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The Writing on The Wall

by Cliff Hanger 

Posted: 18 December 2016
Word Count: 148
Summary: Predictable but inevitable subject matter.

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The Writing on the Wall
‘Doctor, your turn’
We were just playing around
during recess.
‘Doctor, your turn’
We laughed about the graffiti we’d seen  
on tv in Cairo as we scrawled.
But Bashar the ophthalmologist was
watching and sent cousin Najib (The General)
to examine us with electric prods.
‘Forget about your sons, consider having
new children.’ He ordered our parents.
The Arab Spring set up shoots of civil war
and they tangled themselves in the weeds of
faction and sect. Shia versus Sunni, Da’esh,
Hezbollah, Nusia Front, the Islamic Brotherhood
and the inevitable Kurds until
they were all swallowed up by a full-grown plant
made from the lush leaves of proxy international conflicts.
‘Doctor, your turn’
Now Omar holds fast to his dead baby brother, smothered by
Aleppo’s shattered walls and waits his turn to
see the only doctor left as Syria’s children are forgotten.

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Comments by other Members

Cliff Hanger at 08:15 on 19 December 2016  Report this post
No rush to comment on this. Just clearing my desk as it were. I won't be able to join in or reciprocate for a good while.

Have a great Christmas everyone and a happy hogmanay.


James Graham at 20:54 on 27 December 2016  Report this post
Hello Jane – This is a poem on a historical theme, and so the first concern is to make sure it’s true to historical fact. If there were mistakes or distortions it would detract from the very strong message about the children of Syria. So I’ve done some background reading, and I’m pretty sure your history is accurate.
It is true that one day, in Deraa province, two schoolboys spent their break writing on a wall ‘The people want the fall of the regime’ or words very much to that effect, but they were seen by a pro-Assad spy who reported them to Atef Najib, chief of Assad’s political police in that area. They were arrested and tortured. The incident brought popular anger to the surface and there were demonstrations against Najib and the regime in general. There was a wave of protest around the country, something that had been waiting to happen but was now triggered by the graffiti incident. More or less peaceful protest soon became armed revolt.
The rest of the poem, about sectarian fighting and proxy conflict – the manipulation by external forces of what had begun as a revolt against a tyrannical regime - and of course the inevitable suffering and deaths of innocent children, is of course true. Your poem passes the authenticity test.
There may be some lines or sections of the poem which need revision. Just because it’s that time of year I haven’t got properly to grips with these, and so I’ll comment again. Two very straightforward corrections meantime:
‘Forget about your sons, consider having
new children,’ he ordered our parents.
And ‘The Arab Spring sent up shoots of civil war’?
I’m fairly sure no further criticism I come up with will give you headaches. The poem is 90+ per cent OK. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
P.S. Shortly after New Year I’ll visit the exhibition at the Harbour Arts Centre.

Cliff Hanger at 16:44 on 28 December 2016  Report this post
Hi James

Thanks for the comments. I thought the literal arabic was as I put it. It was later made into something more obviously political. I wanted to highlight how something so seemingly insignificant and the work of children could lead to such trauma. Same in Cairo. Graffiti and social media played a huge part there. Most of that seems to have been forgotten. 

Moira Buchanan sent me some pictures of the exhibition. I forgot that I renamed Beachcombing, Sea Foam Bones. If you look on youtube under Moira Buchanan you can see all of the films that are showing. You might want to watch through them all on the day but they're quite long. Mine are in film 3 on 5.23 and 16.08. Sea Foam Bones is also in one of the hand printed booklets. There's lots of interesting work in it.

Hope you had a lovely Christmas and Happy Hogmanay.



James Graham at 21:11 on 28 December 2016  Report this post
You’re right, Jane. Some website I looked at said they had written on the wall ‘The people want the regime to fall’ but a website called Geographical Imaginations tells me it was ‘Doctor, your turn’. It even gives the Arabic: Ejak el door ya Doctor. ‘Doctor’ refers to Bashar al-Assad who is an opthalmologist. The short phrase is much more credible as graffiti.

I was going to post a comment questioning your use of ‘Doctor, your turn’, wondering what it meant in the context and why it was relevant. No need for that now – it’s perfectly clear.

The graffiti incident, and similar seemingly insignificant incidents, should not be forgotten because they show the outrageous cruelty with which regimes such as Assad’s react to minor expressions of dissent. Other regimes too – in Saudi Arabia people have incurred 1000 lashes, or even the death penalty, for tweeting even a mild criticism of government policy.

Your poem deserves more comment, and I’ll post again soon.



I'll have a look at the films, but will probably enjoy the show at HAC even better!

James Graham at 20:36 on 30 December 2016  Report this post
I have a couple of comments on the fourth stanza (‘The Arab Spring…’).          
and the inevitable Kurds
‘Inevitable’ seems a bit dismissive. Could be the context – the way it’s added to a list that includes Da’esh and Hezbollah. It could imply that the Kurds are always ready to join in any conflict and exploit it to their own ends; that may well be true, especially of the PKK, but I don’t think  the Kurds are the same case as the other groups in your list.  For centuries they have been subjugated and humiliated by Persia/Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, all the countries in which they live as an ethnic minority. Even the Ottomans, whose imperial rule was more liberal than most, were not blameless. So, even though the PKK are no joke and have been guilty of acts of terrorism, underlying it all is a struggle for self-determination, one that has been crushed over and over again by neighbouring powers.
Seems a lot of fuss about a single word, but I think you need a more sympathetic, or more neutral, adjective in this line; or maybe an extra line saying a little more about the Kurds.
My other point is about the garden imagery in the same stanza. It’s a very appropriate metaphor to convey what you want to say: the ‘shoots’ of rebellion against the Assad regime, representing the demand to be liberated from this tyranny, are like good, healthy plants; the other combatants are like invasive weeds. But the imagery could be more true to what happens in a garden.
I don’t know if you listen to Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4, but what follows may sound rather like that!
and they tangled themselves in the weeds of
faction and sect
I don’t think flowers and weeds usually get ‘tangled’, i.e. their stems intertwined. It’s probably better to talk about the flowers of rebellion against tyranny being ‘overrun’ by ‘the weeds of faction and sect’. ‘Invasive’ is a good word, because it’s used to describe certain types of weed which spread very quickly and rob your cherished plants of nutrients,  but is also suggestive of invasion and conquest. (You might think about replacing the generic ‘weeds’ with a short list of specific weeds, as a parallel with the list of factions. Invasive weeds include nettles, ragwort, chickweed and bindweed.)
they were all swallowed up by a full-grown plant
made from the lush leaves of proxy international conflicts
This is not bad, but could be better. Some suggestions: make it a fast-growing plant; rather than ‘made from’ lush leaves, it ‘sprouts’, ‘issues’, or ‘puts forth’ lush leaves. You could work in the idea that it’s also a poisonous plant. (Ragwort, mentioned above, is an example.)
Your introduction of a metaphor of weeds is, as I say, an excellent vehicle for conveying the poem’s message.It’s especially apt when we consider the starting point of the poem, the boys who wrote the graffiti, the cruelty they suffered, and the justified anger that made people protest. It was a genuine movement against harsh authoritarianism, but it seems to have been blighted by sectarian and proxy forces.
I admire this poem because it deals with an extremely complex current situation – not always an easy subject - and highlights what really matters in the midst of all the ideologies and political machinations. People need to live in a free society, and their children need to be safe.

Cliff Hanger at 21:39 on 30 December 2016  Report this post
Thanks James,

I take on board your comments especially about the Kurds. I do think that conflict in the Middle East does inevitably involve them. Not just because of the PKK or their history of being persecution but because of their link to Saladin and all that implies to them. Maybe I should just put the PKK and leave it at that. My other thoughts are perhaps an entirely different and even more complicated poem about cultural and historical jigsaws that I'm not qualified to write.

Did the rebels get overrun or did they entangle themselves with dodgy bed fellows for expediency? Bindweed might work there. I really like the idea of identifying specific weeds in symmetry with the different factions. Will work on that. I guess the strongest weeds are the international powers that have a kind of legitimacy but are still weeds at the end of the day. Perhaps like Japanese Knotweed,  once revered, specially collected even and look where that led. 

Thanks for your comments. As usual they make me reflect and think of ways to develop my writing. This time of year is often a particularly reflective time. You should reflect yourself on your positive impact on (I'm sure) many people like myself. 



James Graham at 21:07 on 01 January 2017  Report this post
Hi Jane - I had a look at Video 3 on YouTube, and read your two poems again and some others. There does seem to be some good work here, but I’ll be sure to get the printed booklets – easier to read.smiley

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