Re-reading Tony Harrison’s poems, especially the ones about the Iraq War, I found myself with many unanswered questions. How do you even start to write a poem about that?
Ripostes are never a complete answer, but they are like verbal cannon-shot across the bows of pomposity and misinformation. Sometimes they sneak under the radar and catch the reader unawares.
Setting myself the challenge of writing a piece that addresses the brutality and pointlessness of war but keeps the humanity of the persons involved in it, I began to think about another civilisation not a million miles from Syria, one that was flourishing more than two thousand years ago on the border of Anatolia in a city called Catalhoyuk. The cities of Palmyra in Syria and Catalhoyuk in Turkey developed at about the same time. Palmyra was lucky to have escaped Alexander’s army. The Greeks and Romans influenced its development instead. Catalhoyuk, a city whose citizens were more intent on agriculture than warfare, developed an egalitarian and, some would argue, a matriarchal society. The roofs of the mud-brick houses were strengthened to allow citizens to exit their homes by means of a ladder through a hole in their ceiling, which also acted as a chimney and ventilator. Once on the roof they would perform all the household tasks communally, rest and chat and thus maintain a vibrant and, one assumes, contented, society. There is no evidence of defensive structures, weaponry, or other evidence of violent deaths from the bones excavated. There are some small votive carvings of female fertility figures, similar to the ones uncovered in Siberia recently and said to be 30, 000 years old, but the excavated dwellings have given archaeologists very little rubbish to explore. These people were domesticated, peace loving citizens it seems. The chances to explore fully the history of Palmyra, on the other hand, are very slender now, since ISIS destroyed much of the city. We don’t know what caused Catalhoyuk to be abandoned. We know exactly why Syrians are fleeing.
I imagined a letter from a citizen of Catalhoyuk to present day dwellers in Syria, especially Palmyra and began my poem. Keeping the horror and fear to one side, I began to focus more on the everyday privations of the inhabitants. It’s not finished, but the bones of it are there.