a pile of rubble, Mohamad, who is in his mid-40s, was forced to flee the country after earning a reputation as a sort of Arabic Henry Miller, writing books with titles like Forty Days of Siege and Hymn for the Body. In his poem “Pornographic Poetry,” a priest muses on the moral conundrum presented by the cleavage of the young women in his pews. It’s no wonder his books pissed off Bashar “No Fun” al-Assad.
Mohamad’s poetry, however, isn’t the only thing that’s brought him trouble. In 1980, three of his brothers were arrested for criticizing the government and allegedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood (Mohamad insists the claim is false). In retaliation, the government denied the poet a passport for many years, and he was unable to attend important literary events abroad—even ones held in his honor, like when he won the Arab Writers Union Award for poetry in 1999. Shortly after this missed opportunity, he began to look for a way out of the country. This led him to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an organization that helps persecuted writers find asylum. Last February, less than three weeks before the uprising started in Syria, the folks at ICORN told the poet they had found a place that would welcome him as a refugee.
That place was the Citlaltépetl Refuge House in Mexico City, located in a beautiful area in the Condesa neighborhood—one of the trendiest and safest in the city. It feels far away from the violence of both Mexico’s drug war and Syria’s civil war.
We contacted Mohamad to ask him about the uprising in his homeland and whether he has some sort of preoccupation with living in dangerous places, or whether it was all just the luck of the draw. He graciously invited us into his one-bedroom apartment, which could’ve been mistaken for a college dorm and was bright and sunny but almost completely undecorated. He’s now been in Mexico for about a year and a half, but he barely speaks a word of Spanish, so our conversation occurred with the help of an interpreter.
Three poems from “Forty Days of Siege”
1.When will the play fell the director?A feeling of wolf saturates the depths of the soldiersAnd the actor repeats the massacre in every actNo one turn up the lightsNo one wants the scriptWhen will the audience wake from the rabbits’ laughterAs the victims amuse them byTaking position, ready to explodeHow can the onlooker think that slaughterIs a blow for victoryThe lengthened play runs for another encore,And still no curtain call…
2.The soldiers go homeAnd the ghost camp remains alone, homelessThe soldiers’ wives rejoice in glad tidings:We killed a thousand of them;a thousand more to comeSaturday descendedAnd a tank shut its kingdomEven if Sunday cameAnd the bells rang,The bell ringer is deadAnd the incorporeal Messiah has burned.
3.We need to wake up without tanksTo rearrange the time as we like:Flowerpots on the tableA shoe abandoned by a lame little girlBooks a young man read in the eveningWe need songs to respond to the plane roaringAnd we would like to spend the rest of our daysWith fewer casualtiesThe least slaughterSometimes we need our bodiesTo succumb to a natural death.
VICE: How did your career as a poet begin?
Mohamad Alaaedin Abdul Moula: You don’t really need to go to school to write poetry, you are just born with it. Actually, I barely finished high school. In 1980, when I was 15, agents from the secret police came and took my three brothers away, because they were against the political system at the time. That’s when I started writing. My brothers spent a long time in jail. I loved them a lot, and that’s when those words started to come out from inside me. I realized they were not regular words, but a poet’s words.
They accused your brothers of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. What was the basis of their allegations?
They were Muslims, but they were never involved with the Brotherhood. They even thought that I was involved, too, but that was never the case. What is true is that they did not like the government, and only my older brother was politically active against it. But in a system like ours, when they find someone guilty of something, the entire family is guilty. Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting against the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, but the secret police would capture anyone who was against the government and would judge them all the same way. I even knew people who were put in jail for allegedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood; after they spent years in prison, the government would finally recognize that they were Christians. The government killed two of my brothers in 1981. The third one spent ten years in jail.
Do you miss Homs?
There’s no more Homs. Everything is destroyed. Homs is in the center of the country. Many centuries ago, Julia Domna lived there, and she ruled the Roman Empire for a long time. I worked for the Ministry of Tourism, cataloging and describing ancient things at the Homs Museum. Homs was a city full of poets and writers.
You were fired from the Ministry of Tourism in 1996. What reasons were given for your dismissal?
Before the museum, I was working at a gas station. But one day the secret police came and said I couldn’t work there anymore. Then I worked in the museum for seven years until the secret police showed up and said I had to leave that job, too. Because my brothers had been in jail, we all had to pay the price. In Syria, citizens don’t have rights.
What sort of work were you able to find after the museum?
I was writing and sending stuff to competitions, and I also started selling clothes on the streets. That’s how I supported my family.
How did your first collection of poems, 1990’s Elegies for the Family of Hearts, come about? There seems to be a consistent mood and theme that runs throughout.
I got engaged to my wife on February 14. On that same day, my father passed away. He was an imam, but not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and he died of a heart condition. I felt such sorrow the day he died, and that’s when I started writing those poems.
What about your last work published in Syria, Baghdadi Exercises for the Nightfall in 2009? What inspired that collection?
I remember feeling a deep sadness on April 9, 2003. I thought the US invasion of Iraq was terrible. Everything was being bombed and destroyed. I knew Saddam Hussein was also to blame for what was going on. He wasn’t a democratic leader. I felt very sad, and that’s why I started writing that book.
Some of your work—including your poem “Pornographic Poetry”—has resulted in a lot of problems for you back home.
That poem is not really about pornography. I just talk, for example, in poetic ways about the parts of the body. In that poem and others, I wanted to lay things bare about a lot of taboo subjects—religion, sex, and politics. An imam who was close to the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, said that my work was bad, so he took all my books off the shelves of bookstores and libraries, and a huge controversy started about the things I was saying about religion and the dignity of the human body.
What kind of things did you write about, specifically, that brought you so much heat?
“Pornographic Poetry,” for example, is about a Christian priest who is preaching, and all these girls with cleavage and exposed legs are sitting in the first rows, and he looks at them with desire. I’ve also written about the secretions that women have when they get turned on. Things like that got me in trouble.
In the Arab world, subjects such as those are taboo. Kids in the region don’t hug or kiss one another in the streets, but that’s something that is completely normal in non-Arab countries. I remember once that the principal of our local university found a guy kissing a girl behind a tree, and he was expelled. Why are those things banned in my country and considered normal in other places? If that university principal visited Mexico, he would have a heart attack. People here make out everywhere!
Do you prefer the way things are in Mexico?
I prefer a country where people are free, because those things are personal. Whoever wants to do those things, they should be free to do them, and whoever doesn’t like them, they don’t have to do them. I don’t want someone that comes and tells me what to do. Things like these are personal. I prefer freedom.
What’s your social life like in Mexico? You don’t speak Spanish, and Arabic is not widely spoken here.
My life here is not complete. But thank God I have a lot of friends who are bilingual, and they take me out to visit museums or even to travel to other states. I’ve been to Puebla and Oaxaca. Most of my friends are of Lebanese descent or are Mexicans who studied Arabic in school. I have a Mexican friend who doesn’t speak Arabic, and I don’t speak Spanish, but we still manage to go out—even if we don’t understand a word of what the other is saying. We smile. I met him when he came to interview me a while ago. We don’t really talk, but we still hang out. I hope one day we can learn each other’s languages.
Have you gotten in trouble or into uncomfortable situations because of the language barrier?
I had a funny accident. I went to the supermarket, and I can’t really understand the text on the different products. I bought two cans of food without any images on the label, and after I ate one I started feeling a bit ill. Then a friend of mine showed up and asked me what I had done. I told her and showed her the cans, and she started laughing hysterically. Once she was done laughing, she informed me that it was cat food.
Is your family still in Syria?
I have two sons. One is at the university and the other one was doing his military service when I left. My wife passed away two years ago.
You left your country less than three weeks before the conflict began. Did you have a premonition?
I was feeling uneasy and unsafe. I knew the government was going to start killing people, and my family, my sons, were there. I knew that they were killing innocent people every day, so I was very afraid. I was also against the government, and there was nothing good for me there. Everything that was going on around me was asphyxiating. Everything was unjust. That’s why I decided to find a way out.
Are you worried your relatives will be targeted because of your writing?
Of course. I want to bring them here. More than ten relatives of mine have been killed. My son, who is just 21, escaped from his military service and joined the FSA. That worries me even more.
What do you think about President Bashar?
I hate this president, because he’s committing crimes against humanity. He’s killing Muslims and Christians all the same. He’s destroying houses, churches, mosques, he’s destroying tourism, he’s destroying everything. I will be happy the day he’s captured and sent to The Hague to be judged for his crimes.
What do you think would have happened to you if you had stayed?
If I had stayed there, it would be one of two options: I would either be dead, or I would be fighting against the government.
What are your plans for the future?
My residency here ends in February, but my Syrian passport expires next month. I need to get a new one, but renewing it here is not going to be easy. But I don’t think I can go back to Syria anytime soon. I might apply for asylum in the US, Canada, or Sweden. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I know that, after February, things are going to be much harder for me.
Photos by Mauricio Palos
Poems translated by Leri Price
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.
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