Vahni Capildeo on the Douma 4

In April 2017, Vahni Capildeo was among the writers to take part in our second English PEN Modern Literature Festival, in partnership with Steven J Fowler and the Enemies Project. The festival sought to highlight the cases of writers at risk around the world, pairing them with individual writers here in the UK, each of whom was asked to produce a new piece of writing in support of or in solidarity with the writer with whom they were paired.

Vahni has written the following piece about her experience of taking part in the festival. The full version of which appears in the latest edition of PN Review (Issue 236, July-August 2017).

– Are you afraid now? Do you have any regrets? Are you thinking about leaving?
– I have emotional ties to dozens of friends whom I cannot tell how much I love them…

When Steven Fowler invited me to another instantiation of the Enemies project, which pairs poets to collaborate on themed, rapid-fire performances, I said yes.

It was to contribute to a special session of Enemies, at the English PEN Modern Literature Festival.[1] A day-long set of readings from contemporary poets would present new works in tribute to writers at risk. And I would be matched with not one, but four persons, who had…disappeared: the ‘Douma 4’.[2]

How dare I presume to lay any words alongside what was beyond my comprehension?

Perhaps what was important was not what I would say. The words would be produced in order to bring along a body. Perhaps what mattered was presence: to take a small portion of my life and devote it to standing up and being counted as whatever token of the unaccounted-for, the uncountable.

Everybody except the Douma 4 had at least a family name. This group has come to be known by the place from which – four unarmed activists – they were abducted by masked gunmen on December 9th, 2013. A campaign was launched to free them in May 2014. Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamadi, Nazem Hamadi, and Samira Khalil had been at work at the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria.[3] The Centre’s stated methodology is impressive:

VDC adopts criteria in accordance with the International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and the Geneva Conventions. All of which constitutes the center’s legal framework for the documentation.

As for the violations, what we consider to be a violation is based on what IHL, HRL, and Geneva conventions count as violations, including, but   not limited to, attacks against civilian infrastructures, civilians themselves, humanitarian and aid facilities and services, etc.

In VDC, we document violations from all sides and regardless of the perpetrator, ethnicity, or any other belongings across all Syria. We document all the information including the perpetrator and only distinguish between civilians and non-civilians in addition to the area, date, means of death, the violation, and other statistical characteristics of the victims and the violations.

I felt overwhelmed. So I emailed Cat Lucas, the poets’ English PEN contact, asking for some more material. She suggested I watch Sara Afshar’s documentary, Syria’s Disappeared.[4] If you were to stop reading this piece right now and go to do the same, that would be no bad thing. For it is beyond imagining.

How the interviewee cries without interrupting his speech, as if fluency in language and fluidity of pain have become decoupled, yet simultaneous. By what terrible experience such a skill may have been acquired. How he falls silent only when asked how he feels. How no poetry can ethically be made of ‘shirts filled with souls’, where chicken bones, rust and blood allowed names to be written on pieces of sheets hidden by sewing into the hems and collars of shirts. How one voice pleads “Just kill us…we can’t tell a story” while another body sings and dances, bearing witness.

The next step was obvious: to turn to the witness borne by the words of the disappeared themselves. For example, Nazim Hamadi was a poet as well as a lawyer: how easy would it be to locate his poems? Not easy at all. So, what hope of artistic dialogue in my attempted tribute? I did not want to speculate on what might or might not be happening, or have happened, to the Douma 4. After the slaughterhouse scenes of the documentary, I harked back to twentieth-century warnings against the pornography of violence. I was reluctant to appropriate or remix the words of the once-so-articulate.

For my Enemies slot, I decided on a format that would mix reflection with inevitably failed poems; an anti-performance. Those poems are given here, too. Now, however, I would like to end by ceding the prose page to a few words from that Anna Politovskaya Award-winner for human rights defenders – I mean Razan Zaitouneh, in interview with Doha Hassan:

I feel a ‘symbolic’ strength, which may not be able to withstand physical threats but is able to face all kinds of setbacks and provide whole cities with the energy needed to go on until the last stand. […]

I have emotional ties to dozens of friends whom I cannot tell how much I love them, how much I love the revolution in them, and how I see Syria in their eyes […][5]

The condition and whereabouts of Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamadi, Nazem Hamadi, and Samira Khalil remain unknown.


With thanks to English PEN and Steven Fowler. For Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil, Wael Hamadi and Nazim Hamadi, abducted in December 2013 from their workplace, the Violations Documentation Centre, Syria.

Eyes are weeping in the face;
in the same face, the mouth is speaking.
The uncoupling of tears from speech
in those who offer witness
in words; whose bodies, blue
or red from beating, were dancing
where dancing meets shooting;
singing, where silence wants
just one sentence.

Just one sentence.

How does that make you feel?

That one whose fluency in words
has come uncoupled from the fluids
tracking the face during talking
rolling out truthful paragraphs
while souls blister out from ducts,
stops. Tears and speech
together. Stopped by feelings.
The answer is only in the eyelids.
The language has arms of our supplying.


The facility of lists:
unarmed- unknown – masked –
betrayal – won’t forget – won’t ignore –
Nuance has more off switches than lovers.
Men stormed.
Men do not storm.
These are not natural phenomena.
Sometimes I hate my trained mind.


What a thing it is to lift the photos, pictures, placards and posters of people who were, should be, might be, are alive. What a process. What it is to process through the streets, not standing shoulder to shoulder with, not seen as standing on the shoulders of, those heroically beloved and otherwise who have gone before this and ten thousand years before, but to share the process of lifting aloft the image of them in two dimensions. All this being the condition in which to gift them body and time.

What a possibility of making nice local people angry, alienating potential allies, losing actual neighbours, by bearing aloft, as Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, an army of martyr-faces like new and unkillable migrants; strange fruit that ghost the Sunday table. What a possibility of making a mirror of mourning in which the brown dead bud out in too many particulars: chess champions, party girls, lawyers and gardeners. What a possible shame and fear and revulsion: don’t make them like us, don’t bring them too close, don’t claim they are like us; they are unimaginable, and keep them so, for we already find this little island hard to live on, and identity is mortality, must remain unimaginable, must leave us cold.


The facility of lists.
After seeing footage
from the detention centre,
I wanted to ban
mannequins, bar
codes, and loaves
of sliced bread.

English PEN is very grateful to the team at PN Review for allowing us to run this extract of Vahni Capildeo’s piece. Find out more and subscribe here.

The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ – Simon Armitage





[5] Doha Hassan, ‘Talking to Razan Zeitoune’, 24/09/2013

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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