When (Arab) Poets Write Prose

Baheyya begins her review of Mourid Bargouti’s 2009 memoir I Was Born There, I Was Born Here by stating: “It’s a wonderful thing when poets write prose.”

This is certainly true of Bargouti. His first memoir, I Saw Ramallah, which was released in English in 2000 (translated by award-winning author Ahdaf Soueif), is not just a memoir. While it uses many of the structural tools of story—we keep reading to know what has happened to his brother, for instance—it also has an underlying poetic word-sense, a way of using words in fresh and startling ways, which, as Baheyya says, helps the reader experience life anew.

I Was Born Here, I Was Born There will not be available in English until the fall of 2011, from AUC Press, translated by the very good and very busy Humphrey Davies (whose translation of Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping, for instance, will be released in the summer of 2011). But Baheyya adeptly translates a few lines here and there. She says that as Barghouti and his son Tamim walk through Jerusalem, Mourid wonders what it must be like for Tamim to finally experience the real city. He thinks:

But imagination cannot be canceled out by reality. The reality that surprises us soon generates in the mind another image. I wonder, is there a reality outside of human imagination? The answer perplexes me.

Baheyya notes that Barghouti’s poetic sense, his ability to break down language and make something new of it, is particularly important as “The battle against platitudes, derivative language, and sheer numbness is fought out on nearly every page of I Was Born There.”

The poet writes:

I don’t weep over any past, I don’t weep over this present, I don’t weep over the future. I live with the five senses, trying to understand our story, trying to see.

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Another work of prose by a great Arab poet that will soon be released in English is Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief (1973), which will come out in English (finally!) from Archipelago this October. It has been translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, who also translated Darwish’s prose-poetic Memory for Forgetfulness.

Darwish leans more toward prose poetry and less toward memoir than Barghouti, but there is still story in Journal of an Ordinary Grief. A younger and older self discuss leaving and returning to the village of Al-Birwa, various attempts of the young protagonist (Darwish) to travel, to rent an apartment, to visit his mother on a feast day.

This is not as powerful as Memory for Forgetfulness, which novelist-poet Sinan Antoon (who has an essay about Darwish in Al Masry Al Youm this week) says is one of the Arabic books you must read before you die. But it remains fresh and compelling for its discussions of homeland, which “is at its most beautiful when it is on the other side of the barbed wire.”

Extra note: For those who love Darwish (or hate him, I suppose, if you’re out there), you can read both English and Arabic versions of Subhi Hadidi’s essay “Darwish and Adonis: Between Past and Future.” English courtesy of John Halliwell and the commendable Meedan project.

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Of course, poets need not necessarily write “poetic” memoirs. Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad’s “memoir cum polemic” I Killed Scheherazade will be out in English (from Saqi Books) this September. Haddad is a hero to some Westerners for her tight clothes and open talk about sex, notably in her magazine Jasad.

Arifa Akbar, in The Independent, briefly talks about Haddad’s new book, which was apparently “written to fire a two-way sally East and Westwards after a particularly infuriating comment made by a foreign journalist who, commending Haddad, said: ‘Most of us in the West are not familiar with the possibility of liberated Arab women like you existing.'”

I have not read this memoir, nor any of Haddad’s prose, I think. And Akbar only quotes one passage from the text, one which is not particularly poetic: “How did we get from that early high point of liberty, of talking about sex so naturally, to our constipated present-day reality, I wonder?”

I can’t (easily) find who translated the book (no translator is listed by Saqi); unless it was originally written in English? Or translated by the author, I suppose, who has translated some of her own poetry.

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2 comments

  1. In general I feel that a lot of poets bring something special to writing prose in terms of thinking in metaphor and writing with conviction.
    Thank you for the links and I look forward to looking into more work from these writers.

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