Rule No. 1: A poet must always have a pen in their pocket. Always.
A dear friend and mentor told me these words when I first started writing nearly a decade ago. Just the other day, another close friend gave me a pen as a gift. On the card he wrote, “when the pen dries, the poet is only half done.” Today, that pen rests where it belongs, in my pocket.
The pen is a symbol of power and responsibility. The pen is a tool of creativity and understanding. Quite simply, the pen unlocks human potential. We write hoping that our words will catalyze connection, growth, healing, and reflection. In that battle, the pen is both an idea and a weapon. Such an instrument must always be within arm’s reach, and is inseparably tied to both our words and our actions.
When I reflect on the power of a single pen, there is one story I will never forget. Along with my partners Mike Mallah and Farris Barakat, two years ago I was on the Syrian border and met a doctor who truly wielded a pen with more might than a sword.
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Dr. Bari sits in his office about five miles from Syria. Temporary hard plastic walls line the room. This building is not designed to be a medical clinic. These days, nothing in Kilis, Turkey, feels like it’s the way things are supposed to be. War is in the distance. Millions of refugees are in our midst. He closes the door.
Dr. Bari has a soft but stern voice. He has slicked-back jet black hair, wears a tightly knotted scarf, and is enveloped in a pristine white medical coat. He holds a silver blue-capped pen in his fingers like a blade, and wears a day or two’s worth of a beard wrapped around his chin. He locks the door.
In Syria, Dr. Bari was a forensics specialist. He conducted autopsies back in the city of Aleppo. When the conflict started, dozens of bodies would come in every day, he said. The government would force him to falsify the death reports. “You can’t write down gunshot wounds,” he said. There were always gunshot wounds.
One day they brought him 50 bodies in bags. He remembers it clearly. It was clear, they had been tortured, he said. He couldn’t write the reports this time. He couldn’t sign his name to this crime. He couldn’t put his ink on those bloody bodies.
“They had no names, just numbers,” he said.
Dr. Bari is a wanted man now; so is his family. Saying no to the government has consequences. The next day, he and his relatives were smuggled into rebel-controlled areas. His son was 2 months old when they crossed the border into Turkey.
These days, nothing in Kilis, Turkey, feels like it’s the way things are supposed to be.
Dr. Bari quickly shifts the conversation to the urgency of the moment, of this moment. The past is over. Today is the only story he wants to talk about.
Dr. Bari lives in Kilis, Turkey, and works at the medical clinic I am visiting. It’s one of the few resources for Syrians left out of the refugee camps. Emergencies go to the hospital, but everyone else comes here. The waiting lists are long, paperwork is stacked to the ceiling, and the supplies are low, very low.
“It’s a normal day. We have learned to doctor without medicine,” he tells me.
We walk over to the pharmacy. The pharmacist has nothing to say and a hollow look on his face. He stares at the ground and opens his palm to the barren metal shelves. Dr. Bari can only do so much here. “We are used to the sick now,” he says.
His hands are tied by circumstance and fate. How do you tell someone that your cure is out of stock? That pain is a condition you must bear because the pill bottles are empty.
There are babies crying loudly in the far room. The pharmacist politely signals for us to leave.
Dr. Bari walks us out of the clinic and closes the door. Under the Kilis sun, a man is selling bright pink cotton candy out front. Kids are playing in the courtyard to the left, their laughter is contagious. I try to capture it with my recorder, but the wind swallows it whole.
Dr. Bari smiles and thanks us. He used to diagnose causes of death in Syria. Now he fends off the reaper with little more than the blade of a pen. Even if the shelves are empty, he hasn’t given up.
“Tell the world to help us get rid of Bashar,” he says. “Syria is a sick patient and Assad is the cancer. He was forced on us; now we will force him out.”
So here in Kilis, a doctor grits his teeth and pushes through the pain. In Kilis, there is a doctor with a silver blue-capped pen in his pocket who said no to the government. In Kilis, there is a man who is learning to doctor without medicine.
Today, in addition to the pen my friend gave me, I carry a silver blue-capped pen in my pocket as well. A reminder. A symbol. A weapon.
Will McInerney is a poet, journalist and educator. You can reach him at email@example.com