Writing the North African Experience


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

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

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Imogen Lambert: “They tweeted martyrdom with lattes”

Tower of Babel

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined…

yrakhahipa 6

Photo: @sultans_seal

Night bites my shoulder. I turn to you, through a nylon window
To a state of limbo, there on a map
Under rivers of paper
We never drown, gazing on bridges
Night hugged my waist, like my mother, wailing
Where are our parents?

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Mahmoud El Maniarwi: Howling-محمود المنيراوي: نباح

A poem

photo 2

photo: Mahmoud El Maniarawi

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

The people are sleeping: Two versions

“The people are asleep,

Don’t wake the people, darling,

So she’d tell him

Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,

Whenever his eyes shone behind the door

Like a password,

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The Heavenly Jeep


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Kali: A Poem


“Oh, the fire of my guts…”

Umar Ibn Al Farid


The Hindus have a goddess who vomits snakes
Who’s wreathed in severed heads (her hair oil:
Brain paste) and lays down mass graves
For fun.
They believe that all that checks her evil
Is waterfalls of blood.

If you approached this goddess,
If you entered her circle,
If you knelt before the sundered limbs,
Hanging at her chin,
You’d see the opening of her mouth beneath her eyes,
two quarries of fire:
A well lined with knives.

And though she is, in origin, a kind goddess,
Tending crops and lovers,
And though this terror is only her angry aspect
(Because the Hindus’ gods, praise God,
Each have more than one
And to each a name)
It’s best you pray to her by this name…

My Lady of Dismemberment and Temptation
I need to be God, if only for a night,
I need to refashion one person in this world
That my existence might stand tall. And when I take possession of that person,
As Night and Famine are thine,
I shan’t make do with standing in a line of believers
Which I saw with my own eyes in Nepal
Most of them poor, without the price of ram or lama,
A sacrifice befitting thy spleen,
(They shall grease thy statues with what their fingers lap
From the sluggish brooks of blood,)
And the offerings they bore did not surpass
A scrawny duck or cat killed by a car,
A monkey, spine broken from an ill-judged leap,
Or a blind rooster seeking feed with his beak.
I shan’t make do with standing in their line
And watching the tiny necks broken between fingers.
I shall be of purity and clarity sufficient
To offer myself to thee true and whole,
Without fear or grief.

My Lady of Dismemberment and Temptation,
For my brain to become a paste to preserve thy hair from split ends,
For my bones to become pikes for thee to tilt at the bodies of innocents
And my heart a bonbon in thy mouth,
I need to be God.

Trans. Qisasukhra.wordpress.com

Indoors: Hipstamatic Tintotypes with a Poem

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For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

Trans. Qisasukhra

Please, God, give us books to read

A poem by Mohab Nasr

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

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

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

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


Translation © Youssef Rakha

Best 25 Instagrams and 2 Quotes

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There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.
Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.
― William S. Burroughs

Three Short Pieces from last October © Youssef Rakha


“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.

Slide Show & Night Tour by Yasser Abdellatif

Square Cafe – المقهى المربع

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Night Tour by Yasser Abdellatif

Before he grew familiar with the way to school
the sickly child grew familiar with
the doctor’s place:
the pharmacy below the clinic
with its brown closets
and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades
wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,
which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,
and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.

On distant mornings
you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.
Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places
in the night,
sliding at least four buildings across?

There is a restaurant at the street corner
whose glass facade which the steam misted over
shows appetising, low-priced food;
it seems very close, over at the curve.
Night after night you will put off having dinner there
and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;
the day you make up your mind,
with a strike,
some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place
off the map of existence.

And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city
beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small
is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads
with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.

There stands a forgotten variety theatre
where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage
flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.
You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,
your viewpoint flits between the two places
from pointers to clamorous lives
and promises of sustained indulgence
to where safety
fares better than regret
which is as light as beer foam.

Translation of the title poem of Yasser Abdellatif’s last book © Youssef Rakha

One arm left



When one of them dies you realize

Parents are like limbs:

They don’t stop hurting amputated.

Moaning theatrically to tell the world

How long suffering she has been,

The one who hasn’t died draws up

At the threshold to her chamber,

One hand on the peeling door frame

Apparently to keep standing.

I can only see the back of her

As I go on pacing the hall.


Cramps, burns, festering lacerations…

How could I have saved my arm from

The battering of the years?

It is not that I like the old crutch;

I just feel sorry for all that it has suffered

Which makes it a terrible burden,

Unwanted and perpetually distressed.

That must be why I tend to it,

Crank my neck till it hurts

To excavate the knots of pain

In its furrows of tired sinew.


Suddenly my mother crosses over,

No longer moaning. And before I stop,

I see her hand hovering to the ceiling.

Lighter than all the burdens in the world,

She reminds me: I, who wished him dead,

Will never be rid of my father.


© Youssef Rakha

Rewritten from Arabic by the author

Mohammed El Mazrouie: The angels fly


—You were waiting there,

not parting from the threshold.

Neither night after night

nor morning after morning

could wipe off your eyes the elongated picture of a soul,

of the trunk of a soul.

—Did anyone drink from your mouth

except those mood swings

when the moon takes control of your body’s waters?

—You were smiling,

you were happy,

behaving like a child,

trying to stretch your head

to receive something… from me.


ignored you

as if I couldn’t see you.

I did not want to face your eyes

because your eyes asked a lot of questions.

You run

and (what no one sees)

your feet bump into animals

that scurry from your path.

Half of you is covered in wheat straw

and your soul is naked.

Mohammed El Mazrouie

Translated from Arabic by Youssef Rakha

Some of Sylvia Plath’s Last Poems


Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.

People or stars

Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.

O slow

Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -

All morning the

Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

My bones hold a stillness, the far

Fields melt my heart.

They threaten

To let me through to a heaven

Starless and fatherless, a dark water.


Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with color and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,


Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.


Kindness glides about my house.

Dame Kindness, she is so nice!

The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke

In the windows, the mirrors

Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?

A rabbit’s cry may be wilder

But it has no soul.

Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.

Sugar is a necessary fluid,

Its crystals a little poultice.

O kindness, kindness

Sweetly picking up pieces!

My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,

May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea

Wreathed in steam.

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

You hand me two children, two roses.



After whose stroke the wood rings,

And the echoes!

Echoes traveling

Off from the center like horses.

The sap

Wells like tears, like the

Water striving

To re-establish its mirror

Over the rock

That drops and turns,

A white skull,

Eaten by weedy greens.

Years later I

Encounter them on the road—

Words dry and riderless,

The indefatigable hoof-taps.


From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars

Govern a life.


Color floods to the spot, dull purple.

The rest of the body is all washed out,

The color of pearl.

In a pit of rock

The sea sucks obsessively,

One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,

The doom mark

Crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,

The sea slides back,

The mirrors are sheeted.


The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag.



Ars Poetica-2


Some think of them as nightmares. Of course even “nightmare” originally referred to a wicked mare rearing over the sleeper in the night, waking them in a panic by making it hard to breathe. Like every word ever invented it is at bottom an image, an incident, a scene that speaks of something both bigger and smaller, less abstract than itself. There are many such creatures whose beauty, as Rilke famously said, is nothing but the beginning of terror: nightmares giving life something that comes close to but never quite becomes meaning. Unlike other strings of sounds that give meaning in more straightforward or practical ways, they are truer than reality.
Others consider them little mechanical constructions. Like buildings, they are essentially functional schemes. They contain spaces and have plans. You can walk through them, sit or lie down; sometimes, once inside, you can dance. They are made up of bricks and blocks; the difference is that they themselves can walk and talk. They take on shapes and colours, even sizes. They are designed according to futuristic schemes that make them at once solid and mobile. You may sleep in one of them only to wake up in another. They transmigrate through space; time is their mortar. They are the planets and stars of miniature solar systems of minds sensitive and diseased.
Others still conceive of them as incantations: spells, hexes, blessings. Unlike other little texts they have the ability to harness energy and reuse it. They work like magic, which is defined as “an intervention that alters reality”. That intervention does not have to be physical or perceptible; it does not have to be world-bound as such: the point of the hunter’s chant, the healer’s prayer, is that it is not mundane. You write them, you read them or you recite them; and like words dictated to prophets by archangels, they change the world. What it is important to remember is that they change your private, inner world. They are not revolutions.
Yet in as far as anything at all is important, they are even more important than revolutions; in the long run, at least, if they have not been abused, if they have not calcified into codes that stifle and kill, they give the world a slightly more meaningful look and feel. Which is why, in case you have not guessed by now, I am thinking of poems, not Poetry.


Nazem Elsayed in one block


The formalist: a ramble

Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007

Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009

The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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In all my barbarity

Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of  Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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How far is Mahmoud Abdelghani

A book picked up by coincidence leaves Youssef Rakha aquiver

How far is Don Quixote: the title reads much better in Arabic, but this – more or less – is what it means. The latest book by one of Morocco’s best respected prose poets, Mahmoud Abdelghani (b. 1967), Kam yab’ud Don Kishot (Beirut: Dar Al-Nahda, 2007) builds on three previous collections of poetry and a number of translations and critical theses (Abdelghani is a professor of Arabic literature in Rabat). But does the Don Quixote in the title have anything to do with Cervantes’ hero?

In common with the work of like-minded contemporaries across the Arab world – in Egypt the best known (amorphous) group is known as the Generation of the Nineties – it is a safe bet that the subject of Abdelghani’s poems is the poet himself: a central tenet of this decadent form in its Nineties incarnation is that it is, by however subtle or indirect a means, autobiographical; and Abdelghani seems to think of himself as Quixotic. Still, Abdelghani is too sophisticated to present himself directly as such; he relies, rather, on transference, and in so doing offers his own appropriately wispy take on what the Don might stand for in a poem from post-millennial north Africa: “Don Quixote slept… I saw him,/I thought I was the best to negotiate with him,/and cut deals…”

There is plenty of beauty in this work, but it is the ego-exploring dimension of a vaguely cyclical sequence of texts in a broader context of contemporary poetic discourse that makes it interesting. Here as elsewhere in the “impure” Arabic poem, the poet – a once heroic and exemplary figure who until recently spoke for more or less grand abstractions in more or less grandly rhythmic tones – reduces to self-revealing poetic matter: porous, unpretentious, subversive. In many cases this implies confession, hatred, the impassioned rejection of what status quo the poem might pit itself against or what remnants of the self might choose to align with a status quo.

When the poem sheds its surface musicality and ceases to exercise a sentimental pull, it falls prone not only to the “destructive” compulsions of confessional decadence but equally to the drive to exercise a certain kind of sapience.

In some Nineties work, the economy of means to which poets as a rule resort gives way to a fake pithiness, as if the poem’s function is not so much to distill experience as to pronounce on it. By placing the poet back on some kind of podium, however apparently low-key, this tendency immediately undermines both the poetic substance of the text itself and the central tenet of “impure” aesthetics.

In Abdelghani, somewhat atypically, what “impurity” implies is a loosely stylised sense of the real communicating not so much an emotion as an emotional charge: a mood or a perspective. This makes him very vulnerable to a position in which he might assume a wise or knowledgeable stance; what is surprising is how he avoids this entirely.

In “After a star or a thread” (translated here in full), for example, there is not a whiff of that kind of pithiness:

You followed me to the palace.

Did you follow me to the palace?

You were at the bottom of the pit,

did you read the novelists?

All their characters find guidance

in a star or a thread.

The ability of the star and the thread

regarding the lost thing

which they look for

in cities.

I will make the voice witness

when you follow me.

Of course, the question that then emerges is what such a poem means – perhaps semantic emptiness is the pitfall diametrically opposed to pithiness in Arabic prose poetry, even though it is rightly said that the poem does not have to mean anything – and, insofar as lack of meaning is a crime, Abdelghani is certainly guilty.

A more sympathetic reading would turn the palace and the pit, the star and the thread and the voice to be made witness, into a quasi-metaphorical system of (self) references where the speaker is really talking about the process of speech (one definition of poetry I like, which is applicable in particular to contemporary poetry, is that it is a mode of rediscovering language in intensely personal registers, of learning to speak). Together with the occasional Surrealist stroke – “and the imprisoned man/who waits for the dawn of things/is swept up by the sun/to my head,” for example – it is simply (but never exclusively) the process of writing, poetry being itself, that makes this book meaningful.

In “The Plum Tree”, Abdelghani comes close to expressing what his book attempts constantly to perform:

Poems are fair weapons,

said Jean Sénac.

But I don’t see people

baring them

even a little.


all poems

do not have the appearance

of a tree branch

that a woodpecker only just left.

And so, perhaps the most Quixotic thing about Kam yab’ud Don Kishot is the way it shows just how Quixotic – but also how Quixotically inevitable – writing poetry is. Surely (and this, if anything, is what Abdelghani is saying) these poems at this time and in this place are as idealistic and unrealistic as the proverbial hero, but perhaps also as impassioned. Abdelghani demonstrates this at the deepest levels not only brilliantly but also very poignantly, and as he does he suggests that there are many ways of exploring the ego, many ways of recounting one’s own life. I would have liked to learn more about Abdelghani from this exquisite “autobiography” of his. But perhaps it has already told me enough:

Abdelghani writes.


Translation copyright: Youssef Rakha

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This Is Not Literature, My Love

Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008

The wall is further than it needs to be

and there is nothing to support me.

An ordinary fall

and bumping into edges

that change places in the dark…

How could I let myself

be so lonely before thirty? (A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons, 1995)

You are on your way home to Faisal from downtown Cairo, to the flat where this fall might actually have happened: “There is no alarm clock/and there are empty cups under the table”; there are corpses, too, apparently: casualties of the dangerous games you’ve been playing with your mind. It is very late at night. Your companion, who is due to exit at a later stop, offers to walk you to your building. You know it will be a scary walk, you need the company; but you say no. He has been your friend long enough to realise arguing is pointless; anyway, he is probably too mellow a character to insist.

Faisal in the early 1990s is a sort of Islamist favela: a giant molehill of partly built-up streets, unplanned and untended, hideous amalgams of exposed red brick and concrete growing laterally out of what must be the world’s narrowest road. Residents may not be as violent as their Brazilian counterparts, but there is a similar drug-addled hopelessness about them. The majority are lower middle-class immigrants from the Nile Delta just like you; except that they are not intellectual socialites in the making. While you struggle with your poems, they are rediscovering Islam along corrupt Wahhabi lines. All around you conservatism reduces to meddling, religious observance to noise pollution, modesty to headscarves if not face veils. You live here because the rent is affordable, because murderous drivers operate a cheap “microbus” service to town around the clock, because many of your friends live in the vicinity. (A curious fact about the Egyptian poetry movement of the Nineties is that many of its champions, e.g. the late poet Osama El-Daynasouri, the now Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani, and the poet Ahmad Taha, who was the founding editor of its principal mouthpiece, Al-Garad or “The Locusts”, lived in Faisal.)

But late at night the unlit streets look menacing. You are light-headed, maybe a little drunk or under the influence – and your self-awareness as a bare-headed 20-something-old woman who lives alone, a breaker of the code, now takes the form of impending doom. In the dark, angry memories dance with flashbacks from a bad trip; they nearly paralyse you. Walking on, you sense a presence, a voice, what looks like the glint of a knife. A bald puppy is suddenly pawing at your knee; its parents, hyena-like, watch intently as you pass. Then another pack is barking hysterically…

The walk to your flat takes five minutes exactly, but the humid stillness and your played-with mind make it feel like eternal wading in adrenaline. How much easier it would be if you accepted the offer of company – it would have been no trouble to your friend – and how silly the heroism of rejecting it! The next day, you laugh at yourself, at the heroism and at the fear. But like a politician refusing to break with the party line, you do not rescind your stance.


Being walked home, like being bought a drink, is a womanly concession. You do not make any. Since settling in Cairo as a graduate student, most of your time is spent with men: at the workplace, at the literary gathering, at the ahwah or coffeehouse, at the bar. All are patriarchal spaces, more or less; all take in few if any women. Men have preyed on you, too, folding exploitative agendas into kindnesses. Your real friends, the mellower, the closer, know that special treatment upsets you.

You hate the role of victim. So even when it brings you sincere sympathy or solidarity – from women feminists, for example – you still refuse to play it.

The notion that only you own your body comes with the ideological territory: as a budding Marxist, back in the Delta town of Mansoura, you learned to resist the status quo. You know that religion and morality can be ways of turning people into objects or currencies. You also know that women are equal to men. But even as you literally act out that knowledge, you can see the illiberal potential of “gender” or “class” struggle, the way people abuse grand narratives. You may be convinced by the cause – in some sense, you embody it – but there are visceral impulses that make more sense to you than fighting on its behalf. You are not promiscuous, for example (not because it is immoral but because you are too busy changing the world). Rationally it is the bourgeois aspect of promiscuity that should turn you off, but what keeps you chaste is the fact that loveless encounters have left you empty and inexplicably bereft. Self-indulgence is less noble than productivity, but as a scholar, a left-wing literary magazine editor, a teacher of Arabic, not a wannabe poet but a wannabe great poet, it is your almost antisocial ambition, a geeky sense of drive – self-indulgence of a different order? – that makes you work hard.

Slowly you’re summoning up the courage to admit that, though the class prejudice and misogyny you suffer have a broader context, it is your suffering of them that counts; in a world of disembodied values individual experience is more meaningful. It will take you many years to embrace the woman’s core hidden inside you, your interest in softer and more feminine things, what love might look like if not for history. Still, on top of the move here from Mansoura, a mental immigration has occurred.

True, in recent years you’ve had a boyfriend, a fiancé; you were even briefly married. But you haven’t yetlearned to live as part of a couple or family. Notwithstanding estrangement from womanhood, this may have to do with your mother dying when you were eight: the desperate gregariousness of a fundamentally lonely person, which suspends or delays one-on-one contact. It may have to do with your sensibility; a writer’s career rarely chimes with domestic life. But probably, more than any other thing, your unsentimental singleness has to do with the drive to be financially-socially-politically-existentially, totally independent. You’d rather go hungry than accept perfectly well-meaning help from your father or uncle. In a given situation, you’d rather be terrified than rely momentarily on a (male) friend.

That is why, at your Faisal stop tonight, you get off alone.


It is possible to approach the work of Iman Mersal (b.1966) from a standpoint of literary criticism. It is not advisable, but possible. The fact that she has maintained a strong presence on the literary scene for the last 15 years encourages an assessment of what might be called her contribution, although it seems to me that she is far more interesting as someone who engages with the meaning and purpose of the poem – the only definition she proffers being “that which cannot be said otherwise… which, when it is good, changes us once it’s written” – almost as if her writing is merely a byproduct of living with a certain kind of self awareness, a lasting, systematically protected connection with solitude or pain.

Arabic poetry has tended to emphasise rhetoric at the expense of meaning, which makes its quality hard to judge, particularly in another language. This is true even of the recent developments Mersal belongs with, which purposely eschew the by now more or less hackneyed eloquence of free-verse masters like Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or Adonis (b.1930), who had their heyday against a backdrop of (often left-wing) nationalist politics through the Sixties. The surface beauty and relative lack of substance in Arabic verse – including much free verse – had made it read like repetitive drivel once taken out of context; and the comparative ease with which more recent work written in prose makes the journey to English, for example, was initially, ludicrously, a sign that it might not be as good. Ironically (though this does not show as much in translation) the Nineties’ prose poetry, produced in an atmosphere of post-Soviet disillusion and discontent with the rise of Islamism, has proven just as prone to rhetorical emptiness, derivation, monotony.

Fresh attempts to subvert “poetic” language, showcased in Cairo’s two low-key but truly epochal literary journals of the period, Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, have been widely imitated. In their early poems, for example, Ahmad Yamani (b.1970) and Yasser Abdel-Latif (b.1969) – in markedly different ways – devised an “aesthetics of the ugly” (critic Gabir Asfour’s expression, I think) which they have since gone beyond. But the rhetorical registers they came up with have showed up in others’ “prose poetry” so often that, despite their originality, they already read like platitudes. It is this that makes Mersal’s appearance in English alongside Fernando Pessoa and Umberto Saba a vindication for that small, heterogeneous group who forged the new poetic discourse (as opposed to a much larger group of beneficiaries).


Since the publication of A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons to remarkable local acclaim in 1995, my friend Iman’s poems have been variously drawn on, mimicked or paraphrased. If it were the case that Arabic prose poetry reads well in English regardless of quality – or if publication with a reputable house were just a matter of female representation, as it often is with Arabic literature in translation – the Sheep Meadow Press would not favour her over the numerous better connected poetesses dealing with the same subjects in the same style (whether or not they consciously plagiarised her).

Still, what isn’t clear in another language is that, while you can confidently speak of the Mersalesque as a distinct (and, yes, great) gift to the development of Arabic poetry – a way of using words to deal with personal difficulties that are or seem to be relevant to a lot of people besides yourself (one which, however unintentionally, I for one will readily admit to assimilating) – by now you can also speak of the Mersalesque, and the Mersalesque of A Dark Alley in particular, as something of a literary cliché.

The Marxist casting a wry glance at the link between her politics and her sex life, the Father- or God-bashing voice in (as yet unconscious) affinity with Sylvia Plath; the irreverent ahwah-goer, angst- and ennui-ridden, humorous but clinically suicidal; the grassroots hyper-social being who ignores her detractors while character-assassinating her close friends: my friend Iman introduced all of this to Arabic poetry. But since she did so, perhaps inevitably, all of this has been done and redone to shreds, with only the least original voices, ironically, conforming to Locust stereotypes (“the Nineties Generation” is routinely bundled under labels like Everyday Poetics and Writing of the Body, the latter so meaningless when applied to Iman it tends, more than others, to incense her).

In fact, by 1997, when her next book came out, my friend Iman had in many ways left the Mersalesque behind. Some elements of the Nineties’ discourse will inevitably persist: eagerness to shock the middle-class reader, for example, is still occasionally in evidence even now. But the young belle “dressed as a sixteenth-century French princess” (as the amorphous “I” in my friend Iman’s poems begins, implausibly, to imagine itself in dreams: an abiding and enigmatic image) has already razed one or two conceptions of how to live. It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it, yet miraculously, as it seems – not a shade of nostalgia in the ensuing elegy.


A University of Alberta assistant professor in Edmonton, Canada, is remembering her lover of the late Nineties – “the young novelist” we will see in the leukemia ward in his death throes before 30, before what she implies in A Dark Alley should be the official age of loneliness – when suddenly he is supplanted by the image of another, a pianist she is walking next to in Boston: the man she lives with now, whom she has married and had a child by (later she will have another child). The images roll as if in an antique peepshow she is trying out at her clean, un-Third World-like, non-smoking office. There, a student whose voice she is drawn to touches “the head of a Cleopatra strung up on a chain around her neck”, a pendant bought for her by the same dead lover, the young novelist, and immediately (later she will find out the same student has actually killed himself), the assistant professor is asking questions:

The soul rises to the sky,

and they say the body is mortal.

Where does the voice go? [...]

Why did I not write about you?

Because I never loved you, is that why I cannot believe your death?

Because I love you and so it is fair that you die?

Because you do not deserve my elegy [...]

Because I am not worthy of elegizing you as long as I am alive?

Because the pianist in the upstairs room is hitting the black keys? (Alternative Geography, 2006)


Mersal’s first book, Ittisafat or “Characterisations”, published in 1990, was written in free verse; the stylistic departure of A Dark Alley was already a bold step: With the debate at its height on whether or not Arabic poetry could or should be written in prose, she had to overcome resistance to take it. Yet within two years, she is once again migrating, imperceptibly but surely, into newer territory. In the mostly longer texts of Walking As Long As Possible – in some ways Mersal’s own favourite, though it was not received with the same enthusiasm as A Dark Alley – the “I” seems to be mulling over “shocking” ideas and images – confessions of infidelity, morbid fixations, nihilistic retorts – that were more articulately constructed but somehow less inward-looking, less “experimental”, in the previous book:

My friends’ pores are open to writing new poems

about the freedom of dying without warning,

and about the relief that fills us

when learning that someone

we did not have time to love

has died. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Not having time to love: it may be presumptuous to think that, when she writes this, the poetess means it in a literal way. She is fond of dismissing her interest in metaphor, to her mind no more significant to what poetry isthan the metric structures she rid herself of early on. Again and again the child geek returns, with all the insurgent energy of the munadilah, theactivist committed to the Struggle and the Poor, now directed not at the campus demonstration or the communist-Islamist scuffle at the Mansoura Literature Club but at the apartment door, the office desk, the bed in the bedroom. Exhibitionism tempered by almost sapient observation breaks the boundaries of the world, destroys it, but holds on plaintively to the ruins. Perhaps there is no wisdom in the Struggle (that much Comrade Iman already knew), none but the most hollow wisdom in the heroism of refusing to be walked home; but old habits die hard. By the time she returns to writing (or publishing: I think she was writing all along, she just happens to be pathologically timorous about showing her work), Professor Mersal seems to be saying there is not much wisdom in marriage or motherhood either. At the closest she has come to a true break with solitude and pain, something very like herself is betraying her again. And again, in “Sex”, for example, she is, with a magnificent effortlessness, channelling the weight of that thing into words:

The world wears a nightgown cut above the knee,

and for a whole night the world doesn’t check the time

as if it has nothing to wait for.

The old tragedy

will end here to start behind another window. (Alternative Geography, 1997)

[translation partly altered based on the original Arabic]


To her distress, when Alternative Geography appeared, critics on the whole failed to notice just how far Mersal had come. But already, in Walking, you can see language taking on (literal) depth as the impulses become more explicit; only, since they are also more humorous and wrapped up in miniature epics of the self, it is their mystery that comes through.

In “To Cross Between Two Rooms”, an elegy for a Mother never so named, the Father-God is openly mocked in a way He has not been before, but the passage is surrounded by so much else – the insect-extermination session with which the poem opens, leaving the speaker “the only living soul in the house”, apparitions of “the scrawny woman” who lived (or died) with Him, His job as a schoolteacher correcting the grammar of the proletariat – that it strikes an ambiguous, not a shocking chord:

When the house next door burns down

it means He has exhaled a blessing upon it.

His caress of the scrawny woman

led to her death from the joy in His fingers.

His perfection… His glory… His omnipotence…

I know all His old attributes. (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Mersal is no longer scandalising her newly discovered individual self, whether or not “to hide behind it” (as she says in one Dark Alley poem). In austere but never discordant tones, she is humming a dolorous song of periodic self destruction, collecting the debris rather than celebrating beginnings. She is paying homage to a treadmill of solitude in which she seems paradoxically comfortable while neither Friend nor Lover can give solace. Much later, in Alternative Geography, her most recent book, that treadmill takes her to a striking moment in which – now an immigrant in an asylum room in Edmonton after some kind of breakdown – Mersal sees herself as a museum piece:

Why did she come to the New World, this mummy, this subject of spectacle

sleeping in her full ornament of gray gauze,

an imaginary life in a museum display case? (Alternative Geography, 2006)

I read and reread this question. The more I think about Mersal’s immigration, the more I am convinced it cannot be said otherwise.


Introducing These Are Not Oranges, My Love, Mersal’s translator the poet Khaled Mattaw says the nine-year gap between Walking and Alternative Geography “saw her through marriage, relocation to North America, and parenthood”. While the gap did make time for all this, I suspect what it actually saw her through was the painful construction of a world and a self unlike anything she had known prior to her departure in 1999. Less significantly for her writing than for her sense of identity – a state of being I like to imagine, with un-Mersalesque whimsy, as the troubled surface of a Delta village canal – this new world included not only snow-marked native Americans, émigrés and refugees, literary celebrities, good-looking Frenchmen, even Slovenian poets but also, at the centre – and contentiously for a large part of the Faisal-like world she left behind – Jews: an absurd contention, but contention enough.

The day she first presented her doctoral thesis on images of America in Arab travel writing – it happened to coincide with the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003; and Cairo University, where she chose to work, was abuzz with Arab nationalist sentiment – Mersal walked home crying. Such was the hostility she met with for not railing – off-point, from the academic perspective – against the crimes of the Greater Devil (as Khomeini called the US, comparing it with the Lesser Devil of Israel). After North America, she could no longer speak that language. Specifically, she could not crassly take the moral high ground in the usual, more or less racist tones of fellow grassroots hyper-social beings. Just why should the cost in loss of personal sympathy and understanding still be high enough for tears? There were unrelated dislocations, of course: moments of absolute alienation with her new life; one abortive attempt at returning to live in Egypt; an unpredictable and untimely death; the elderly therapist with whom she valued her “exercises in solitude” enough to call one poem “Dr Levy”. Perhaps Mersal invested more this time, perhaps she cannot bring down the life she is now living as resolutely as she did her previous lives?

I suspect she has embarked on the task.


For a while it seems a person is gone. I don’t mean just “a person”: a figure, a presence, the idea of a friend who exists in a particular way at a particular place or time. When that returns, it is still recognisable, but different enough to make recognition a creative process, not quite an effort of will but definitely an exercise of trust. Something like this cycle defines the work of Iman Mersal, which as a result seems a little apart from the small eternities we call Literature, those stylised subjects of spectacle that, aiming for immortality, end up immodestly omnipresent. When at a difficult moment, Iman Mersal said “I have something to say to the world,” the statement might have sounded narcissistic. In her voice it rung true. The rule is that you need to hear it as much as she needs to say it, and have as much difficulty coming to terms with the fact. That is the game Iman Mersal is playing, less with writing than with life. She speaks to people, not to language, not to “gender”, not to history. What she says is what she is, and for this she must continue to become. Being someone else is a wish she never tires of expressing. She won’t succeed, but her writing is the attempt: the game she plays with herself in order to give meaning to something or someone.

The notion of Writing as Game is making the rounds of Cairo literary circles. Many young novelists point out that, instead of expressing the political commitments and grand narratives of the Sixties, what they are doing is enjoying the game of literature, the sport of testing out ideas and emotions and seeing what happens. They speak of their work, of course: what they do on the computer screen or the page, not how they exist apart from them. I doubt if they realise this game can also be played with life itself, or that, when it is, it produces writing of an entirely different kind.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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Chasing rainbows: poets of the Emirates

Seven poets, seven emirates

Youssef Rakha

Hashem al Muallim, a cultural editor for a newspaper in Ajman, has not written poetry for three years. Randi Sokoloff / The National

I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.

The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.

Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.

Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.

Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.

He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.

Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.

With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.

“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”

Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.

And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?

Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”

At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.

“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”


I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.

The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”

The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).

The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.

That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.

Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)

He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.

Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”

More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.

“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”

The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.

“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”


The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.

It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.

In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.

Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.

When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”

True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.

I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.

“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”

Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.

“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”

He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.

“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.

“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”

A nation of words

Youssef Rakha

The writer Tariq Ebeid al Ali began publishing his Nabati verses in 1985. Stephen Lock / The National

A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.

Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”

Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”

He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.

He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.

And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.

But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”


The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…

After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.

A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.

A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.


At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.

The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”

A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”

Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.

A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.

Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.

But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”


I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.

Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.

The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.

It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.

Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”

الشعر المعاصر في الإمارات






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