World Refugee Day: Syrian writer’s book of poems reflects his time in exile in Malaysia

‘I hope that every refugee here finds one Malaysian friend, ’ says poet Mwaffaq, who fled war-torn Syria in 2016, and has been living in Kuala Lumpur since. Photo: Handout

For Mwaffaq Al-Hajjar, a Syrian refugee living in Kuala Lumpur, words and poetry have always been in his blood. Since his youth, he loved singing, performing, writing and telling stories.

Here is somebody trained in science, but who also loves the arts.

As he slowly began a new life in Malaysia, he wanted to get more involved with the arts communities here.

In 2017, this petrol chemical engineer (and former chemistry lecturer), decided to participate in the Migrants and Refugees Poetry Competition in KL.

Mwaffaq recalls it being an exciting experience. He just wanted to participate, and meet other people in the poetry scene.

He ended up winning the competition, and also impressing writer/poet Bernice Chauly, who was on the panel of judges.

Chauly urged him to get his work organised and published.

Mwaffaq worked towards that goal, with Poetic Entropy, a collection of his poems, released by publisher Gerakbudaya last year. He launched the book at the George Town Literary Festival last November.

Poetic Entropy is the dream of that young man back in Syria, the young boy who believed words can be everything, ” says Mwaffaq, 27, in a recent interview.

“I was lucky to have met Bernice, who once I finished reciting my poetry, told me ‘we need to get you published’.

“I worked with her on the collection and Gerakbudaya picked up the book. It was not easy (to publish a book), but it was worth everything. I hope my poems can make someone smile or dream, “ he says.

In light of World Refugee Day today, Mwaffaq reflects on his time adjusting to a new country.

"Since I was a child I have always written about the future, but this book is about the past, and for the past, for the memory of the past. It embraces Kuala Lumpur, as she has embraced the poems in this book. Poetic Entropy is not about me, but about everything around me," he says.

He will be performing a poem from the book in a free virtual concert #A Story Like Ours, organised by NGO Fugee Org on its Facebook page (2pm, June 20). Sarawakian sape musician Alena Murang, Syrian poet Amal, Libyan musician Ahmed Debani, Pakistani poet Shamshad Chaudhary and more are also part of this show.

Mwaffaq grew up in the Syrian capital Damascus. When he was 14, he remembers watching a TV show about Nizar Qabbani, a diplomat and daring poet, renowned particularly for his poems on themes such as religion, love and femininity.

Nizar became his inspiration, giving him the courage to be a poet.

Mwaffaq’s teenage life, he mentions, was an ordinary and peaceful one in cosmopolitan Damascus. However, things changed drastically when the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011, with anti-government protests escalating into a full-scale civil war.

Mwaffaq faced compulsory military duty, but he didn’t want to take up arms. Fighting also reached Damascus in 2012, and that meant he had to leave his country.

In 2016, Mwaffaq came to Malaysia as a refugee. He has been in KL ever since, working as a research officer in a water-tech company.

“It was a journey, a very rich and intense journey. But my life now is more stable than two years ago.

“I have many friends, I have a better relationship with the colour green and heavy rain, ” he says, somewhat cryptically.

Poems in exile

Poetic Entropy contains 20 poems written by Mwaffaq in Arabic, alongside English translations by his close childhood friend Ziad Altaghlibie.

“We worked closely on each text and each stanza. We needed to choose the vocabulary carefully and it was a collective work, ” says Mwaffaq.

All the poems were first written in 2018, with some edited and spruced up by Mwaffaq for publication.

He chose a set of poems that represented this phase in his life, telling the story of three years of being in exile. Poetic Entropy celebrates love and despair, home and exile, memories and friendship, with each poem being a collection of thoughts, observations and scenes.

"Poetic Entropy seeks to return to the spontaneity of words and language, after they have been domesticated by etiquette. This book believes that poetry is the entropy of our conversations," he adds.

Mwaffaq’s poems are poignant and personal, using simple yet evocative phrases. In Words Not Found In Dictionaries, he implores: “Oh Sayang/ teach me anything you want except/ for the synonyms of farewell.”

In August 13th, he speaks of his mother tongue, calling it “the suitcase of my story/the coat hanger of the past/and my ID in stranger’s eyes.”

During the lockdown, the poet spent time writing at home and is now working on a new collection of stories.

He also had a role in the postponed And Then Came Spring, a theatre show by director Saleh Sepas. It was to be produced by KL-based refugee arts outfit Parastoo Theater in collaboration with Instant Cafe Theatre Company, and performed in April.

Mwaffaq hopes to get back to theatre work once things improve on the pandemic front. He debuted on the Malaysian stage in a production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s Blank in 2019. These are challenging times for everyone, says Mwaffaq, who chooses to look at the positives that can be drawn from the pandemic experience.

The lockdown has made him appreciate the outdoors more, and he has found new ways to connect with people.

“Perhaps, everyone should consider learning the language of the eyes, ” he says, referencing the use of face masks, where smiles are hidden.

Despite everything that has happened to him, the poet continues to hold on to hope.

He has been more fortunate than others. To him, the conversations about expanding the humanitarian space for refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people have to continue.

“This is an absolutely difficult time for refugees in Malaysia. I hope every refugee finds one Malaysian friend. And everything will be better, ” concludes Mwaffaq.

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