Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown under a wave
of pride and knives
Many years ago, I worked in Mogadishu up to the moment when the city fell to the rebel militias of General Aideed. Yusuf, one of my Somali colleagues had told me "Somalia is like a mirror - once broken, it can never be put back together". To me, Mogadishu of the late '80s had been a beautiful city. As I awoke I could hear the ocean breathing, vervet monkeys played in the fig trees on our small veranda and there was always laughter and melodrama in the office. And then it was gone; burned, blasted, stamped on and crushed until it was dead. And unlike Yusuf, I was whisked away on a UN evacuation flight to leave Somalia and its torment behind me.
Six months later, hunkered down in a hotel room in Cairo, I remembered that poem as I watched Somalia implode on CNN, destroying my old neighbourhood in the process. In turmoil, I picked up my battered copy of Neruda and tried to rewrite "I'm Explaining a Few Things" for Somalia; to express my anger at how so few could damn so many, how so many in the world couldn't give a damn.
Spain in 1936 resembles Syria in 2013. This is not a European war of course, and the political tides of the Islamic world may appear mysterious and disconnected from everyday lives in Europe and North America. But like the Spanish civil war, Syria's battleground is laden with foreboding. For - as was the case in Spain - it is the extremes of political ideology which are thirsting for blood. We know now that Spain was a mild aperitif for a much more bitter, humourless and deadly expression of violence in Europe - which rode roughshod over communities, families and friends on the principle that "many must die if our ideas are to live". But ideas don't live, people do. And without people there are no ideas.
Behind the struggle for freedom from Assad's tyranny (and that of other dictators), Syria, Iraq, Egypt and perhaps the entire Islamic world are are being rallied to the banners of ideas - ideas of ethnonationallism and of sectarianism. We know what lies at the end of these roads. Murder, and more murder. Until there is no-one left to kill. Our interest in Syria should not be fundamentally about stopping the killing that is occurring now, but about preventing the slaughter that is to come.
If there is one passage from Neruda's famous poem which is worth repeating here, it is this:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
From every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every corner of Spain
a new Spain emerges
and from every dead child, a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets
Come and see the blood
in the streets!