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Review: Barefoot Souls, by Maram al-Masri

Every Dewdrop of Wisdom

[...]Maram al-Masri - a Syrian woman who has lived in France - has written a book that is very timely not simply because if offers powerful poetic support to that conclusion but because it documents the many ways in which women resist victimhood and fght back to preserve themselves. In the beautiful phrase "thieves of the moon" with its echoes of menses and lunacy, al-Masri describes the abused women who pass as ordinary, recognized only by "those/who are of their kind".
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The book is organised in three sections with the first and most powerful, 'I Saw Them', composed a series of poems about women - real or imagined - who exist in contemporary France. Lonely and neglected women like 'Betty', who, I her loneliness keeps a diary to distract her from her one companion, her "malign cat / Katheline" but whose entries offer no escape as they document the minutiae of the cat's daily existence.
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The poems imply suffocation and entrapment as the norm for women compelled by "tradition" or male abuse to inhabit smaller and smaller spheres of existence.
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The home becomes a prison.
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Each poem in this section is introduced by a listing which details, inter alia, the subjects' father, mother, place of birth, age, occupation (never husband, partner). This device helps locate each abstract name as a person with roots, a past individuality and never a mere exemplary cipher. Oddly it also universalises them. No details actually define the essence of the subject - the poems do that - and while there are clear links between some aspects of abuse and ethnic or religious background the main reason for the war on women is, regrettably, men - of all backgrounds - and the "traditions" they hide behind.
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Section Two - 'The Scream' - focuses on children involved in such abusive relationships and is depressing in its detailing of the ways in which children are damaged and traumatised. There is little hope here. Flora won't go to school in case she never sees her mother again. Sef can't understand why his mother puts down her crying to peeling an onion when there isn't one.
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Section Three, 'With Every Beginning', (which references the Nepalese writer, Santosh Kalwar and hints that there is always an end for "broken souls" with every beginning) is largely affirmative.
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The poems appear in Arabic then French and then an English translation from the French by Theo Dorgan, the Irish poet, writer and translator. In general the English translation is lyrical and precise - no easy task - and Dorgan is to be congratulated. The "stark simplicity" and "narratives of concern and compassion" which attracted him to the poems in the first place are well communicated.
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This is a marvellous collection.