The Paris Attacks, Refugees, and the Brutal Fiction of Borders

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By Molly Crabapple
November 19, 2015

The night the Islamic State attacked Paris, I was translating a book by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.

The regularity of the work was what kept my brain from spiraling into a pain loop. Write down the Arabic words you know. Look up the ones you don't. Force the sentences to make sense. Check on friends in Paris. Drink. Avoid the panic and death on Twitter. Translate another page.

Qabbani is a bit like Syria's Pablo Neruda in that he combines revolutionary sentiment with eroticism. The book I translated, Sparrows Don't Need Entry Visas, was a collection of introductory essays Qabbani had read at Arab capitals, many now destroyed by war. In one essay, Qabbani describes the subversive power of words evade governments—to fly, not like airplane passengers, but like sparrows.

Words, Qabbani says, don't need visas.

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