Writing the North African Experience

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Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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Mohab Nasr: The people are sleeping-مهاب نصر: الشعب نائم يا حبيبي

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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The four avatars of Hassan Blasim

REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on.

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Three Versions of Copt: Sept 2011/Doors: April 2013

This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.

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The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

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A second excerpt from “The Crocodiles”

The oblivious body by qisasukhra

A second excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s التماسيح (Dar Al Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles].

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194. “You know you’re a coward?” she said, for the first time staring into his eyes without confusion or uncertainty. She hadn’t completely finished tying the ponytail when she looked at him and he couldn’t believe it. “I’m the first to tell you?” Not a flicker; just the first signs of a smile upon her lips. “You really are a son of a dog’s religion of a coward.” And before he could give expression to his astonishment he found his arm in motion, as if of its own accord. “A coward,” she was saying, “because you’re not prepared to exchange your position for another, even in your imagination. You’re scared to put yourself in a woman’s place because you’re scared to ask yourself whether, in those circumstances, you would marry. This isn’t a fear like the human sentiment with which to varying degrees we’re all familiar: it carries a moral presumption and a glib satisfaction with your own circumstances. That’s why I’m telling you you’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward…”

195. And this, as I see it, was precisely Moon’s genius. When she came out with abrupt and sudden declarations of this sort it was with a tremendous energy, an intentness that summoned thoughts of the weak standing up to the strong, the revolutionary to his oppressor, and she would make the man before her feel, in consequence, that her words came forth from a deep place: that she’d thought hard about it and that it pained her. Her subtlety in inferring views, which her inner cogency or indifference would not permit her to air more comprehensively, was what gleamed in her eyes as her lips quivered. Meanwhile the truth was that she said things by way of experiment and cared deeply only about their immediate impact; things that sprang from an absolute lack of cogency. Moon would lie, tentatively, without believing herself, and the things she said were clichés even though our admiration of the speaker might mask the fact. This was the genius Nayf fell for, despite his shrewdness, because it was—as I see it—a genius of cliché, while Paulo and I, with the less brains or the greater weakness, hooked the Joke and the Slogan.

196. She was saying, “That’s why I’m telling you,” when Nayf’s palm settled on her cheek. And when the palm slid down to her neck she went on: “You’re a son of a dog’s religion of a coward. Am I right or what? When you said that it makes no difference…”

197. It wasn’t a slap precisely, though the arm was raised, the palm stretched rigid and the shoulders a straight line through a circle’s centre. It was like the threat of a slap, which Moon would have returned immediately had she not lost her balance beneath the weight of the slapper, now standing over her head. As he turned to face her she tottered and swayed, until she came to rest cross-legged on the couch, her long summer dress hitched up off a brown and slender thigh. At which point she looked him in his eyes again. She herself did not know if something in her gaze was different but it no longer fazed him that she looked.

198. A thigh, brown and slender, but aglow and suffused, and her long thick hair, numberless streaked chestnut strands gathered in a ponytail, and her, looking at him. Did Nayf recall the lion? Did the recollection affect an energy pulsing in his body, that was like desire and was not desire? A rosy thigh and thick hair and breath of basil with a pulsing energy and her hair and a brown and slender thigh.

199. Moon did not flinch as the palm encircled her nape, the thumb settling on the Adam’s apple, and it did not seem that she was immediately aware of Nayf’s other hand tugging the ponytail down as he returned to his seat beside her, chest-out this time; only, with the thumb’s pressure and her head’s canting back, her voice became strangled till she stopped speaking, then a faint whine was heard followed by panting—her lips clamped tight—as though it did not come from her. And though she did not laugh when he hissed in her ear, “This son of a dog’s religion is your mother’s dad,” it came as no surprise to him that she didn’t resist. “Your mother’s dad… daughter of a whore.” He was bringing his face up to hers so that his forehead settled on her nose, as if to crush it. And she was pressing her lips together ever more violently, her breath was drawing closer while her knees parted little by little, further and further.

200. Recalling a gathering of the Crocodiles which took place weeks before that night I can almost hear Nayf, cackling derisively at a scene of a masked man flogging two pale buttocks, all that showed of a woman straitjacketed in steel and black leather, on the Internet. How, then, was his thumb now on the verge of sinking an Adam’s apple into the throat of a girl kneeling on phosphorescent plush? Later, Moon will tell him that the marks left by his hands and teeth, if she had seen or heard of them on any other girl just a day before that night, would have filled her with disgust.

201. “And yet,” she will go on, with that sour grin of hers which scattered the beauty from her face “it seems I like abuse and caveman stuff. With you, baby, I’ve found what I deserve.”

202. In 2001, and up till now perhaps, in our conception of civilization—Nargis and Saba’s conception, Moon’s conception, of civilization—the sweetness of sex was incompatible with physical violence. Especially when the violence came from a man and was directed towards a woman, we viewed it as nothing more than an unnuanced machismo exercising its unreconstructed masculinity; it never occurred to one of us that it might be probing psychological depths quite unrelated to any worldview blowing in from behind the buffalo. Power, possession and absolute loyalty—unlike “self-development”—were things we distanced ourselves from with all our might. A man beating a woman to arouse himself or her would mean he raped her, subjugated her body, something that repelled us to the utmost degree. Yet we needed violence more than anything. Perhaps this need for violence—our need to feel the power of possession and a desire for an absolute loyalty to justify our lives, for the temptation to recreate some person in the world other than ourselves—perhaps this was what set Nayf in motion and set loose in his body an energy that resembled desire, yet was not, or not just.

203. So it was, that when she did not part her lips as they made contact with his mouth, which had suddenly grown wet, he did not hesitate to lick them then bite them harder and harder until he was barely stopping himself from drawing blood. And after her hands came to rest beneath his shoulders on the pretext of pushing him away—she wasn’t pushing him but pulling him in, planting her fingers through the back of the T-shirt and into his ribs—Nayf was astonished at himself for the savagery with which he bit Moon, cheek and neck, after lowering the dress from her shoulders and, pulling off her bra, likewise on her breast.

204. Her breast, in size and shape: a lemon; but the nipple is black and very large, a charcoal knuckle, and when his teeth encircle it at the root as though to nip it off—I mean the nipple—it’s owner will open wide her lips for the first time and her basil scent will blend with something between pepper and smoke and she will not make a sound. As though the whine that came from her before signified a resistance now broken in the face of a more profound and authentic pain; precisely as though the pain was (and leaving aside what we’d repeat among ourselves, Paulo, Nayf and I, that a person who’d lost pleasure or despaired of it must cling to pain as the only way to feel alive… As I write, in this moment, about myself, I believe that what keeps me alive, confronted by reports of parliamentary elections ongoing since November, is the pain of those twitching on the asphalt after inhaling gas, of those struck by bullets in their eyes, of those stampeding from the scourge of billyclubs and electric cables… The pain, that biting light in whose absence no one perceives a thing); as though the pain was, for Moon, the key to a locked door behind which lay her truth, which she would never confess except in jest or without conviction—all her lies were in the mirror—and which, consequently, she could not express with any sound whatever.

205. I see him slapping her seriously this time then, while circling her until he stands behind her as she kneels, twisting her arms behind her with one hand and with the other pulling off her underwear then lowering his clothes to enter her as though ramming a plank of wood into a wall cavity—all this in a single movement, like lightning—and he finds her wet and easy—as I was not to find her, at first—and leans over her back all overlain with gleaming chestnut hair to breathe in the smoke and pepper and search for a trace of basil, which draws further and further away amidst a throbbing pressure, only to return damply with her panting.

206. Then, as Nayf leans over Moon’s back, he will sink his hands into the curve of her flesh and yank her bunched hair, scour it, then insert his whole thumb into her anus to lift her sex towards him and will reach out his hand to mash her nipple between two fingers then fall to smacking her rump again. And with the resolve of a saint tortured by Romans on the shore of the Red Sea, she will keep holding back from crying out—not a sound except her faint pants broken, despite herself, by eruptions of a lowing or braying she struggles to cut off—until the moment that her small brown body quakes, spasm after spasm, having pulled her arms from his grasp and settled on all fours, writhing in what resembles a fit, a freshly-slaughtered panther, biting the green plush as he looms upright then kneels upon the sofa’s edge, his feet still on the living room floor.

207. The oblivious body. Which solicits a violence it did not know it wanted. Which offers up a sacrifice to something other than what constitutes living in Egyptian society. Far from ideas of sin and transgression, but far, too, from holding to any principle, no matter how straightforward and true the principle might be. The body, which I, Gear Knob, knew as boisterous, tyrannical for all its triviality, and in which I got to know The Crocodiles’ full stink, in one go; maybe Nayf intuited from her silence beneath this pain the truth of its moans. And forgot the lion. As he withdrew from Moon and left her bundled on the couch, still erect himself, yet to come—as he hurried to his bedroom to fetch two scarves and a fat candle in the shape of an apple—perhaps he forgot that a flesh and blood lion had been tormenting him for weeks.

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
***
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
***
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

***
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Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
books
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
books
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
books
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
***

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
***

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Translation © Youssef Rakha

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KENYON REVIEW (MINI) INTERVIEW

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With my late father, Elsaid Elsayed Rakha—lawyer, disillusioned communist, and incredible anti-patriarch, 1981

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What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.
Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!
More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…

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Banipal Interview with SARGON BOULUS

Interview by Margaret Obank*

 

Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Iraqi poet who has been part of the American poetry since the late sixties. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry.
He is one of the most important Arab poets today. He started publishing poetry and short stories contributing to Shi’r magazine of Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.
His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, and he published four collections of poetry. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.
Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete an his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.
Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne a last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him last September. We spent a day under the Sh?ppingen sky, eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language.
I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.

English lakes and lawns
Well, I was born in this small town of Al-Habbaniya. It was all water- an artificial lake built by the English I think – and I was born very close to the water. I think water is an important symbol to me even today and so I use it a lot. One of my first memories: I was sitting with my mother close to the water, where we had this kind of shack, small house, on the lake and we were just watching for hours and listening to the water, and a sunset which still lingers in my mind, even the light, the shape of it, the form and the hues.
It is these small subtle details that can drive you along the path of your life, the rest of your life. Al-Habbaniya was a small town and most of the Assyrians happened to live there because they were brought thereby the English. This is really important history for me because somehow I am involved with it, my bringing up and all that. In the twenties, I think, after the Assyrians were massacred in the north and the English took them over and put them under their protection, they moved from Henadi, which was a British air base, and brought to Al-Habbaniya, which became a military camp, a famous camp.
My father used to work for the English and one of my first and very cherished memories is when as a kid my father used to take me to the place of his work, which was a camp where only the English lived with the Iraqi workers. We used to see these English ladies in summertime among their flowers and lawns, a totally different women from the women that I knew like my mother, my sisters and the other women in my, family. Here was another type of image of humanity, let’s say, and I was like sneaking a view through the trees, from far away into these gardens. For me, I think now, that’s a vision of paradise, paradise meaning something very flowery, full of color. I’ve even written about this somewhere, some lines in a poem. Of course I wasn’t aware at the time that they were occupying the country, I was too young.

My small treasure
So the making for me is very important, going back through memory, back into those details which never exist anywhere in anybody’s head except mine. And that’s what I count my small treasure, beautiful details of the world. I guess they shape up your taste in life things we are talking about, they make you who you are and as a poet, of course, they are very precious because what are you going to write in poetry unless it’s about the deepest things, unless it’s about delving into the far recesses of memory, and through that making a vision of the world in every way.After childhood, we left Al-Habbaniya and moved to Kirkuk, a city in the north, totally different, with almost no water.
There is a river, Al-Qa’em, which has no water nine months of the year and suddenly floods the rest of the year. My latest book, being published in German and Arabic, is called (Witnesses on the Shore -Shehood Ala Al-Dhifaf) and is based on a poem about the flood of a river which is dead most of the time and suddenly it flares up and drowns the whole town. So from Al-Habbaniya, to Kirkuk, a city that was dry and rocky with totally different people: mostly Turkomans, Turkish Mongolian people who have been there for thousands of years, and lived mostly in a very high stone castle. It has left such an impression on me, it’s like history is right there facing you every day.

I wrote so furiously
I started writing when I was 12: I published my first poem when I was 13 or 14 and since then I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music. In the beginning I wrote so furiously; I have some notebooks from that time and I have noticed from the dates that on one day, for instance, I would write 5 or 6 poems, of course, short, violent ones, but 5 or 6 and that is a lot. So it was some kind of thing to do with destiny.
Yes, I believe in that -in a poet’s case it is always true; that that magic, once it strikes you, you can never live without it. You always go back to that source to find out – how did this happen? Why did this thing happen to me? Why was I chosen, in fact, to see the world in this way, through words?
My parents never went to school; all they knew was that I was scribbling all night, alone in my room on this paper, and my mother used to pity me and tell me as a young kid: “Why don’t you go and play? Why don’t you go to the movies? Why don’t you enjoy your youth? Your eyes will be ruined!” Of course, I could never explain to her and she would never have understood. And even today, imagine at this age, whenever I write a poem I go back to that feeling. I try to capture it.

Spirit and words
It’s like a magical drug of spirit and words. The Arabic language really has that magic and once it reveals itself to you you are trapped. That’s why in Arabic they say “Adracat,hu hirfatu al-adab”, meaning “the profession of words has struck, he’s cursed”. At the same time I consider it a blessing as well as a curse, beaus today, if you ask me, I would say I want to do exactly as I have done. I want it all over again. I think that in poetry I have found something besides just pain and just nibbling at the bones of history.
Arab history, Assyrian history, Armenian history, all the peoples, all their languages poured into the Arabic language. The Arabic language is probably 70 per cent Syriac, Aramaic, even Sanskrit, and other languages, so there is no pure language in this sense. It happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages.
Even today I can tell you many words in which you will hear echoes of Assyrian, Hebrew, and much Syriac and Chaldean. You know, the Chaldeans had a tremendous civilisation after taking over Babylon from the Assyrians, their language was all over the Middle East.
So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and if s a secret between me and myself – some- times I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it. When I am doing that I am delving in this great river. Like the great dictionary, Lisan Al-Arab (The Arab Tongue), it’s so huge, it’s more than 20 volumes, but most of it is dead because it is not used.
However, the portion of the Arabic language that’s used today is incredibly alive; it is craving new developments, new versions of the reality which is changing all around it. So in a way we are using like five per cent of the dictionary because all those beautiful words, which are beautiful, lost their use, they were invented for another age.

Linguistic fundamentalists
This brings us to something very important, even political and that is – writing is politics and in Arabic especially and specifically with the Arabic language. This battle over the Arabic language itself, it is a very sensitive thing, like no other Language I know of because the Koran happens to be the source of the ultimate eloquence. Of course it’s not the source, because before it there was the language – fantastic and great – in the jahili times, but it’s political in this sense, let’s say, not only the religious fundamentalists but the linguistic fundamentalists, too, are afraid of change. And that is what is happening now. For instance, it happens only in the Arab world – the fight, the real war, about the forms of poetry.

The prose poem
In fact, till now, the prose poem is not accepted. They call it a prose poem. Why? Because the Koran Suras are supposed to be written in the form of prose poems, so in a subconscious way these linguistic fundamentalists are feeling threatened by it and so we are looking at half a century whereby the prose poem is still considered like a kind of weird foreign body that’s forced itself into the Arabic language, although this form has proved itself finally. That’s one of the battles that a poet who writes in Arabic has to be involved in.
I’ll tell you, this is really crucial for anyone to understand when we talk about Arab poetry. There are three forms, three movements, starting with the great classic poetry which extends from before Islam, from the jahilis, from Imr al Quais and the great ancient poets and then it extends even to the present – in fact the last great poet who wrote in that form died recently, Al-Jowahiri, and with him this thing is now totally buried and gone – there is no such thing we could compare it with in literature. A classic Arab poem is one which goes on for 50 to 1,000 lines and it has to maintain one strict rhyme, and there is no other thing like it in any other literature.
In the late 40s, a man called Badr Shaker Al-Sayab in Iraq came and tried something similar. He was influenced by English poetry, and mostly the romantics, by John Keats specifically, Shelley and, of course, Byron and Wordsworth and finally Edth Sitwell, his main influence. This means not free verse, not blank verse, rhymed verse, but rhymed in variations, not just in one strict rhyme, three or four lines in the same tone maintaining the old metrics of the classic poetry. What happened was a revolution, an absolute revolution. Two thousand years of Arabic poetry was turned upside down. Many still kept writing, like jowahiri, but it was finished, it was gone. At the same time, in America, the immigrant Arab poets like Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Al-Rehani and the rest, who were influenced by Walt Whitman and the American free verse movement, wrote what we would call the prose poem, meaning no metrics, just a prose piece, blank verse, and so that one was attacked too – it was considered just prose.
Then a magazine called Shi’r (Poetry) came out in the late fifties established by Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut which carried this whole thing forward – a real giant step. Now, these were people who had read the western canon, Adonis in French and Yousff Al-Khal in English. Compared to their contemporaries they were far advanced in their look toward poetry, towards Modernism, towards revolutionising poetry. Today, when you study Arabic poetry, Shi’r magazine stands at the heart of the matter.
When I was in Kirkuk in 1961 I sent poems to Yousef Al-Khal, 16 poems, which were published, opening the magazine, and I was hailed in Al Nahar newspaper as a new discovery, a young poet – which was true, I was very young. And so Yousef Al-Khal and me started a correspondence and that is the start of my relationship with the magazine.

Sound and images
In fact, that decided my fate – the strong relationship I had with Beirut, where I could publish things I could never dream of publishing in Iraq, which was strict and still did not accept the new poetry. You know, in Iraq there is a complete establishment of defenders of classic poetry, and I was a real revolutionary at that time. I wrote in metrics but in such a strange way – beyond Al-Sayab, beyond what was written then, no rhyme, just strict, almost Surrealistic sound and images but truly furious the poems are still there.
Well, I have never stopped, I published a lot in Shi,r magazine because as I say, Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis encouraged me so much to a point where I’m dedicating the book I am working on right now (which is poems collected from the seventies to eighties) to them both. In a way, these people decided my fate. When I had this connection with the magazine I kept dreaming and, of course Beirut was there, behind the whole scene, behind the words. Beirut was for us a dream, a golden capital, especially in the sixties – it’s history now, after the war, after the ruins.
Now I used to know jabra Ibrahim jabra in Baghdad, who worked for IPC, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, and who edited a company magazine, a nice literary magazine. I published poems in it because they paid and because Jabra was such a nice man. He had of course studied at Oxford and Cambridge and I loved to go there just to talk to him.
By then, I was reading like a madman – I had discovered the whole English language: my brother used to speak English and had a nice small library at home and my father of course spoke a little English because he worked for the English in the same way most Assyrians, I think, had some connections to it.
Reading like that is what decided my views on literature and poetry.
Me and a friend of mine, Jan Dammo, a beautiful poet, found some English anthologies of poetry sold very cheaply on the streets of Baghdad. So we both started discovering the poets and what I didn’t completely understand, I imagined, and so my imagination was being sharpened. When you are very young, your imagination is so alive, anything like that could fire it like in a crucible. I think that is the most important thing in a poet’s life.

‘Your place is in Beirut’
One day Yousif Al-khal came to Baghdad and jabra Ibrahim jabra called me to say: -Yousif Al-Khal is coming tomorrow and he wants to see you.’ Well, I go to his house and meet the man who for me was truly not only an idol but an example of the true poet who went to the West and came back and established a magazine. He was a truly big name, a magical name with a great aura. He told me: “Your place is in Beirut. Come to Beirut. You are one of us.’ And after two months I was in Beirut.
How I got to Beirut is a very long and interesting story. In ’67 1 was 22 or 23, the perfect age for adventure, for cutting north, because you are afraid of nothing. No money! Nothing! You have to go! At the time, jabra (poor guy, mercy on his soul), thought like anybody else, I was going by airplane, with a ticket and passport. He had no idea I had no ticket. In fact I had no money. I sold a few books and made about 44 dinars. And no passport of course! No-one would give me a passport!

Crossing the desert
Jabra gave me the manuscript of King Lear (his translation of it) to give to Yousef Al-khal to be published – which I took for two months across desert. I crossed the desert to Hassaca and then to Homs and then to Damascus – and then to Beirut and that’s a tremendous adventure in my life. I’m still writing about it. It’s a very symbolic thing in the life of all the prophets and poets – what they call the dark night of the soul. Well, the desert you cross is like another world! Truly it was like that and I was living a vision.
When I walked into Dar Al-Nahar publishing house in Beirut with the manuscript of King Lear in my hands, and saw Yousef Al-Khal sitting at his desk, it was like yesterday. He said: ‘I told you!” He looked like he was expecting me, it was incredible.
I had crossed the desert on foot, with no suitcase, nothing, only a small bag with the manuscript of King Lear and some of my poems in a notebook I still have with me here today. This notebook is still the source of magic to me. It contains the poems I wrote when I was young, most of them not published. It has “Baghdad 1961″ written on the cover which is leather and indestructible and I carry it everywhere with me it’s like my magic icon. When I need a poem, when I’m dry, I just open that book and look at the paper and the lines, and it gives me the vision of that source.
My days in Beirut were divided between Yousif Al Khal, the newspaper where Adonis worked, and Horseshoe, that fantastic café in Beirut (which still exists!), where on evening you’d have everybody there, even international figures like Samuel Beckett. I worked with Al Nahar newspaper, and with Yousif Al-Khal on Shi’r magazine until I left in 1969 for America. Yousif Al Khal especially, was thus involved in shaping my destiny.
Beirut at that time was at the peak of its golden time, that was the golden age of the Arabs, and there is really nothing like it now, no way. was an open city and its beauty, it beaches like Long Beach, enthralled us. We used to go there, Adonis Yousef Al Khal and I, with many other people. It was a gorgeous place where bikinis were worn like on the Riviera.
I lived there with my aunt, my father’s sister. But most of the time were so wild, there were so many writers and poets we’d never get home.

Leaving Beirut …
But Beirut became too small for me. I had incredible dreams. After all I had come to Beirut with the idea of going to America – America was always in my mind, and the West. In the beginning, I started reading book by Sherwood Anderson called Weinsberg, Ohio, it’s a classic of American fiction. And then of course, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with their fantastic, fabulous worlds that I could imagine.
Whatever I read I imagine -it becomes absolutely visual. It becomes real!I even live it!
It is this dimension of my imagination has pulled me all my life. In fact, I’m here at this moment talking to you in Germany because of that. I do believe so! You see, I read and Rilke and H?lderlin, and these great German poets and I always wanted to know Germany, to live there. And here we are, although I had to go to America first and it took me a while to fix things.
However, before I could leave Beirut, they got me in jail in because I had no papers. One day I went to Shi’r magazine and Yousif Al Khal said: “What is this?” There are secret police looking for you. “What have you done?” But I never told him the story. I never told him that I had crossed the borders without papers. In fact, I started sleeping on the Rocha, the place where lovers jump from, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in friends’ apartments.
One day, when I was really sick of it all, I went to the police station. They put the handcuffs on me and told me: “We were looking for you!” I stayed in jail for a few days – it was full of Palestinians at the time as the Palestinian resistance movement was just starting and they were being caught at the borders. We became friends, we were about 300 in one room and they were all telling me their stories.
Out of jail to New York!br> Ghada Al-Saman, who was a very powerful writer at the time, knew the Lebanese president, and through him she brought the captain of the jail in his pyjamas one midnight to release me, but there was one condition -I had to leave Lebanon, and either go back to Iraq or somewhere else. ‘Somewhere else!” I said.
Yousif Al Khal helped me a lot. We went to the American Embassy and he told them about this young man who had translated two anthologies of American poetry in Shi’r magazine and introduced the beat generation of poets to Arab readers. He told the American Ambassador: ‘All you have to do is talk to this young man, just talk to him!”

American literature
So the Ambassador asked me about American literature. I started with Walt Whitman, and then came to the new names which the Ambassador had never heard of and probably will never hear of, and he said: “Enough! You got it.” So they gave me a paper, although I still had no passport.
That is how I got to New York. I borrowed $50 or $60 and went to New York without knowing anybody, no money, nothing, alone. Imagine that! I cannot believe even now, how I survived, nor how I got to San Francisco, which was my final destination because I had read and written about San Francisco before even seeing it.When I wrote about the Beat Generation in Shi’r, the introduction had to be about North Beach, San Francisco. When I finally got there, I discovered that all I had said was true, the way I had imagined it! And the hippies and the beats – well, I immediately joined, long hair, beads, the whole thing!
When Yousf Al Khal heard about me he said: ‘Sargon now is finished, lost completely, he’ll never come back.” His idea was that I would go to America and get educated, get a few PhDs or something and come back.
Etel Adnan helped me get from New York to San Francisco. I had met her one day at Shi’r magazine -this small sweet lady. She used to send her works to Yousff Al-Khal and I translated them. All her works published in Shi’r are translated by me, although most of the time I didn’t put my name. She said: ‘Sargon, if you come to America, please come and see this beautiful town, San Raphael, where I live.”
She sent me a ticket, and welcomed me at night with another lady and it was beautiful because Etel was a hippy. She thought she was Indian, in fact she is half Syrian, but she acted and thought like she was an Indian.
The first few days when I was there we sat in a famous cafe which is still there, called Buena Vista, it’s right on the bay and from it you can see Alcatraz jail, the famous prison. We were with some American Indians who were having a revolution there and trying to take over Alcatraz.
Anyway, I joined the Indians with Etel Adnan. They were a dream for me. We had only seen them in movies when John Wayne used to kill a few thousands – I think in one go! On the screen the white cowboys shot them like flies, so we always felt pity for them. For me they were fabulous people, and here they were for real, in San Francisco, with feathers and blankets and beads.

I was an Indian
I was fascinated and made friends with many of them. The Indians were in real poor shape, they still are, they had some kind of vulnerability to alcohol of which the whites took full advantage, and many, men and women, were alcoholics. But I don’t blame them, do you, when you have your whole land taken away, the white man is taking over your land and he doesn’t want to give it back – they don’t want to give them that tiny rock. They beat the hell out of them and chased them out. Sure, at that time I was an Indian and felt like one.
San Francisco is the center of creativity in America, the center of America. There is East Coast, New York, the publishing world, the business of literature and there is the West Coast, which is San Francisco and that is where all the new movements emerge from, always, even today, so there was the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, a tremendous movement with Kenneth Rexroth, whom I met, as master of ceremonies. Through him all the great poets of the beat generation came out, like Gary Snyder, and then Ginsberg, Kerouac, then Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I knew his daughter Mary, who became an exotic belly-dancer and was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, Gary Gach, a poet who still lives in San Francisco.
We used to go and see Kenneth Rexroth, but that’s on one condition that you don’t say a word, he’s the one who talks! He was such a genius, such a man of knowledge. He’s an encyclopaedia. In fact he’s famous for reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover every two years – he’s an incredible man. San Francisco is the place of awareness because writers there are the most open. They are not like the New Yorker writer and poet, the sophisticated Europeanised type. No, they are cosmopolitan. San Francisco is the city that is actually made up of all the cities in the world: You have Paris, you have London, you have Rome, and you have Berlin, in this city you have China. It is international and culture is absolutely open. I think for an artist, especially a poet, that is the city. I mean, I spent a quarter of a century, more, in San Francisco, never getting bored one minute – the readings, the fantastic trips, especially in the seventies and the eighties. It was the time for me, that is the thing that I treasure, the adventures, the open spirit, and then Berkeley, which in the late sixties was THE place for revolution, for stopping the war in Vietnam.
The first night I arrived in Berkeley, I saw a procession of students with candles singing against the war, to stop the war in Vietnam and what they were reading but the poems of Ho Chi Min, which I had just translated into Arabic and published in Dar Al-Nahar in Beirut. Prison Diary (Youmiat fi Sijin), it’s my first book. It was a great thing for me and in that procession I immediately made wild friendships with these students and for the first time with beautiful hippy girls, you know the ones with beads and flowing hair, with little kids. They took me with them and we lived on an abandoned ship in the bay, near San Sausalito, which is a city of the stars, the movie stars. The hippies lived in the harbour side by side with the yachts of these stars. This ship of ours was from the time of Mark Twain, you know the one with the crazy propellers and pedals, a paddle steamer. We had a juke box in it and a grill for making hamburgers. So, it was hippy girls, with their kids, naked, following them, making hamburgers and dancing to the music of Bob DyIan and Janis Joplin – it was a dream, an incredible dream.

This tremendous energy
The book I am working on right now is called Edha kunta Na’eeiman fi Markab Nooh (If You Were Asleep in Noah’s Ark) which is taken from two lines of poetry by Ruhmi, the great Persian mystic poet. He says: “If you were sleeping in Noah’s Ark, drunk,/what do you care if the flood has come?” The book contains the poems I wrote in America exactly at this time we have been talking about. I had found out that all I knew about writing – before I came to America it was nothing – was unequal to the occasion, just techniques and ways of writing that couldn’t contain the tremendous energy I was living, so I started asking myself, how I’m gonna express this’ In these violent poems in America I felt I was controlled by language, instead of me controlling the Language- So I had to create this flowing rhythm, this mad flowing rhythm of language and then everything is being dragged by this fantastic current. Well, I’m reading the poems now and I feel that I’m analysing myself through them.
For me, from the start till now, writing poetry was and is a very crucial, very intimate thing and deeply connected with my inner making, my inner life. Otherwise, why would I write poetry, why not fiction, why not essays? I tried to invent new ways to force the Arab language to contain the tremendous flow of new information, of new realities, and I wrote these fabulous poems, which I am collecting right now, some of them are 25,30 pages. I’d never dare write a poem that long these days. I don’t know how I did it. But I couldn’t be bothered to publish any of these poems then and I thought no-one would publish them. So I lived, immersed in this life and writing, all this time without publishing.

A letter from Adonis
Well, one day an Assyrian lady from Beirut, Violet Yacoub, came to San Francisco, and she said: “I have a letter for you from somebody called Adonis.” “Adonis!” I said – it was like a bell ringing. This is in ’72 or ’73 and I was completely cut off from the Arab world. I read the letter, it is a beautiful letter and in it Adonis told me: ‘You are present among us, you are never absent, although you are not here and I want you to give me for Muwaqif [his magazine] all that, you have, anything that you have.”
I gave Adonis whatever I had and he published it all, in newspapers, in magazines, in Morocco, everywhere.
Well, these poems came out and a lot of people have told me that probably they’re my best, in the sense that you can’t write things like that consciously, they just have to come out somehow.
My first collection (Al-Wasool ila Medinat ‘Ain (Arrival in Where City) is revolutionary in its style. Most of the poems were written in America and they were part of what I was trying to write about the absolutely modern situation, trying to capture it. After its publication in 1985, I started a different period and although these poems were published in ’85, some had been written in the late 60s, 70s, 80s. I published a second book of poems in Morocco, which I wrote mainly in Greece. I tried to capture in it the Mediterranean feeling, which was why I called it Al-Hayat Qurub Al-Acrypol (Living by the Acropolis), and it is true I was living very near the Acropolis. Every day I would walk through the Acropolis, and climb there and walk through the Plaka, so the seas and scents, feelings and details are mostly Mediterranean.

Coming from Assyria …
Is there any influence in my work from my Assyrian background? Well, as a child I was writing in Arabic, although I have written certain things in Assyrian. But I soon realized that Assyrian is a very limited language in the sense of an audience. First of all, throughout the whole Middle East where Assyrians exist their language is suppressed – they don’t have schools, they don’t have magazines, they don’t have books, but almost secret societies. The first school I went to was in a church in Al-Habbaniya where the priest used to teach us and I read Assyrian. It’s a beautiful language, it’s a great language and sometimes I feel like writing a fantastic elegy for the Assyrian language, how it’s dying and I’m seeing its death.
But then I realized, when I was struck by the Arabic language, when the gift came to me, that all languages are really one. I mean, Arabic is almost like Assyrian to me, that’s strange, but it’s really true. For me the sound of Arabic is like some kind of cover for what’s beneath it – meaning all these ancient languages never really die. They are there. This might sound like an illusion but they are there, they are steamed up into Arabic and they are right there.

They changed their names
Of course, throughout the years I went and studied these things, I studied Turath, which is the classics of Arabic language. I found out that some of the greatest Arab poets were in fact Assyrians. They changed their names, they’re all in history. Emr Al-Quais was Assyrian and Nabi Al Dhubiani, who was the poet of the kings, of the palace, was actually Assyrian. He was Monovesian, a kind of Christian at that time. Now who could be Christian in Iraq and not be Assyrian – either Assyrian, or Syriac or Chaldean, Assyrians considered all these people one. Then, Abu Tammam was Christian – he changed his name. Ibn Al-Abri, a great historian, is Ben Khafri in Assyrian, so he’s Assyrian. I can tell you hundreds of names like that. Ibn Ar-Ruhmi, he was in fact Greek and Christian. These things are facts in Arabic literature. So, the way I see it is that there is no such thing as pure Arabic literature. It all is from here and there, especially from Iraq and Syria where the tremendous movements of classic poetry took place, the revolutions of Abu Tammam in Syria and Al Muttanebi in Iraq, these movements just dragged with them all the past of mixed origins, mixed languages, mixed knowledge, mixed terminology – and this past is all there in the poetry and the prose.
I think that s what most of the poets, throughout history, have done. They have done exactly that. Because what finally counts is not the language, it’s what the languages say.
In my books, particularly the last three, I have been doing exactly that. I’ve been putting in Assyrian phrases or sentences, such as “Shimmet baba bruna rukhet kutcha” (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost), sometimes without translating them. They’re obviously Assyrian, but not in the sense of being just Assyrian, that would be just chauvinistic.
I want to make the language, which for me is the Arabic language, carry everything. I’m putting things from Robert Lowell, from Paves, from Caesar Vallejo. For the first time I’m indicating that this Arabic language can take anything from the world. That is the point really, the rest is just details.
The language is not dead, it can take anything. As far as I know, no one has done it before. They can’t, they don’t dare, and plus they can’t -as simple as that. It’s a matter of how to do it, and to do it right (not just to do it for the sake of doing it, no, that’s meaningless), but do it creatively. That way it’s necessary, it is contributing to the idea of poetry and the enrichment of the language.

Arabic is unexplored
For my own work, from my own experience of the language, I have been doing these experiments with the Arabic language for a very long time, in fact from the start, and I still feel that the Arabic language is material unexplored as yet. Let’s put it this way – it’s unmined. You know, it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be ex-tended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time. Look, I have a series of poems which I have been publishing in the London Al-Hayat newspaper, which are translations, but I don’t call them translations, I call them “poems after the poet”.
I believe that the art of translation is to get into rewriting the text. For instance, I’ve published sonnets by Shakespeare, poems by Shelley re-written into the modern idiom of Arabic, plus Haikus, Chinese, Poets like Po Chui-i, others plus Greek poets classics Sappho, all these came out through the years and they are still coming out. I am still doing experiments in a sense. what I do is take the text and imagine how would it sound if it was written originally in Arabic. That’s the whole idea. That’s what I do. My imagination goes into the sound of it. How would an Arab poet write such a sense, write such emotion?
A sonnet by Shakespeare? What I discovered is that the power of the sonnets is in their flow – uninterrupted. In Arabic that is almost impossible. Why? Because of the line ends. They stand as obstacles to the flow.

The flow of breath
So what do I do? I establish a new kind of line, which is continuous and at the same time I do this in my own poetry. I’m working with sounds and I’m working with the line that extends into the other line non-stop to get the flow of breath. This has never been done in Arabic. Why? Because of the metrics.
So what am I doing? I am compressing the language in such a way that it takes the place of the old metrics. It would be another metrics, as did western poets like Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes wrote what you can call syllabic poetry and before him Auden, of course. Syllabic – it depends on the syllable.
Now I’ve talked about this many times in interviews in Arabic, but they can’t understand it. They don’t know what I’m really doing, so every critic who writes about me never mentions these things because they aren’t even aware of them. They don’t know the mechanics, the techniques, they just don’t know. When they do write – and they have written extensively about these books and poems of mine, they talk, of course, about the material and what I’m saying, but what I’m saying is not so important to me as HOW I am saying it. That’s the whole point.
The other major side of my activities is translation. Through translation I can penetrate and in fact I have heard, many, many echoes and reactions from people who have told me face to face, or by phone, or by letter that I’m striking something there.

A beautiful shock
At the Oman Festival in the summer I truly, personally, physically saw the reactions with my own eyes, heard them with my own ears. In such desert places like these small places in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah, even towns in the desert, I found people who knew my poems and are actually aware of what I am doing, people from a godforsaken village, in a desert. It was a shock to me, a beautiful shock.
Let me tell you something. Every poet, throughout their life, actually looks forward to something like that. It’s a fantastic moment. All these years that I have put in, thinking at the same time that no-one would be even aware of what I was doing (and it’s a fact that the damn critics are not), and suddenly you find a simple student somewhere who has been probing through your doings and your techniques and actually has grasped something of that thing that you have been trying to develop. For me it’s such a bliss, such a reward, in fact it’s the only reward. That’s enough for me. That’s the only reward a poet ever looks forward to.
When they tell me this modern poetry is too complex for this simple man, that’s all bullshit, it’s not true. Because who is this simple man? There is no such thing as a simple man, all human beings have their complications and inner depths. I believe this, and so when something touches them they know it, maybe by instinct, maybe by knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is Intuitive. That’s what we’re talking about.

Arabic is always shy
When we say that about poetry in Arabic, we are talking about something very remarkable, very vitalising, because Arabic is a language that resists, a language of resistance. It’s like it’s being raped. It’s very true. Arabic is always shy, it’s a shy language. In fact, it’s a language which is almost virgin, even in its terminology. At the end of the 20th century – we’re gonna have the year 2000 very soon – the Arabic language still doesn’t accept simple erotic words. They can’t name for instance the penis or the cunt, which in other literatures is just a very regular, natural thing to say.
We can’t say that in Arabic, so I try to build into the language the sense of being absolutely free and powerful in the way I handle the syllable, the meaning, the structure of the poem, of the sentence. Through that, I think you can say anything. in fact I tried to do that, you know, in the Oman Festival last summer and I put all that meaning into a few lines.
By insinuation you can do that, by sound – everybody knew what I was talking about. So I’m talking about all these things without mentioning the names. That’s how you can develop poetry – by insinuation, by sound. When I say certain sounds, the connotations are there. They know what I am talking about on another level, and that’s the mystery of poetry.
That’s why poetry is a unique language, completely separate from the language of fiction, essay, the regular prose. In poetry you can do that because every sound counts. And I’m doing that precise and very economic thing with language, with a language like Arabic which is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’ s something worth doing.
Yes, this is really mind-blowing. It is really hard. I spent nights and days thinking how, how to do it. How? What do you do as a poet, as a truly working poet, is do incredible endless experiments. And you do. Some of them fail. I’m not saying you succeed just like that, there is no such thing as that. Hundreds of them fail but one succeeds, and if, from 200 pages, you can get five pages that are good, then I consider it some kind of success. ‘that’s the way.

A little bit of frustration
It’s long work, always thankless. After a while, after writing for 30 years, you feel a little bit of frustration because here is a whole world where idiots are taking over things and some rich sheikh or someone, with billions of dollars and oil can live such a fabulous life, and own all the papers and magazines and here is a poet sweating and laboring to advance the language. You know what that means, I think that is one of the most honorable missions in life, and they’re totally neglected, so sometimes a poet, if he gives up, he is really justified. But then you try to fight against despair.
We try all the different ways we can to push the wheel of poetry into the future, the real future in that sense. For me, that’s the true revolution – from inside. Not from outside. Not shouting, but working silently and seriously with such a prolonged effort from inside – and that’s how things are to me, that’s my belief, it’s what keeps me going in this fantastic solitude.
Sometimes I find oases like this sweet small German village or anywhere else in fact, just to pursue these fascinating, complex ideas of mine.

MARGARET OBANK was born in Leeds, UK. She has a BA in Philosophy and English Literature from Leeds University and MA in Applied Linguistics from London University. in 1992 she organised a Festival of Iraqi Culture, one year after the Gulf War. She worked in publishing and printing and was a lecturer in Further Education. She is marred to Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon.

Kenyon Review Essay Out

 

Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century

An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”

Youssef Rakha

 

Theorem

Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:

The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”

 

The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.

In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.

This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.

Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.

Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.

In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).

Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.

Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.

Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.

. . .

Read the rest of this piece by purchasing the Summer 12 issue of The Kenyon Review.

 

 

Sargon Boulus: Three Years Dead

sargon_Boulus (13)

Intrview by: Margaret Obank

Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Arab poet who has been part of the American poetry scene since the late 1960s. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry. For Sargon there is no prose poem, only free verse without metre, but throughout the Arab world there is no disagreement about his stature as a leading and important poet. He started publishing poetry and short stories in the 1961, contributing to Shi’r magazine in Beirut, of Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis the fundamental. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ to the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.
His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, including the poetry magazines and Mahmoud Darwish. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.
Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into Arabic of English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete anthology of his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S. Merwin, Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Ashbury, Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.
Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne and for the last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him in September. We spent a day under the Schoppingen sky eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, discussing his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language. I leave him to tell his story.
I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.

English lakes and lawns

Well, I was born in this small town of al-Habbaniya. It was all water – an artificial lake, built by the English I think – and I was born very close to the water. I think water is an important symbol to me even today and so I use it a lot. One of my first memories: I was sitting with my mother close to the water, where we had this kind of shack, small house, on the lake and we were just watching for hours and listening to the water and a sunset which still lingers in my mind, even the light, the shape of it, the form and the hues.
It is these small subtle details that can drive you along the path of your life, the rest of your life. Habbaniya was a small town and most of the Assyrians happened to live there because they were brought by the English. This is really important history for me because somehow I am involved with it, my bringing up and all that. In the twenties, I think, after the Assyrians were massacred in the north and the English took them over and put them under their protection, they moved from Henadi, which was a British air base, and brought to Habbaniya which became a military camp, a famous camp.
My father used to work for the English and one of my first and very cherished memories is when as a kid my father used to take me to the place of his work, which was a camp where only the English lived with the Iraqi workers (mostly Assyrian). We used to see these English ladies in summertime among their flowers and lawns, a totally different women from the women that I knew like my mother, my sisters and the other women in my family. Here was another type of image of humanity, let’s say, and I was like sneaking a view through the trees, from far away into these gardens. For me, I think now, that’s a vision of paradise, paradise meaning something very flowery, full of colour. I’ve even written about this somewhere, some lines in a poem. Of course I wasn’t aware at the time that they were occupying the country, I was too young.
So the making for me is very important, going back through memory, back into those details which never exist anywhere in anybody’s head except mine. And that’s what I count my small treasure, beautiful details of the world. I guess they shape up your taste in life – these things we are talking about, they make you who you are and as a poet, of course, they are very precious because what are you going to write in poetry except about the deepest things, except about delving into the far recesses of memory and through that making a vision of the world itself in every way. Yeah, childhood is very important to me.
After childhood, we moved from al-Habbaniya to Kirkuk, a city in the north totally different with almost no water. There is a river, Al-Qa’em, which has no water nine months of the year and suddenly floods the rest of the year. My latest book, being published in German and Arabic, is called Witnesses on the Shore (Shehood ala Al-Dhifaf) and is based on a poem about the flood of a river which is dead most of the time and suddenly it flares up and drowns the whole town. So from Habbaniya, from the lake to Kirkuk, a city that was dry and rocky with totally different people: mostly Turkomans, Turkish Mongolian people who have been there for thousands of years, and lived mostly in a very high stone castle. It has left such an impression on me, it’s like history is right there facing you every day.

I wrote so furiously

I started writing when I was 12: I published my first poem when I was 13 or 14 and since then I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me this magic of words, of music. In the beginning I wrote so furiously; I have some notebooks from that time and I have noticed from the dates that on one day, for instance, I would write 5 or 6 poems, of course, short, violent ones, but 5 or 6 and that is a lot. So it was some kind of thing to do with destiny. Yes, I believe in that –in a poet’s case it is always true; that that magic, once it strikes you, you can never live without it. You always go back to that source to find out – how did this happen? Why did this thing happen to me? Why was I chosen, in fact, to see the world in this way, through words? My parents never went to school; all they knew was that I was scribbling all night, alone in my room on this paper, and my mother used to pity me and tell me as a young kid: “Why don’t you go and play? Why don’t you go to the movies? Why don’t you enjoy your youth? . . . Your eyes will be ruined!” Of course, I could never explain to her and she would never have understood. And even today, imagine – at this age, whenever I write a poem I go back to that feeling. I try to capture it.

Spirit and words

It’s like a magical drug of spirit and words. Arabic language really has that magic and once it reveals itself to you you are trapped. That’s why in Arabic they say “Adracat’hu hirfatu al-adab”, meaning “the profession of words has struck, he’s cursed”. At the same time I consider it a blessing as well as a curse, because today, if you ask me, I would say I want to do exactly as I have done. I want it all over again. I think that in poetry I have found something besides just pain and just nibbling at the bones of history.
Arab history, Assyrian history, Armenian history, all the peoples, all their languages poured into the Arabic language. The Arabic language is probably 70 per cent Syriac, Aramaic, even Sanskrit, and other languages, so there is no pure language in this sense. It happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages. Even today I can tell you many words in which you will hear echoes of Assyrian, Hebrew, and much Syriac and Chaldean. You know, the Chaldeans had a tremendous civilisation after taking over Babylon from the Assyrians, their language was all over the Middle East.
So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and it’s a secret between me and myself – sometimes I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it. When I am doing that I am delving in this great river. Like the great dictionary, Lisan Al-Arab (The Arab Tongue), it’s so huge, it’s more than 20 volumes, but most of it is dead because it is not used. However, the portion of the Arabic language that’s used today is incredibly alive; it is craving new developments, new versions of the reality which is changing all around it. So in a way we are using like five per cent of the dictionary because all those beautiful words, which are beautiful, lost their use, they were invented for another age.

Linguistic fundamentals

This brings us to something very important, even political and that is – writing is politics and in Arabic especially and specifically with the Arabic language. This battle over the Arabic language itself, it is a very sensitive thing, like no other language I know of because the Koran happens to be the source of the ultimate eloquence. Of course it’s not the source, because before it there was the language – fantastic and great – in the Jahili times, but it’s political in this sense, let’s say, not only the religious fundamentalists but the linguistic fundamentalists, too, are afraid of change. And that is what happens now. For instance, it happens only in the Arab world – the fight, the real war, about the forms of poetry.

The prose poem

In fact, till now, the prose poem is not accepted. They call it a prose poem. Why? Because the Koran suras are supposed to be written in the form of prose poems, so in a subconscious way these linguistic fundamentalists are feeling threatened by it and so we are looking at half a century whereby the prose poem is still considered like a kind of weird foreign body that’s forced itself into the Arabic language, although this form has proved itself finally. That’s one of the battles that a poet who writes in Arabic has to be involved in.
I’ll tell you, this is really crucial for anyone to understand when we talk about Arab poetry. There are three forms, three movements, starting with the great classic poetry which extends from before Islam, from the Jihalis, from Imr al Quais and the great ancient poets and then it extends even to the present – in fact the last great poet who wrote in that form died recently, Al-Jowahiri, and with him this thing is now totally buried and gone – there is no such thing we could compare it with in literature. A classic Arab poem is one which goes on for 50 to 1,000 lines and it has to maintain one strict rhyme, and there is no other thing like it in any other literature.
In the late 40s, a man called Al-Sayab in Iraq, came and suddenly, influenced by English poetry and mostly the romantics – by John Keats specifically, Shelley and of course Byron and Wordsworth, and finally Edith Sitwell, his main influence, tried something similar; and this means not free verse, not blank verse, but rhymed verse – but rhymed in variations, not just in one strict rhyme, three or four lines in the same tone, while maintaining the old metrics of the classic poetry. What happened was a revolution, an absolute revolution. Two thousand years of Arabic poetry was turned upside down. Many still kept writing, like Jawahiri, but it was finished, it was gone. At the same time, in America, the immigrant Arab poets like Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Rehani and the rest, who were influenced by Walt Whitman and the American free verse movement, wrote what we would call the prose poem, meaning no metrics, just a prose piece, blank verse, and so that one was attacked too – it was considered just prose.
Then a magazine called Shi’r (Poetry) came out in the late 50s established by Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut which carried this whole thing forward – a real giant step. Now these were people who had read the western canon, Adonis in French and Yousif Al-Khal in English. Compared to their contemporaries they were far advanced in their look toward poetry, towards Modernism, towards revolutionising poetry. Today, when you study Arabic poetry, Shi’r magazine stands at the heart of the matter. When I was in Kirkuk in 1961 I sent poems to Yousef Al-Khal, 16 poems, which were published, opening the magazine, and I was hailed in Al Nahar newspaper as a new discovery, a young poet – which was true, I was very young. And so Yousif Al-Khal and me started a correspondence and that is the start of my relationship with the magazine.

Sound and images

In fact, that decided my fate – the strong relationship with Beirut where I could publish things I could never dream of publishing in Iraq, which was strict and still did not accept the new poetry. You know, in Iraq there is a complete establishment of defenders of classic poetry, and I was a real revolutionary at that time. I wrote in metrics but in such a strange way – beyond Al-Sayab, beyond what was written then, no rhyme, just strict, almost Surrealistic sound and images but truly furious – the poems are still there. Well, I have never stopped, I published a lot in Shi’r magazine because as I say, Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis encouraged me so much, to a point where I’m dedicating the book I am working on right now (which is poems collected from the 70s to 80s) to them both. In a way, these people decided my fate. When I had this connection with the magazine I kept dreaming and, of course Beirut was there, behind the whole scene, behind the words. Beirut was for us a dream, a golden capital, especially in the 60s – it’s history now, after the war, after the ruins. Now I used to know Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in Baghdad, who worked for IPC, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, and who edited a company magazine, a nice literary magazine. I published poems in it because they paid and because Jabra was such a nice man. He had of course studied at Oxford and Cambridge and I loved to go there just to talk to him.
By then, I was reading like a madman – I had discovered the whole English language: my brother used to speak English and had a nice small library at home and my father of course spoke a little English because he worked for the English in the same way most Assyrians, I think, had some connections to it. Reading like that is what decided Me and a friend of mine, Jan Dammo, a beautiful poet found some English anthologies of poetry, sold on very cheaply on the streets of Baghdad. So we both started discovering the poets and what I didn’t completely understand, I imagined, and so my imagination was being sharpened. When you are very young your imagination is so alive, anything like that could fire it like in a crucible. I think those are the most important things in a poet’s life.

‘Your place is in Beirut’

One day Yousif Al-Khal came to Baghdad and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra called me to said: “Yousif Al-Khal is coming tomorrow and he wants to see you.” Well, I go to his house and meet the man who for me was truly not only an idol but an example of the true poet who went to the West and came back and established a magazine. He was a truly big name, a magical name with a great aura. He told me: “Your place is in Beirut. Come to Beirut. You are one of us.” And after two months I was in Beirut.
How I got to Beirut is a very long and interesting story. In ‘67 I was 22 or 23, the best age, perfect age for adventure, for cutting north, because you are afraid of nothing. No money! Nothing! You have to go! At the time, Jabra thought (poor guy, mercy on his soul), like anybody else, going by aeroplane, with a ticket and passport. He had no idea I had no ticket. In fact I had no money. I sold a few books and made about 44 dinars. And no passport of course! No-one would give me a passport!

Crossing the desert

Jabra gave me the manuscript of King Lear (his translation of it) to give to Yousif Al-Khal to be published – which I took for two months across desert. I crossed the desert to Hassaca and then to Homs and then to Damascus – and then to Beirut and that’s a tremendous adventure in my life. I’m still writing about it. It’s a very symbolic thing in the life of all the prophets and poets – what they call the dark night of the soul. Well, the desert you cross is like another world! Truly it was like that and I was living a vision. When I walked into Dar Al-Nahar publishing house in Beirut with the manuscript of King Lear in my hands, and saw Yousef Al-Khal sitting at his desk, it was like yesterday. He said: “I told you!” He looked like he was expecting me, it was incredible. I had crossed the desert on foot, with no suitcase, nothing, only a small bag with the manuscript of King Lear and some of my poems in a notebook I still have with me here today. This notebook is still the source of magic to me. It contains the poems I wrote when I was young, most of them not published. It has “Baghdad 1961” written on the cover, which is leather and indestructible, and I carry it everywhere with me, it’s like my magic icon. When I need a poem, when I’m dry, I just open that book and look at the paper and the lines, and it gives me the vision of that source.
My days in Beirut were divided between Yousif Al-Khal, the newspaper where Adonis worked, and the Horseshoe, that fantastic cafe in Beirut (which still exists!) where on an evening you’d have everybody, even international figures there like Samuel Beckett. I worked with Al-Nahar newspaper, and with Yousif Al-Khal on Shi’r magazine until I left in 1969 for America. Yousif Al Khal, especially, was thus involved in shaping my destiny.
Beirut at that time was at the peak of its golden time, that was the golden age of the Arabs, and there was really nothing like it now, no way. It was an open city and its beauty, its beaches like Long Beach enthralled us. We used to go there, Adonis, Yousif Al-Khal and I, with many other people. It was a gorgeous place, where bikinis were worn like on the Riviera. I lived there with my aunt, my father’s sister. But most of the time we were so wild, there were so many writers and poets, we’d never get home

Leaving Beirut . . .

But Beirut became too small for me. I had incredible dreams. After all I had come to Beirut with the idea of going to America – America was always in my mind, and the West. In the beginning, I started reading a book by Sherwood Anderson called Weinsberg, Ohio, it’s a classic of American fiction. And then of course, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with their fantastic, fabulous worlds that I could imagine. Whatever I read I imagine – it becomes absolutely visual. It becomes real! I even live it!
It is this dimension of my imagination has pulled me all my life. In fact, I’m here at this moment talking to you in Germany because of that. I do believe so! You see, I read Rilke and Hölderlin, and these great German poets and I always wanted to know Germany, to live there. And here we are, although I had to go to America first and it took me a while to fix things. However, before I could leave Beirut, they got me in jail in because I had no papers. One day I went to Shi’r magazine and Yousif Al-Khal said: “What’s this? There are secret police looking for you. What have you done?” But I never told him the story. I never told him that I had crossed the borders without papers. In fact, I started sleeping on the Rocha, the place where lovers jump from, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in friends’ apartments. One day, when I was really sick of it all, I went to the police station. They put the handcuffs on me and told me: “We were looking for you!” I stayed in jail for a few days – it was full of Palestinians at the time as the Palestinian resistance movement was just starting and they were being caught at the borders. We became friends, we were about 300 in one room and they were all telling me their stories.

Out of jail to New York!

Ghada Al-Samman, who was a very powerful writer at the time, knew the Lebanese president, and through him she brought the captain of the jail in his pyjamas one midnight to release me, but there was one condition – I had to leave Lebanon, and either go back to Iraq or somewhere else. “Somewhere else!” I said.
Yousif Al-Khal helped me a lot. We went to the American Embassy and he told them about this young man who had translated two anthologies of American poetry in Shi’r magazine and introduced the beat generation of poets to Arab readers. He told the American Ambassador: “All you have to do is talk to this young man, just talk to him!”
So the Ambassador asked me about American literature. I started with Walt Whitman, and then came to the new names which the Ambassador had never heard of and probably will never hear of, and he said: “Enough! You got it.” So they gave me a paper, although I still had no passport.
That is how I got to New York. I borrowed $50 or $60 and went to New York without knowing anybody, no money, nothing, alone. Imagine that! I cannot believe even now, how I survived, nor how I got to San Francisco, which was my final destination because I had read and written about San Francisco before even seeing it. When I wrote about the Beat Generation in Shi’r, the introduction had to be about North Beach, San Francisco. When I finally got there, I discovered that all I had said was true, the way I had imagined it! And the hippies and the beats – well, I immediately joined, long hair, beads, the whole thing! When Yousif Al-Khal heard about me he said: “Sargon now is finished, lost completely, he’ll never come back.” His idea was that I would go to America and get educated, get a few PhDs or something and come back.
Etel Adnan helped me get from New York to San Francisco. I had met her one day at Shi’r magzine –this small sweet lady. She used to send her works to Yousif Al-Khal and I translated them. All her works published in Majellat Shi’r are translated by me although most of the time I didn’t put my name. She said: “Sargon, if you come to America, please come and see this beautiful town, San Raphael, where I live.” She sent me a ticket, and welcomed me at night with another lady and it was beautiful because Etel was a hippy. She thought she was Indian, in fact she is half Syrian, but she acted and thought like she was an Indian.

Alcatraz and the Indians

The first few days when I was there we sat in a famous cafe which is still there, called Buena Vista, it’s right on the bay and from it you can see Alcatraz jail, the famous prison. We were with some American Indians who were having a revolution there and trying to take over Alcatraz. Anyway, I joined the Indians with Etel Adnan. They were a dream for me. We had only seen them in movies when John Wayne used to kill a few thousands – I think in one go! On the screen the white cowboys shot them like flies, so we always felt pity for them. For me they were fabulous people, and here they were for real, in San Francisco, with feathers and blankets and beads. I was fascinated and made friends with many of them. The Indians were in real poor shape, they still are, they had some kind of vulnerability to alcohol of which the whites took full advantage, and many, men and women, were alcoholics. But I don’t blame them, do you, when you have your whole land taken away, the white man is taking over your land and he doesn’t want to give it back – they don’t want to give them that tiny rock. They beat the hell out of them and chased them out. Sure, at that time I was an Indian and felt like one.

Life in San Francisco

San Francisco is the centre of creativity in America, the centre of America. There is East Coast, New York, the publishing world, the business of literature and there is the West Coast, which is San Francisco and that is where all the new movements emerge from, always, even today, so there was the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, a tremendous movement with Kenneth Rexroth, whom I met, as master of ceremonies. Through him all the great poets of the beat generation came out, like Gary Snyder, and then Ginsberg, Kerouac, then Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I knew his daughter Mary, who became an exotic belly-dancer and was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, Gary Gach, a poet who still lives in San Francisco. We used to go and see Kenneth Rexroth, but on one condition – that you don’t say a word, he’s the one who talks. He was such a genius, such a man of knowledge. He’s an encyclopaedia. In fact he’s famous for reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover every two years – he’s an incredible man.
So San Francisco is the place of awareness because writers there are the most open. They are not like the New Yorker writer and poet, the sophisticated Europeanised type, the New Yorker. No, they are cosmopolitan. San Francisco is the city that is actually made up of all the cities in the world: You have Paris, you have London, you have Rome, and you have Berlin, in this city you have China. It is international and culture is absolutely open. I think for an artist, especially a poet, that is the city. I mean, I spent a quarter of a century, more, in San Francisco, never getting bored one minute – the readings, the fantastic trips, especially in the seventies and the eighties. It was the time for me, that is the thing that I treasure, the adventures, the open spirit, and then Berkeley which in the late sixties was THE place for revolution, for stopping the war in Vietnam. The first night I arrived in Berkeley, I saw a procession of students with candles singing against the war, to stop the war in Vietnam and what they were reading but the poems of Ho Chi Min, which I had just translated into Arabic and published in Dar Al-Nahar in Beirut. Prison Diary (Youmiat fi Sijin), it was my first book.
It was a great thing for me and in that procession I immediately made wild friendships with these students and for the first time with beautiful hippy girls, you know the ones with beads and flowing hair, with little kids. They took me with them and we lived on an abandoned ship in the bay, near San Sausalito, which is a city of the stars, the movie stars. The hippies lived in the harbour side by side with the yachts of these stars. This ship of ours was from the time of Mark Twain, you know the one with the crazy propellers and pedals, the paddle steamer. We had a juke box in it and a grill for making hamburgers. So, hippy girls, with their kids naked following them, making hamburgers and dancing to the music of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin – it was a dream, an incredible dream

This tremendous energy

The book I am working on right now is called If You Were Asleep in Noah’s Ark which is taken from two lines of poetry by Rumi, the great Persian mystic poet. He says: “If you were sleeping in Noah’s Ark, drunk,/ what do you care if the flood has come.” The book contains the poems I wrote in America exactly at this time we have been talking about. I had found out that all I knew about writing – before I came to America it was nothing – was unequal to the occasion, just techniques and ways of writing that couldn’t contain the tremendous energy I was living, so I started asking myself, how I’m gonna express this! In these violent poems in America I felt I was controlled by language, instead of me controlling the language. So I had to create this flowing rhythm, this mad flowing rhythm of language and then everything is being dragged by this fantastic current. Well, I’m reading the poems now and I feel that I’m analysing myself through them.
For me, from the start till now, writing poetry was and is a very crucial, very intimate thing and deeply connected with my inner making, my inner life. Otherwise, why would I write poetry, why not fiction, why not essays? I tried to invent new ways to force the Arab language to contain the tremendous flow of new information, of new realities, and I wrote these fabulous poems, which I am collecting right now, some of them are 25, 30 pages long. I’d never dare write a poem that long these days. I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t be bothered to publish any of these poems then. I thought no-one would publish them and so I lived immersed in this life and writing all this time, without publishing.

A Letter from Adonis

Well, one day an Assyrian lady from Beirut, Violet Yacoub, came to San Francisco, and she said: “I have a letter for you from somebody called Adonis.” “Adonis!” I said – it was like a bell ringing. This is in ‘72 or ‘73 and I was completely cut off from the Arab world. I read the letter, it is a beautiful letter and in it Adonis told me: “You are present among us, you are never absent, although you are not here and I want you to give me for Muwaqif [his magazine] all that you have, anything that you have.” I gave Adonis whatever I had and he published it all, in newspapers, in magazines, in Morocco, everywhere. Well, these poems came out and a lot of people have told me that probably they’re my best, in the sense that you can’t write things like that consciously, they just have to come out somehow.
My first collection, Al-Wasool ila Medinat ‘Ain [Arrival in Where City] is revolutionary in its style. Most of the poems were written in America and they were part of what I was trying to write about the absolutely modern situation, trying to capture it. After its publication in 1985, I started a different period and although these poems were published in ‘85, some had been written in the late 60s, 70s, 80s. I published a second book of poems in Morocco, which I wrote mainly in Greece. I tried to capture in it the Mediterranean feeling, which was why I called it Living by the Acropolis, and it is true I was living very near the Acropolis. Every day I would walk through the Acropolis, and climb there and walk through the Plaka, so the seas and scents, feelings and details are mostly Mediterranean.

Coming from Assyria . . .

Is there any influence in my work from my Assyrian background? Well, as a child I was writing in Arabic, although I have written certain things in Assyrian. But I soon realised that Assyrian is a very limited language in the sense of an audience. First of all, throughout the whole Middle East where Assyrians exist their language is suppressed – they don’t have schools, they don’t have magazines, they don’t have books, but almost secret societies. The first school I went to was in a church in al-Habbaniya where the priest used to teach us and I read Assyrian. It’s a beautiful language, it’s a great language and sometimes I feel like writing a fantastic elegy for the Assyrian language, how it’s dying and I’m seeing its death. But then I realised, when I was struck by the Arabic language, when the gift came to me, that all languages are really one. I mean, Arabic is almost like Assyrian to me, that’s strange, but it’s really true. For me the sound of Arabic is like some kind of cover for what’s beneath it – meaning all these ancient languages never really die. They are there. This might sound like an illusion but they are there, they are steamed up into Arabic and they are right there.
Of course, throughout the years I went and studied these things, I studied Turath, which is the classics of Arabic language. I found out that some of the greatest Arab poets were in fact Assyrians. They changed their names, they’re all in history. Emr Al-Quais was Assyrian and Nabi Al-Dhubiani, who was the poet of the kings, of the palace, was actually Assyrian. He was Monovesian, a kind of Christian at that time. Now who could be Christian in Iraq and not be Assyrian – either Assyrian, or Syriac or Chaldean, Assyrians considered all these people one. Then, Abu Tammam was Christian – he changed his name. Ibn Al-Abri, a great historian, is Ben Khafri in Assyrian, so he’s Assyrian. I can tell you hundreds of names like that. Ibn Ar-Ruhmi, he was in fact Greek and Christian. These things are facts in Arabic literature. So, the way I see it is that there is no such thing as pure Arabic literature. It all is from here and there, especially from Iraq and Syria where the tremendous movements of classic poetry took place, the revolutions of Abu Tammam in Syria and Al-Mutanabi in Iraq, these movements just dragged with them all the past of mixed origins, mixed languages, mixed knowledge, mixed terminology – and this past is all there in the poetry and the prose. I think that’s what most of the poets, throughout history, have done. They have done exactly that. Because what finally counts is not the language, it’s what the languages say.
In my books, particularly the last three, I have been doing exactly that. I’ve been putting in Assyrian phrases or sentences, such as “Shimmet baba bruna rukhet kutsha” (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost), sometimes without translating them. They’re obviously Assyrian, but not in the sense of being just Assyrian, that would be just chauvinistic. I want to make the language, which for me is the Arabic language, carry everything. I’m putting things from Robert Lowell, from Pavese, from Caesar Vellejo. For the first time I’m indicating that this Arabic language can take anything from the world. That is the point really, the rest is just details.
The language is not dead, it can take anything. As far as I know, no-one has done it before. They can’t, they don’t dare, and plus they can’t – as simple as that. It’s a matter of how to do it, and to do it right (not just to do it for the sake of doing it, no, that’s meaningless), but do it creatively. That way it’s necessary, it is contributing to the idea of poetry and the enrichment of the language.

Arabic is unexplored

For my own work, from my own experience of the language, I have been doing these experiments with the Arabic language for a very long time, in fact from the start, and I still feel that the Arabic language is material unexplored as yet. Let’s put it this way – it’s unmined. You know, it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be extended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time. Look, I have a series of poems which I have been publishing in London in Al-Hayat (The Life Arabic daily newspaper), which are translations but I don’t call them translations, I call them ”poems after the poet”.

The art of translation

I believe that the art of translation is to get into rewriting the text. For instance, I’ve published sonnets by Shakespeare, poems by Shelley rewritten into the modern idiom of Arabic, plus Haikus, Chinese poets like Po Chui-i, others plus Greek poets, classics – Sappho, all these came out through the years and they are still coming out. I am still doing experiments, in a sense. What I do is take the text and imagine how would it sound if it was written originally in Arabic. That’s the whole idea. That’s what I do. My imagination goes into the sound of it. How would an Arab poet write such a sense, write such emotion?
A sonnet by Shakespeare? What I discovered is that the power of the sonnets is in their flow – uninterrupted. In Arabic that is almost impossible. Why? Because of the line ends. They stand as obstacles to the flow.

The flow of breath

So what do I do? I establish a new kind of line, which is continuous and at the same time I do this in my own poetry. I’m working with sounds and I’m working with the line that extends into the other line non-stop to get the flow of breath. This has never been done in Arabic. Why? Because of the metrics.
So what am I doing? I am compressing the language in such a way that it takes the place of the old metrics. It would be another metrics, as did western poets such as Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes wrote what you can call syllabic poetry and before him Auden of course. Syllabic – it depends on the syllable.
Now I’ve talked about this many times in interviews in Arabic, but they can’t understand it. They don’t know what I’m really doing, so every critic who writes about me never mentions these things because they aren’t even aware of them. They don’t know the mechanics, the techniques, they just don’t know. When they do write – and they have written extensively about these books and poems of mine, they talk, of course, about the material and what I’m saying, but what I’m saying is not so important to me as HOW I am saying it. That’s the whole point.
The other major side of my activities is translation. Through translation I can penetrate and in fact I have heard, many, many echoes and reactions from people who have told me face to face, or by phone, or by letter that I’m striking something there.

A beautiful shock

At the Oman Festival in the summer I truly, personally, physically saw the reactions with my own eyes, heard them with my own ears. In such desert places like these small places in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah, even towns in the desert, I found people who knew my poems and are actually aware of what I am doing, people from a godforsaken village, in a desert. It was a shock to me, a beautiful shock.
Let me tell you something. Every poet, throughout their life, actually looks forward to something like that. It’s a fantastic moment. All these years that I have put in, thinking at the same time that no-one would be even aware of what I was doing (and it’s a fact that the damn critics are not), and suddenly you find a simple student somewhere who has been probing through your doings and your techniques and actually has grasped something of that thing that you have been trying to develop. For me it’s such a bliss, such a reward, in fact it’s the only reward. That’s enough for me. That’s the only reward a poet ever looks forward to.
When they tell me this modern poetry is too complex for this simple man, that’s all bullshit, it’s not true. Because who is this simple man? There is no such thing as a simple man, all human beings have their complications and inner depths. I believe this, and so when something touches them they know it, maybe by instinct, maybe by knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is intuitive. That’s what we’re talking about.

Arabic is always shy

When we say that about poetry in Arabic, we are talking about something very remarkable, very vitalising, because Arabic is a language that resists, a language of resistance. It’s like it’s being raped. It’s very true. Arabic is always shy, it’s a shy language. In fact, it’s a language which is almost virgin, even in its terminology. At the end of the 20th century – we’re gonna have the year 2000 very soon –Arabic language still doesn’t accept simple erotic words. They can’t name for instance the penis or the cunt, which in other literatures is just a very regular, natural thing to say.
We can’t say that in Arabic, so I try to build into the language the sense of being absolutely free and powerful in the way I handle the syllable, the meaning, the structure of the poem, of the sentence. Through that, I think you can say anything. In fact I tried to do that, you know, in the Oman Festival last summer and I put all that meaning into a few lines.
By insinuation you can do that, by sound – everybody knew what I was talking about. So I’m talking about all these things without mentioning the names. That’s how you can develop poetry – by insinuation, by sound. When I say certain sounds, the connotations are there. They know what I am talking about on another level, and that’s the mystery of poetry.
That’s why poetry is a unique language, completely separate from the language of fiction, essay, the regular prose. In poetry you can do that because every sound counts. And I’m doing that precise and very economic thing with language, with a language like Arabic which is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’s something worth doing.
Yes, this is really mind-blowing. It is really hard. I spent nights and days thinking how, how to do it. How? What do you do as a poet, as a truly working poet, is do incredible endless experiments. And you do. Some of them fail. I’m not saying you succeed just like that, there is no such thing as that. Hundreds of them fail but one succeeds, and if, from 200 pages, you can get five pages that are good, then I consider it some kind of success. That’s the way.

A little bit of frustration

It’s long work, always thankless. After a while, after writing for 30 years, you feel a little bit of frustration because here is a whole world where idiots are taking over things and some rich sheikh or someone, with billions of dollars and oil can live such a fabulous life, and own all the papers and magazines and here is a poet sweating and labouring to advance the language. You know what that means, I think that is one of the most honourable missions in life, and they’re totally neglected, so sometimes a poet, if he gives up, he is really justified. But then you try to fight against despair.
We try all the different ways we can to push the wheel of poetry into the future, the real future in that sense. For me, that’s the true revolution – from inside. Not from outside. Not shouting, but working silently and seriously with such a prolonged effort from inside – and that’s how things are to me, that’s my belief, it’s what keeps me going in this fantastic solitude in Schöppingen.
Sometimes I find oases like this sweet small German village, or anywhere else in fact, just to pursue these fascinating, complex ideas of mine.

August 1997, Schöppingen, near Münster, Germany

حوار‮ ‬منصورة عز الدين

هدفي تحطيم البقرات المقدسة

لا يكف يوسف رخا عن إثارة الشغب‮. ‬

حاجته الدائمة إلي المغادرة وعدم الثبات تدفعه لاختبار أقصي درجات التمرد و(السخط؟‮) ‬في الكتابة‮. ‬لا يعترف بأي فواصل أو حدود بين الأنواع الأدبية،‮ ‬لذا يمعن في التنقل بينها ومزجها ببعضها البعض كأنما تتحول الكلمات معه إلي لعبة ما‮. ‬إلي مكعبات أو قطع ميكانو يرّكبها كل مرة علي نحو مختلف ثم لا يلبث أن يفككها من جديد‮.‬

اللغة من وجهة نظره صديق لا يجب أن نبذل معه كل هذا الجهد‮. ‬صديق يتحول رخا من أجله إلي متآمر أبدي يظل يسهم في تنفيذ مؤامرة محكمة للتأكد من أن اللغة‮ “‬لغته لا تعيش إلا خارج الكتابة‮” ‬كما كتب في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ضمن كتابه الأحدث‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮”. ‬وهو النص الذي يشبه خارطة طريق‮ (‬لن أقول مانيفست‮) ‬لنظرته للّغة،‮ ‬وهي نظرة،‮ ‬ربما تكون بدأت معه منذ بدايته،‮ ‬إذ نجد تجلياً‮ ‬آخر لها في نص من نصوصه الأولي‮ (‬منشور في الكتاب نفسه‮) ‬وعنوانه‮ “‬عبّاس العقاد‮” ‬يكتب فيه‮ “‬تلك القوالب الخرسانية‮/ ‬وقصائد الحديد والصلب‮/ ‬هل كنت تتحدث مع المازني‮/ ‬بلغة سرية؟‮/ ‬أنت لم تترك لي‮/ ‬أكثر مما تركه الإغريق القدامي‮/ ‬أنت ورثتني‮/ ‬قوالب طوب‮/ ‬أنت ممن جعلوني‮/ ‬أكره اللغة العربية‮”.‬

هذه القصيدة أشبه ما تكون بتصفية حسابات مع نظرة معينة للّغة وللفن،‮ ‬وهو أمر لا ينكره رخا،‮ ‬إذ يقول‮: “‬كان هذا مطروحاً‮ ‬في قصيدة التسعينيات‮. ‬تصفية حسابات مع البشر والدنيا بشكل إنساني،‮ ‬تصفية حسابات علي المستويين الجمالي والأدبي‮. ‬لكن يمكنني قول إنه ليس تصفية حسابات بقدر ما هو تمرد أو تكسير للبقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬والعقاد أكبر‮ “‬البقرات المقدسة‮” ‬بدون وجه حق‮! ‬هو من وجهة نظري ليس لديه جديد يقوله،‮ ‬علاقته باللغة مريضة ومختلف تماما عن طه حسين مثلاً‮. ‬موقفي من العقاد ليس موقفاً‮ ‬من عصر ولا توجه سياسي،‮ ‬إنما موقف من كاتب أرفض التعبد في محرابه‮. ‬الآن لن أكتب قصيدة بهذا المنطق‮. ‬لأني مقتنع حاليا أن تصفية الحسابات حتي لو بشكل جمالي ليست هدفاً‮ ‬كافياً‮ ‬للكتابة‮”.‬

‮ ‬تبدو اللغة هنا هي المعيار الأول الذي يقرِّب صاحب‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮” ‬من كاتب أو ينفره منه،‮ ‬يستشهد بطه حسين باعتباره النموذج المغاير للعقاد،‮ ‬لكنه يعود في نص‮ “‬لسان العرب‮” ‬ليسخر من صاحب‮ “‬الأيام‮” ‬لأنه شغل نفسه بسؤال‮: “‬أيهما الأصح‮: ‬تخرّج في الجامعة‮ ‬_‮ ‬أم من‮ ‬_‮ ‬الجامعة؟‮”. ‬

من ناحية أخري‮  ‬يبدو يوسف رخا كأنما في صراع دائم مع اللغة للوصول للغته هو،‮ ‬لغة تخصه،‮ ‬وتشبهه،‮ ‬بما يحمله من تمرد وقلق ورغبة دائمة في اخراج لسانه للجميع وتكسير كل الأيقونات والبقرات المقدسة‮. “‬هذا في حد ذاته من الأشياء الأساسية في الكتابة الأدبية‮. ‬درجة من الطزاجة تسعين لها‮. ‬أن تتجاوزي الكليشيهات حتي لو قمتِ‮ ‬بسك كليشيهات خاصة بكِ‮ ‬في المقابل‮.” ‬يقول رخا قبل أن يضيف‮: “‬ثمة سلطات لغوية مزعجة‮. ‬توجد سلطوية كريهة في التعامل مع اللغة‮. ‬هذا شيء ضد الإبداع‮. ‬نحن نتكلم لغة‮ ‬غير التي نكتب بها‮. ‬لدينا لهجات مختلفة،‮ ‬ولغة لم تتطور إلا علي الورق،‮ ‬وأري أن هذا شيء جيد‮. ‬لو حذونا حذو أوروبا لكانت كل لهجة تحولت إلي لغة منفصلة‮. ‬هذا يطرح سؤالاً‮ ‬طوال الوقت هو‮: ‬كيف تكتبين؟ أنتِ‮ ‬مسبقاً‮ ‬اخترتِ‮ ‬الكتابة كامتداد تاريخي لما كُتِب باللغة العربية علي مدي التاريخ،‮ ‬لكن مع لمسة إنسانية تقترب من لغة الكلام‮. ‬في مرحلة من المراحل،‮ ‬عندما كنت أفكر في الكتابة،‮ ‬شعرت أن الأشياء التي من الممكن أن أخسرها والتي لا تعوض هي الصراع بين العامية والفصحي‮. ‬لديكِ‮ ‬لغتان يمكنكِ‮ ‬استنباط شيء مختلف من تصادمهما أو تجاورهما‮. ‬اللغة إضافة لكونها علاقة صريحة مع ما هو الشعر،‮ ‬إنما هي أيضا صراع‮. ‬معظم الكتّاب الذين أحبهم سواء بالعربية أو الإنجليزية يكون عندهم لغة تخصهم‮”.  ‬

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اختار رخا‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬عنواناً‮ ‬لكتابه الأحدث الصادر عن دار العين،‮ ‬كأنما يؤكد من جديد علي أهمية المكان في كتابته‮. ‬إذ يظهر دائما باعتباره مركز الكتابة والعنصر الأساسي فيها‮. ‬لاحظنا هذا في كتبه في أدب الرحلات من‮ “‬بيروت شي محل‮”‬،‮ ‬إلي‮ “‬شمال القاهرة،‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”‬،‮ ‬وها نحن نلاحظه في نصوصه الأحدث المقالات منها والقصائد،‮ ‬بل وحتي في مخطوط روايته التي لم تصدر بعد‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮”. ‬يعترف رخا أنه في الشعر لا يوجد لديه وعي بحضور المكان‮: “‬عندما سافرت إلي أبو ظبي وجدتني أكتب قصائد متتالية عن المكان دونما تخطيط أو قصدية‮. ‬وكان هذا لطيفاً،‮ ‬إنما الكتابة عن المكان في كتب الرحلات تتم عن عمد،‮ ‬أعتقد أن المكان من الأشياء الأساسية عندي،‮ ‬أكثر أهمية من الزمن بالنسبة لي‮. ‬من المفارقات أني عشت في أماكن كثيرة جدا في القاهرة وخارجها،‮ ‬وكنت دائما أعود للشقة التي وُلدت فيها‮. ‬احساس لا علاقة له بالعاطفة أو الحنين‮”. ‬

الزمن في كتابات رخا إما مفكك أو موجود في منظومة محددة سلفاً‮. ‬في كتاب‮ “‬الطغري‮” ‬مثلاً‮ ‬تدور الرواية في ثلاثة أسابيع محددة‮. ‬ويظهر فيها المكان‮ / ‬القاهرة وتغيراته بشكل واضح،‮ ‬بل إنها‮ (‬أي القاهرة‮) ‬العنصر الأساسي في‮ “‬كتاب الطغري‮” ‬كما يؤكد رخا‮: “‬وهذا جزء رئيسي من عملية التكوين في الرواية‮. ‬المكان حاضر تماما،‮ ‬ليس فقط القاهرة،‮ ‬إنما نكهات معينة لأماكن معينة‮. ‬قاهرتي أنا‮. ‬شعرت باختلاف كبير حينما أكتب عن مكان ضخم أعرفه جيدا‮. ‬أبو ظبي وبيروت مثلا أصغر من القاهرة،‮ ‬وخبرتي فيهما أقل‮. ‬عندما يكون المكان كبيراً،‮ ‬وخبرتك فيه كبيرة تستطيعين اللجوء لخيارات صعبة‮”.‬

لكن بعيداً‮ ‬عن مركزية المكان،‮ ‬يبدو‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬مربكاً‮ ‬لهواة التصنيف،‮ ‬فالكتاب يحطم الحدود بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬إذ يضم ديوانين قصيرين أحدهما قديم والآخر جديد،‮ ‬ومعهما نصوص ومقالات‮. ‬تجسير الفجوة بين الأجناس له مستوي آخر أيضا فثمة نصوص شعرية في الكتاب أقرب للنثر،‮ ‬ومقالات ونصوص سردية أقرب للشعر‮. ‬لا يبدو يوسف رخا مرتاحاً‮ ‬لفكرة أن يبرر نشره للمقالات مع القصائد،‮ ‬يقول بدرجة من الاستهانة‮: “‬كان لدي ديوانان قصيران،‮ ‬لا يصح أن ينشر كل منهما وحده،‮ ‬كان من الممكن أن يُنشرا مع بعضهما في كتاب أصغر‮. ‬لم أرغب في أن ينشر كل منهما في كتاب أصغر لأن لدي مشكلة مع الكتب الهزيلة حجماً،‮ ‬كما كنت أشعر بضرورة أن تتم قراءتهما معاً‮. ‬أيضا أردت كسر التصنيف الحاد بين النثر والشعر واخترت نصوصا نثرية من الممكن أن تصنع حالة كلية مع الديوانين‮. ‬من الممكن أن تقرأي القصائد علي أنها نثر مطبوع بشكل مختلف،‮ ‬وتقرأي المقالات علي أنها شعر مطبوع كنثر‮”.‬

أسأله‮: ‬تبدو مشغولا بتجسير المسافة بين الأنواع الأدبية المختلفة،‮ ‬ما السبب؟

‮- “‬بالنسبة لما أكتبه،‮ ‬أشعر أن مسألة الأنواع الأدبية مفتعلة‮. ‬ثمة شكل تقني يتطلب أشياء معينة‮. ‬ولديّ‮ ‬دائما تساؤل هو‮: ‬هل لو كتب رامبو روايات لكان أصبح أقل أهمية وتأثيراً؟ وهل لو كتب ديستويفسكي قصائد لكان أقل أهمية؟ فكرة التخصص التي كانت سائدة في السبعينيات لا معني لها من وجهة نظري‮. ‬الكتابة كتابة سواءً‮ ‬أكانت مقالا أو ريبورتاج أو قصة‮. ‬ما يحركني لها دوافع واحدة بغض النظر عن الجنس الأدبي الذي أكتبه‮. ‬في لحظة معينة أجدني أقرأ كتاب‮ “‬ميزان الذهب في شعر العرب‮” ‬من أجل كتابة بيتين من الشعر العمودي أحتاجهما في مكان معين من عمل معين‮. ‬التركيبة الموجودة في‮ “‬كل أماكننا‮” ‬لا أعرف إلي أي مدي هي موفقة‮. ‬هي مبنية علي نصوص كانت موجودة مسبقاً‮ ‬عندي‮”.‬

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رغبة رخا في التمرد وتحطيم البقرات المقدسة،‮ ‬لا توفر شيئاً‮ ‬أو أحداً،‮ ‬إذ تمتد إلي الشعر نفسه‮. ‬نلاحظ رغبة قوية في إنزاله من عليائه واللعب به ومعه‮.‬

يقول‮: “‬لا أري أن أدبية النص لها أي علاقة بتوصيفه‮. ‬عندي ثورة شخصية علي الأدبية الخاصة بتلقي النص الآتية من مكان معين خارجه‮. ‬من جانب آخر هناك الأفكار التي ظهرت في التسعينيات والداعية لكسر نوع معين من البلاغة وتصور معين عن الأديب‮. ‬كان الأهم فيها أنها حطمت المفهوم الخاص بأن من يكتب يلعب دور المعلم أو الأديب أو حتي النبي‮. ‬في عملي لا تزال هناك الرغبة في أن تصدمي أو تكسري‮. ‬رغبة مصدرها التآلف مع ما حدث في التسعينيات رغم أني وقتها لم أكن واعياً‮ ‬بهذا بشكل كافٍ‮. ‬هذا الكتاب أشعر أنه فاصل‮/ ‬حاجز بين مرحلة استنفدت أغراضها وبين مرحلة جديدة‮. ‬بمعني‮  ‬بين مرحلة كتابة المكان بالشكل الذي بدأته‮ ‬2005‮ ‬وبين الرواية التي انتهيت منها مؤخرا‮. ‬الديوان صدر فوراً‮ ‬بعد‮ “‬شمال القاهرة‮ ‬غرب الفلبين‮”. ‬شعرت أنه يملأ المساحة بين أدب الرحلات والرواية‮. ‬الكتاب كان من المفترض أن يحتوي أيضاً‮ ‬علي اسكتشات وصور فوتوغرافية،‮ ‬لكن لم يحدث هذا لأسباب ربما تكون تقنية،‮ ‬الفكرة تم رفضها من قبل الناشر‮”.

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Manifesto of the Halssist Party

On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six

A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.

I.  POETS AND NOVELISTS
The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like  opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…

II.  WRITERS AND JOKERS
In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them –  succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”

III.  SATIRICAL AND HALSSIST LITERATURE
As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.

JOKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

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