Dark Water Burning World

By Ruth Padel and Issam Kourbaj

The waves talk to their gods
the waves have their prey
the dead bump sideways
in gulleys gouged from grey fire

an arm a trailing bloom sodden in the surf
where does the wave end and water around it begin?

How do you separate self from the other
edge from the flesh? Shadows of ourselves
no more than a shiver on water
then another life and another
like the waves
and the dead face down
slamming the shore.

[…]
Where there was nothing all night
where there was nothing just grey mist
here is a shape abandoned by Charon

steering through the small star-light
of cell phones
bursting on rocks
grit chipping lancing the skin

pull them out of the Styx
find the rhythm

wet to the bone
they hug one another

and shiver and they cry
sharp pebbles

whispering trees
our language strange

no doubt and our hands rough
slippery pulling them out

from the last tug of waves
to a sleepy burble of doves

wet faces
in dawn’s crumpled blaze 
lit for each other

as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment
before the shattered pieces fall away

(Ruth Padel, Lesbos 2016)

“In 2019, fifty million people around the world were forced from their homes by conflict and disaster. In the climate crisis, these numbers will go up. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 makes the lives of people in flight even more vulnerable than before.” (Ruth Padel, Introduction to the 2nd Edition, ‘We Are All From Somewhere Else’, London 2020)

“… Migration is essential to life on earth. Cells dismantle their structure and start again, or migrate to form new embryos. Life-forms migrate constantly, our species is homo viator, our civilization began with migration. ‘Asylum-seekers’ implies a ‘they’ who want something from ‘us’ and ignores what immigrants give. As the Mayor of Laredo says, migrations sustain society. But because of our expanding population, and what we are doing to the earth, migration is at unprecedented levels. People emigrate from desperate need. Like blackpoll warblers in hurricanes, they suffer terrible losses. Reaching countries in recession with rising unemployment, many find no work, merely hostility. British readers of a 2009 newspaper article on Gambian families of migrants drowned in boats off Libya commented online, ‘The UK’s not a dumping ground for illegal immigrants!’ ‘They’re like burglars breaking into your home demanding food.’ ‘If they want a better life they should stay in their country and improve matters there.’ The religious requirement behind Western religions is sympathy. Help the poor as you would a stranger, for you were a stranger too. What hope is there, in a world where nations are closing the portcullis?

Mara in Latin means ‘bitter’. In North European folklore, Mara is a nightmare demon of horror and death. Buddhist Mara is a demon of illusion: once the Vedic demon of drought, he now spreads terror through deception, threatening us by obscuring truth. He tempted the Buddha too, who touched the earth and realised enlightenment so that Mara disappeared. The Proto-Indo-European root mer, ‘to die’, and Sanskrit mara, ‘obstacle, death’, stand behind these Maras, but by phonetic accident they resemble the Masai name for the river at the end of the wildebeest’s journey. Since I witnessed what happens at that river, ‘Mara’ has come to me to represent bitter losses, struggle, barriers and obstacles, but also the triumph of survival. Like the wildebeest, migrants cross over to create new cultural life.

Hope, that word which powers migration, lies in staying open to what is happening. In not looking away, questioning those who operate the portcullis, exposing and resisting cruelty in implementing government policies, paying attention to the developed world’s responsibility for displacements (fished-out seas, corporate over-use of resources which uproots people and destroys their land), keeping sympathy with other people’s stories, seeing their experience as part of our own. Some readers of that newspaper did reply to those comments. ‘It is only by the Grace of God,’ said one, ‘that you are not one of these unfortunates. You are an accident of birth, as they are.’ Hope springs from that faculty which other animals don’t seem to need but homo viator needs more than ever today. Compassion – and beyond that, empathy.” (Ruth Padel, ‘The Mara Crossing’, 2012, p. 216-7)


Ruth Padel, born in 1946 in London, is a poet, novelist and non-fiction author, in whose work ‘the journey is the stepping stone to lyrical reflections on the human condition’. The great-great-grandchild of Charles Darwin, she is known for her explorations through poetry of migration and refugees, science, and homelessness; for her involvement in wildlife conservation, Greece,

and music; and for her belief that poetry ‘connects with every area of life’ and ‘has a responsibility to look at the world’. She is Trustee for conservation charity New Networks for Nature, has served on the board of the Zoological Society of London, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 and 4 on poetry, wildlife and music. In 2013 she joined King’s College London, where she is Professor of Poetry. The sleeve of her excellent 2012 book ‘The Mara Crossing’ contains amongst other her statement: “Home is where you start from, but where is swallow’s real home? And what does ‘native’ mean if the English oak is an immigrant from Spain?”

Issam Kourbaj has a background in fine art,
architecture and theatre design. He was born in Suweida, Syria, and since 1990, has lived and worked in Cambridge; artist-in-residence and a lecturer in Art at Christ’s College. Since the uprisings in Syria in 2011, his work has been dedicated to raising awareness and money for Syrian refugees. The above photograph shows one of twelve miniature boats made from recycled bicycle mudguards

populated with burned matches clustered together, which form his 2017 installation ‘Dark Water, Burning World’ in collaboration with poet Ruth Padel. It was inspired by toy boats made in 500 BCE, when people in what is now Syria carved goddesses and set them afloat in the Mediterranean Sea. The boats evoke the many tragic experiences that Syrians endure in seeking a better, safer life away from the war. The installation was chosen as Object 101 in the BBC series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ broadcast on 25 December 2020.

A recent talk about Issam Korbaj and Ruth Padel collaboration can be accessed on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/525514772).

UKAGP Newsletter, Autumn 2021
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