Award-winning Egyptian author-illustrator Walid Taher (The Black Dot, A Bit of Air) currently works out of Marseilles, where he has has been doing his most avant garde works in recent years with Le Port a Jauni, a bilingual Arabic-French publisher. His latest book, Balad, appeared in 2017, in both Arabic and French. Yasmine Motawy spoke to him about it:
By Yasmine Motawy
While Walid Taher’s Balad pairs sparse, evocative, and strongly thematic poems with line drawings, Taher is not necessarily in conversation with those taking the internet by storm and reviving poetry for young adults — such as Rupi Kaur of Milk and Honey fame, and Sara Elmessiry of Kahirati. His poetic vignettes break from the confessional mode of those poems, presenting the immediacy of the moment through a more meditative lens.
In this sense, Taher’s poems flirt more with the likes of popular Egyptian poet Salah Jahin (1930-1986), whose quartets Taher illustrated in 2015.
Yasmine Motawy: What is Balad about?
Walid Taher: It is a book of vignette-poems narrated by a blind traveller who goes through Marseilles, Tétouan, Tangiers, Clermont-Ferrand, Athens, Barcelona, and Cairo. He travels “light,” without baggage and without one of his five senses. Those are some of the places I travelled to in the first year of my sabbatical from working in Cairo.
YM: What sort of traveling does this involve?
WT: The journey is one through physical space, through the senses, through the world of ideas (loneliness, sadness, fear, wonder), and from reality to surrealism. The traveller is blind so that he can, on one hand, fully experience things — because vision sometimes blocks the other senses — and also to celebrate and elevate the sort of travel that takes risks above safe, overplanned travel that offers little out of the ordinary. His blindness is not only physical; it is sometimes a blindness to certain knowledge that keeps one a stranger abroad. There is a blindness that comes with being in a place where seeing doesn’t always help. It requires new problem-solving skills, and it is probably this that makes travel associated with a revitalization of the mind.
YM: How is this a journey of the senses?
WT: Well, the first poem starts in Saint Charles train station in Marseilles, and the traveler hears the train shrieking and thinks there are elephants trumpeting at the station, which is not a completely irrational conclusion if one is really “traveling light” of preconceptions.
YM: What exactly is the ‘strangeness’ you keep coming back to as a theme?
WT: There is a feeling of not-being-from-here that doesn’t leave you when you travel as an adult, no matter how long you stay. A sudden realization that everyone walking by you has never heard Umm Kalthoum, that they have no idea that Ramadan starts today, or what Amar-el-din is. There is also a feeling of being at home that only those who are ahl el balad (people of the place) really know. Like your relationship with the days of the week for instance. Here in France, the visceral reaction a French person will have to the word “Sunday,” which signifies a day of rest or pleasure, will always be different to that of an Egyptian for whom Sunday signifies the beginning of the workweek and may smell of Cairo traffic and taste of morning tea drunk too quickly. Living in France for a year doesn’t change that.
This is part of moving to a place in mid-life. The strangeness never leaves you. The familiarity cannot be educated into you or acquired through rehabilitation. The books you read on the demographics of a place cannot tell you what the crowds feel like. There are codes that you have no access to — and therefore you, like my traveler, are blind.
YM: Does your book allow the veil of strangeness to be lifted for a moment?
WT: No actually! You travel with the blind man on a touristic level, not knowing how all the touristic facades were built. When you are home in Egypt, you know more about what happens behind the scenes, so this reality interferes with your possibility for ignorant happiness. Travel is an opportunity to take your blissful ignorance with you and to live at a level that allows you to be happy. After a while in Marseilles, the relationship I had cut with “knowledge of place” by travelling, started growing again, and like anyone here, I saw that the people on the streets seemed a little more hunchbacked, a little more worried about money, and the innocence was gone.
YM: What was your process?
WT: I worked fast with a uniball pen and an 0.5 lead pencil. The drawings were not preplanned, they were more like a stream of consciousness recorded fast before my sense of the place evaporated. I worked fast to capture every place with its unique hallucinations; the thirst I felt in one place became a water bottle, the sudden fear that overcame me while walking in my neighborhood in Maadi that a snake lying in the bushes may bite me, became a threatening snake and so forth. The hallucinations more than the impressions of the place were particularly precarious and I rushed to record them before they subsided, and I didn’t stop until I sensed the fullness of the page.
Walid Taher has earned many national and international awards for illustrating and writing children’s books. He is also a well-known political cartoonist, an artist, and a game designer, among other things.
Yasmine Motawy is a children’s-literature scholar, a translator, and an instructor at the American University in Cairo. She is also part of the Egyptian Board on Books for Young People (EBBY).