From Prison, a Political Prisoner Writes about His Daughter

Los Angeles, CA–From prison Syrian poet and journalist Faraj Bayrakdar (pictured), an honorary member of English PEN, wrote a sad reflection on his daughter and fatherhood. In A Father to the Point of Tears he writes:

I”m not sure whether I”ve been a success or a failure at being a father.

In truth, my circumstances have not made it possible for me to delve thoroughly into this topic. I went into hiding as soon as my daughter was born, and I was arrested before she was four years old. I spent the first five years of my detention with no access to news and no visits. In spite of all that, I feel that I am a father to the point of tears.

When I was in hiding, I used to see my daughter from time to time. I used to call her name and she would respond with one of the many pseudonyms that I have adopted and changed according to different situations.

I taught her never to call me “Baba’ (Dad) in front of anyone. She was very good at following this precaution except when she wanted something specific. For example, if her mother refused to let her buy soda pop, she would turn to me, and like a broken record would repeat, “Baba, Baba, Baba’ in a loud and insistent voice. She wouldn”t stop until she got her wish or at least extracted a promise that she would eventually get what she wanted. 

After her mother was arrested, I saw my daughter only twice.

My biggest fear when my daughter was with me was that my safety would be threatened and I would have to flee. I worried about having to leave her alone when she knew only my nom de guerre, when she could barely pronounce her own name properly. I feared then that she might be lost to me forever.

My daughter had a small suitcase at that time. I have no idea who had given it to her, but she seemed so careful about keeping track of it.

I opened the suitcase and placed a small piece of paper inside. On this paper, I had written clearly my daughter”s full name and my family”s address. I emphasized to my daughter that she should never tear or damage this piece of paper.

On that particular day, I had to take care of some business that made it difficult for my daughter to stay with me. So I left her with a woman friend who agreed to find someone to bring my daughter back to me in the evening. When my daughter returned, both the paper and the suitcase were gone! 

“Where”s the paper, sweetheart?’ I asked.

Raising her empty palms in the air, she declared, “Gone.’

That was the last image I had of my daughter before I was apprehended.

She would always ask me about her mother. Her voice would grow hoarse and her eyes would plead with me. At times like these, one”s throat contracts, and it is impossible to hold back the tears. That is how my little one would expose my weakness.

When I was first apprehended, I felt as if I had run away from all her questions. But no sooner would my interrogations cease than her questions about her mother would haunt me, and I would begin pounding on the cell walls.

What could I do, my daughter, when I was so powerless?…

Eventually, the cumulative years of living in destructive anxiety cloaked everything with a thick layer of numbness. This lasted until one day when we received a large collection of photographs.

The prisoners claimed all the pictures but one. This last photograph was passed around from one to the other in the hope that someone would identify it.

I intended not to look at any of the pictures until everyone had finished with them, but one of the guys insisted that I examine the photo in question in case I recognized someone I knew.

At first, I looked at the picture with a disinterested feeling. I saw a small girl wearing a thin pink dress over a barely-hidden yellow sweater. The part of the sweater that peeked from beneath the dress at the collar looked faded and ragged. The face, on the other hand, looked more like a rose in full bloom.

There was a sharp contrast between the dress and the face.

I said, “I don”t know this face. And I don”t think that my family”s situation would allow them to send me anything, or even to find a way to reach me.’

One of the guys asked me hesitantly, “Couldn”t this girl be your daughter Somer?’

Another added, “I swear it”s her.’

In fact, the picture had evoked the image of my daughter Somer, but in my mind I could only imagine her as she looked when I last saw her, features that I had fought to preserve against forgetfulness.

I thought to myself that Somer could not have grown so. However, at the insistence of one of my fellow prisoners I reexamined the picture.

I don”t know how I came to feel that this truly was Somer.

I wasn”t entirely certain, and for that reason I felt a mixture of embarrassment, sadness, pain and disappointment as I said, “Yes, it”s probably my daughter.’

After days, or maybe it was only hours or minutes, I became absolutely sure that it had to be her. Her misty eyes seemed to smile as if to say, “I am your daughter. I am Somer.’ 

Suddenly, I began to yell and jump up and down,  “Guys, it”s Somer, Somer, Somer.’

Shortly after, a question sprouted from deep within me and, bit by bit, began to overtake me.

Would my daughter recognize me when she saw me?

Would something awaken deep within her, or would they need to tell her, “This man is your father, and this is a fact you must accept?’

This question ate away at me until the day when I was finally allowed to receive visitors.

Not without difficulty, my fellow prisoners generously scrounged up the least shabby clothes that were close to my size. I approached the visiting area.

One by one I examined my family. I could not focus on any one person, but when I saw a young girl half-hidden behind my mother peek out at me, I gathered that she was Somer.

I tried to keep myself together as I came toward her to carry her as I had done years before.

I asked her, “Do you know who I am?’

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