The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt

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About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.

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

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

What I Believe – J.G. Ballard

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Banipal Interview with SARGON BOULUS

Interview by Margaret Obank*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
Dh90

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

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El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.

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Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.

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Sargon Boulus: Three Years Dead

sargon_Boulus (13)

Intrview by: Margaret Obank

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

English lakes and lawns

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

I wrote so furiously

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

Spirit and words

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

Linguistic fundamentals

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

The prose poem

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

Sound and images

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

‘Your place is in Beirut’

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

Crossing the desert

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

Leaving Beirut . . .

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

Out of jail to New York!

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

Alcatraz and the Indians

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

Life in San Francisco

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

This tremendous energy

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

A Letter from Adonis

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

Coming from Assyria . . .

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

Arabic is unexplored

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

The art of translation

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

The flow of breath

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

A beautiful shock

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

Arabic is always shy

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

A little bit of frustration

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

August 1997, Schöppingen, near Münster, Germany

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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http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080824/ART/682973072/1007

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080826/ART/575817412/1007

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080824/ONLINESPECIAL/893373589

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Cry my beloved poetry

Cover of "Lynch (One)"
Cover of Lynch (One)

Spring brought poetry from the inaugural round of the Dubai International Poetry Festival (4-10 March) to this week’s issue of Cairo’s most popular literary publication, Akhbar Al Adab, which dedicated its Bustan (Orchard) department to poetry criticism and poets’ testimonies: Youssef Rakha considers a maligned genre

In a video interview about Lost Highway, the American director David Lynch describes his ideal film as an abstract composition, a sort of audiovisual symphony. Then again, Lynch says that a film seldom works for the viewer without the benefit of a compelling narrative. In his own work he would rather do away with the narrative side of film-making, he says, but he endeavours to have enough story-line to keep people watching.
Lynch suggests there is a chasm between imagery and storytelling – which seems particularly relevant to contemporary Arabic writing in Egypt. Since the establishment critic Gabir Asfour made his millennial declaration that we are living in “the Age of the Novel” (zaman arruwayah), the idea of a contest between poets and novelists in which the latter are beating the former has sparked much ludicrous debate.
No reliable statistics have established that more novels are being sold now than a decade or two ago, or more novels than “diwans” of poems. But this is the prevailing belief; and the response of poets has ranged from publishing novels to holding a personal grudge against Asfour.
***
At the JW Marriott, Kuwait, attendance of the annual Alarabi Magazine Symposium (held on 2-4 March to mark the Kuwaiti institution’s 51st anniversary) was embarrassingly low until the final session – devoted to poetry. Prodded perhaps by embarrassment, perhaps by the presence at the podium of the south Lebanon poet Mohammad Ali Shamseddin – together with the Kuwaiti poets Saadiyah Mifrih and Salah Dabshah – previously m.i.a. invitees now nearly filled the hall.
Ironically it was Asfour of all people who replaced the co-ordinator of the session, the poet and patron of literature Abdulaziz Al-Babbatin, who could not make it to the seminar. Asfour was joined at the podium by another establishment critic, Salah Fadl – speaking in his capacity as head of the jury of the Abu Dhabi-based television programme Amir Ashshu’ara’ (Prince of Poets).
Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is the standard-Arabic edition of the pan-Arab Nabati (or Bedouin Colloquial) verse competition programme Sha’ir Al-Milyon (Millions’ Poet) – phenomenally popular in the Gulf – in which millions are awarded to the best poems written in free verse (ashshi’r alhorr, also known as shi’r attaf’ilah). Free verse breaks up and intermingles different metric schemes from ‘Aroud Al-Khalil (the compendium of metrical rules put together by Ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi in the eighth century), partly or wholly doing away with rhyme. The taf’ilah – as this form’s rhythmic unit came to be called – may have emerged as early as the 1930s, but it did not achieve recognition until the 1960s.
Though some Sixties Generation poets wrote prose (Mohammad Al-Maghout and Sargon Boulos), the last generation of household-name poets (Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani) wrote free verse. After its heyday towards the end of the 1960s, free verse continued to appear, without making much of an impact, until the emergence in the 1990s of a new kind of prose poem showed up its anachronism more clearly than ever before.
***
Fadl did not cite the pre-eminance of the prose poem as a reason to reject the Age of the Novel, but he did point out that rejecting it is not unjustified. The prose poem remains the one original and definable form to have cohered and stood out since the 1990s, when said Age is supposed to have dawned. The novel, on the other hand, has fluctuated considerably, defined and redefined itself, and dithered at many crossroads without moving very far in any direction.
Whatever you think about this, ferocious exchanges will probably continue to take place. What is missing is a responsible discussion of what each genre actually constitutes.
The case for Arabic poetry in prose is resolved in practise; in recent memory hardly a single self-respecting talent has produced any verse. Yet it remains officially on the table, while “novel” – the youngest genre in the language, barely 100 years old, as opposed to the 1,400-year-old verse tradition – has become the catch-all term for almost any literary writing typeset in paragraphs rather than lines.
Memoir, autobiography, travel writing, sequence of short stories or essays, reportage, erotica, and of course extended poem: all are unthinkingly stamped NOVEL (by writers and publishers alike). In the absence of corrective classification, this makes Asfour’s epochal declaration redundant.
With the gradual emergence of popular non-fiction books like Khalid Al-Khamisi’s Taxi, classification is slowly improving. But the prose poem is still at best ignored. At worst it is subjected to a notoriously retarded attack by the poet Ahmad Abdelmo’ti Higazi, a didactic figure whose authority rests less on either enduring significance or sales figures than short-lived critical acclaim in the 1960s and a career in government institutions since.
***
Had Fadl mentioned the prose poem by name, however, he would have underlined the fact that, in restricting its scope to free verse, Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is in effect ignoring the most interesting poetry being written in Arabic today. Even within the Gulf, where verse traditions are more alive and tastes more conservative than elsewhere, only prose poets (Ibrahim Al-Mulla and Khalid Al-Budour in the UAE, for example) have achieved pan-Arab recognition.
Instead, Fadl stressed the role of TV – and, implicitly, of course, cash – in spreading the word about the Arabs’ trademark legacy at a time of relative decline. He did not touch on the absurdity inherent in quantifying “the success of the poem” compared to another poem. He did not deal with the implications of evaluating poetry through a system of points awarded by s.m.s., among other means. And he did not suggest that there may be better ways to financially serve poetry (which there are: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which funds both programmes, still does not have a single publishing house to its name). Only Shamseddin, the most cogent speaker by far, made any reference to the difference between poetry and verse.


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Perhaps inevitably, in the presence of Asfour, the proceedings centred on poetry during the Age of the Novel – whether or not, and how (if not through television) poetry can “extend” into an Age other than its own. But the to-and-fro between Fadl and Asfour failed to show how, while the prose poem is attacked or ignored, the novel which is not a novel acts to obscure the meaning of narrative. On the one hand there is the perception that novels may be selling because they tell stories; on the other, the fact that, whether or not they are selling, the books called novels are by and large un-story-like.
***
Egypt has an emergent, as yet vaguely articulated magic realist movement. Its authors – Hamdi Abugolail, Ibrahim Farghali, Mustafa Zikri, and, more recently, Tarek Imam, among others – are more or less atypically un-poetic. But aside from the new fictional realms intimated – or, rather, promised – by their work, the novel per se has contributed little to Arabic literature since the 1990s. Its function has been to transport the achievements of the prose poem to a place where they are safe from being attacked for making a clean break with the ‘Aroud. Higazi suffered censure for his pre-modern stand.
But someone has yet to attack the novel for identity theft.
In retrospect, notwithstanding the Age, extensions across or within, many have come to see free verse as an involuntary stopgap. It was the means for a verse-dominated culture to ease itself away from the ancient drum beats of the desert and the twinkle-twinkle cadences of a love song by Om Kulthoum – past the 1960s countless affirmations of and arguments with the aptly named ‘amoud (pillar) of traditional verse – and into an image-driven, down-to-earth music all its own.
Like many facets of Arab modernity, it seems, the free verse revolution was half-hearted and timorous. It could not be effective until the liberation of language and emotion that it implied was carried to its logical conclusion. But when eventually, at last, it came time for people to realise their poetic modernity in full, they ended up going on stage to an all but empty auditorium. Still, they performed anyway.
***
By the 1990s, in occasional publications like Al-Kitabah Al-Ukhrah and Al-Garad, incandescent talents like Iman Mersal and Ahmad Yamani were reinventing language. They de-ideologised discourse, de-nationalised human concerns, and acknowledged their (post) modern identity in genuine rather than authentic registers.
Accepting bare-headed status, they no longer wore the fez of free verse, much less the turban of the ‘Aroud. But it was hard to prove that, in taking these off, they had not slipped on Ataturk’s self-hating hat behind Higazi’s back. What can only be described as ancestor worship came in the way of Nineties Generation poets being immediately recognised or celebrated.
So did the insecurity of taf’ilah gurus suddenly realising that their role had not been quite as “historical” as they had thought, and that their insurgent energy may in fact have been reactionary.
Anyway, by then talented Sixties Generation writers like Ibrahim Aslan and Mohammad Al-Bisati – precisely by debasing narrative – had contributed to the loss of what little readership existed when they emerged on the scene. Themselves arguably frustrated prose poets, they excelled at short stories but caught the germ of obsessive novel disorder.
Now that the readership seems to be regrouping (around them as much as younger so called novelists), the Nineties prose poem – the only true agent of change – is the farthest from being a beneficiary of the good fortune.

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Bidoun Review of Sons of Gebelawi

Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), By Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Al Ain, 2009

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In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi, all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without explanation, reason, or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found – not only in libraries and bookshops but also on bookshelves and bedside bedside tables – novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempt to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide and (notably, if somewhat incredibly) popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales, seldom having anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.

With six – now seven – books to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel prize winner most known for his mid-century tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of Jose Saramago’s nightmarish humour or shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical nature of fiction. He is taken by twins, telepathy and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters – otherwise utterly ordinary – have been known to reappear after they have died.

In Abnaa al Gebelawi – Farghali’s latest and greatest work – we face the prospect of a world without literature. The myriad voices in the book — for the young narrator cum author assumes many guises throughout these pages — express concern as to the fraught future of Arabic literature, about the erosion of the liberal and humane values that Mahfouz and his work represent, and (reflecting perhaps the essential fear of all true writers) about oblivion at large.

The events of the book are staged around a relatively uncomplex love affair involving the narrator and the eccentric daughter of a well-to-do family— occasion for Farghali to probe the psychology of class and sex in contemporary Egyptian society. Further in, however, the story breaks up and morphs into countless alternative and subordinate plot-lines, until it becomes clear (although it is never stated) that the whole of Abnaa al Gebelawi is but the barely coherent waste of a single pluralistic mind – the mind of a young writer concerned with the literary wasteland around him. The allegorical dimension remains predominant, and in this way recalls Awlad Haretnah (Children of Our Alley, 1959), the title of whose earlier English translation Farghali translates back verbatim for his own.

As it happens, Awlad Haretnah was the only book by Mahfouz to suffer censure from the religious establishment. In it the history of a popular residential quarter in Cairo stands in for the sum total of humanity’s spiritual experience. That quarter’s oldest, strongest and most benevolent resident – for many generations hidden away in his mansion – is called Gebelawi. Gebelawi has envoys or representatives, descendants or grandchildren, whose struggles to spread peace and justice make up episodes of the saga. Each is a retelling of the life of one of the prophets of Islam, starting with Adam and ending with the False Messiah. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad all feature, but at the end a rumour spreads that Gebelawi himself has died. In Arab literary circles it is frequently claimed that if not for Awlad Haretnah, Mahfouz would not have received the Nobel Prize. But it proved too much for orthodox, let alone radical Muslims, for whom Mahfouz would become the enemy soon enough.

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a letter from Mahfouz to Mohammad al Badawi

Radical Islam had claimed many lives since the 1980s when in 1994 Mahfouz barely survived being knifed to death outside his house in Cairo. The irony was that, of all the helpless octogenarians his bearded young assailants could have targeted for apostasy, he was probably the least secular. A typical Cairene of the pre-bin ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Laden era, the man had led an all but exemplary (for which read profoundly unadventurous) life. He did not seek revolution, he did not take great risks. He had no utopian or transcendental illusions. And perhaps it was thanks to this and this alone that he was able to invent and reinvent the novel, the youngest genre in the language, defining it for generations of writers down to Farghali.

Applying every novelistic model at his disposal, Mahfouz produced a phenomenal number of readable books: social chronicles, political critiques, philosophical manuals. None was too difficult or experimental to render it inaccessible to even the most common reader. None sought to undermine whatever pillar of the status quo it came in contact with. Notwithstanding the elaborately veiled, painstakingly respectful Ages-of-Man narrative in Awlad Haretnah – a Muslim treatise on the meaning of life if ever there was one – in Mahfouz’s books, the family, the creed, the government are never attacked for what they are or what they stand for, but only for their most striking deviations, omissions or excesses.

For a magic realist like Farghali, Mahfouz may not be the most obvious point of departure; the Nobel laureate is, after all, best known for devotion to the real even in his least realistic works, and one would have trouble imagining him so much as hinting at the paranormal or the fantastical. Yet in Abnaa al Gebelawi, the grand opera to Farghali’s various arias, Mahfouz is an embodiment of something not so different from the sense of sight. His books stand in for almost everything Farghali values: Literature, Thought, Freedom, Knowledge, even Love. The premise could not have been more powerful.

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

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شرح ديوان ذكري

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

Reading novelist Mustafa Zikri’s new collection of essays, Youssef Rakha follows the example of several canonical works on the great 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, all titled Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi or The Elucidation of the Diwan of Mutanabbi

Yawmiyyat (A diary)

At first, this sounds like a misnomer for the numbered pieces making up the latest book by the novelist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966), Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’: Yawmiyyat (On Tiptoe: A Diary), published by Dar Al-Ain last month. Though initially circulated on Facebook as entries in an ongoing diary of some sort, the pieces comprising Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ read less like the pages of a journal than the occasional work of a cultural columnist. Zikri’s stated formal ambition was to eschew if not actively attack the predominant, established genres, notably the novel-cum-novella that has been his preferred medium (in recent years, as he points out, the novel has increasingly become the alpha and the omega of literary endeavour in Arabic). He also wanted to relax the iron fist with which he maintains the “literary purity” of his work, guarding the gold of true art from possible intrusions by the lead of politics or society (both the metaphor and the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from a recent interview by Mohammad Shoair).

Yet the more you think about Zikri’s work, while you read, the more sense the subtitle yawmiyyat makes. By the time you turn the last page you are convinced. This book offers precisely the kind of material you would expect to find in the diary of a writer like Zikri: fragmentary meditations on literature and film, ambiguous encounters only marginally connected with whatever real-life experiences they recount, philosophical formulations of no clear import. Entries are as carefully constructed, often as open to interpretation, as poems. And – most important of all: what sets Zikri apart from almost every other Arab writer, in fact – the texts are truly self-referential, with the movement of a passage tracing an expression or a word, not what that expression or word refers to. Narrative reduces to a sort of semantic aesthetics, the protagonist to an idea suggested by a particular turn of phrase. Ironically this tendency is clearer than ever now that Zikri is no longer consciously exercising control. Could anyone expect anything more tangible or intimate from the yawmiyyat of Mustafa Zikri?

***

I thought I was the kind of writer who, measured against his writings, lives a life of paucity at the level of the body and the soul. I think of Borges and Pesão and Dostoevsky… (1.)

While Zikri regards any link between literature and reality as a threat to the purity of his art, it is in fact references like this one – and the sweeping statements tending to go with them – that take away from his credibility. There is definitely room in the world of Arabic writing for quasi-postmodern theorising, however self-centred or contemplatively indulgent. But surely in the context of a novella like Hura’ Mataha Qoutiyyah (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997), it actually undermines “purity” far more than the hypothetical inclusion of social-political commentary, properly contextualised, when the narrator consciously compares himself to Borges: a celebrated genius from a decidedly different culture and one, it might be added, whose relevance to what that narrator is doing is at best obscure. The problem is not that Zikri may be a lesser writer than Dostoevsky. It is in the directed-ness, the apparent artificiality of the kind of westward looking elitism he endeavours to cultivate – the classicism of his ambition constantly in contradiction with his essentially deconstructionist approach. His slim volumes are invariably fragmentary; insanely reworked and polished, but inconclusive.

They are also practically solipsistic – in their failure to engage with the world (a failure for which the attempt to substitute the world for Great Literature, i.e., in effect, modernism and art-house cinema, does not make up). Only on reading Zikri’s yawmiyyat, in which he condescends to discuss his likes and dislikes, to engage with the politics of culture or mention a fellow Egyptian writer like the dentist and best-selling author Alaa El-Aswany or his own former mentor Edwar El-Kharrat, do you begin to appreciate what kind of writer Zikri is. Others – most, I would say – openly seek context and connection, communication. He claims to seek the least contact possible, the smallest number of readers, the company of gods – like Kafka, like Kawabata – who according to him never mix with the rabble. The irony is that it is the rabble-like qualities of his standpoint as a Third World writer that form the substance of his work, informing even the way he interprets Great Literature. Hence the deconstructionism, hence the aversion to politics (a quality Zikri shares with his generation of literati, who are still reacting to the excessive politicisation of literature all through the 1960s and 1970s); hence also the preemptive despair of ever having a readership of his own beyond “the professional reader, the writer and the half-writer”. (It strikes me now that in his systematic self-assuredness, Zikri does recall Al-Mutanabbi, not only arguably the greatest Arab poet of all time but also, famously or notoriously, the most conceited.)

***

I have always been… subject to the signal to start working… which requires me to be completely devoted and constantly ready to receive [it] whenever it might come… (17.)

Few writers have dedicated as much attention or energy as Zikri to analysing the discontents of their creative process – the nature and magnitude of the emptiness just beneath the surface of their texts. Here as elsewhere in his writing – notably in his last work of fiction, Al-Rasa’il (The Messages, 2006) – Zikri spends time on what might be termed negative productivity: the writing that has not happened, or is yet to happen, but will perhaps never happen. He narrates and describes the state of being idle and homebound in anticipation of (and in deference to) literature.

As piece 34 in Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ demonstrates, Zikri’s negative productivity makes perhaps the most convincing case for an existential perspective on the human condition in contemporary Arabic literature. Contrary to his own, noncommittal claims, it resonates far beyond what he recently described to the journalist Ola El-Saket as “those little things which the other writing,” the engaged, energetic writing that aims to change the world, “assumes to be of no consequence, the small details that recur every day and which some of us take for granted”. Zikri’s dilemma has universal relevance: “34. Preparing and arranging, creating an atmosphere, took me a long time, and though I was unemployed on the pretext of waiting for the appropriate moment, that waiting itself was fuelled only by a long time wasted, which I mostly described, with much effort and work, as an inappropriate moment, or at least an inappropriate moment on the way to becoming an appropriate moment.”

This kind of thinking generates much needed humour in an otherwise cerebral and dry book. It also goes to show that Zikri is not as solipsistic as he might seem. At least he is aware of the irony inherent to his own narcissism, and not too scared to apply it to himself. We write about what we know best, and all that Zikri knows is sitting in his home thinking about writing; that, along with whatever else his literary anxiety happens to latch onto, is what he will write about.

***

At the start of the film The Sacrifice by the director Andrie Tarkovsky, Alexander, the hero of the film, asks his son to help him plant a dead tree on the shore of a lake… (27.)

In piece 27 as in numerous other pieces, Zikri – who, working with the filmmaker Osama Fawzi, wrote two of the best Egyptian films of the 1990s – endeavours to rewrite world cinema. Not that the novel/novella format prevented him from indulging his love of film in the past – his 1998 novella is entitled, after Fassbinder’s celebrated film, Fear Eats the Soul – but the greater opportunities presented by an “absolutely flexible medium” like yawmiyyat gives him more scope for focusing on particular scenes or techniques – in Hitchcock, in the work of the French New Wave directors, in Tarantino, Bergman – not so much to discuss this or that aspect of a film or a director as simply to see a given cinematic moment from a new and one might say literary angle.

The influence of film on fiction is a huge topic beyond the scope of this Elucidation, but Zikri’s screenwriter’s insights and his intensely individualist taste act to highlight the way words on a page can recreate and totally alter a scene already lodged in the reader’s memory. These pieces seem to reverse the tendency, suggesting new writing that can influence the way we see film. It is as if Zikri, by reference to another medium, is actively showing his reader that the strength of literature is no longer about telling a story but rather about a particular way of seeing or engaging the senses, different from but just as effective as the more predominant audiovisual medium.

Later on in the book, in the course of his bitterly sarcastic critique of Aswany’s Yaqoubian Building (2002), piece 45, Zikri says almost as much: “Yet it is enough for the physician Alaa El-Aswany that a reader with no connection to the novel genre can easily read The Yaqoubian Building, relying on his experience of newspaper reading and oral tale-telling that everyone possesses by virtue of birth, community and homeland. It may seem to the reader that watching the novel through the medium of cinema does not deprive him of penetrating to whatever is deepest in Yaqoubian. Since the novel has irrevocably divorced the tradition of style, there is then no need for reading.”

***

While the pastime appeared to have to do with free time, it actually had to do with the meaning of life. (39.)

Zikri is ostensibly speaking of “the satellite and the computer and the telephone”, initially “promises of something else, more serious” which he approaches as pastimes “within the frontiers of the house”. But here as elsewhere in this remarkably diverse book, he is also intimating a holistic world view, an idea of human existence as a totality of experience only usually available through philosophy or poetry. It is in this sense perhaps that Zikri might be compared to Borges, despite the incomparably more articulate demeanour and learned background of the latter. Though unlike Zikri Borges has a healthy awareness of context, he remains one of a handful of modern writers the world over who communicate such a sense of the totality of existence with the utmost economy of means. In many of the pieces in this book, Zikri’s tight, profoundly thought out constructions evoke the connection between the short, quasi-narrative text and the prose poem – another thing Borges manages to do, even though the great Argentine, once again unlike Zikri, wrote poems which he presented as such.

The one major difference between Zikri and Borges – between Zikri and most writers of Borges’s – is the latter’s capacity for antagonising his readers, often by overwhelming with unnecessary references. Borges in particular was known to say that, unless one is writing a scholarly monograph or a work of science, a text should always be appealing enough for the reader not to have to exert any effort reading it. More Joycean than Borgesian in this respect, Zikri cares little for the enjoyment of the reader. In fact he sets out to antagonise “the reader with whom I have no connection”, the rabble representative for whom there is no room among the gods, or so he says. And yet in most instances – in spite of himself? – Zikri produces an eminently enjoyable text. Is this yet another intractable contradiction presented by his work?

***

And in this world in which all truths stand against each other on an equal footing, meaning becomes an adventure, an endless game of mix and match. (49.)

Nowhere else is Zikri’s idea of literature more eloquently expressed (literature being an inclusive term that also covers philosophy and film, the two subjects in which he earned degrees, as well as the life of the writer, the writer’s “style” or way of using words, and perhaps also the human condition). It is not as eccentric an idea as he makes it out to be. Romantic and postmodern in equal parts, the notion of writing as a sublime but ultimately meaningless game echoes in the widest variety of contexts, from Wittgenstein to Orientalism. The fact that Zikri refrains from formulating it, never saying more by way of justifying his chosen profession than that it is “a private pleasure”, is hardly surprising.

The disorienting combination of Third World postmodernism and puritanical Great Literature reflects the contradiction between Zikri’s thoroughly fragmentary, deconstructionist method and his all but classical outlook. Far from undermining the credibility of his work, it is perhaps this very contradiction, negative productivity – and the incumbent rejection of any possibility of popular recognition or “success” – that makes Zikri, all things considered, among the most important writers working in Arabic today.

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Sons of Mahfouz

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Youssef Rakha quizzes out novelist Ibrahim Farghali on his greatest masterpiece to date

Finally, a true event in contemporary Arabic literature: Last month at the Diwan Bookshop, in Zamalek, Ibrahim Farghali (b. 1967) signed copies of his latest novel, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi (Sons of Al-Gabalawi), published by Dar Al-Ain this June, while he was on holiday from his job as a magazine editor in Kuwait. It may seem ironic to call this intimate gathering an event, particularly judged against the much greater media attention paid to much lesser books in the last ten years. Yet from a history-of-literature point of view, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi is probably the closest we have come to a fulfilment of the prophecy that a home-grown magic realist movement would emerge in the new millennium.

The many disparate and as yet shy strands of magic realism linking Farghali’s books with such writers as Mustafa Zikri – it was thought – would eventually cohere into a more readership-oriented, ambitious and articulate body of novels.

Such books would combine the realism and social commitment of the Sixties narrative tradition with the individualism and physicality of the Nineties (the latter thus far accommodated mainly by the prose poem). It would give substance to the notion of an “age of the novel”, espoused by critic Gabir Asfour at millennium’s end, and express a range of recent influences from Gabriel-Garcia Marquez and Jorge-Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Jose Saramago – all of whom demonstrated how elements of the fantastical could be deployed to intensify reality and/or infuse the public realm with private experience.

Abnaa Al-Gabalwi – and, yes, the title is a translation back into Arabic of the title of the first English translation of Naguib Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretna (1959), also known as Sons of Our Alley – seems to be that rare thing: a self-consciously self-conscious full-length Arabic novel, designed as much as anything to define the language’s most talked about genre and, crucially, conceived on as grand a scale as can be expected.

“Of course Saramago, for me, is the literary model,” Farghali says. “To write a long, big, subtly conveyed text through which to say everything. And with the highest degree of artistic excellency possible, to create a large idea that accommodates numerous smaller ideas, juxtaposes styles and discordant voices. My ambition is a text that could be read and enjoyed and reread and still enjoyed by an ordinary reader as well as a member of the literary elite. It’s an ambition like Dostoevsky’s and Saramago’s, and I hope I don’t sound vain when I say this. I think I had been practising since Ibtisamat Al-Qiddissin,” his 2006 novel, translated by Andy Smart and Nadia Fouad-Smart as The Smiles of the Saints, “to produce a text of this level.”

As a literary critic, Farghali has been the quickest to dismiss such middle-brow, best-selling “phenomena” as Alaa El-Aswany’s The Yaqoubian Building; and his principal argument against such books is that they pander to a growing but limited – and limiting – worldwide market, that “they are not novels at all, but illusions”.

Yet Farghali’s own ambition extends to sales figures too: a fact more evident perhaps in this book than in previous ones. “Aside from theorising or stating the obvious, aside from the conditions of narrative and imagination and construction and the depth of the characters, I think a text to which the term ‘novel’ is applicable must also be an ‘art object’, meaning that it must make sublime, competent and beautiful use of the language, it must use the language in its own specific way. To be called a novel, the text must absorb the narrative methods that have been employed throughout history, it must know its place in the history of narrative. It has to be contemporary, experimental and deep, and work towards abiding by the conditions of the modern as a general context that is influenced in turn by economic, social and historical factors. Only then,” Farghali says, “is a narrative text worthy of being called a novel.”

***

Irrespective of his 1989 Nobel prize – an unprecedented achievement in the Arab world, and one that somewhat overshadowed his already established career – the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) remains an inescapable reference point. His incredibly large body of work acted to define the Arabic novel (the youngest in the language, not having emerged until the turn of the 20th century, and Mahfouz’s preferred genre throughout his life); and in so doing the sheer magnitude of his achievement also seemingly killed it – in time for the so called death of the novel worldwide.

Trying out the widest range of models – Balzak, Dickens, Tolstoy, the historical novel format, the French existentialist novel, the grassroots folk epic – Mahfouz seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the genre. If not, he at least showed up its aesthetic and (more relevantly for the Arab scene) political limitations. He was criticised for being “petty bourgeois”, for standing in the way of social and economic transformation, in effect for importing the one genre that sided with things as they were, not as they should be.

Yet even if a contemporary novelist were to make a point of never reading any Mahfouz, that novelist’s work would still be judged both positively and negatively against Mahfouz’s corpus. Ironically, of course, of the many fiction writers who began their careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Farghali is probably the most like Mahfouz. His comparatively prolific output – six books of fiction in less than a decade, with the first, Bittijah Al-Maaqi (Towards the irises), appearing in 1997 – recalls Mahfouz’s steady, one might even say plodding, approach to writing. It is driven at least as much by patient daily toil as bouts of inspiration and epiphanies.

“I read Mahfouz for the first time when I was 13 years old. I started with The Cairo Trilogy and decided to finish off his complete works – a feat I had actually accomplished by the time I was 17. He is probably the only writer whose every work I read, rereading many of his books over and over, especially The Trilogy and The Harafish,” Mahfouz’s 1977 epic, “and so he occupies a gigantic space in my consciousness. I started writing in his shadow. I wrote excellent ‘Mahfouzian’ short stories which I subsequently tore up in order to rid myself of his direct influence and discover my own specific voice, but I was never free of the marks he made on me. He taught me the importance of structure, and I followed in his footsteps as regards the geometry of the text, before I finally rebelled against him to create my own structure.”

Even though eschewing politics is typical of his entire generation, Farghali’s mode of (not) engaging with society and/or politics, or neutralising the unfolding of history, is less like the so called Nineties Generation’s than Mahfouz’s. While Zikri, for example, remains painstakingly solipsistic, aggressively rejecting any allusion to society as a whole, and religiously ridding his work of any non-literary purpose, Farghali – like Mahfouz – is keen to preserve geographic locations, time frames and character types; he observes society from afar, subtly registering the relevant dynamics, suggesting a world which, though magical, is never unfamiliar.

Farghali concedes that some of Mahfouz’s characters – Amina, the matriarch of The Trilogy, for example – annoyed and repelled him, “but I do not judge Mahfouz’s characters in this text of mine,” which includes very frequent extended quotations from the Nobel laureate, “but rather meet them as they are, and conduct dialogues with them”, literally pulling them out of a particular moment in a given novel. “

“I liked the idea of creating an illusory yet extremely realistic world,” Farghali explains, “like the one he created in The Harafish. None of the things the things this novel talks about – like the strongmen with their clubs, or the tekkes – ever really existed, but he records them as if they were reality. He creates an alternative reality, an artistic and philosophical reality.” This, then, is what Egypt’s latest offspring of Cervantes can take from Mahfouz:

“I learned to conduct my love life from his characters; the heroes of his novels inspired me intellectually and in terms of my actual behaviour; and he inspired me in terms of writing, his complete independence from cliques and political parties and cultural mafias – and ideology,” the greatest anathema of the Nineties. “He taught me that you are not a writer unless you have to be independent even of the cliches of your own generation.” Farghali certainly is. “Mahfouz had charisma, he had presence, he is the only Arab writer who had a novelistic project in any sustained sense. He was well known for his manner of talking, his jokes and disciples, and his films, long before Nobel was ever on the horizon.”

***

Imagine, then, what it would mean for such a novelist – any Arab novelist, really, but especially such a one as Farghali – if the world were to wake up one morning to discover that every last copy of every last book by Mahfouz in the Arabic original has simply, without a trace, vanished off the face of the earth. Mahfouz’s books disappear not only from bookshops and libraries but from private collections, from bookshelves and bedside tables, from every place where they could conceivably be found.

This, basically, is the premise of Abnaa Al-Gabalwi, which nonetheless incorporates numerous other frameworks, notably the appearance of flesh-and-blood reincarnations of some of Mahfouz’s characters both in and outside their original settings, the government’s efforts to do what it can to have the books back – some people apparently know the texts by heart, others attempt to reconstruct them with the help of their knowledge of Mahfouz’s work from translations – and the very complex, gradual intermingling of the fictional world and the world to which it supposedly refers. There are not only characters but narrators, character narrators, doubles, triples, even quadruples. Subplots take on lives of their own, and there are multiple scenarios with a range of possible resolutions.

The fictional acrobatics are of such intensity they frequently if no doubt intentionally disrupt what suspension of disbelief the reader has managed to maintain, but they also undermine the book’s popular appeal and seem to have no purpose beyond themselves.

“The fictional acrobatics are an end in themselves” Farghali insists, “not a means to something else. You could put it down to taste. I like complexity in a novel. More than one time frame, more than one character, more than one voice. My wish is to alter my voice till it becomes a multiplicity of voices in the manner of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pesão, although of course there is a huge difference and I am still a student compared to him. I managed that somewhat in previous works, I created parallel time frames, but in general I totally incline towards this kind of layering. I like The God of Small Things, for example, for that same reason.”

As in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night’s a traveller (which is made up of novel openings), by the time you have turned the last page, you have read not a novel as such but a range of possible novels. More than any one character or story-line, you retain a sense of what an Arabic novel is, or what Farghali thinks it might be. More importantly, perhaps, you appreciate the disappearance of Mahfouz’s work as a metaphor for the general social-political malaise the book selectively and somewhat fitfully depicts: corruption, purposelessness, physical and mental repression, and the existential loss not only of the private but of the public self all come to mind. Mahfouz’s books stand in for Egypt and all it means.

“I think I am simultaneously preoccupied, as usual, with two projects,” Farghali outlines his usual plan. “I am not sure which of them my demons will take me to. I haven’t been able to gauge the response to Abnaa Al-Gabalwi yet, but I certainly feel that, in writing it, I have realised one of my greatest ambitions.”

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