At the end of the year, we are re-running a few of our favorite poems and interviews. Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji’s A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know appeared in English in 2017, co-translated by the author and Stephen Watts. Around that time, Haji responded to questions by the Italian poet Luigia Sorrentino and the Iranian poet Azita Ghahreman. We re-run it today.
Haji is a is a Syrian-Kurdish poet, essayist and translator with a postgraduate degree in pathology. He was born in Amouda, a Kurdish town in the northeast of Syria, and studied medicine at the University of Damascus.
He has published several collections in Arabic. His first, published in 2004, was He Called Out Within The Darknesses, and it won the al-Maghut Prize for poetry. His most recent, Scale of Injury, came out in 2016. He also translates from English and French, and his prose work, Until The War, came out in 2016.
Many of his poems are available in English, French, and German translation. His collection A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know was translated to English by himself and Stephen Watts, and he also has collaborated with Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah.
He lived in Damascus until he had to leave in 2011 and now lives outside Paris.
How many books have you published and when did your first book appear?
Golan Haji: My first book of poems He Called Out Within The Darknesses was published in 2004. It won the Mohammad Al-Maghout prize. Al-Maghout was a leading Syrian poet, considered a pioneer of free verse and the prose poem in modernist Arab poetry. He took part in the Poetry Magazine movement in the 1950s. That modernist movement changed Arabic poetry profoundly in the second half of the 20th century, though Al-Maghout was never interested in any movement whatsoever. He used to say that the only reason he became a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party was the fireplace in its bureau, while he was a penniless young man in his hometown. Poetry Magazine, founded by the Lebanese poet Yusuf Al-Khal and issued in Beirut from 1957 to 1970, cut the cord with the neoclassical and romantic poetry, and changed for good the face of Arabic poetry in which free verse and the prose poem prevail today. During that same period, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani was publishing his political satirical and love poems, rhymed and metered, that might be the most popular in several Arab countries, given that they were made into songs. I think many people know some of them by heart.
However, it’s different with Adonis who is perhaps the most well-known Syrian poet internationally. He questioned the Islamic tradition that casts its shadows over the Arabic language. In his trilogy The Book (al-kitab), he imagined Al-Mutanabbi as a foreseer who wanders through Arab history. In an old issue of the extraordinary literary magazine Al-Karmel, whose editor-in-chief was the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, I remember Adonis replying this question: “Why do you write?” by saying: “I write in order to put down what God had said but didn’t write”. Thirty years later, Adonis said in another interview: “I write for an audience that’s to come in two hundred years”. We can see by these two answers how he occasionally visits the present, mostly as a guest of honour. I respect all of the aforementioned names, but rarely read or reared them. They have become canonical (in the sense we move from them onwards and not toward them). I almost lost my curiosity about most of them. I might prefer reading the Moroccan poet Abdallah Zrika, the Syrian Nazih abu Afache, the Iraqi Salah Faik or the Egyptian Imad Abu Saleh, who live in their own rich lights and shadows. However, I keep reading classical poets such as Al-Ma’arri who lived and died in northwest of Syria, and whose work “The Epistle of Forgiveness” might have influenced Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. Al-Ma’arri and Al-Mutanabbi, these two contradictory classical poets, both influenced poets like Khayyam and Rumi. I wrote about this point in a long text I wrote after visiting Konya in 2013. (This text is translated into English as “The Tree of Changes”, and is forthcoming in the “The Same Gate”, from the International Writing program in Iowa University.)
On 2008 I published my second book of poems Someone Sees You As A Monster. Adulterers was published in Danish in 2011, translated by the Danish poet Jesper Berg who had lived in Aleppo and Damascus for nearly15 years, before he was forced out of his second country Syria. This small book in Danish contained some paintings of the Kurdish painter Bahram Hajo whose work had inspired that long poem. On 2013, Autumn Here is Magical and Vast was published, in a bilingual edition Arabic-Italian, by Il Sirente in Rome.
Do you think your books are related to each other or do they have different worlds ?
GH: I think the books I wrote build upon each other, and there’s a sense of continuation among all of them, despite the divergences. They might complement, as much as counterpart, each other. Lyrics cohabit with experimental free verse & narrative poems, open prose poems & fables. Poems, like human beings, come in different forms and colours. As far as this concerns me, writing poetry is not entirely involuntary. Revision is inexorable, since, I believe, we often fail to express precisely what we thought of or aimed to say. Every poet has his/her Ariadne’s thread. In the stream flowing under all poems, where the past and the future mingle with the devastating present of Syria, writing is sometimes like a collapsed building, open to the four winds, in which you can see the sky, although it’s neither suitable for dwelling nor it gives any shelter.
I am very interested in the prose poem as a form. I think it’s very tempting and rewarding. I have been concerned with words, first and foremost. I am responding to another “new” world I live in, i.e France, and poetry continues beyond all articulated intentions. The poems I write start, like me, to move away from Syria. I feel an end is soon to come. I live this ambiguous sense of an ending in what I write. Anyhow, when the poem works and lives, it speaks better for itself.
What is the impact of migration on your work?
GH: I am aware of the reductionist reading of any literature in exile, a kind of reading that hunts for the political content. It’s not easy to go for what one loves. These consequent years of ongoing pain have hardly given any Syrian a chance for quiet thinking. However, I roamed places very unlike the milieu of my upbringing.
I was very much affected by migration. How many alien environments have I encountered in abnormal conditions, trying to recover or rediscover things lost or forgotten, what was insignificant and almost unseen along these intermittent journeys. In this violent disintegration, I cannot forget the somehow sinister feeling of being frequently uprooted from where I used to live. I have always lived struggling with words. I spent part of my childhood trying to change my Kurdish accent in Arab-speaking institutions. Later, with more consequent forced displacements in various countries, I gave up trying to sound like the dominating other. I preserved my accents & became a foreigner in every language I speak, even in Kurdish, except in the silence of writing.
To what extent can translation be effective?
GH: For the first time, in collaboration with Stephen Watts, I recently translated from Kurdish some poems of the young poet Ciwan Qado. It was difficult. I couldn’t learn Kurdish because it was a banned language under the Arabic nationalist dictatorships, during the notorious epoch of censorship and cultural stifling suppression. I only speak my mother tongue, and I think I dream in it. Its folktales and oral history are a vital part of my memory. These were the early impacts. I sometimes used some Kurdish sayings and proverbs, and even words, in literal Arabic translation. There lies a mine of surreal images. For instance, I entitled a long sequence of prose pieces “God’s Cinema” which as a common expression refers to the absurd or the unfathomable. Nevertheless, I have this feeling of writing in never-ending approximation, as if I had an accent in all the languages I speak. The only place where these differences are embraced, without fears or too much hesitation, is the field of writing where I use more than a language through Arabic. That explains of course, in depth, that every writing is a kind of translation. I have lived my whole life translating from one language to another, even while writing, until I was not sure of any language any longer. The exception is the first five years of my childhood when the Kurdish was the only wide world. Going to school was the first disjunction of language. Perhaps that’s the reason I always feel my Kurdish memory as an immense world, precisely because of its limitations, given that I came from a community which has a limited literature of its own in its own language. Studying Arabic verse forms in detail, as a young boy, was a memorable pleasure, an early apprenticeship I enjoyed but soon declined because they were merely attempts in practicing formal music, which might be valuable for writing of any sort. I turn toward the personal music that starts every writing from the scratch. One follows his breath, how his mind and soul move together. I stopped writing metrical verses very soon.
I remember now the polyglot Kurd Sufi poet Malaye Jaziri who spent his life in the Botan river island on Tigris. He lived during the sixteenth century, and was buried in the Red School where he studied in Botan. I could see that school from the other side of the border without being able to reach it ever. Jaziri wrote poetry with one set of alphabets which at that time were used in four languages: Kurdish, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. Sometimes, he used the four languages in one couplet. His poems are still recited and sung by Kurds. That coexistence of languages was quite natural, the alluring music was convincing, although I sometimes understood almost nothing. Languages never draw geographical boundaries. This linguistic “chaos” delimited the writing I experienced and has overrun the boundaries between forms. There are many examples of Kurdish poets who write in Arabic, Turkish or Farsi. We cannot forget the Syrian Kurdish poet and novelist Salim Barakat who had grown up in the same Syrian Kurdish region from which I came, and now lives in Sweden.
Of course poetry translation has led me to wider worlds, in particular American poetry that I started translating in the mid 1990s. Through random readings, the way I love reading, I discovered the poems of Mark Strand whom I had translated into Arabic. His Selected Poems was the first book I published in 2001, although I started publishing my poems from the early 90s in local and Arabic newspapers and periodicals.
I have always felt this inclination to what’s being written in other languages, not necessarily by the well-known names. Translation is crucial for the common imagination, for mutual understanding among human beings. What comes from the imagination belongs to everybody.
Are you familiar with Persian literature including the modern or classical poetry?
GH: I am familiar relatively with Persian literature. I cannot realize how I ended up giving up medicine, after long years of studies and work in hospitals and in Damascus university. On 2009, I worked with theatre institute students and we performed, as one example, some of Bertolt Brecht’s poems. During that same year, I taught some paragraphs of Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl” as examples of prose poems.
I was, and still am, fascinated, by The Conference of the Birds. I read it as a boy, and still the closest version to my heart is the Arabic. I was astonished how the birds face the mirror, thirty birds in front of the Simurgh, the symbol of Godhead whose name also means thirty birds. God is every bird of them and all of them and none of them. In my opinion, it’s one of the most stunning ending in the history of literature. It inspired Mahmoud Darwish his long long poem The Hoopoe.
Another example. I had already been familiar with Abbas Kiarostami’s poetry when he read his short poems in France. I remembered reading them in a fine translation done by the Kurdish poet Maher Jummo who translates from Farsi. Through Jummo’s translations I read various poets ranging from Bijan Jalali to Sabir Haka whom I came across in meetings about translating Persian poetry in London. For various political and cultural reasons, finding Persian poetry books was not that difficult in Syria. You can find more than one translation of Forough Farrokhzad’s Rebirth for example. Her “The House is Black” is a beautifully disturbing poem in black and white. Unforgettable.
Who, for you, is the most notable woman poet in the Arab world? can you describe why did you distinguish her from others?
GH: Regardless of the superlative “most notable” woman poet in the Arab world, I could mention Fatima Qandil or Sanyyah Saleh, but I’d love to talk about Da’ad Haddad who died in 1991. Once, ten years ago, I tried to organize some of her unpublished poems in a small collection There’s Light. Da’ad is one of the “absent” characters in a documentary film, shot by the Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdalla who lives in Paris; the film’s title “I am The One Who Carries Flowers to Her Own Grave” is taken from one of her poems. Da’ad was abandoned by her family in the Mediterranean city Lattakia, so she lived in Damascus, moving around the houses of her friends. Her “naïvety” is astounding sometimes, like raw brut art paintings. In her last years, she had become severely depressed. She sometimes begged for bread in bakeries, carrying a basket of old raw vegetables. Those were her meals. She spent her nights in the printing house at the ministry of culture, and slept sometimes in public parks. Once she was seen walking under the rain of night, in her tattered nightgown in the crowded souk of Al Salihyya, in the heart of Damascus. One of her closest friends told me that one night, when his visitors were about to leave, he found her asleep on the threshold. Perhaps because of the noise she heard beyond the closed door she didn’t dare to ring the bell. Here is one of her poems:
Black is this night
Black is the window
Nothing is more just than the sky
In this moonless black night
A little green plant
Is weaving this black prolonged night
Another plant wants to grow
Inside the grayish-yellow room
And these books, eaten away by time,
Want to live inside me
Like this water, like this timeless bread.
Is your recent poetry influenced by the literature of other countries? What are the influences?
I am part of a tradition, like it or not, both the Arabic and the Kurdish. I adore many poets in other languages. But saying that little, or citing only few names, hardly defines what I want or do, and denies countless effects that come from all the over the world.
Poems by Haji:
The Same Silence, translated by Huda Fakhreddine
A Light In Water, translated by Stephen Watts
The End of Days, translated by Golan Haji, Stephen Watts
Autumn Here is Vast and Magical, translated by Golan Haji, Stephen Watts
More in Middle Eastern Literatures translated by Huda Fakhreddine