‘The Best Poems Are Not Political Poems,’ But—

Ghada Mourad attended the recent UCLA reading by Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah, where both poets took turns reading from Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, in Arabic and English.

By Ghada Mourad

Let’s say I arrived to the reading in medias res. It just sounds fancier than saying I arrived 15 minutes late (because of L.A. traffic) and was hoping that the organizers of this reading would respect Arab timing, which is usually around 15 minutes after the event’s official time. Instead they decided to respect official timing.

Still, I was in for an enchanting bilingual poetry reading by the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and his translator Fady Joudah. Poet and translator read first in Arabic and then English reading for the first half, and then switched to English-to-Arabic. To hear the original followed directly by the translation brought to my mind Walter Benjamin’s definition of translation as “the afterlife” of the original work. When poet and translator switched, and Joudah began reading the translations before Zaqtan followed with the original, the latter seemed like a confirmation of the translation, or like the sound that, instead of preceding, trails behind the echo in a surreal fashion. Zaqtan’s deep and warm voice is complemented by Joudah’s elongated vowels and soft tone.

The audience was treated to a wonderful selection from Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me. We also got to know interesting details about some of the poems. For instance, before reading “Four Sisters from Zakariyya,” Joudah explained that Zakariyya is the name of Zaqtan’s hometown, now erased and replaced with a commercial center. Also, Joudah recounted the story of the book’s cover. It is a mural by the Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansoor who, during the second Intifada, boycotted his own work because the materials had to go through Israeli authorities. In consequence, he worked with the local material available to him–the Palestinian soil. The illustration on the book’s dust jacket depicts a dove holding an olive branch in its beak, and all made out of cracked soil. Its title is “Peace.”

To a question citing Denise Levertov’s famous statement, the “best poems are not political poems,” Zaqtan answered that indeed, he agrees with Levertov on this point, but there is no Palestinian poem outside of politics, outside of the occupation — it is self-evident. Every Palestinian poem breathes the air of the occupation. There is also the fact that an American reader comes to the Palestinian poem with a perspective charged with politics, and from his/her position as an American immersed in the U.S. politics vis-à-vis Palestine.

One of the biggest influences on his poetry, Zaqtan says, is Mahmoud Darwish, which I don’t think would come as a surprise to anyone who has read both poets’ works. Another significant influence is Constantine Cavafy, who Zaqtan considers as “half-Arab.” Zaqtan adds that he is influenced by poems rather than by poets, and one should not forget that in Arabic literature we have a huge wealth of poets who have been writing for fifteen hundred years. This considerable tradition is far from being exhausted, and for this reason one can see the great variety of styles in Zaqtan’s poetry.

In “Alone and the River Before Me,” for instance, the poet employs various dictions, various aesthetics, and combines prose poem with the metrical one, with prosody, free verse, and more. His objective is to free the Arabic poem from the restraints of a singular form, for the poem’s liberty consists of wandering among forms. He also pointed out that writing poetry travels between past and present, thus traversing the text through time. Writing should not refer to forms but to areas of authority or influence so that we can create currents and then produce very mature poetic energy.

In his turn, answering a question on how translation influences his own work as a poet, Joudah said that when he writes poetry, he already translates his thoughts, which take shape in Arabic, by putting them on paper in English. As a result, translating poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan help shape his writing and contribute to the depth of his own art.

Reading Like a Straw Bird for me was experiencing loss, absence, and death over and over again from a poem to another. These poems recount the lives of characters who reveal to be dead as the poem ends. As I advanced in reading this collection, I began anticipating the absence before it was announced, as a way to protect myself from the imminent pronouncement of a death or a loss. The whole collection becomes haunted by the absence, this nagging absence, of these characters, and thus it becomes paradoxically an antidote to forgetfulness.

But as Zatqtan was reading the poems in Arabic, I couldn’t help but notice the recurrence of the term “وحيدة” in singular and plural form “وحيدات” which translate into English variously as “lonely,” as in “Remembering the Lonely”, and “the only” as in “eleven brothers killed their only sister.” So I asked Zaqtan: If he were to rewrite these poems now, or if we were to read his poetry two years after the start of the Arab uprisings, would we see as much loneliness in his poetry?

To my question, Zaqtan looked down and answered with a long laugh. He was quick to add that this loneliness is not limited to the political or geographical condition, but concerns the existential one to which every human relates. Absence, death, and loneliness are all derivatives of exile, a condition not monopolized by Palestinians, but constitutes an essential part of the Arab individual’s life, whether s/he lives in diaspora or in the Arab world. For Zaqtan, living under the current regimes in the Arab world is an exilic experience.

Ghada Mourad is a PhD student and a Schaeffer fellow in literary translation in the department of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. She works on aesthetics and politics in late twentieth-century Arabic and Francophone literature in the MENA. You can read some of her translations on Jadaliyya.


Note for UK readers:

The Zaqtan-Joudah tour is not over(!), but will continue in the UK in November. There is an Oct. 31 reading at SOAS and a Nov. 1 reading at Mosaic Rooms. If you know of others, please post below.

Also, if you can’t/won’t attend any of these, the video:

From the Boston University reading, courtesy Margaret Litvin and Frank Antonelli.