Sharif Elmusa on Two Medicines: Exile and Poetry

Writer, graduate student, and ArabLit contributor Mohga Hassib spoke with celebrated Palestinian-American poet Sharif Elmusa at the American University in Cairo, where he now teaches.

Mohga Hassib: How did you first become interested in poetry? And how did it shape your life?

Sharif Elmusa: In my time, we grew up with poetry. I memorized a lot of poetry and memorized the Qur’an. I think this is where you start; it gets planted somewhere in your subconscious and in your body and you re-envision them later. So you always are muttering from from Abu `Alaa al-Ma`arri] or al-Mutanabbi or whomever. Poetry has always been at the center of Arabic culture and tradition, and so I think poetry was more important here than in the U.S., including the place of the poet. In the U.S. the poet was like a sissy, we have them here as more masculine, well not really that way. [Laughs.]

It was considered a great achievement to be a poet, right, whether you are `Antarah Ibn Shaddād or al-Mutanabbi or Abu al-`Alaa. So you grow up thinking of these cultural heroic figures that you would have liked to meet somehow, or at least see. When I tried to write poetry seriously was when I was in the U.S., and I attribute this to the break, to exile. Maybe exile and poetry are like two medicines, they interact and amplify each other.

MH: You mentioned you memorized a lot of poetry, would you like to share some of your favorite?

SEM: Now, of course, I forgot a lot of it. We spent many evenings with my sister and my cousin, we used to play a game which is very interesting; you start with one line of poetry, any line of poetry, like: Philistine yafdy himak al-shabab fajjala al-fidaiyyu wa al-muftada [فلسطين يفدي حماك الشباب فجل الفدائي والمفتدى], so you have Daa’ and you have to start a line that starts with: da`ana da`ana ya makar wa ib`idd `anna ya ghaddar [دعنا دعنا يا مكّار. وأبعد عنا ياغدار] and then raa’: rula `arabun qusuruhumu al-khiyamu wa manziluhum hamatun wa al-Sha’amu  [رلى عرب قصورهم الخيام ومنزلهم حماة والشآم] , and then meem, and so on. And you keep going until you get stuck. I guess by now I’ve told you a few lines [laughs].

When I was in Doha the last couple of years and I was writing a poem about Doha’s amazing transformation,  one of the poets who came to mind was Abu al-`Alaa. Abu al-` Alaa had a great line of poetry that said: wa shabihun sawt al-na`yyi itha qisa bisawt al bashiri fi kulli nadi [وشبيه صوت النعي اذا قيس بصوت البشر ] and then he says gently sahi, hathi quburuna tamlau’ al-rahba  fa’ayna al-quburu min ‘ahdi ‘adi? [صاح ، هذي قبورنا تملأ الرُّحـــب فأين القبور من عهد عادِ ؟].

MH: Can you talk about the reversed chronological structure of Flawed Landscape?

SEM: You kind of write the poems…. I didn’t set out to write this collection, it happened that way, but when I had them [the poems], then I looked at them, it was really difficult to structure them, in what order to put them in, until I thought it was thematic in a way. Maybe I didn’t notice the time-line, but I did it. The first part is on the Palestinian situation in Gaza, Nablus, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, so I thought that was the opening, and then I put family in the middle and then exile. It was hard, you can’t really reverse it in a way, I think the order made sense that way, I don’t know, would you have done them differently?

MH: I wouldn’t touch a thing, but when I read it I felt like you were going back in time, in a reversed chronological order, you started as an adult remembering certain moments, then the middle section contained a lot of you childhood, then the third part was when you were much older than the first section.

SEM: I think the first part is memory, and part of it was more recent because I was in Gaza in 1997 for four months and I was working on the first Palestinian development plan. While in Gaza, a friend of mine asked me: What do you do in Gaza? There wasn’t much to do and I went to the UN café in the evening, and I said to my friend: I watched “Moons and Donkeys” and this is how that poem shaped up; I had been keeping notes, there isn’t much to do there really.

MH: Flawed Landscape brings together history and what seems to be autobiography. As a poet, would you classify yourself as part of a certain tradition? Or as responding to the work of certain poets?

SEM: It may have to do with the peculiarity of being Palestinian or Arab or something, because in Palestine…. In the ’60s, [people] talked about the personal is the political, but in our case the political is also the personal, you can’t differentiate, I mean when you go to Gaza or Nablus this is just the way it is. But I also, of course, I feel history is a source of inspiration, one of the triggers of the imagination, I think because I grew up in the Jericho area and it was overshadowed in the west by the Mount of Temptation, then to the east is the Jordan river then you had Hisham Palace from the Umayyad period.

So you grow up with this, and when I was in Boston, I missed history. This is why I like Cairo, Egypt, with all the excavations of the Ancient Egyptians; I like to see pyramids [laughs]– so you grow up and it is part of your imagination and with all the history you read and poetry, there is another world. It is not like you draw lessons from it or that kind of stuff, but it is a source of inspiration. In Egypt, I felt myself relating very much to and enamored of Ancient Egyptian deities and myth; I have a manuscripts about Cairo now, it has many sprinklings of the old myths, they come in all the time … just naturally, one can’t miss them. When I was in Doha writing poems I felt myself more really evoking the Arabic tradition, but in both cases history is there, you can’t really do without it.

And the political, this is just the way we live here, right? Even the poem about “Roots” about the name, you go to the airport and this is what you face every time. Now it is funny because they ask me about my name and my father’s name and I say as I am pronouncing it Said Hussein that now it is a joke in a way because I know they will do it and they do it, they never fail to do it, in any Arab airport and the Israeli, of course, they ask me.

MH: You dedicated “She Fans the World” to Karma; would you like to say who she is?

SEM: Karma is my daughter, it was prophetic because she’s a writer, a journalist, studied magazine writing. But what made me write it the way it came out was there is a great book by Max Picard called The World of Silence, it’s a very nice book, it’s about the phenomenology of silence, silence and the word, poetry of silence, silence and love. At one point he says that if you live in “primitive” community and hear them singing, they keep repeating, like incantations, they keep repeating the same words. He said they did that because they just yanked the word out of the jaws of silence, and that if they didn’t repeat the words they feared the words would go back to the silence, and I thought this could be more about a child [laughs], and this is how it came about, and that is how the poem ends, afraid of losing and unsure of having it [the word].
She never really spoke like children spoke. She was talking when she was two — she was born in ‘84, my family was in Amman, Jordan, and out of the silence she suddenly sings ‘Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care’ — so she spoke very early and fluently for a baby.

MH: Your poems resurrect several fragments from your past and childhood, do you feel that being a poet in exile changes your relationship to memory?

SEM: To memory? I don’t really know how it would be otherwise, you have two exiles: time and space. But there is a Japanese Haiku, about maybe Kyoto or it maybe another city, it says: “I am in Kyoto/and I miss Kyoto / O bird of time!”

He is old now. He’s in Kyoto, it’s not the same. There is physical exile, geographic exile, and cultural exile that make you re-imagine your memories in different ways.

I don’t have any other way to compare, but exile does something. But whatever you remember you remake, these memories would not be the same or would not be the said the same way if I was writing in Kuwait.

MH: When you write about the past, does it have a particular effect: better understanding it, keeping it alive, or something else?

SEM: There is pleasure in remembering the past, so I guess you are making yourself happy in the present by remembering the past, the past is about the present, it is not really a conscious thing. I don’t have a project to keep the past, but there are things that I want to write about, for me there is no other way. I am not a painter to use colors, so I use words, if someone says write about the desert, they are not asking us to go to the desert, I am just bringing the past to us in a way.

MH: You write in a langue that is not your native tongue, do you find that liberating, or restrictive, or both, or something else?

SEM: It is a question that every one of us asks himself about. It wasn’t like calculated, and you don’t really know the outcome. I was living in the U.S. and I thought I would stay there so you start writing in the language where you’re at.

The language is also a living thing; someone like and the Lebanese al-Mahjar poet Elia Abu Madi wrote beautiful philosophical poems because he was removed from the streams of everyday life. So that is one thing, the other is that a new language is a home that is not a home really. Conrad and Beckett wrote in languages other than their own; they wrote very successfully so it is not a taboo, but there is a very nice poem by C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet who lived here in Alexandria. He had a house in Alexandria, they up-kept the house, he was a homosexual guy, part of his poetry is about that, but a lot of it is historical, he evokes a name, real or imaginary and moves on from there; in one there is a Rafael and he’s asking him “pour your Egyptian feelings in the Greek you use.”

I feel like I was pouring my Palestinian, Arab feelings in the English I was writing in, yet at the end of the day you can never judge the outcome, does it really convey the emotion? One thing you probably do is write a poem that shapes your feelings. We don’t really know how the brain works, how the original language mixes with this one and how they work together. For me personally I felt that Arabic poetry was struggling to find a language, to find a new language that meets the everyday. Nizār Qabbānī, did it but he did it also in the classical mode … ‘ishruna ‘aman ya kitaba al-hawa walam azal fi al-safhati al-‘ula [عشرون عاما .. يا كتاب الهوى ولم ازل في الصفحة الاولى]. Gradually Darwish did adapt the language to the everyday and brought in dailiness into his poems.

When I look back at my Arabic poetry, it was all romantic and sentimental, and it was not what I wanted to write afterward, I had changed my mind and my intellectual inclinations. I hope that it would be able to convey … to succeed. [You ask yourself,] are you transliterating yourself or are you conveying your true self? In any case, we are always probably able to convey a part of us. There is no satisfactory answer; the good thing about the question is that it makes you think about a lot of things.

Ngugi [wa Thiongo], the Kenyan writer, who comes from the Kikuyu in Kenya, with only 12 million or speakers, and he thought if he wrote in another language he will be betraying his language. But with Arabs you have a lot of Arab-language writers and Arabic-speaking people, so you don’t feel like you are betraying or contributing to the vanishing of the language. The subject has all the post-colonial, right, that you are writing in the language of the colonizer, but if you look at it historically during the Abbasid period and Arab-Muslim history, everyone came to Baghdad and Andalusia and they wrote in Arabic, so the US is kind of now the Abbasid empire and allows everyone to write in English. And English gives me another sense of exile, I mean, here you are using a language that is not native to you, and you have to mother your tongue.

MH: Do you have any new projects coming to surface soon?

SEM: There is a book that has just come out from an Indian publisher called Women Unlimited and it is essayed by Palestinian writers; some poets, some movie directors, some fiction writers and I have an essay in it and it is kind of a memoir, so I would like to make it into a book. I grew up in a refugee camp, so I would like to write a book about the experience in the refugee camp. Some people wrote about it in Arabic but not much. My essay was based on a visit to the camp with my wife and kids, and a few friends. But the camp had been demolished totally. I connected it to the Palestinian villages that had been demolished in 1948, the village of my parents was also erased. So the essay is about the visits to the camp and to the village. What I did it was prose and poetry, a combination actually, I didn’t write anything fresh, it was stuff I already had. It just came out naturally somehow, maybe it was there for a while, I think it worked.

MH: In visiting someplace that was completely demolished…did you find that painful or do you become objective over time and sort of numb?

SEM: No actually, what happened before, I worked on an encyclopedia of the Palestinian villages, and what you did every day was write biographies of villages. And here there was a village and all these people living in it, then the village disappeared, and you felt like you were writing elegies every day.

Every day I became even more upset with the Israelis, one destroyed village after the other. In the essay, I used an image of the German poet Rilke, who when he remembered his house and childhood he felt he the house shattered from the inside, the house inside him shattered.

For me it was the other way around, the shattering was from the outside rather than the inside, but you certainly get shattered. When you go to the village you see that people had been uprooted, people say the word “uprooted” casually, but when you think about how you uproot a tree; it takes a great force and makes a great tearing.

MH: As a man in exile, with dual nationality and working in a third country, what does home mean to you?

SEM: The way I say it: I am Palestinian by birth, American by citizenship, Egyptian at heart. There is really no home, eventually, because when you go to Palestine this is not home. You cannot go to a home where every other kilometer there is a checkpoint; this is not a home.

I went to Jaffa, I went to Haifa, I went to Ramallah, but the homecoming has to be more than that. [In] the Odyssey, the hero finds everything the same when he returns to Ithaca. So it should be, but just with the passage of time alone you can never go home. Exupéry, the French author, who wrote The Little Prince, thinks of the world of the child as this infinite world in the park, and he says when you grow older it isn’t that you can’t go into the park, it is that you can’t go into the game (it was a different game when you were a child), but for me I can go neither to the park nor to the game.


Al-Ahram Weekly: A review of Flawed Landscapes by Dr. Ferial Ghazoul

Egypt Independent: Sharif Elmusa on ‘Something to censor