Book Review

The suffering and displacement of refugees from the brutal Syrian civil war are given agency through the poems of Jazra Khaleed. The Light That Burns Us is the first collection of Khaleed’s poetry translated into English. The poet situates himself as the refugee,¹ the immigrant, the one who has nothing. The nobody, the Other. While he writes in Greek, poetically, Khaleed employs the searing language of the prophet. These poems are hard to read, hard emotionally. There is menace here, rage, violence, homelessness, despair, dark matters best left alone, but, of course, the prophet’s voice does not concern itself with the reader’s comfort or with contemporary poetic conventions. As much as his urgent cry depends upon a New Testament recognition of the stranger, the needy outsider, the proportions of his vision are apocalyptically Old Testament.

The poems were gathered from his two previous books, Jazra Grozny and Poems Soaked in Gasoline, Ποιήματα βουτηγμένα στη βενζίνη. Additional poems originally appeared in Teflon, a Greek literary journal which, according to the publisher, “Jazra and other poets of his generation set up when the Greek establishment refused to publish them because of the aggressive tone of their work.”

The light in the title poem, “The Light that Burns Us,” spills “from the mouth of the police spokesman when he / refers to squatters as trash and to refugees as dirt.” The light shines from the mouths of politicians who condemn and objectify the displaced Syrians fleeing war and the destruction of their own country. The light is the “ever-shining light of Greek culture, incandescent / for centuries / the light that burns the backs of slaves, immigrants, and people of other faiths . . . .”

Arguably, these poems deserve their place in Poetry and American Poetry Review and in the curriculum of graduate schools, yet the project here aims beyond literary acceptance or enhanced status in the academy toward the gritty, unresolvable truth of the refugee experience. The voice here longs for all that the displaced long for—food, home, dignity, hope, justice. A conventional stance to illustrate the immigrant perspective could be to tell her story in vignettes or invented characters. The poet might adapt the voice of a single such character or of many of them. More oration than narration, these poems take a different approach. Accusatory cries of pain, distress, and loss, they are Whitman’s barbaric yawp writ from the mouth of the displaced, the unwanted, the noncitizen.

The Rimbaud-like poem “Self-Portrait” mocks the writer:

Jazra Khaleed is my name
A holy whore
A bastard poet
A fighter sometimes, mostly a coward
I know who I am
I have stained the honor of every honorable family

. . .
Teach me foreign tongues and touch-typing
Force me to read newspapers and watch television
Teach me sweet-talk and flattery
Poets, too, need to be useful in some way

I write in the name of all vagrants, barefoot indigents
Those who are last
As I roll on the sidewalk and throw up outside bars
This is the only worthy cause

I am a promise nobody will keep.

Here the reader’s assumptions are continually challenged. From our living rooms, we want violence to quickly evolve into reconciliation, anger into reconnection, loss into restoration. The anguish of Khaleed’s poems suggests there is more to rage than simple solutions can handle:

I’m a fucked Muslim
Fist, foot, cock
No, I won’t return to my fatherland
(I don’t have a fatherland)
I am biohazardous
I belong to no civilized race
What about me blights your country
—my teeth or my tongue?
My chest is an island of immigrants
dumped by the rotting boats

The poems sharpen truth telling into a resonance beyond—to the side of, in addition to—story-making and musicality, though they lack neither. These poems reveal the opposite side of one’s comfortable existence as a consumer of goods, news, and culture. The needs expressed here are not distractions from human reality but the embodiment of authentic human experience, happening on the other side of our screens and news feeds.

Gone is Syria, gone,
her body could not bear any more deaths,
her skin could not contain any more deaths.
She remembers her dead one by one,
though they are thousands upon thousands,
though she has forgotten how to add and subtract.
She remembers Nabil who shouted “Freedom for Syria!”
for which they cut off two of his fingers;
She remembers the youths hanged in the square
because he wrote on the wall, “Your turn next, Doctor!”
She remembers the poet Lukman who was shot
along with his books and auxiliary verbs,
Faiza who was crushed with her two daughters by a falling wall.
She remembers the siege of Homs and Babr Amr,
the old plowman who used to talk to his mules,
the schoolmistress in Latakia, the one who wore wire-rimmed glasses
and read poems of Saniyya Salih to the children,
the nurse crying in the hospital in Jisr al-Shughur,
the cat dozing in the shadow of a Toyota Hilux.

Structurally, the book organizes itself into three sections with a thread of five poems, each titled “The War Is Coming,” stitching the sections together. The first poem in the series, also the first poem of the book, is about leaving. “I decided to leave Syria the day a stray bullet passed / in front of my eyes.” The second poem in the series describes the journey of leaving: “Whoever is not afraid to cross the border carries the / war on his back.” The third notes that in 2014 “the United Nations stopped / counting Syria’s dead.”² The poet is forced to a similar yet more personal reckoning:

By the end of 2015, according to Facebook, 311 friends
of mine had died since the start of the war. I decided to
shut down my account: death must have a beginning,
middle, and end. I can’t spend my life in its wake.

In “The War Is Coming (IV),” as refugees from Syria are encamped in Greece, causing immense difficulties for their host nation, the poet issues an ironic apology “on the behalf / of the Syrians to Greek men and women for filling / their televisions with our deaths as they eat their / dinners and wait for their favorite shows. . .” The apology is politics as verse and in a simple way reveals the Other’s point of view: “—finally, I wish to apologize to the / Greek government who had to request additional / funds from the European Union in order to pay the / purveyors who stock the detention camps . . . .”

The final poem in the series is both intimate (“‘Don’t worry,’ said the bullet, ‘I’ll go in and out.’ I / explained to her that I couldn’t allow it since when / she left she was bound to take some of my memories. . .”) and accusatory (“It is well known that no organization can buy arms on / the black market without American authorization. / This the one of the reasons I never managed to / understand the difference between enlightenment / and genocide.”)

The book’s third section reverses the journey to its starting point and comprises a single long poem, “Requiem for Homs.” A large city on a key trade route, Homs was a center of the rebellion and suffered the utter destruction of its buildings as well as the widespread starvation, displacement, and death of its people. In the besieged city, as in this collection, hunger—Khaleed’s “hunger dog”—demands a voice.

The hunger dog is made of its owner’s flesh; as the owner
wanes the dog waxes, the dog wants all the flesh for itself,
which is why it lets its owner wane until one day its owner
falls. And melts away. And the dog has already found a new
owner, fresh flesh.

. . . .
In Homs hunger is the only power, the only truth, the only
God. In Homs hunger is the only language, and like all
languages it can destroy you.

. . . .
The hungry can smell food everywhere: aromas of smoked
meat and cinnamon rise from the debris, the aroma of
caramelized onion pours from tank guns; checkpoints
smell of parsley and coriander, Quwatli Street smells of
lahmadjoun and the Mosque of Khalid ibn al-Walid smells
of chicken maqluba, the torn-up asphalt of bulgur, the
exploding bombs scatter smells of spices. This is what is
known as the torture of hunger.

. . . .
When a hungry person looks into the eyes of another hungry
person, hunger doubles. That is why everyone in Homs
walks with downcast eyes.

The hunger dog will not win the Pulitzer Prize. The hunger dog will not summer at Yaddo, yet the hunger dog deserves poetry’s attention. Poetry may well be too busy to care and, to the degree it doesn’t, stands indicted. Admittedly, some of Khaleed’s concerns, especially his expressions of violence, are off-putting to this reviewer’s ear and not a stance this review condones. However, the importance of Khaleed’s achievement remains. His visceral oneness with the poorest of the poor grants a voice to the voiceless. Because of the eloquent force of that voice, the rages, despairs, and hopes of the refugee have been given agency in the wider world of art and ideas. In “Show Peace No Pity,” Khaleed implores, “Let pens fall silent today, / let us live today— / we write the wrong words, / dance in wrong rhythms, / bust the wrong moves. / New poetry, / new poetry, / new poetry (x1000).”


1.  For background: still ongoing, the war began in 2011, when the government violently repressed civilian protests seeking a more democratic system. During the years of fighting, which destroyed much of the country and resulted in one of the largest refugee crises in the world since 1960, close to a million Syrians have found their way to Greece. Tens of thousands, including the poet, remain.

2. The United Nations felt at that time it was not receiving enough accurate information to produce the counts. In late 2021 after 11 years of war, the United Nations Human Rights Chief estimated the dead at over 350,000 with nearly 7 million Syrians having fled the country and over 6 million having been displaced inside the country.

About the Reviewer

John Whalen works in cybersecurity. Books include Caliban and Above the Pear Trees, the winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Most recent work can be found in The Hollins Critic, 2River, Terrain, and Catamaran.