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This is an interview by editor Eric Ormsby an editor with the press Biblioasis: The Pigeon Wars of Damascus by Marius Kociejowski. I’m presenting it here for two reasons: first, having published the work of author Ray Smith (have a look at Century), Horacio Castellanos Moya, and others, as well as having an international fiction series edited by Stephen Henighan, the press has distinguished itself in my mind for quality literature. The second reason is that the book in question, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, is a work that fits into the genre of “atypical travel literature,” and as such might resonate with the readers of this site who have enjoyed authors like Jean Rolin, W.G. Sebald, etc.
Eric Ormsby: You’ve been fascinated by Syria for a long time and you’ve now written two books about the country. What sparked this fascination? How do you explain it to yourself?
Marius Kociejowski: There were many sparks, of course, whole constellations of them, but if I had to choose a single flicker it would be when I first went there in 1995 and found myself spending an hour with a young man in the traditional dress of a Naqshbandi Sufi. The pointed turban alone was enough to make an Orientalist of me. We were unable to communicate and yet we managed to do so somewhere beyond language, in a manner approaching the sublime. A year later, I sought him out and found him in the company of a close friend of his, who spoke near-perfect English. Often I wonder if it were not for that first meeting whether I would have gone back to Syria. Something in that man’s face haunted me. When I did return it was with the ridiculous notion that I’d write a book about a country and its people, and it took a while before I realised my subject was in the lives of these two people, Abed and Sulayman. I am not sure if what I write is, properly speaking, “travel literature” but among those who profess to write it the majority tend to write either about place, as does Robin Fedden in his superb book, Syria, or about people, as does Tim Mackintosh-Smith in his trilogy following in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah. I travel through people.
EO: In your Pigeon Wars, you reveal a hidden subculture. How did you learn of this feathery “underworld” and, even more to the point, how did you gain such privileged access to the pigeon fanciers and racers of Damascus?
MK: Well, I’m stubborn. The book recounts not only my successes but also my failures. My first experience of Syrian pigeon fanciers was in the company of a French couple, the husband something of a fancier himself. His wife walked about with a basket of rose petals. They were quite wonderful, a bit zany, very French, and inquisitive. They were invited for tea by a Damascene fancier, curiously enough a woman, which is as close to a true instance of women’s emancipation as I have ever been. Actually it is almost unheard of for a woman to be so inclined. She and her husband were equals in folly, which surely is an instance of pure love. What shocked me a little is that physically she resembled a pigeon, her bosom tucked high beneath her weak chin and, yes, her beaklike nose. Admittedly I was befuddled by this obsession for what goes up in the air, flies about in circles, and then comes home. A couple of visits later, I found myself on another rooftop in Damascus with a man called Waseem who told me that if I wanted to understand the Middle East I need look no further than his birds. What did he mean by that? The conditions for inspired thought were just right ― it was coming on evening, there was the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, and here was this rather angry man finding solace in his birds who were spinning in circles. I have a good appetite for the illogical especially when so nicely packaged. Actually his remark flew over me. It was only later that same night when, sleepless, I realised he had handed me a big theme. What it set off in me was unstoppable. It was, if you like, a gift ― I was not looking for it. It took me almost five years to work out something approaching the truth of his statement. Up to that point, I had been floundering. When later, I discovered people killed each other over pigeons I fell into the trap of wondering whether in some cases those murders were justifiable. I became like an actor hooked on his role.
The pigeon fanciers, because they are reviled in Arab society, such that even evidence given by them in court is inadmissible because they are liars by nature, are a closed world. It was my good fortune to have met one fancier who would then lead me to others. Not all of them trusted me, I got thrown out of one place, but there were enough to make it worth my while.
EO: You state that the history of the Middle East is in some ways played out in the pigeon wars. Do the recent uprisings in Syria, as well as the horrific official response, confirm this for you and, if so, how?
MK: Actually I nowhere state this. I prefer quieter analogies. It was why I decided to include short historical chapters, a number of which describe how whole kingdoms were brought down by their rulers’ obsession with pigeons. As I state in the Prologue to the book: “Wherever obsession is, Death watches from some place near.” Curiously enough, this notion of analogy was put to me directly by a figure in the regime, who told me he knew what I was really writing about. “Oh,” I said, pretending to know what he meant, “do you now?” And then, after many false starts, I struggled to discover what exactly it was. When I asked him whether he approved of my subject, he said yes, go for it, it’s a truly Arabic theme. I wonder if he regrets those words.
If my first book The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool was “a book of light,” the second is “a book of darkness.” I chose not to write about politics, one reason being that no sooner does the ink dry on the page than the situation changes. Nothing gets older more quickly than another new book on Arab politics. And yet the subject is unavoidable ― it pollutes the very atmosphere one breathes. When I wrote The Pigeon Wars of Damascus it was at a time of mental and emotional turmoil in the country. The war in neighbouring Iraq was tearing at everyone’s nerves. Clearly the people despised Saddam but what they hated more was the sheer ineptitude of those who removed him. One consequence of this was that they rallied about their leader, anything other than have to endure similar chaos in their own country. Sadly the trust invested in him has been cruelly betrayed, if not by him directly then by those surrounding him. Quite honestly, I could never have anticipated any of this. It is only with hindsight that I approach brilliance. A poet friend describes me as “a Cassandra with two left shoes.” This said, a few months ago not even the Arabs themselves could have imagined such a sudden reawakening of their pride.
There is, however, one thing in the book that describes the mental state which allowed for this, and this was an expression, oft-repeated, of a people falling endlessly through space. One can fall only so far before beginning to rise again ― says me, quite unsure as to whether I really believe this ― but then what we are witnessing now would seem to be a defying of gravity. May they continue to rise, but not, I hope, at the expense of more lives.
EO: As your first book on Syria made wonderfully vivid, you have developed remarkable friendships in Damascus and you’ve written very memorably about your friends there. How do you maintain the balance between loyalty to, and protection of, your Syrian friends and writing about them freely? Do you see this as an ethical as well as an aesthetic question?
I have, in most instances, disguised identities, often altering not just names but also the circumstances in which people live. As soon as I made it clear I would not expose them, people felt much freer in speaking to me. It is indeed an ethical question and a very important one that has been ignored by rather too many writers. Nothing would cause me more pain than to bring trouble upon the heads of those who are my friends or who have helped me. At the same time, not one of them spoke against the regime. I wasn’t seeking that kind of information and certainly I wouldn’t ask it of them. Sadly there are some writers for whom their books are more important than the people whose lives they relate.
EO: What would you most like for North American readers to take away from The Pigeon Wars of Damascus?
MK: If there is just one lesson that they should learn it was what my friend Sulayman said to me, only days in advance of the revelations about Abu Ghraib: ‘When an Arab is wounded in his honour or in his dignity he will become harmful. He will consider you his enemy. If you hurt him he’ll be sad for five minutes and then move on, but if you humiliate him he will be in a rage forever.’
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