Rana Bitar is no stranger to pain; from treating patients whose bodies are riddled with cancer, to watching the Syrian civil war tear apart what was once her home.
Now, the Niskayuna resident and doctor who has treated so many physical ailments is trying to treat a different kind of wound with poetry. “A Loaf of Bread,” her first chapbook, which came out earlier this year, is a haunting collection of poems inspired by her memories of Syria as well as stories from family and friends about the war.
“I think this is the way to create understanding and empathy and compassion, by feeling another person not another segment of news,” Bitar said, “I think art is the way to reach beyond the immediate.”
Bitar grew up in Damascus and wrote poetry, usually in Arabic, all throughout her childhood. But from a young age, she knew she wanted to be a doctor, a career that her family fully supported. After studying in Aleppo, she moved to New Orleans in 1990 to finish her education and take her medical exams.
While studying to be a doctor is challenging on its own, Bitar had the added challenge of learning English. When she first arrived in the U.S. she didn’t speak fluently; she had just studied it briefly in high school. She found that learning the medical terminology wasn’t difficult.
“What was challenging was the conversations,” Bitar said. Nevertheless, she mastered that and went on to take a residency in New Jersey and then worked at a hospital in Manhattan for a year before she and her husband, Joseph, decided they wanted to start a family. New York City seemed too intense a place to raise kids so they moved up to Niskayuna, where they’ve been ever since.
While Bitar was busy working in Schenectady and raising her two children, Jad and Enana, her writing slowed down.
“I wrote poetry since I was ten and I kept writing in Arabic up until I came here and got busy studying. I slowed down for a little bit and then I started writing again in Arabic,” Bitar said, “When you start thinking in English you want to write in English, but I didn’t feel I [could] grasp the higher expressions I wanted. I felt deficient.”
So a few years ago, she returned to college to study English. Throughout her courses, which were online, she went back and re-examined some of the poems she’d written in Arabic. She also wrote new ones, many inspired by what she was hearing and seeing about the civil war in Syria. Though she’d been living in Niskayuna for years, she had gone back to visit a few times and still had family and friends living there. Bitar writes:
“In my cabinet, there is a glued tea set;
it fell and broke one day,
but I put it together again
with memories and despair”
It is from the poem “Where I Am From.” It’s the first in “A Loaf of Bread,” and the tone of anguish and nostalgia carry through the chapbook.
In another poem, “Bombed,” Bitar writes about how her home was destroyed.
“My house fell—
Who will whisper lullabies to the walls’ quivers?
Who will gather, kindly, the glass’ scatters?
Who will search for my childhood notebooks?”
In another, Bitar recounts how her father-in-law died in part because of the war. He needed medical attention and because there were too many barricades and blocked streets he couldn’t reach it in time.
Others, like the haunting title poem, “A Loaf of Bread,” are born out of stories she’s heard through the grapevine of friends and family who are from Syria or who still live there. A friend had told her of a bomb that had gone off near a bakery where mothers and children were waiting in line for bread.
“The loaf of bread’s face
into an airplane,
a shower of shrapnel
has studded my body,
and the neighborhood’s bakery
has become my holocaust"
While some people wonder at how Bitar is both a doctor and poet, she said that one feeds into the other. As a doctor, she’s there with her patients when they’re sick and when they’re hurting.
“It opens your heart to receiving suffering, regardless of where it comes from; cancer, war, illness. [It] teaches you that each life is on its own equally valuable, regardless of who you are and where you are,” Bitar said.
It’s helped her to understand and process the pain of the ripple effects of the Syrian war, felt by so many.
In “Refugee,” Bitar puts the experiences of thousands of escaped Syrians into challenging and mournful words:
“Do you know my name?
Can you roll
its heavy letters on your tongue?
I’ve been excavated,
I have no flag. I float"
“Over the years, you see all these scenes and the horror of war, you see it on TV and you hear it on the phone and I realized that that’s something that other people should hear and see. Other people should listen to these people’s experiences and maybe open their hearts and expand their empathy. Do something with it,” Bitar said.
While she has been using poetry to tell people’s stories, her son, Jad, decided to use his filmmaking skills to do just that. Several years ago, when he was still a student at Niskayuna High School, he and his father visited Germany and spoke with people in the Syrian refugee camps about their experiences. He later compiled the interviews and created the documentary “I Am Syria,” which was shown at Proctors in 2017.
Bitar translated each interview so the film could have English subtitles, watching the interviews several times to translate properly. Each time, she couldn’t help being moved by each of their stories, by what they had gone through.
Some discussed how their family members had died while trying to escape to Germany, sometimes on horrendously overcrowded boats.
Hearing each person telling their own story and then reading the news about the refugee crisis and the war from national news organizations, Bitar was frustrated at the disconnect.
“You hear Syrian crisis or Syrian refugees as a snapshot on TV, quick news or political agenda news. They’re all lumped together into one character,” Bitar said, “We have to look at it individually. You can’t just lump everybody under one categorization. Each person is a human.
They have their dreams, they have their ambitions. You start hearing these numbers thrown [around] and it loses meaning because it’s just numbers.”
In the last year or two, news of the Syrian crisis has made fewer and fewer headlines in the United States. But Bitar said that in no way means that it’s over.
“There’s still people, kids, children in tents [that are] dying of cold or lack of nutrition or lack of food. So there’s still a crisis going on. This is as important as the acute event of a bombing or divisions each fighting each other,” Bitar said.
It’s part of the reason “A Loaf of Bread,” in all its poignant imagery is more relevant than ever.
“In the process of rebuilding their lives, the innocent victims of any war not only need financial support, but also a validation of their experiences. I hope that my material will give a voice to the voiceless, so they can be heard. Because connecting on [a] personal level, one to another is the first step to solve the larger crisis in the world,” Bitar said.
She ends the chapbook with a brief but bittersweet poem, “Life and Death,” in which Bitar writes:
"Because the opposite of death is not life.
The opposite of death is love.”
While “A Loaf of Bread,” while is available on Amazon and Barnesandnobles.com, is her first published chapbook, it certainly won’t be her last book. She’s working on a nonfiction book about her journey as an oncologist and on what her patients have taught her.
“It’s a collection of interactions with people around you. The experiences I have every day with people and with death, as an oncologist it’s a close encounter with dying every day. The way they face, the way they handle it. The courage, the way they go through their journey. That teaches you a lot,” Bitar said, “It enriches your capacity to be more compassionate. . . you realize that [the] humanity that we have towards each other is the only bind, the only thing that allows us to stand tall when the end comes.”