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Pure poetry: A B.C. woman with an insider's view on Syria

Ghada Alatrash performs the poetry of her native Syria at the French Cultural Centre  - Contributed
Ghada Alatrash performs the poetry of her native Syria at the French Cultural Centre
— image credit: Contributed

A picture isn’t always worth a 1,000 words in Ghada Alatrash’s view.

The Syrian-Canadian writer and translator says there are times when we become so desensitized to the images we see in the news that listening to the contemplative, deep wisdom found in an artist’s words or music.

“I see audience members closing their eyes and listening and absorbing the music.

“A lot of audience members come out with bloodshot eyes because of how moved they are—how powerful music and poetry can be,” she said.

Her poetry to music presentation comes to Kelowna’s French Cultural Centre this June and will likely be performed in Victoria and Nelson in the coming months, following a presentation at a translator’s conference in the United States.

Alatrash uses the poems and that music of her homeland to show people in her new country the great artistry overlooked by North American popular culture.

“There is an almost total absence of Arab culture and music in the West. On our stages you do hear Beethoven, you do hear Bach, but the opposite does not hold true,” she said. “And it is so amazing.”

From musicians like Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife and Iraqi Naseer Shamma to Najat Abdul Samad, a Syrian novelist and physician, her show highlights the limitless possibility that appreciating an amalgam of east and west allows.

“You don’t see a teenager here reciting a poem, which is so unfortunate,” she said.

When poetry is put to music, throughout the Middle East, it’s easy to recite and sing and pass on from generation to generation—along with its meaningful emotions and message.

“Poets take you into a very deep world of thought,” she said. “…I love Western music, but what they’re reciting is not actually the deepest thoughts.”

Making these connections, filling in the culture gap may also have a side benefit of helping the outside world connect with the people of Syria, empathize and spur a desire to help.

For many years, Alatrash was able to spend summers in her homeland, but she has not dared  return to the country in the two years since the Arab Spring ignited conflict through the region.

Every morning she wakes up to Facebook images of dead children, wound together in “great clumps of human suffering,” and says she’s very doubtful most Canadians even realize the extent of the atrocities.

“A Canadian is someone who stands wholeheartedly for animal rights. That’s what Muhatma Ghandi said. A nation is judged by how it treats its animals,” she said. “I tend to believe Canadians can’t know what is happening there.”

She is shocked by the indifference she’s seen around the world, and while she knows it was the same for places like Rwanda during its genocide, she cannot help but use her art, and the art of others, to help remove the blinders.

But the performance is by no means doom and gloom. Among the 12 poems she will recite is one she wrote from the heart about her daughter, and another one about the doubts of a mother.

There will be a newly released poem from an undisclosed Syrian poet and a selection from Lebanese-American poet Youssef Abdul Samad. Alatrash has just published translations of a selection of his poems.

She lives in Cranbrook, and will perform her evening of poetry and music Saturday, June 1 beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the French Cultural Centre, corner of Bernard and Richter in Kelowna.

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