In May of this year, Jordanian poet, journalist, and novelist Amjad Nasser published a small cycle of poems online about coming to terms with the end of his life after his brain tumors had resisted treatment:
The poems were written after a visit to Charing Cross Hospital in London, at which Nasser had apparently been told that treatments had failed to control the tumors growing in his brain.
According to multiple reports, Nasser died Wednesday. He was 64.
Nasser was born Yahia Numeiri al-Naimat in al-Turra, Jordan in 1955, and he launched his writing career as a journalist and activist for Palestinian rights, working between Amman, Beirut, and Cyprus. His auspicious poetic debut, Praise for Another Café, came in 1979, when he was twenty-four, with a preface from the great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef.
In 1987, Nasser co-founded Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily newspaper in London, and he worked there in the decades that followed.
Although Nasser was best-known as a poet, an editor, and a journalist, he published in multiple genres, including poetry, travel writing, and novels. Indeed, his work moves between styles and genres; the narrator of his beautifully lyric novel Land of No Rain (tr. Jonathan Wright) says that his own writing doesn’t fall into a “category that’s recognised on the literary scene, and it’s hard to persuade people that it exists.”
But Amjad Nasser’s oeuvre does indeed exist — poem-novels, poem-travel-writing, and poem-journalism — and is widely celebrated among authors and word-lovers. Last June, the literary journal Akhbar al-Adab dedicated an issue to Nasser and his work, which features essays by Ghassan Zaqtan, Tarek al-Tayeb, Qassim Haddad, Hoda Barakat, and others.
Translations to English
Although Nasser is perhaps not well-known in English, several of his works have been translated. In 2009, poet-translator Khaled Mattawa brought together a collection titled Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems. Nasser’s first novel, published in Arabic in 2011, appeared in English in 2014 as Land of No Rain. Its translator, Jonathan Wright, once called the book “as close to being the book I would have liked to write as any Arabic book could be.”
Also in 2014, one of Nasser’s poems, “A Song and Three Questions,” was chosen by the Saison Poetry Library as one of the “50 greatest love poems of the last 50 years,” among all poems worldwide, and Nasser was invited to inaugurate New York University’s “Gallatin Global Writers series.” However, the US Department of Homeland Security denied him entry into the United States. Nasser instead inaugurated the series over Skype.
Nasser went on to write a second novel, Here Is the Rose, which was longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and he won the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Literary Creativity in 2019.
Two more collections of Nasser’s poetry have been translated to English. The stunning cycle of travel poems Petra was translated by Fady Joudah; it stands as one of the most remarkable works Nasser produced.This collection of travel-poetry is a must-read for anyone who has visited Petra, will visit to Petra, or wants to imagine the great Jordanian archaeological site and all its varied and overlapping histories, real and otherwise. Nasser’s A Map of Signs and Scents: New and Selected Poems, 1979–2014, brings together poems from three decades worth of collections, translated by Joudah and Mattawa. That collection, which contains Petra, was longlisted for the 2017 National Translation Award.
Remembering Amjad Nasser
Egyptian poet and novelist Ezzat El Kamhawi said on Twitter Wednesday that he wanted to remember Nasser as he’d known him, smiling, stubborn, wild; he added that Nasser’s death was a great loss.
A number of writers remembered his poetry:
Cartoonist Naser Jafari shared his art:
Back in June, there were several moving essays in Akhbar al-Adab. Hoda Barakat’s opens, roughly:
I came late to reading Amjad Nasser. But from the time the first poem from the first collection fell into my hands, I knew that I would read everything he had written and was writing.
His books are in my office on the shelf by the sofa, and I return to them often. No friendship brings us together; I don’t think I have ever met him, even by accident. I did not look for a meeting, and I would have avoided such a conversation had the chance been foisted upon us. For the poet puts in his writing that which carries me to meet him whenever I read him, as a true brother-in-spirit. And, as usual, I am afraid of betrayal, of disappointment, as personal knowledge can fix a low ceiling over a beautiful imagination…
And Amjad Nasser is one of those rare people who pushes you to write after reading him, after you wolf down his words, line by line. His little voice directs me to the characters in my own novels, and sometimes I imagine he is talking to them. Or standing next to one, behind a window somewhere.
Nasser was also known for his justice-driven politics and long-time support for Palestinian rights, which is perhaps what earned him a block from US Homeland Security.
In a quick interview several years ago, I asked Nasser about the role of the writer: “Society doesn’t have a particular responsibility towards the writer or poet or artist in general. They’re a part of society, not above it, and not on its margins either. The right thing is for them to be a part of society, and when they are, they will fight for the freedom of this society, its human as well as financial development, and for its legal and civil rights.”
This poet, novelist, journalist, interlocutor, and editor will be greatly missed.
His recent poems
On Facebook; not yet in translation
Translated by Sinan Antoon:
Translated by Fady Joudah
Translated by Atef Alshaer:
Translated by Khaled Mattawa
Translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas
Poems translated by the Poetry Translation Centre:
Interviews and reviews: