Poet Ghayath Almadhoun is one of many Palestinians living a double exile: Born and raised in Damascus, he has been living in Stockholm, Sweden since 2008.
Recently, Almadhoun launched a website, ghayathalmadhoun.com, that gathers translations of his poetry in nine languages — with the Arabic originals making a tenth. His poetry films, co-created with award-winning poet Marie Silkeberg, are also brought together on the site.
Almadhoun has published three collections of poetry, the most recent in 2014. He has also written a book, Till Damaskus, together with Silkeberg.
In a Skype interview with Almadhoun two years ago, he talked about the experience of writing and publishing Till Damaskus.
You think people read your poetry differently because of what’s going on in Syria right now?
No, I didn’t write about Syria. For example, the book Till Damaskus is not about Damascus. It’s from the West, “the road to Damascus” or “Damascus road,” and it’s a metaphor for how your life turns upside-down. Because Paul, Boulos, when he traveled to Damascus—in the way, Christianity began. So it’s poems about life turning upside-down.
Yes, there are poems about Syria. Not because I want to write politics—no, I’m really against the political poetry. But this is my life. When my life is perfect, then you will find my poems about flowers and spring. But it’s a reflection of my life.
So I didn’t write about Syria, I wrote from my memories.
How was the book received?
We really got very good reviews of our book. One bad, and seventeen good. And the first article said, “This is how the political poetry should be if want to take it seriously.” But I didn’t agree with her. This is not political poetry. This is poetry. If this is political poetry, then her poetry should be political.
She wrote about flowers. She used her memory. Okay, I used my memory. But I think the Swedish poetry has a different atmosphere.
They’re really in a different part of the world. It has a lot of nature and light and darkness. They’re good poets.
What other differences are there between Swedish and Arabic poetry?
You won’t find a Swedish poet who can recite by heart. And you know, I know like one million classic poems. I can recite for ten days.
In Sweden, you can’t begin your speech like in an Arab speech. If you want to make a revolution [in an Arab country], you begin your speech with poetry. You open the newspaper [in Sweden], you won’t find poetry. In the cultural page, there is no poetry. And they didn’t teach poetry in the schools. They didn’t have one million poets, like Arabs.
For example, if we will count our poets, if we will bring all the poets from all the nations, in all over the world from the beginning of history, they have less poets than we do.
This is the classic poetry, and I hate it.
This summer seeping through the fractures
of Damascus is killing me. I creep like rust
on the doors of this prison, now turned
into a museum. I sit in a cafe
frightened and shrinking on days
when money is scarce, and laughing loudly
on days when my shifty pockets are full.