With my late father, Elsaid Elsayed Rakha—lawyer, disillusioned communist, and incredible anti-patriarch, 1981
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.
Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!
More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…
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.
It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.
Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009
A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites.
The refugee tells
The refugee absorbed in telling his tale
feels no burning, when the cigarette stings his fingers.
A man with nomadic tendencies, Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976. He studied English and philosophy in England, worked in Cairo, lived in Beirut, and, most recently, in Abu Dhabi as a features writer for the English daily, The National. He has interviewed some of the most compelling and contemporary Arab storytellers of our time for the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly – from helmers and novelists to actors and politicians (who, to me, are also storytellers) – laying bare his writings with such meticulousness, voice, and reason that he gives his audience a chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the speaker.
Youssef is currently finishing his first novel, Kitab At Tughra (Book of the Tugra), which, according to his blog ‘the arabophile’, is an “imaginative evocation of post-2001 Cairo and a meditation on the decline of Muslim civilization.” Here, then, we stroll through the mind of Youssef Rakha exposing, in fragmentation, the man and his machinations.