Behind the Lens (2019) – Nasirah Kathrada

Title: Behind the Lens
Author: Nasirah Kathrada
Date published: 2019
Publisher: Artson
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: This book was kindly sent to me by the author Nasirah Kathrada published under Artson Publishing House.

Before I begin to discuss this book of poetry that was kindly sent to me by the author herself, I believe it necessary that I admit not knowing nearly enough about the human tragedies and the wars that this book is centered on. This is a book of poetry chronicling the lives and deaths of people, but mostly children that have suffered unbelievable atrocities in wars that are still ongoing. It is worth noting that the poems are written about Syria, which has been involved in a war since 2011, about the Gaza Strip where the Israel/Palestine conflict has caused civilians to become ‘human shields’ since 2006, and about Burma that since its independence in 1948, and now renamed Myanmar, has experienced the world’s longest ongoing civil war.  Hundreds upon thousands of children have been killed in these wars and they are still being killed to this very day. It is also worth noting that the poet is fifteen years old. This unbelievably heart-breaking collection is her ode to the children that have lost their lives, and her retaliation against the “naïve cameraman” or the “naïve photographer” whose attempts at capturing the victims, has failed to capture the people, and their pain.

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Kathrada’s collection is divided into four chapters respectively titled: Story of a Palestinian Boy; The Everyday Lives of Street Kids; The Children of Syria and A Few Peace Poems. In order to fully attempt to cover the essence of her work I will briefly discuss some of her poems within each chapter, and try to capture the essence and motives as best I can.

Story of a Palestinian Boy is a showcasing of the sorrow that is experienced by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters that have lost loved ones. Some of the poems also refer to children losing their childhoods and adults coming to the end of their lives. In ‘He Can’t Come Back’, ‘She Will Remember’ and ‘I Can Remember’ family members anguish over their lost loved ones. In ‘Chemical Sky’ and ‘Broken Glass’ the poet eludes to the stripping of childhood amidst the horrors of war. The first poem ‘Roses’ is a metaphor for the blood spilled by a man who is witnessing his own death, and wishing that the “soundtrack of his death” were peaceful, and not the sounds of screaming and gunfire.

The Everyday Lives of Street Kids is a brief collection of poems pertaining to the struggles of living on the streets. In the aptly named ‘Street Kid’, ‘8th Street’ and ‘Flickering Lights’ the general perceptions and treatment of homeless children are marked with distrust and disgust, and a general feeling that they are simply a nuisance.  In ‘Parallels’ a street kid and a more privileged kid make assumptions about one another, and in ‘China Dolls’ little girls living on the streets are described as “molls” rather than dolls possibly because the hardships they have had to endure has taken away their innocence, and hence their ‘doll-like’ features.

The Children of Syria is also a short collection of four poems focusing specifically on the troubles in Syria. In ‘A Place to Rest’ a young girl carries her infant brother through the streets looking for a place to just lie down. In ‘A Map of Red’ the poet focuses on the fighting in the streets and the blood in the streets and how

“men march in the blood of the fighters, dreamers and believers…”.

In ‘Punctured Lungs’ we are made aware of the number of children that died in a war they never signed up for, and in ‘Blood Stained Stone’ the author forces the reader to acknowledge how devastating the war in Syria has been, and should in no way be compared to other world tragedies such as in Germany, the United States of America or South Africa.

Her final chapter, A Few Peace Poems is the most extensive collection and deals with a variety of different issues. In ‘You Need to Know!’ human tragedies are frequently being forgotten, and/or replaced by less serious news articles in the media. ‘Poisoned in the Womb’ is a child’s angry letter to the mothers that abandon their children. ‘Born to this Land’ is the heart-breaking story of a father burying his son under the same Pomegranate tree that he used to play under. ‘Death Boat’ and ‘Tiny Boat’, which for me are the most haunting, describe the derelict boats used to escape troubled lands. The boats were described as “being led by Charon, into the untamed sea”, and they often did not make it ashore. Charon according to Greek mythology was the ferryman of Hades who carried newly deceased souls across the rivers that divided the world of the living and the dead.

In ‘If Olive Trees Had Eyes’ the technique of personification is cleverly used to describe how vastly more empathetic the world would be if the soil had a tongue, trees had eyes, the skies had a voice and the tattered flags of nations could make us feel the pain of the victims in Gaza. In ‘I Was Wrong’ a soldier’s realization for what he has done in the name of war comes too late, and ‘Burma’ chronicles the history of Burma’s wars since its independence, and the thousands of souls that have abandoned their land – “took their land and all its fame, took their home and changed its name”.

“Raining Bombs” and “Hungry” shed light on the dropping of acid and chemicals, and of famine and drought respectively. “Buried beneath the Sand” and “Soldier Laying on the Ground” are there to make sure that those that have died are never forgotten as those still alive remember them as they were, as people in a land they once called their own.

This book is remarkable for so many reasons. For the depth at which a young author can tackle the horrors and indecencies of war; for the very plain fact that I am not often shaken to my very core and reading Behind the Lens shook me consistently. I wish that the realities of this book were a thing of the past and I wish that there was a way for the casual reader to change the realities of those suffering in all these terrible wars. Sometimes though (and it may not seem like it at the time) it is enough to know, to just know. To be aware of the world and its pain, and then, only then, can we begin the process of possible healing. A truly magnificent book of poetry by a very talented author who is surely destined to help change the world!

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