Jig Street, where Marius Kociejowski’s Polish father and English mother settled in 1948, is twelve miles into the countryside from Kemptville, Ontario. And from Jig Street Marius unsettled himself as soon as he came of age, heading first to Ottawa and Carleton University, where he was influenced by George Johnston and argued with Robin Mathews. Then he left, although he returns for annual family visits.
In September 1973 he landed in Dover, travelled for a while, and then moved to London in 1974. Supporting himself as an antiquarian bookseller, he writes poetry and prose. His early volumes of poetry were republished in Canada as So Dance the Lords of Language: Poems 1975-2001 (Porcupine’s Quill 2003). His non-fiction works set in Syria, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool (Sutton Publishing 2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (Biblioasis 2010), are not for readers looking for traveller’s tips; rather they are a gathering of thoughts, readings, and relationships with the people he befriends. Or who befriend him. Indeed, one of his books is a collection of conversations with people he’s met: God’s Zoo: Artists, Exiles, Londoners (Carcanet 2014). Nor would the collection he edited, Syria through writers’ eyes (Eland 2006), ranging in time from the biblical to the present, offer much guidance to Syria today; it stands rather as a record of what was.
We met in mid-December at the flat he shares with his wife in Hammersmith. As the building was under scaffolding and workmen strolled past his living room window, we took refuge in the kitchen, where he made some delicious coffee. On the recording, behind his soft voice, is the constant sound of metal on metal. The other sound interfering with his thoughtful comments is the sound of my own loud laughter, which was a surprise to me on the playback because I’d approached Marius, who has been to Syria several times, for his view on the news from there. I sought outrage but found sadness. I didn’t know, that day, that he’d followed The Pebble Chance (Biblioasis 2014) with another collection of prose, Zoroaster’s Children and Other Travels (Biblioasis 2015), the last chapter of which grieves for the Syrians he’d written about in his previous books. We began with the destruction in October by ISIS of ancient sites in Palmyra, Syria, made a UNESCO world heritage site for its triumphal arch, temples and three funerary towers. The latter, multi-storey ancient tombs dating between AD44 and AD103, were blown up in August 2015.
MK: I did an interview on Palmyra for the BBC Best of Today programme about three months ago. They had a ten-minute spot and they dropped in music, actors … it was a kind of potted history of Palmyra. The very morning I went in for the interview, I just heard the news that the funerary towers at Palmyra had been blown up. Not much has been said about the tombs, people have always spoken about the temples, but I think the funerary towers were unique. And it was inside one of those towers in 1995 that I saw two words chiselled, beside one of the loculi (the cavities into which coffins were put). They were very simply chi anima — whose soul — and those two words became the last two words in my first book on Syria, The Philosopher and the Holy Fool. That morning, gone. The tower containing those words, those memories, gone. And towards what end?
The other strange memory I had was that I was walking through the ruins one evening and there was a family having tea amid the ruins and they invited me to join them. They were mostly women and children. I had reason to remember the name because it was so close to that of the dictator, Assad. And I now realize that it must have been the family of the archeologist who was beheaded by ISIS [Khaled al-Asaad].
DM: What took you to Syria in the first place? You’ve had a long time interest in it.
MK: Quite simply, a coin. In 1995 I was having lunch in Cambridge with my very close friend the poet Christopher Middleton, who died recently. He reached into his pocket and pulled out this ancient coin from Antioch. He said, What do you think of this? From his youth he was a collector of coins of the Roman Empire. There was something about Christopher that was so seductive that when he brought up any subject one felt compelled to investigate. So I went to London Library the next week and took out a book on the history of Antioch. And I was immediately fascinated because the streets of the city were constructed at such an angle that they would catch the breeze blowing off the Orontes River. This is the city as imagination, I thought. So on the spur of the moment I phoned up a travel agent and I said, Can one get to Damascus? I didn’t know anything about Damascus. Well, he said, we just have one cheap ticket left. I said, I’ll take it. So I went there not realizing the book I’d been reading had been published in the 1920s prior to the city of Antioch being transferred from Syria to Turkey. I went as a dumb tourist in a sense. I got into all sorts of trouble during that first visit, which I never wrote about in my book because I don’t particularly like travellers’ tales, people talking about their own lives.
So that in short is how how I ended up going to Syria. On that first visit, despite all my problems, I was so taken by the people — their kindness, their generosity — and in particular by two people who became the subjects of my first book, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool. I fell in with those two people on my next visit and they are the ones who over the next decade or so took me deeper and deeper into the secret life of the country. The second time I went to Syria was in order to write a book about a country and its people and I realized how ridiculous — could I write about the street on which I live, employing those terms? The only way was to find my focus, in this case two individuals, which is why I harp on about my writing being a formal journey not so much through place as through people. That’s the way I journey, through people. And I feel that if one gets close enough to people, they reflect the surrounding realities. I was very lucky. I couldn’t have written my two books without them. A year prior to being shown that coin, I could never have imagined…
DM: It’s such a sharp turn, from the poetry of Music’s Bride, well there’s a hint in the last poem that there’s a new direction, but to go from that intense European culture to this completely other culture, it’s such a surprise.
MK: Yes it defined the next fifteen years of my life. And of course now there’s been a major divorce.
DM: Against your will.
MK: Yes, although that divorce had already taken place before the conflict. Before that first book nobody knew what I was up to, which was really nice … it gave me a lot of freedom. After the first book, I was fully exposed. By the end of the second book I wrote, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, I felt that the gates had closed. They’d opened up to me and they’d closed again. The regime knew all about me, and they were extraordinarily friendly and helpful: in fact they wanted me to write a book about the Alawites, they would give me guides and everything else. I knew then, no, that’s it. I don’t need that kind of help.
DM: Do you know what happened to those two people, your two guiding lights in your books (the street philosopher and the holy fool)?
MK: Sulayman the alchemist had moved to a suburb of Damascus which was subsequently heavily bombed by the regime and then they moved in and slaughtered approximately a thousand men. I have not heard of Sulayman’s fate. I’ve no idea what happened to him. Abed by the end of my second book was becoming more unhinged. This may have something to do with the regime in which he lived but there were other kinds of problems. I daren’t phone him, I daren’t make contact, because the last thing I want to do is compromise him. I should think he’s probably still alive, I hope so. I just don’t know. I don’t know.
One of the principals of my second book, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, is living in America. Yasser’s a man who was once cock of the walk in Damascus, who had his own business selling kilims — he has lost everything, absolutely everything. I used to stay in his lovely old house in the centre of old Damascus and a couple of years ago a suicide bomber several streets over blew himself up, and the vibrations from that bomb resulted in the house collapsing. Luckily no one was inside at the time. It became just rubble in the street. It was such an old house with rickety beams. Of course one doesn’t want to put the fate of buildings above that of people but I was so haunted by the memory of that little place, lying there awake at night and hearing the footsteps on the ancient stones outside. It was a magical spot and that was in a sense old Damascus for me.
In my new book, Zoroaster’s Children, in the final chapter “The Saddest Book I’ll Never Write,” I describe to a fair degree the fates of the various people I knew. The saddest story of all, the most traumatic, is the disappearance of the Italian Jesuit, Father Paolo dall’Oglio, who was taken by ISIS on July 29, 2013. There’s a whole chapter devoted to him in The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool. When I wrote about him he was relatively unknown but in subsequent years he’d grown in stature, and in fact was probably more loved by the Muslims than by the Christians. I found the Christian population in Syria fragmented, there was more tension between the different Christian sects than between the Christians and Muslims. One of the bitter ironies of Assad’s regime was that he enforced religious tolerance, such that now you have a lot of Christians supporting the regime.
If the reports I discovered are true, Father Paolo dall’Oglio was killed within hours of his capture. There are reports that he’s still alive, sightings, rumours. I hope he’s alive, he became such an important figure in Syria in that he represented the shared desires of open-minded Muslims and Christians alike. He was against the regime. He was thrown out of the country by the regime after having lived there for 35 years but he snuck back in. It was when he went to secure the release of two hostages in Raqqa that he was seized. My own feelings about his fate are pretty dark. And if that story is true, he would have been the first westerner to be killed by ISIS.
[There is a quiet moment as we listen to the construction workers and I look over my notes.]
MK: You’re not going to ask me about Canadian identity are you?
DM: Yes, I have to.
MK: For me there’s no getting away from the fact that I grew up in Canada, that as a child I’d go through a long country lane picking wild strawberries. If I’m granted a long enough life I’ll be doing that at the end, thinking about picking wild strawberries, just like in the Bergman movie, there’s no getting away from that. But I don’t carry within myself that idea of being Canadian. I’ve spent more of my life outside of Canada. There’s a nice little illustration: some years after I moved here, I went back to Ottawa and walked into a bookshop where the woman, the manager, remembered me from my Ottawa days when I was an aspiring poet, and she said, Why do you do your writing over there and not here? And I said, Because over there, no one would ever ask me such a question.
Look, we’re still at the point a grant aided publisher in Canada is expected to publish only Canadian literature otherwise those publications will not be grant aided.
DM: Really? I noticed, however, that you said “we”: “We’re still at the point…”
MK: Ah. Ok. Freudian slip. It’s all yours. Use it against me. But if one leaves Canada, I think one is still somewhat frowned upon, a literary turncoat.
DM: Oh yes, absolutely yes. But ever since Mavis Gallant died there’s starting to be more of an acceptance….
MK: Yes but it took her death to bring that acceptance about. She was ignored. To my mind she was the one who should have had the Nobel Prize over Alice Munro, who I have huge respect for. I think Alice Munro is a wonderful writer, but I think Mavis Gallant was the more subtle of the two. Disgracefully ignored.
DM: I love this quotation from God’s Zoo: Artists, Exiles, Londoners: “The truth of the matter is that although I wanted desperately not to be Polish I did not want to be Canadian either, but rather to be what any sane person might choose, Italian.” (p. 434)
But you haven’t written about Italy?
MK: Hang in there. Hang fire. I’m going to Naples in April. I’m going to be starting a new book there. I’ll be doing the same as I did with Damascus, casting myself to whatever breeze there is. I’m going with an Italian filmmaker who lives here in order to do a little documentary but at the same time I want to write a book about Naples. It’s on the way.
- BBC Best of Today “Palmyra told its own story” is not available on iPlayer.
- Michael Dirda reviews The Pebble Chance in The Washington Post (7 January 2015).
- Carcanet Press books by Marius Kociejowski.
- Buy Zoroaster’s Children, longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, from Biblioasis online, or several of his books from All Lit Up.
- National Geographic October 5, 2015 report by Andrew Curry on destruction of ancient sites by ISIS.