Interface/Sigstop: An Iphoneography Mini-Exhibition + Excerpts from J. G. Ballard’s “What I Believe”

… derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal) …

What I Believe – J.G. Ballard

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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

One flew over the Dhakla oasis

THE NATIONAL

After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable

Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.

For posterity’s sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla – according to him “the most baseline”, the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness – exorcism, for example – measured up to the western status quo.

I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn’t be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins …

Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed’s description of Mut – named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city’s residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me – not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.

I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness – only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.

Over three days at the town’s central cafe – Mohammed’s centre of operations – I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural “knot” commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil “sheikh” who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.

Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed’s few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.

The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town’s sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity – the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.

In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers – utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt – struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.

Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the “sheikh” who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed’s modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle’s blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.

A handful of madmen roamed the city freely – well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed’s case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. “You want me to sit with you, do you?” he said. “How many cockroaches are you?”

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