One Flew Over the Mulla’s Ballot

logo@Sultans_Seal wallows in his lack of democratic mettle

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Time and again, since 30 June last year, I’ve come up against the commitment to democracy that I’m supposed to have betrayed by appearing to endorse the army’s intervention in the outcome of Egypt’s second revolution.
Time and again I’ve had to explain what on earth makes Egyptians think that Washington and Tel Aviv are secretly in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to decimate the Arab world along sectarian lines and bring death and destruction upon innocent Egyptians as much as Syrians and Libyans in the name of human rights—presumably to the benefit of that impeccably democratic and profoundly civilized neighbor state where racist, genocidal, militarized sectarianism does not present the world community with a human-rights problem.

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All those theres: Sargon Boulus’s Iraq

4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad

Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.

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In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?

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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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Her damask cheek: two visions of Syria

Today is the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on 15 March, 2011

Damask Rose by Vangelis (Blade Runner soundtrack)

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Early one morning in the summer of 2011, a good few months after the ouster of Hosny Mubarak, I received an international phone call. It was an unknown number that began with 00963. I could tell this was the country code of some Arab state, though I didn’t know which. After some hesitation I picked up, and I was greeted by a thin voice speaking with inflections that sounded vaguely Iraqi. “Remember Abu Dhabi,” the voice said eventually, with a warm chuckle. “This is Thaer.”

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NAHDA and Co.

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No Renaissance for Old Men
Last week Youssef Rakha questioned the idea of resistance. This week he thinks about the Islamists’ catch phrase
It is the word that Tunisia’s Muslim Brothers chose for their harakah (or movement) and in which the Egyptian jama’ah (or group) couched its presidential programme; it dates all the way back to the late 18th century when, under Muhammad Ali Pasha in particular, it would’ve denoted something significantly different. But in a way it has been the mirror image of European imperialism since then, with its post-Arab Spring Islamist manifestations in Tunisia and Egypt constituting one possible logical conclusion of the region’s political trajectory, and the murderous Arab nationalist dictatorships (whether Gaddafi’s in Libya or the Baath’s in Syria and Iraq) another.
What I want to argue is that, in more ways than one (and despite all the wonderful things it almost did), the so called Arab renaissance has in fact been part and parcel of this immense downward fall of recent history, and that—far from presenting a homegrown alternative to the neoliberal world order, arguably the extension and apotheosis of empire—it has actually aided and abetted the imperialist project.
And well it might: Nahda is to muqawamah (or resistance) what modernism was to imperialism; in some ways, perhaps, it is also what Europe’s Renaissance was to the northern Puritanical values that were eventually more or less subsumed by Enlightenment.
Following this line of thought, one can make surprising connections between past failures of the wannabe independent modern state (Nasser’s “first republic” in Egypt) and present-future failures of Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood’s proposed “second republic”). One can also make connections between both forms of totalitarianism (top-down in the case of the July regime, bottom-up in the present case) and the negative, inferiority complex-driven motivation that—while making huge room for sloganeering, doublespeak and overt suppression—makes no room at all for the revival or regeneration of a glorious past, be it Arab and purely imagined or Islamic and somewhat real. It is a “renaissance” that denies the very tenets of what it hopes to donner naissance to anew: reason, military and/or economic power, cutting-edge global outlook, joyful aspirations…
So, for example, to underline their belief in a militarily powerful and united pan-Arab nation, an Arab nationalist will by default glorify the one dictator responsible not onlyfor the worst military defeat in Arab history (1967) but also for separating Egypt and Sudan and then setting a precedent for the failure of unification by showing the world exactly how not to unify with Syria, encouraging national as opposed to pan-Arab sentiments and limiting inter-Arab freedom of movement, exchange and initiative in practice. To demonstrate how “Islam honours women”, an Islamist will insist on such allegedly intrinsic “Islamic principles” as niqab and polygamy.
Likewise the material renaissance promised by President Mohamed Mursi (or, more accurately perhaps, by businessman Khairat El-Shatir, the most powerful man in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office): what is marketed as an alternative to Mubarak’s neoliberal and peace-with-Israel policies is actually a programme for turning the entire expanse of the Arab world into a string of modified Saudi Arabias, not only pro-Israeli and even more ruthlessly capitalist but also disinterested in human rights and inevitably impoverished in the absence of oil reserves.
In its accepted, present formulation democracy originated and continues to operate in wholly secularised and intellectually free societies based on universal rights and freedoms. How the Saudification of the Arab world through such vaguely Ku Klux-like “political” entities as the Salafi Nour Party can be the result of democratic process is a baffling question.
Yet such contradictions are hardly coincidental. Without reviewing the history of the term, I just want to draw attention to the manner in which nahda presupposes such manifestations of death and demise as Nakba, naksa (Nasser’s euphemism for the 1967 defeat) and takhalluf (or backwardness). By stressing the (purely rhetorical) need for self- or identity-assertion, what the Muslim Brotherhood is doing is throwing a sand storm into the eyes of Egyptians, just as the Arab nationalists did before it:
Nahda does not mean the elimination of autocracy and corruption, it means stamping them with the divine seal of “Islam”; it does not mean improving the intellectual and material circumstances of students, teachers and creative people, it means ensuring that they espouse the right slogans—even (or preferably) at the expense of progress and production.
It does not mean instating the principles on which a truly functional democracy can be built (a long term process so far seemingly more successful in Libya), it means liaising with the military dictators and their imperialist patrons, guaranteeing the security of Israel, invoking the revolution and “the will of the people”, monopolising the drafting of a new constitution, replacing state institutions and personnel with their own, buying votes, beating people up and otherwise defying law, order and decency in order to gain recognition through sheer power—in exactly the same way as resistance means not actually opposing the status quo but deploying a certain, negative rhetoric in the struggle to prevail over the competition for it. Nahda just may be the Greater Nakba in the making.
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In this context it may be worth remembering the initial term in which 25 January was described: as a YOUNG revolution. Notwithstanding all their moral faults, and regardless of individual people’s ages, the Islamists are confirming the suspicion that they are even older than the regime whose ugliness “the people” led by online activists rose up against. No true renaissance is conceivable in the presence of so much moral and material AGE. And perhaps a true renaissance, even the beginning of one, will happen despite (and not because of) Nahda, after all. Such a development would need no rhetoric to support it and no Washington-style marketing to give it impetus. It would not cooperate with the military arbiters who are the post-post-national embodiment of the failure of the independent nation. It would manifest in production, progress and words meaning what they say: a complete break with the lifeless past. Such a renaissance would probably not oppose the global status quo—at least not in the foreseeable future—but neither will it have to pretend to.

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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.

Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha

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“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011        
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.
***

Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011        
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.
***

Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011        
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.

The Best of The Sultan’s Seal: Five Articles © Youssef Rakha

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1.The Nude and the Martyr (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.

2.The Travels of ibn Rakha (The National, 2008)
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.
The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).
A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.
Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.
There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).
By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.
Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.
A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.

3.The Honourable Citizen Manifesto (Al Ahram Weekly, 2011)
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.
We, very honourable citizens of Egypt — inventors of humanity, guardians of God, cradle of Islam, seven thousand years of civilisation and the world’s mightiest river, not to mention either minarets or microphones — condemn those who, having sold their weakling souls to the Zionists and the Masons and the Imperialists, would threaten stability and engender chaos, nay even stand in the way of our long-awaited democratic wedding through which the Council (Sieg Heil!), while maintaining its own excellent efforts to shelter the Egyptian body, will place the Egyptian mind under the heavenly guardianship of those cultivators of dead skin on the forehead and importers of Chinese-made paraphernalia of worship, those greatest of money-grubbing reiterators of the unadorned Word of God and His Prophet and black-clad, appropriately unidentifiable women whom all true patriots want to see in power, and who would never condone attempts by the stone- and fire-throwing rabble, heavily armed and dangerous — traitors and infidels, all — to stop our most efficient wheel of production, murder our soldiers, destroy our buildings, even set fire to our age-old French manuscripts…
We, very, very honourable citizens of Egypt, reaffirm our faith in our stouthearted Army (Sieg Heil!), which as we all know has never once been defeated or failed to defend our borders or our people, let alone its own rank and file; our Army (Sieg Heil!), which unlike those agents of the conspiracy who receive funds from Qatar and Iran and the Mossad has never once accepted alms from a foreign power; which for decades, thanks to the peace and prosperity it brought to our fecund land, has been baking the best seasonal cookies in all Egypt, sending its conscripts to work as maidservants and errand boys for the fine wives of our audacious police officers (whose own contribution to the torture and elimination of the enemy cannot be denied) and, since the Glorious July Revolution of nineteen fifty two, overseeing the creation of an independent national state over which we can only, to a man or a woman, shed tears of pride and self congratulation. Above all our Army (Sieg Heil!) has uncovered and blocked conspiracies; and since the vipers of mayhem began to spew their venom into our midst, soiling the beauty of the order by which we live, especially, our soldiers have lived up to their duty of eradicating aliens who, creeping among our deluded youth, managed to overtake their bodies. By showing mercy to others, the Army (Sieg Heil!) has only made them vulnerable to further alien takeovers, which is the only logical and objective explanation for recent events in downtown Cairo.
We, unbelievably honourable citizens of Egypt, went out to aid our brave hearts when, in October, they defended Maspero — site of the grand Radio and Television Union, mouthpiece of national honesty, ever the producer of the most accurate news and patriotic information — against armed and dangerous thugs belonging to that vile sect, the Copts, the force of whose blue-boned malice and reviled alliance with the enemy was promptly and summarily defeated, may they burn alive, freeing this pure and sacred land of their contamination. What if a few alien-possessed Copts have their heads crushed by armoured vehicles of the Salafi- and Muslim Brotherhood-supported Supreme Council (Sieg Heil!), the important thing is for our honour to be upheld. And later too, we endorsed the efforts of our soldiers to put down the turncoat barbarians, on Mohammad Mahmoud Street and outside our noble People’s Assembly, the riffraff whose criminal ways sought to obstruct the democratic wedding, undermine the security and stability for which we are famous among nations, and introduce such corrupting influences on our flesh and blood as internet, human rights and mutiny, God save us from evil. If a sheikh of the all-too-tolerant Azhar is killed by an alien in the fray, if a medical student pretends to have been shot when he has not been or a juvenile delinquent is given a good beating, the better to straighten him out, if a so called young woman, indeed even a real young woman, must be undressed and literally stepped on in Tahrir Square (since when do our well brought-up young Muslim women go out on the streets unaccompanied?), indeed if a million weaklings are wholly eliminated, the better to save worthy lives, the better to serve beards, generals (Sieg Heil) and manuscripts — who is to object?
We, very unbelievably piously honourable citizens of Egypt, will only cheer. We will cheer our soldiers and our holy men, and to the aliens and the foreign agents we will continue to say: We are the barricades. If we feed you crap or crush your heads on the asphalt, it is either because you deserve it or to save you. For it is we who love Egypt, it is we who want to build Egypt.

4.All Those Theres (Al Ahram Weekly, 2010)
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time.
Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
When that happens, I’m in Morocco with an Egyptian friend. At this point we both live outside Egypt, further from each other than either is from home. We must travel to see each other, but for reasons both complicated and ineffable, we cannot meet in Cairo. There is something refugee-ish about our isolation inside the walls of the medina, our existential anxiety, the fact that we are in each other’s presence against all odds. For as long as we’re there, by coincidence, the riad has no other guests.
Nightly we sit in the withered grandeur of the top-floor salon, laptops on laps, and we struggle with the electric plugs, the ornate china ashtrays, the incredibly weak lights. In that salon everything is pretty, but everything is maddeningly impractical.
When I mention that I’ve seen pictures of Sargon but never heard his voice, my friend takes me to a web site called Poetry International with three excellent recordings in streaming audio format. The medina is still; and miraculously, that night, the wi-fi never gives.
Huddled over the tiny speakers, we listen. Again and again we return to one particular poem: al-laji’u yahki, or (in my translation) “The refugee tells”. Our ears buzzing with the angular, hard-edged vowels of Maghrebi dialect, Sargon’s far-Mashriq inflection strikes us all the more; it is curvy, singsong and strung with Bedouin consonants. The poems are in standard Arabic. Their reader’s mother tongue is Syriac and he has not been to Iraq for decades. But you can instantly tell where he’s from.
And it is magnificent poetry. In its quality (but in very little else) it extends a glorious Mesopotamian tradition that stretches back, through Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Mohammad Mahdi Al-Jawahri in the 20th century, to the Abbasid caliphate. The poet Sinan Antoon, another Iraqi Christian, tells me the poems are full of rarefied dialect: further evidence of their belonging. But it is more than anything else the voice, the sheer Iraqiness of Sargon’s undulating voice, that stamps them with a sense of place.
In a way that no Arab poet ever thought of doing before the Nineties, Sargon embodies the poet as uncommitted wanderer – and, all through his life, he willingly pays the price in homelessness and uncertainty, in refugee-ness. He frees the text of its historical onus, pushes it back into the broadest possible human context. To my friend and me he speaks of voluntary displacement and purposeful disengagement. Geographic flux. Not just because we admire the poems, here and now it seems right to be reviewing his life.
First, Sargon makes the journey from the British enclave of Habbaniyya, where he was born, to Kirkuk. It is the Sixties, and together with Fadel Al-Azzawy, Mu’ayyad Al-Rawi and other young prose poets, he forms the Kirkuk Group, a heterogeneous circle fascinated with Flower Power and bilingual in English. A string of risky border crossings takes him to Beirut, where his poems have been “discovered” by Youssef Al-Khal, the editor of the influential journal Shi’r. For several years Sargon lives as an illegal alien in Lebanon. When he is about to be deported, he manages somehow to secure legal passage to America. There are legends about how he does this; the important thing is that, before Saddam Hussein comes to power, before the story of nation building in Baath Party Iraq reaches its nightmarish climax, he is already settled in San Francisco.
Amazingly, as my friend and I start to tell each other, there is no nostalgia in Sargon’s poems. There is pained memory, grief, a harrowing awareness of both the cost of moving on and the value of what’s left behind, but no self- or place-pity, no homesickness.
Sargon makes you think of how a place can be at once familiar and unfamiliar, how a detail like the shape of a glass or the colour of the light in a window can make home unpredictable, how a moment – the moment his voice came through with the words al-laji’u yahki, for example – can condense and give meaning to two lives.
Once again I recall the imperative in one of his poems: “You’re the one who wanted bare adventure and burned the map, now sleep in the dragon’s entryway.” It’s a state of being I think my friend and I have always shared, but tonight it takes on exigent edge. Here, speaking from the internet-ready grave to a pair of temporary life defectors, is the archetypal refugee; we grow even closer listening to him.
Reminiscing about this many-sided encounter in Marrakesh – rereading not only “The refugee tells” but also poems about the family left behind in Habbaniyya and what has become of them (Sargon seldom knows), about Iraqi friends remembered or dead or encountered on the street by chance, often somewhere in Europe, about the horrendous conditions they are forced to live with and about their (his) visions of the end of the world – I think again of homeland and identity, of Baghdad as a hub of nationalism.
Was it Sargon’s conscious choice to reject this time and place, or was he, as a disinherited Christian, forced out of the story by blood? It occurs to me now that, by remaining marginal to an ultimately disastrous grand narrative, whether intentionally or not, Sargon managed to live out poetic Arabness as nobody else did. His is (as it had to be) an Arabness in exile, free of the trappings of coming into your own in the politicised Sixties. But it is also (as it should be) free of the tent pegs that hold down the individual spirit.
Sargon never gathered wealth, fame or clout; he did not for a moment trade in his prodigal talent for wider or deeper recognition. To this day the Iraqi with the strange name is seldom celebrated in the mainstream cultural media. Yet as I think again of the fall Baghdad, Sargon tells me more about what it means than any Iraqi I know of.

5.Chapter and Verse (The National, 2008)
Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.
It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:
Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.
Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.
There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.
So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.
I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.
Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.
At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.
I had to pay attention.
Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.
Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

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Side effects of Revolution

 

I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Continue reading

إلى محمد أبو الليل في غربته*


“كتابىِ–، ولولاَ أنَّ يأَسي قد نَهى اشت***ياقي لذاب الطرس من حر أنفاسي
وبعد فعندي وحشة لو تقسّــمت
***على الخلق لم يستأنس الـناس بالنـاس”

أسامة بن منقذ

أكتب لكَ والمنافض أهرام من الأعقاب.

الشيء الذي حذّرتَني من دَوَامِه توقّف.

وصداع النوم المُمَزَّق يجعل الدنيا خاوية. أنت فاهم.

في جيوب الحياة ننقّب عن عملة من عصور سحيقة،

عملة صدئة وربما قبيحة لكنها سارية في سوق الأبدية.

نصبح ملائكة حين نعثر عليها. نجترها حتى نتأكد

أنها لا تشتري البقاء.

ساعتها تبدو الأبدية نفسها رخيصة.

نتذكر عهود الأبالسة وأن كل مياه الأرض لا تكفي

لابتلاع حبة دواء. أكتب لك بعد أن حفرتُ فتحةً في بطني

وألقيتُ أمعائي في النيل. هل كنتَ تعلم

أنني سأفقد ما لم أحصل عليه؟

حقول الأسفلت التي ذرعناها معاً

نتراشق الاكتشافات والأسرار، ويوم احترقتْ العجلة

على أعلى نقطة في الكوبري

ونحن غائبان في الحشيش والموسيقى

فوق المدينة التي بدت مثل زاوية صلاة

أسفل عمارة الدنيا ما بعد 11 سبتمبر –

أنت صمّمتَ على إكمال المهمة

حالما استبدلنا الكاوتش المدخّن،

وكانت أقراص السعادة في تفاحة حمراء من البلاستك،

قسمناها نصفين لنبتلع الأقراص على قارعة الطريق:

هل تذكر وقت كانت السعادة أقراصاً

يمكننا التقاطها من نصف تفاحة بلاستك؟ –

ويوم خلعنا ملابسنا في صحراء صغيرة داخل شقة

يعاد تبليطها فوق الميدان،

ويوم انقلبت أعصاب ذراعك أوتار معدن

يمكنني أن أعزف عليها بصوتي،

والهلوسات التي جعلناها شبابيك، ومشاجراتنا

حول النقود وسيناء، والحورية التي جلست بيننا

حتى مالت برأسها على كتفك وأنا راضٍ تماماً…

إلى أن – ذات يوم – مات كل شيء.

قُدنا السيارة إلى الشاطئ أو غابة النخيل

لنتأكد أنه لا يحيا.

أنت واصلت البحث عن مزاج مثالي

بينما تكتشف الفلسفة والكآبة، وأنا اختبأت في بيت أمي

لأكتب رواية. وحين تزوج أحدنا وأنجب الآخر،

لم يكن سوانا لنخبرنا بحقيقة ما يصير.

ظل لكل حدث حديث من الطول والتعقيد

بحيث قلتَ إنك مللتَ الكلام،

إن شيئاً في الكلام لا يؤثّر. وفي هذه القصة الأخيرة،

وحدك فهمت أنني لم أكن مخدوعاً

بقدر ما أردت أن أصدّق،

وأن ما جادت به الدنيا مجرد مشبك

لأسمال بللها لقاء عابر ستجف آجلاً أو عاجلاً

لأعود أرتديها كما خلعتها وارتديتها

ألف مرة أمامك.

كنت تعلم أنني لست سوى أحد أعراض مرض

لا يشبه أمراضنا كثيراً

وأنّ وعد الخلاص خطاب موجه

واللحم والدم محسنات بديعية.

سيتسنى الوقت لنتجادل

فيما لو كان الفيلم هابطاً وإلى أي حد،

لكنك لم تخبرني بأكثر من أن الواقع المشترك

لا يكون براقاً وبأنني لن أقوى على الانتظار.

أكتب لك، كما يقول روبيرتو بولانيو، بدلاً من الانتظار…

ولأن قلقك لم يكن في محله. الوحشة أفسدت كل شيء

لكن البدائل حاضرة طالما الأبدية على الرف

ومن رحمة النوائب أننا لا نحزن إلا على أنفسنا.

كنتَ تقول: أحبها وأحتقرها. الآن أستدعي ضحكاتك

وأنا أتهادى إلى الحمام. قطرات الماء البارد

قد تجلو هذه القورة. أفرغ المنافض في أوعية القمامة.

أصنع القهوة وأشربها.

وكل هذا الذي جرى لي وقتلناه نقاشاً

طوال عام عامر بالشِعر والبكاء:

مجرد وهم آخر أكرهه لأفقده

وحين أفقده أكف عن كرهه لأنه لم يكن هناك.

في الحلم كان كما لم أعد أشتاق إليه: رائعاً ومهلكاً

مثل أورجازم سماوي. خبّرني عنك ولا تقلق علي.

الحسرة للـ”جدعان”.


* بوحي قصيدة Exile’s Letter للشاعر الأمريكي إيزرا باوند

Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound
From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”
SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels
we paid for the songs and laughter,

5

And we were drunk for month after month,
forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,

10

there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …

15

and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.

20

And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
that was the first valley,

25

And on into ten thousand valleys
full of voices and pine-winds.
With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;

30

And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.

35

And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
Danced because his long sleeves
Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

40

And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.

45

And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the north,

50

And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
and you caring enough to pay it.
Then what a reception!
Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;

55

And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,

60

With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,

65

Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.

70

I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
And got no promotion,
And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.
And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.

75

And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
And if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—

80

There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.(Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga.)


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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

Tea with Mouayed al-Rawi in a Turkish café in Berlin

by Sargon Boulus (translated from Arabic by the author)
Domino tiles

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Our cigarette packs
close to hand (that secret fuel) . . .
The babble of immigrants
slapping dominoes on marbletops:
a noise familiar once,
out of which
a word may flare up amid the smoke –
born there, refusing
to die here.
If we don’t say it, who will?
And who are we
if we don’t?

Not about what came
to pass; how it came, and passed!
But about this spoon buried
in sugar, and this finjan.
Not that Wall whose remains
are sold as souvenirs
at check-point Charlie where
only yesterday
they exchanged spies
and traded secrets of the East
and West, but this
wall painting facing us now,
with a harem from the days
of the Sublime Porte
who recline dreamily
in pleasure boats, on a river
guzzled down, in one
gulp, by history.
Let’s say we have seen
a lot of walls, how they rise
and fall, how the dust
particles dance under the hooves
of the Mongol’s horse,
how “victory” laughs
its idiot’s laugh in the mirror
of loss, before it breaks
and its shards fill the world
where we walk, and meet,
every time.



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New Translation of al laji’u yahki

The refugee tells

The refugee absorbed in telling his tale

feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.

He’s absorbed in the awe of being Here

after all those Theres: the stations, and the ports,

the search parties, the forged papers…

He dangles from the chain of circumstance –

his destiny wound like fibre,

in rings as narrow as

those countries on whose chest

the nightmares have piled up.

The smugglers, the mafias, if you asked me,

might not be as bad as that sky of hungry seagulls

above a damaged ship in Nowhere.

If you asked me I would say:

Eternal waiting in immigration offices,

and faces that do not smile back, no matter how much you smile;

who said it was the dearest gift?

If you asked me, I would say: People, everywhere.

I would say: Everywhere,

stones.

He tells and he tells and he tells,

because he has arrived but does not taste arrival,

and he feels nothing when the cigarette burns his fingers.

Sargon Boulus (1944-2007)

Translated from the Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Listen to Sargon reading by clicking on the little microphone

A REFUGEE TALKING
A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
An oppressive country
Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere
Stones

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

© 2007, Sargon Boulus
Publisher: First published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007
© Translation: 2007, Kees Nijland
Publisher: Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam, 2007

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In memory: Baghdad Falls, 2003

Saddam Hussein detained several Westerners, wi...
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A view from nowhere

Youssef Rakha recalls a country he has never seen


The writer of this piece was barely 16 when the first Gulf War broke out. One (televised) image that lives on in memory is that of Mrs Thatcher, a late-in-the-day political analyst, commending President Mubarak’s stance. Some of the raw resentment brought on by the notion of Egyptians fighting Iraqis is summoned up, too. Up until then Iraq had existed only in situ, as it were. Suddenly, and for what sounded like the wrong reasons, it was all over the place. From then on what one recognised as the centre of the Abbasid dynasty, the Mashriq’s most notable patrons of the arts, became synonymous alternately with sanctions and Saddam. Already in 1991 one realised Iraq was a police state; at millennium’s end it became, in addition, a rogue state. American Middle East policy was infuriating and Iraq was a case in point. The saddest part was that this diverted attention even further away from its role in Arab culture, in the glories and triumphs of an imagined identity.

Arabs of my generation have seldom had occasion to visit Arab countries, a paradox that reflects exactly how imagined that identity is. Of Baghdad, as much as of Damascus or Sanaa, what one likes and relates to has little to do with present-day reality. Such, at least, is the assumption: associations of political corruption, arbitrary justice and economic disinheritance are paramount; history and culture figure less prominently. Or else they figure, in a variety of contexts, at an abstract level. Prior to the start of the war, the terra incognita of contemporary Iraq consisted largely of the reports of Egyptian acquaintances who had sought employment in an oil-rich Gulf country, impressions of Iraqi literati and academics one had met and the contents of books of history and literature. Connections between the latter, prior or unreal knowledge, and information gleaned from the media or through hearsay were few and far between; to register fully or evolve into a holistic picture of the country, they required some degree of creative intervention.

Baghdad was, for example, home to the Thousand and One Nights Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, whose reputation for sensual excess was tentatively backed up by reports of a subdued but unequivocal focus on the simple pleasures of life. Hard as they worked — and, compared to Egyptians, it was said, they worked really hard — Iraqis had a tremendous capacity for fun; no feelings of guilt or obligation could hamper their enjoyment of what life had to offer. Others who had encountered trouble supplied similar, individual glosses on the general precepts of life under Saddam. Ex cathedra interference in the lives of ordinary residents was ruthless and demeaning; there existed, in many social arrangements, what amounted to a caste system in which those not affiliated with government bodies were repeatedly put in their place. The wielding of power was, in general, far more reckless and vainglorious than in Egypt. More reassuringly people also referred to a stricter moral code governing human interactions; a man’s word was honoured beyond all else; an Iraqi employer, so long as you did not betray or attempt to deceive him, was eminently reliable. Such, it would seem, was the Abbasid strain.

Encounters with Iraqis proved equally heterogenous. By the time they occurred, the sanctions had taken their toll on those of them who lived there. Others, like the great poet Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati, were confident and irritable. The latter was an icon of the contemporary poetic movement — lyrical, romantic, thoroughly modern. As an aspiring author who knew many of his lines by heart, I had expected a soft-spoken, gentle old man. The person who met me, a few months before his death in Amman, seemed gruff and reluctant. His welcome was far from warm, but neither did he know me. I have retained, along with the disorientation induced by the perception of such a difference between the man and his work, only his inattentive gestures, his gutteral voice, the rare, sarcastic smile. Before Al-Bayati, I had discovered Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab; and after him, Saadi Youssef. The felicity, power and innovation of modern Iraqi poets convinced me that in spite of everything the Arabs’ literary heritage, the essence of which is poetry (some of the best remembered lines were produced during the reign of the aforementioned dynasty), was alive and well only in Baghdad — or among a Baghdadi diaspora scattered, sadly and perhaps irrevocably, across the whole world.

I also recalled, however, that during that era the vanity and sophistication of the literary capital could cast Al- Ma’arri — a relatively simple, blind Syrian even as he remains a formidable poet and thinker — out of it, keeping him in his small hometown of Ma’arra till the end of his life. Something of this duality appeared in all my dealings with Iraq. Hearty and intense, the Iraqis I met were nonetheless too proud to give up, even for a moment, that impenetrable veneer of confident civility. Their cinema, what little of it I saw, may have been slack and rudimentary, but their literature evidenced a corresponding combination of confessional fluidity and linguistic polish. The Baghdadi maqam, a distinct musical form which I discovered through the fortunate coincidence of being given a French-produced CD, was the closest I came to the sound of Abbasid music — an intuition that finds support in historical fact. Unlike anything I had heard, and full of the refinement of a culture at its height, it was a real awakening.

Walking across Tahrir Square the day after the arrival of the American and British forces in Iraq, I could think of nothing but the unmediated sense of identity so many Egyptians felt. Anti-American sentiment was inflated, but it was justified and real, far more real than resentment of the Saddam regime. No one cheered when the dictator’s statue toppled over; and subsequent images of looting and plunder could only inspire shame and a sense of having been betrayed. Everyone sympathised with Iraq, but what did Iraq mean to people? It was at this point that I thought of making a mental list of all those things Iraq, a country I had never seen, meant to me. I thought of a man who sold donner kebab near Hull University campus, an exile whose perpetual homesickness had metamorphosed into a painful quietude. The solitude, the desolation on his face drove me to inquire about his personal history, but he would have nothing to do with me. One night, following an intense evening at the Union Bar, I happened to drop the name of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. Slowly, pensively, in a voice more like its author’s, this little educated man recited Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem, Unshoudat Al-Mattar (Rainsong). By the end he was on the verge of tears; he never shed any.

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القائمة القصيرة لجائزة الرواية العربية

Ghadames
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الثلثاء 15 كانون الأول 2009

الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية (البوكر العربية) 2010

الإعلان عن اللائحة القصيرة

www.arabicfiction.org

جمال ناجي، ربعي المدهون، ربيع جابر، عبده خال، محمد المنسي قنديل ومنصورة عز الدين هم الكتّاب الستة الذين اختيروا ضمن اللائحة القصيرة لـِ”الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية” (البوكر العربية) لسنة 2010، وهي الامتياز الادبي المرموق الذي يهدف الى مكافأة التميّز في الكتابة الروائية العربية المعاصرة والى توسيع دائرة قرّاء الأدب العربي في العالم.

وقد أعلن رئيس لجنة التحكيم الكاتب طالب الرفاعي اسماء اللائحة القصيرة خلال مؤتمر صحافي انعقد في إطار معرض بيروت الدولي للكتاب في البيال، يوم الثلثاء 15 كانون الأول 2009.

اختيرت الأعمال الستة من اصل 115 عملاً تأهلت للمشاركة وهي للكتّاب الآتية أسماؤهم، مع جنسياتهم، وعناوين الروايات، وأسماء الناشرين: (بالترتيب الألفبائي):

العنوان

اسم الكاتب

الناشر

جنسية الكاتب

عندما تشيخ الذئاب

جمال ناجي

منشورات وزارة الثقافة

أردني

السيدة من تل أبيب

ربعي المدهون

المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر

فلسطيني

أميركا

ربيع جابر

المركز الثقافي العربي

لبناني

ترمي بشرر

عبده خال

منشورات الجمل

سعودي

يوم غائم في البر الغربي

محمد المنسي قنديل

دار الشروق

مصري

وراء الفردوس

منصورة عز الدين

دار العين للنشر

مصرية

وعلّق رئيس لجنة التحكيم طالب الرفاعي قائلاً: “جرى نقاش حرّ وموضوعي، وكان الهدف الأهم الوصول الى قائمة متوافق عليها من جانب جميع أعضاء لجنة التحكيم. هذه القائمة تمثّل رأي المحكّمين، مع الاحترام والتقدير لجميع الروايات المشاركة في هذه الدورة”.

وقد أذيعت اليوم أيضاً أسماء الأعضاء في لجنة التحكيم المرموقة، الذين ينتمون الى البلدان الآتية: الكويت وتونس وعُمان ومصر وفرنسا. وهم طالب الرفاعي، روائي وقاص كويتي؛ رجاء بن سلامة، أستاذة محاضرة في كليّة الآداب والفنون والإنسانيات في منوبة، من تونس؛ سيف الرحبي، شاعر وكاتب عُماني؛ شيرين أبو النجا، أستاذة أدب انكليزي ومقارن في جامعة القاهرة، من مصر؛ وفريدريك لاغرانج، باحث أكاديمي ومترجم ومدير قسم الدراسات العربية والعبرية في جامعة السوربون (باريس 4) من فرنسا.

تحتفل الجائزة الأدبية المهيبة هذه السنة بعامها الثالث، وتهدف إلى مكافأة الامتياز في الكتابة العربية الإبداعية المعاصرة، إلى جانب توفير أكبر عدد ممكن من القرّاء العالميين للأدب العربي الجيد. أُطلقت الجائزة في أبو ظبي في الإمارات العربية المتحدة، في نيسان 2007، بالتعاون مع جائزة البوكر البريطانية، وبدعم من مؤسسة الإمارات.

خلال المؤتمر الصحافي الذي عقد اليوم، قال جوناثان تايلور الذي يرئس مجلس الأمناء: “الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية هي جائزة رائدة في عالم الأدب العربي. تأثيرها بات لا يقبل الجدال، مع اعتبار الفائزين بها وكتّاب اللائحة القصيرة من أهم الأقلام في الأدب العربي المعاصر. والكثر منهم وصلوا إلى العالم اليوم عبر ترجمة أعمالهم، وذلك بفضل الجائزة”.

أما رئيسة برنامج الثقافة والفنون في مؤسسة الامارات سلوى مقدادي، فأضافت: “مؤسسة الامارات فخورة برعايتها هذه الجائزة المتزايد تأثيرها في الحياة الثقافية العربية. ففي غضون ثلاث سنوات فقط، استطاع نفوذها الثقافي واستقلالية مجلس أمنائها ولجان تحكيمها على السواء، صيرورتها الحائزة الأدبية الأبرز والأهم في العالم العربي”.

تأهل للجائزة هذه السنة 115 كتاباً من 17 بلداً عربياً هي: مصر، سوريا، لبنان، الأردن، فلسطين، العراق، الإمارات العربية المتحدة، الكويت، المملكة العربية السعودية، اليمن، البحرين، عمان، المغرب، ليبيا، السودان، تونس، والجزائر. وكانت أعلنت اللائحة الطويلة من 16 عملاً في القاهرة خلال تشرين الثاني/ نوفمبر الفائت.

وعلّقت المديرة الإدارية للجائزة جمانة حداد قائلةً: “نحن فخورون بأن تساهم الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية في زيادة الاهتمام بالأدب العربي المعاصر قراءةً وترجمة. لم تحظ أي جائزة أدبية عربية بهذا القدر من الانتباه والتأثير من قبل، وقد جاءت البوكر العربية لتلبيّ حاجة ثقافية ملحّة في حياتنا الأدبية”.

يحصل كل من المرشّحين الستة النهائيين على 10000 دولار، أما الرابح فيفوز بـ 50000 دولار إضافية. وينعم كتّابها بالقدرة على الوصول الى جمهور واسع من القرّاء على الصعيدين العربي والعالمي في آن واحد، وعلى تأمين عقود ترجمة لأعمالهم. الفائزان السابقان بالجائزة، بهاء طاهر عن “واحة الغروب”، ويوسف زيدان عن “عزازيل”، لم يُنشر عملاهما بالإنكليزية فحسب في بريطانيا، في داري “سبتر” و”أتلانتيك”، بل حصلا على عدد كبير من عقود الترجمة العالمية جرّاء الجائزة”.

يذكر أخيرا أن هوية الفائز بالجائزة النهائية سوف تعلن خلال حفل رسمي في ابو ظبي، مساء الثلثاء 2 آذار 2010، وهو اليوم الأول من “معرض أبو ظبي الدولي للكتاب”.

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عندما تشيخ الذئاب، جمال ناجي

منشورات وزارة الثقافة، عمان، 2008

يختار الروائي الفلسطيني الأردني جمال ناجي تقنية تعدد الوجوه والأصوات، فينسحب الراوي العليم ليفسح المجال أمام شخصيات متعاقبة، تروي أحداثا ومشاهد تتكرر وتختلف وتتنامى من شخصية إلى أخرى. رواية تصور الهشاشة البشرية والتعالق المعقد بين الجنس والدين والسياسة، وتقدم لوحة حية عن عوالم الوعاظ والجمعيات الخيرية والساسة، وأسرار الارتقاء الاجتماعي من الحارات الفقيرة إلى مراكز السلطة والثراء في عمان. الشخصية الرئيسية في الرواية لا تتكلم وتبقى لغزا رغم انكشافها الجزئي: عزمي الوجيه. فهل هو الذئب الوحيد الذي لا يشيخ؟

السيدة من تل أبيب، ربعي المدهون

المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر، بيروت، 2009

يتناول الكاتب الفلسطيني ربعي المدهون في روايته قضية الصراع الفلسطيني/ العربي/ الاسرائيلي ويختار لحظة مشحونة بالهواجس والتوتر والريبة حدَّ الانفجار. البطلان هما وليد دهمان العائد من مغتربه الاوروبي بعد سنين طويلة لزيارة أهله في غزة عبر مطار بن غوريون في تل أبيب، والاسرائيلية دانا أهوفا التي تشاء المصادفات أن تجلس في المقعد المجاور لمقعده. هكذا يبدأ التماس بينهما، وما يشبه الحوار المتقطع الذي يأخذ القارئ الى أصقاع نائية في الذاكرة والتاريخ والذات البشرية. رواية تحاول مقاربة الحقيقة في تعقدها ولبسها وغموضها، ولا تركن الى أحكام ايديولوجية جاهزة.

أميركا، ربيع جابر

المركز الثقافي العربي، بيروت- الرباط، 2009

تستحضر رواية اللبناني ربيع جابر ملحمة هؤلاء الذين دفعهم الفقر وروح المغامرة الى ترك سوريا الكبرى في السنوات الأولى من القرن العشرين ليجربوا حظهم في أميركا الناشئة، حاملين “الكشة” عبر السهول والجبال، يندمجون تدريجيا في نسيجها الاجتماعي ويشاركون في حروبها. يركز السردعلى سيرة مارتا التي تقرر الذهاب وحدها إلى نيويورك من أجل العثور على زوجها بعدما انقطعت عنه الأخبار. تأتي الرواية تحيةً من الباقين إلى الذين رحلوا في أراضي المهجر، متخطين ما كانت ظروفهم تقدّره لهم من مصير، حتى يصنعوا هوياتهم الجديدة بأيديهم وعزيمتهم.

ترمي بشرر، عبده خال

دار الجمل، بغداد – بيروت، 2009

يأتي قص الكاتب السعودي عبده خال حاملا تكملة لعنوان الرواية: ترمي بشرر “كالقصر”. قصر بهيج هو جنة جحيمية، ترمي بشررها على جحيم الحارات البائسة في جدة، فيمتد الحكي جسرا بين عالم سيد القصر ومن تحولوا دمى بشرية وعبيداً، من اجتاحهم القصر وسلبهم بحرهم وقوارب نجاتهم. رواية ساخرة فاجعة تصور فظاعة تدمير البيئة وتدمير النفوس بالمتعة المطلقة بالسلطة والمتعة المطلقة بالثراء، وتقدم البوح الملتاع لمن أغوتهم أنوار القصر الفاحشة فاستسلموا إلى عبودية مختارة من النوع الحديث.

يوم غائم في البر الغربي، محمد المنسي قنديل

دار الشروق، القاهرة، 2009

يحيي الروائي المصري محمد المنسي قنديل فترة الاكتشافات الأثرية والنضال الوطني في مصر، ويضمنها ملحمة فتاة تهرب بها والدتها من زوجها المغتصب، وتودعها ديرا في أسيوط بعد أن تغير اسمها وتدق على ذراعها الصغيرة صليبا. ثم يتداخل مصير الفتاة وقد أضحت مترجمة، مع مسيرة شخصيات تاريخية مثل هوارد كارتر واللورد كرومر وعبد الرحمن الرفاعي. ويتداخل القص الشيق مع التوثيق الدقيق في وصف الأمكنة والأزمنة.

وراء الفردوس، منصورة عز الدين

دار العين للنشر، القاهرة، 2009

تتناول رواية الكاتبة المصرية منصورة عز الدين الطبقة البورجوازية في الريف، وذلك من خلال شخصية سلمى التي تعمل محررة في جريدة أدبية وتحاول أن تتخلص من ماض طويل محمّل ذكريات أليمة وصوراً سلبية عن الذات، مما شجعها على كتابة رواية خاصة بها، تسرد فيها تاريخ العائلة، تاريخ الحب، تاريخ الجسد، تاريخ الحراك الطبقي داخل القرية، تاريخ الجنون، تاريخ الكتابة: وكأن الذات قد انشطرت قسمين، قسماً يراقب ويسرد والآخر ينقب بهستيريا عن مكنونه لتخرج الرواية.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction was officially launched in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in April 2007. It is the result of a collaborative effort by the Booker Prize Foundation, the Emirates Foundation and the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose aim was to develop a dedicated prize for Arabic fiction.
A steering committee of Arab literary experts, publishers and journalists was established to advise on the set-up of the Prize and its independent Board of Trustees, whose members have been drawn from across the Arab and Anglophone worlds, and are responsible for the overall management of the prize. The Emirates Foundation pledged its financial and substantive support for the initiative.

The Prize is specifically for the novel literary genre, and it awards $10,000 to each of the six shortlisted authors, with an additional $50,000 to the winner.

About the Booker Prize:

The Booker Prize Foundation is a registered charity which, since 2002, has been responsible for the award of the Man Booker Prize (formally the Booker Prize).

Established in 1968, the Man Booker Prize (formally known as ‘The Booker Prize’) is a prestigious literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of either the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

The judges of the Man Booker Prize are selected from leading literary critics, writers, academics and notable public figures. The judging panel changes each year to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize and its integrity.
A Russian version of the prize was created in 1992. And an African version, the “Caine Prize”, was launched in 2000 .
The winner of the Man Booker Prize is generally assured of international renown and success. It is also a mark of distinction for authors to be nominated for the Booker longlist or selected for inclusion in the shortlist.

About the Emirates Foundation:

Established in 2005, the Emirates Foundation is one of the leading philanthropic organizations in the UAE. It is committed to improving the quality of life for all people in the UAE, through a variety of local and international projects that stimulate intellectual and social growth, as well as increase access to cultural, educational and technological resources, and foster increased participation in civic life.

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