‘The Tahrir of Poems’ and Choices Facing an Egyptian Poet

Egyptian poet Maged Zaher is a serial translator. Often, when he wants to explore a poem, he translates it — sometimes posting to Facebook, sometimes (presumably) keeping it to himself:

Tahrir CoverThe works Zaher translates are by a range of poets who work in a variety of styles, and some go no further than Facebook. But translations of Cairene poet Ibrahim al-Sayed eventually led Zaher to his most recent collection, The Tahrir of Poems: Seven Contemporary Egyptian Poets,  published by Alice Blue Books last year.

In a recent talk with The StrangerZaher said he met the collection’s other six poets through El-Sayed, explaining that despite the city’s population, “Cairo’s downtown is very small, so most people [or at least most poets] know each other.” Zaher further said he began translating the poets’ work out of “friendship more than anything else,” and also as “an act of communication[.]”

The seven poets are El-Sayed, Malaka Badr, Tamer Fathi, Amira Hanafi, Hermes, Ahmed Nada, and Aya Nabih. All these poets bring something different to the collection. According to The Stranger, Zaher “praises Hanafi for her ‘conceptualist’ poems, Ahmed Nada for his inclusion of folk references, and Malaka Badr for her ‘punk, blue collar, angry nature.'”

Hermes — yes, just Hermes — contributed just five poems to the collection, but their wide range echoes, from wartime exercises to childish play. From “Looking For a Feather”:

Let’s decide together that we lost the earth, that at this moment we are lovers of single-use items. That our political dreams are too radical to be held by the earth — which we lost. We went around in saints’ festivals, looking for the feather that fell from the wing of a pixie. Gypsies are sitting on or difficulties and are staring at the receding horizon. Meanwhile, we are like foolish children distributing the remaining flames of our hearts on every waft.

And from later in the poem:

Politicians are also asleep in our military state.
The soldiers are magnetized standing up on earth.
Slaves of gravity and projectiles.

Hermes was also willing to engage on a range of issues, including his name (on Facebook, it’s Hermes III), the continuing subversiveness of “prose” poetry, the audience for this work, how he sees translation, and the images of violence and innocence in his poems.

ArabLit: Why Hermes? You’ll forgive me if I read Hermes and think…Adonis.

Hermes. Photo credit: Martha Mann.
Hermes. Photo credit: Martha Mann.

Hermes: “Why Hermes” is a long story, but let me put it in this way: Like all my generation of writers, well most of those whom I know, we matured in the recesses of internet chat rooms and mail groups and forums, late nineties, I had to choose a “nickname” or, to benefit from the connotation, a user-name.

Of course Hermes wasn’t my first, there was Pegasus, and Delirium, but then I settled on Hermes. I was affected by many elements, see, at these times I was reading about occultism and theosophy, I had just discovered the emerald tablet of Hermes, and translated it into Arabic. I was enchanted by the swift cunning eloquent young Hermes leading his brother’s cattle away and causing disasters with his brother’s chariot. It all appealed to me. His equivalent Ancient Egyptian God Thoth, the god of writing, the scribe; Hermes Trismegistus  and his lore the corpus hermeticum, Hermes the guide of souls to the netherworld psychopompos  and the conductor of dreams.

And as you said, there was Ali Ahmed Sai’ed Esber, aka. Adonis with all his halo then, in the late nineties, for a young man like me who is reading about alchemy and sensing the alchemy of the words in Adonis’ works. It all came together, the god messenger, patron of smugglers and thieves (LuSuuS) and (ro’aat) shepherds, and it’s the dawn of the age of avatars, and I am ripe for taking on a persona.

AL: There are a number of choices — or at least seeming choices — facing someone who wants to write poetry in Arabic/Arabics. How do you see your maze of choices, your necessary & chosen ancestors, the people with whom you’re having a poetic conversation?

H: Well, the first set of choices that I faced was Classic-Standard Arabic\Colloquial Egyptian, and having been born and raised in Kuwait where we spoke Egyptian as a family I heard many other Arabics happening around me: Kuwaiti, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Ahwazi, etc.

I chose Standard Classic Arabic, a language that was both intriguing and enchanting. Later I had to face metered\prose poetry and while studying meters and writing in classic, I leaned toward prose poetry, a choice that is still somehow condemned in one way or another. Although the Egyptian Nineties Poets surpassed the dilemma; my generation raised it again, and I remember the excitement me and my friends encountered when we went to poetry forums around Cairo in the early 2000s and clashed with our generation who thought prose poetry was nil.

These were the formal\structural choices that I made and clung to through the years. Then there were the other dilemmas, universal (kawni) vs. daily (yawmi), and the choice of vocabulary which until now my fellow writers sometimes think are dead or that I fish out of dictionaries; many choices that you make every day when you hold your pen or sit at your laptop and decide to write, through the writing process and the editing process.

I conceive of myself as an offspring of many and as an orphan as well, amongst my ancestors are Neffari, Hallaj, Sahrawardi, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Adonis, Shelley, Blake, Poe, Cavafy, Sa’ade, Unsi, Maghout, Sargon Boulos, Donqol, Abdel Sabour, and Afifi Matar. See those are the currents that played my soul when I was young and still mesmerize me with their beauty every day, they are the poets who I would read if I wanted to read a silence-evoking poem — final words, poignant, pregnant words.

AL: Who reads your poetry, as you imagine it? What poetry do you read? 

H: I imagine that my friends at least do, my family, and their friends, and the people who visit my Facebook page and my blogs, and those whom I handed out a copy of my two books that have been barely distributed, those who are mainly writers and more specifically poets. I have some poet friends from around the world to whom I send my translations of my poems every now and then. I think the main audience is my immediate circle of people. I read lots of poetry every day, old and new, classic and modern, Arabic, English, French, Latin, and Spanish. Translated, and original.

AL: Why poetry and not prose, which seems to be where a lot of the “flash” is right now?

H: I like the mysterious, the non-immediacy, the latency, the not-right-there-yet-is-there effect to poetry, I guess it must be the stories of the prophets and the stories about djinn and the TV Arabian Nights shows that I grew up on. As for prose especially fiction, I think maybe I will write it one day. I mean writing a novel is always in the back of my head, but when? I don’t know. It might never happen, when I was twenty I said I will do it when I am thirty, now I am thirty and I am not writing a novel right now. so. Who knows.

AL: Abdelfattah Kilito said, in Les Arabes et l’art du recit, something to the effect of: Mutanabbi would have been horrified at the idea of being translated, but it’s basically all contemporary Arab writers want. How do you situate yourself with regard to translation?

H: I am a translator myself, I translate poetry and fiction from English to Arabic, and now I am learning French so I can translate from French. Translation is important, I have been translated into English and I appreciate it. It is always exciting yet perplexing to see how this fish swims in different water, and from my experience in translating my poems: the text takes a whole different aura and significance and reference point and connotation.

It is a game. And I am willing to play it.

AL: These poems of yours have a wonderful combination of violence and innocence, apocalypse and defenselessness. When were they written?

Hermes. Photo credit: Martha Mann.
Hermes. Photo credit: Martha Mann.

H: My recent collection of poems, My Beloved Kalashnikov was written during my military service as a Reserve First Lieutenant in the Egyptian Armed Forces from early 2012 to late 2014. My earlier collection, Chirping in Braille’s Way was written over seven years of study in Faculty of Medicine. The poems that are featured in Tahrir anthology are from both collections. I don’t know to which you are referring here. But I can identify with the themes you mentioned in the question, it’s the nature of our world. Innocence is a rose in the hand of an armed angel, Rilke put it way much better, Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. he said in the opening of Duino’s Eulogies. Sometimes I ask myself, when I reach an exact point, in the rollercoaster of metaphor, that slide, I ask myself when I reach the exact point in a series of metaphorical associations as was reached by say Ma’arri, or say Rimbaud or Dante, do we have to reinvent every and each meaning? And where is the uncharted land of poetry? Has everything been said really?

I wrote once: Only ancient questions are worthy questions. They were, to connect the two, innocent, the apocalyptic visions of ancient scribes, their questions were posed before cell phones, and iPads, and instagram took over the public space. There was barely anything between humanity and the texte of cosmos. Now intermediary texts are separating us from the immediate experience of our surroundings. This is apocalypse, this finiteness of experience; this is what I am writing about in my apocalyptic poems.

AL: Every big language, I think, has an official poetry apparatus. What is your relationship to the official Arabic & Egyptian poetry apparati? 

H: I’d like to think that I have nothing to do with the official poetry apparatus, but then, I get published, my books have to be approved by official bureaus of censorship, and given ISBN and all that is controlled by the official bureaus of poetry, then, I see the types of poetry and fiction promoted by public taste modifying apparati, that is by media, and I refuse to be interviewed by Egyptian TV for example, it is a war of signs really, and the poet is immersed in it..

AL: There is also a filmic quality to some of your work. Have you ever considered making filmpoems or poetry films

H: It occurred to me once 9 years ago, and for lack of tools I wrote it down, it’s a poem of mine titled Cairo in the night of revolution. It is not a political linguistic adventure, but it is rather a vision of the Cairene trees flying off the streets of Cairo. I had envisioned everything in the scene, the sounds, the eye movement and the landscape, then I wrote it down, and it was published in my first book. If you know someone who can help me, be kind and put me in touch with them, I have nil knowledge of cinema and the cinematic.

AL: Does prose interest you? What sort of prose?

H: It does. I read fiction, and religious texts from around the world in English and Arabic, I have certain books that I like to read regularly, like Niffari’s Mawaqef, Bible, Koraan, Upanishads, Buddhist texts, Ma’arri’s treatises of Forgiveness and others, Ibn Arabi’s treatises. As for fiction I don’t read it regularly, but I was inspired by the great works of the  masters like Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, Hesse, Orwell, Huxley, Mahfouz, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Abd-ul Hakeem Qasem, Bensalem Himmich, Ibrahim El-Koni etc.

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