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Bags and Belongings

Bags and Belongings: My Words and My Oud

In the third installment of our “Bags and Belongings” series, in which we ask refugees what they packed in their bags and what they left behind, we meet Tareq al-Jabr, who fled military service in Syria and is working to publish his first poetry book in Italy.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Tareq al-Jabr is seen with a group of Syrians, Palestinians and Italians who staged a wedding entourage from Lampedusa, Italy, to Stockholm, Sweden, as part of a documentary “On the Bride's Side” Marco Garofalo/On The Bride's Side

In the third installment of our “Bags and Belongings” series, in which we ask refugees what they packed in their bags and what they left behind, we meet Tareq, who started writing poetry in his home city of Damascus. Unlike many Syrians boarding dinghies to cross the Mediterranean, he reached Europe by taking a flight to Milan as a tourist. Now, he writes in Italy, which has become his second home. When he left the familiar confines of Damascus, he took what was most precious – his words. Read the first installment of “Bags and Belongings” here and the second installment here.

Tareq al-Jabr

Poet, translator, humanitarian worker, Milan, Italy

My poetry books are the most important things to me. I have a few in which I wrote all my poems. Since I came here from Damascus, I have moved a lot and every time I move from one place to another, the first thing that I pack is actually the poetry books that I have. I feel that they are the most intimate thing to me.

I decided like a month ago that I want to publish a poetry book now. Before, it was just about whiling away time. So I started choosing the poems that I want make part of this book.

So there’s the first chapter that talks about love and the feelings associated with love. The second one is the one that talks about poetry itself, about the feminine poetry that I see in myself. The third one is about the revolution because I lived in Damascus for a year and a half after the start of the uprisings in 2011. Then, there’s the last chapter Ghurb – exile. It talks about leaving your country and not being able to go back and simply moving forward, farther and farther away from home.

“Gharb” mean the west. So when we say “ghorba” it means heading west. [The spellings differ because of the way Arabic is based on roots – the root is G-R-B.] It means always heading forward, not going back. So I also call this chapter “min al ghorba w al-arid” … “Heading West From My Homeland.”

When I first arrived in Milan I didn’t have any information. I didn’t have any information about Europe in general and about being a refugee.

When I was in Syria and we started everything in the sense of we, the young people, we went out and asked for change and we had lots of dreams in mind, right? So we thought that we were changing the world, actually. So I felt very important, I felt like the core of the world. I felt that I’m doing this for everyone, for every young person on this planet. So, I was that important to myself. Back then it would have come as a shock if you had told me, “you will be a refugee in days.”

In fact the hardest thing to lose along the way were my Syrian documents, my Syrian identity – when I had to give it up to get refugee status.

When I first arrived here in Italy, it was only because I had to leave Syria, not because I wanted to become Italian. I had finished university and was obliged to join the army as a male. I did not leave because of the war and the level of danger. I understand other Syrians leave their areas because they are under danger but I lived in Damascus. My family is still living in Damascus. My brother goes to university, my sister goes to work, so they are dealing with it. I left because of the forced military service.

I remember very well, two nights before I left from Damascus I have to make a decision between two things I could take with me – my laptop or my oud – the musical instrument that we have in the Middle East.

In the end, I had to be practical. Especially as a translator, I would need my laptop. So I left the oud and I brought the laptop. It is something that I always think about.

Since coming to Italy I picked up many new things along the way – a documentary that I did with friends called “On the Bride’s Side,” that eventually became famous, the books that I translated from English to Arabic, and from Spanish to Arabic. I’m going to open a Syrian cultural center in Milan very soon. I returned to Lebanon, where I worked with the United Nations on the Israeli–Lebanese border as well. I lived in Rome. I lived in Milan. I lived in Beirut. These experiences have changed me.

But there is one simple thing that I found along the way. When I left Damascus at the age of 24–25, I never had coffee in my life. I always hated coffee. I found coffee in Italy. Now, I can’t go without coffee for even a day!

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