Dark Water Burning World is the brilliant title given by my collaborator, Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, to a joint poetry-and-art installation honouring Syrian refugees and Lesbos islanders 2015-2020. Listen to a conversation between us, given at the Royal Drawing School, on how we collaborated in making it. .
In 2011 the rising in Syria began, while I was working on my migration book, The Mara Crossing. Soon the war and destruction in Syria was triggering desperate new migrations, especially to Lesbos, the nearest Greek island to Turkey. ISeptember2015, shocking photosof their journeys and deaths came to international attention. Next year, the year the US voted for Trump with his anti-immigrant stance and the UK for Brexit, I visited Lesbos and talked to Syrian refugees, newspaper editors, students, volunteers from Lesbos, graveyard caretakers and officials running camps there. During my stay, what I saw and heard made me phone my friend Issam, who lives in Cambridge and whom I had worked with Issam before. I had dedicated a poem to him in The Mara Crossing,written after I saw an installation in his studio commemorating Cuban refugees. Now I suggested we collaborate in a work to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees and the support given them by the people of Lesbos.
Issam, in response to the Syrian crossings, had already started making boats out of bicycle mudguards, inspired by three small 3rdcentury BC Phoenician boats in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He had put matchsticks in them, which he set on fire. When I got back from Lesbos I showed him photos and told him stories I had heard there. We agreed to work together, on a joint installation: a poem by me to go with the boats he was making.
The result was an installation, which he called Dark Water Burning World. My poem, in the voices of both refugees and islanders, would be heard alongside his fleet of boats. In our presentations, I would show my photos, and talk about what was happening on Lesbos as well as read my poem, and he would talk about Syria, his experiences, his work.
On the 6th anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian uprising, March 15th 2017, we launched Dark Water Burning World in the Near Eastern Greek Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Since then, we have presented and exhibited it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, for NYU, both in Athens and at The Center for Near Eastern Studies New York, at Columbia University, the Venice Biennale, and for the University of the Aegean in the Museum Tériade on Lesbos itself.
Part of it featured in The British Museum’s exhibition Living with Gods and is now in museum’s permanent collection. In January 2021, Neil MacGregor chose ‘Dark Water, Burning World’ as his 101st Object for Radio 4’s History of the World In 100 Objects, with these words which end Ruth’s poem –
…and their stories our stories
steered by the small
star-light of cell phones
over waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling
on the windy sea
as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment
before the shattered pieces fall away.