By Ayush Prasad for sbcltr.in
Ayush Prasad, caught up with the Egyptian poet and Journalist in Mumbai, who was there to attend the Renault Poetry Festival and release his new anthology of poems, Memories of Silence
With his life and literature set between countries and continents, Ashraf Dali emerges as the challenger of many stalemates that beset Egypt, its people and their culture. sbcltr gives you a sneak peek into his world.
What is your poetry anthology about?
I have two little secrets to tell you about my anthology. First. All anthologies are translated, but mine isn’t. I choose my poems to be rewritten in English. I collected my Arabic poems from different books and chose what I thought would be acceptable for other tongues. My English pieces and even my translations could be translated yet again into some other languages, like Persian, Turkish, Spanish, and vice-versa.
Second. I used to translate poets from other languages into English. So English became my medium to read the world in poetry. And what I liked in these poets, I tried to look for in my poetry too. I selected those poems of mine which would be acceptable, which could be loved by others; not only easy, but say, be universal. The word universal is unique because it speaks beyond borders, beyond political origins, beyond ethnicities. You speak to the man, to the human being. This is the landscape of my mind– these two kind of poets.
Could you tell us something about your education?
I studied English literature. It wasn’t my wish to do so. I wished to have an art career. In secondary school in Egypt, you have to go through certain exams. I went through them and got the degree required to join one of the art faculties. But you know, there’s always the family. In our generation, the family didn’t think that there were artists or creative individuals. They thought that people who joined art faculties became school teachers who taught drawing. They didn’t consider that among them were designers and creative artists. So I kept my family’s wish and studied English literature. But later, after two-three years in translation and so on, I moved to the world of culture. Today, I even design. I have come back to my older memories of art. Besides writing, I make art too.
How has your journalism contributed to your poetry?
See, journalism is an open area. But let me get close to what I do in journalism. I am interested in ‘literature travel.’ Which requires subscribing to a certain kind of journalism that covers all matters, all types of art and literature together. When you’re travelling, you are not only writing about a trip from one place to another. You’re not simply writing about meeting someone. You are creating a new world. You are making, in every reportage, a short novella.
If I’m in Rajasthan, for example, I would travel in parallel between my journey in the 21st century and Sultan Akbar’s some 600 years ago. Such a parallel travel can create for you impressions of what is left and what was, how something was built and how it has continued.
This kind of approach actually goes beyond journalism. In fact, it becomes art and literature through journalism. And because this kind of art needs to be spread, journalism becomes helpful. Such art needs more readers. To understand others, means to love them, to consider them. I need people to consider others.
Talking about my journalism, I hosted a TV programme called The Other. In it, I interviewed voices from other cultures to speak to the Arab world, to Arab viewers. Almost 90 personalities from 50 countries came to my show and spoke and helped me make bridges between cultures. This is journalism, but beyond ordinary journalism known simply as news or opinions.
Some 11 years ago in Seoul, for one of our association meetings—the Asian Journalists Association—I launched what was called, The Silk Route Media. I was asking everyone to use media as a new silk route and reach out to other voices from other cultures. If I am not aware of my neighbours or others’ problems, I might hate or neglect them. I might not understand that I need to communicate with them. The Silk Route Media was an attempt to make this bridge known. So let us connect, communicate, understand and build the future together.
What kind of poetic devices do you prefer?
You can neither run away from your education, nor from your culture, nor from your history. Sparks from all of these facets of my life are available in my poems. So you might have one poem which is quoting from the Holy Quran, another one talking about Shakespeare, a third one about the travels—the flamenco dancers in Spain, and so on. So you cannot run away from yourself. You are recreating yourself in poetry.
Do you employ distance between your poetic self and your audiences or is your approach a more confessional and confrontational one vis-à-vis your audience?
I agree with you that there’s a gap between what you want and what is happening. The shy poets might be more capable of writing something than communicating directly by voice to the audience. And this also happens because poetry is first to be read, not to be heard.
During the course of history, we’ve improved poetry from being vocal and theatrical to being something that went to the mind. But when you are living in times such as ours, you cannot hide anymore. You need to be really close to your audience because your poetry is talking about the times. And in doing so, it is talking about the ordinary people who’re creating these times and are also emerging as your readers. You are talking about them. You are talking about their daily lives and interests. So you can neither avoid them, nor stay hidden from them.
Today, poetry has got closer to people than ever. Whether it is in writing or in being heard or in being announced to audiences. But again, it is restricted too. We don’t have enough spaces to read poetry, not even in ordinary theatres. Even on television, you don’t find a single channel that gives 24 hours to poetry. If we have one such channel, I think the world will change. Because students, artists, poets, would have something different in mind about the other world and would communicate that to all of humanity.
What are the challenges faced by you and your contemporary poets in Egypt?
In such countries, with what you call semi-military governments, you cannot think that writers will be 100 percent free. They are under control, if not of the authorities, of themselves. The poets find that their country is facing terrorism. They think that it’s time to stand with the state against such terrorism. All over Egypt and in other places too, terrorism is cutting countries into pieces. It’s happening in Syria, in Lybia, it happened in Iraq, and now it’s happening in Sudan. We writers know this and we don’t think that our fight is against the state. No, we are all against terrorism, together. But freedom of speech is needed and it’s a must.
What is not understood majorly is that the state considers writers as its enemies. No. Writers, creative people, try to make the world better. They try to make countries safer, the world around us, more beautiful. The new world could say that these are crimes. We are together with the state in the same battlefield, but we need some more understanding between us.
The state must consider writers as its allies, give them enough freedom. At the same time, writers should put in more effort into doing their best for a better country and society. We are both in the same dilemma, but we don’t want to face each other. We need to cooperate, understand, somehow compromise with each other. Because in the end, this is for the sake of the Egypt’s citizens and the country. That’s why we’d like to have freedom. It is not impossible. If we understand that freedom is needed to fight terrorism and meet midway, this could be possible.
What do you have to say about the current poetry scene in Egypt?
I’m sorry to say that the current publishing situation is not what is expected from a country like Egypt, a country that has had so many pioneers of poetry and such a great history of its literature. The publishing movement here is not good compared to many other parts of the world. Writers don’t consider that publishing a book with 1000 copies is necessary. There are people who are printing just one or two hundred copies and calling it a book. This is our publishing movement, these are our poets, and these, our readers, in reality. This is completely fake. And publishing houses, hundreds of them, are coming every few years because everyone wants to be a writer, everyone wants to be a poet and wants his book to be in the market. What market? It starts from education, from encouraging reading, making a whole range of books available so that the readership could be used to make a new and true publishing movement good enough to be called a publishing movement. I’m not satisfied.
Can you name anyone, anyone who is printing more than 1000 copies of their books in Egypt?
Hardly anyone, except two-three, maybe five people from a total of 90 million. And in our Writers’ Union, there are almost a quarter million members. They all have this need to be a writer or a publisher and to be known as men of literature. It’s like we first make a joke and then believe it. But at any rate, it still is a joke. To come to any satisfying stage in our publication culture, we need to go a long way and focus on removing illiteracy, providing good education, making bookshops and libraries available for younger generations, and starting a reading class in every school. This is just not the case in Egypt. So how can we think of there being a readership of any kind?
What kind of rhythm do you use in your poetry?
In this collection of English verse, you’ll realise, I start with what is written in 2013 and I come back to what is written in 1989. That was the age of rhythm, the age of a vocal rhythm higher than the inner rhythm. In today’s times though, we’re rendered without that musical overlay of rhythm. But we’re aware of not talking as a musical. No. We are talking as men of thought, as men of independent ideas. So it is not a matter of singing them. It’s a matter of reading them, obliterating the barriers so that they reach your readers. So yes, it’s called prose poetry. I feel that now music is in the thoughts, not in the words or in individual pieces.
Are you writing poetry of dissonance or disturbance currently?
No. I’m trying to amuse in such a way that I’m not disturbing. Or shocking. But you may find that a very sad song could shock. I use my melody in ways that will convey my meaning without a shock tactics of writing. A model of it could be seen in my poem, A Street in Cairo.
The man who returned home
In his short break
Doesn’t have but two days.
A day for his arrival
And a day for getting ready for departure.
A day to cry on seeing her
And a day for her to cry on the farewell scene.
A day to open his arms for friends
And a day for hugging their mirage
A day to tell them about the war
And a day for their tales of war’s victims
A day for life
And a day for eternal death.
This is the start of the poem. As you can see, after collecting these things, these experiences and memories together, the perception becomes so painful. But I’m not employing the tactics of shock, except through this slow way of growing pain and growing sorrow.
Are there poetic traditions in Egypt you are inspired by?
So far in Egypt, after the seventies—and it means almost 40 years later—we haven’t had such movements. Earlier, they were there. The 60s, the Al Garad, 77 Ida Amin’s Alait, all kinds of names. Now, as a reflection of what is happening in the political space and everywhere else in life, we have become like snapshots. We have become scattered. A bit too individual.
Today, I cannot expect that my travel to India would be appreciated by other poets. In another generation, this could have been a way to communicate with India through poetry and literature. So there’s this difference between two worlds, between two times.
In today’s time, along with everyone else, we too are reflecting upon the situation the society is in. The vision of it. Any efforts to have literary associations, ideas and movements together will be helpful in the long run. But I’m talking about the moment, about this moment. And in this moment, I don’t find the friendship I believe in and want between poets, their poetry and others’ poetry.
Will it be fair to call your poetry a poetry of Egypt’s soul or, let’s say, a poetry of the place and the people that Egypt is?
Like in my novels, in my poems too, my voice is the voice of a man who travels to work to the Gulf States. I mean, he is not a migrant, because I’m going and coming, coming and going. But he is a man who is living abroad, away from his homeland. So he is a stranger. My writing is a matter of strangers. Whether you consider my novels or my poetry, these are the writings of strangers who were somehow forced to leave their homeland to work abroad.
See we didn’t have to—at least, I did not in Egypt—live in deserts, but in my poems the desert is there. Why? Because in the Gulf States, everything is a matter of the desert. Even with iconic architecture, huge malls, new architecture, the desert is always there. And if not a desert geographically, it is a desert in the soul. It’s an insular desert that lives in those who live there and in the hearts of people who work abroad in my novels.
I may resemble millions who are travelling. They may not be able to write, but they find themselves strangers from two sides. One because they don’t live for enough time in their homeland, two because they are never citizens of the Gulf States.
How does gender figure in your poems?
First. I’m clear that there should be no humiliation of women in my writing. This is very important for me. You cannot call for equality between men and women, and vouch for equal gender rights in your daily life, and then come to the world of writing and do the opposite. Second. You don’t find things good or bad or ethical or unethical in a poem because you’re a man or a woman. You find them so because they are either good or bad. That is the way to judge things, I feel. It is always according to the human touch, not according to gender differences.
Do you have any specific goals as a poet or do you just wander around composing your poetry?
One of the goals that I have is to improve education of poetry in schools. In Egyptian schools, we stop studying poetry rather early. We’re stuck with often repeated old traditions and poems. It’s as if for 60 years we didn’t have a poet who wrote. As a result, my daughter is still reading the poems I read in my primary school. This is difficult to understand. How can you stop time at one exact point, and not to go forward? If education doesn’t go forward with poetry, if critics don’t go forward with new modern poets, if media doesn’t make biographies and commentaries about new poets, who will? When will it happen?
So you’re saying that there needs to be a modern impulse to the institution of poetry?
Exactly. Where is the eye to watch and give the concern and importance to the modern literature? Okay, the older poetic traditions could be studied at higher levels, appreciated, documented. I’m not asking people to stop that and start this. That would be ignorance. No, we need it all together. Otherwise, we’ll be split from the future.
How does your poetry talk about loneliness of the poet and of the individual in the world?
As I told you a minute ago, it’s difficult for that lonely drop of water to live or be recognised or realised because of the heavy rain around it. This heavy rain is not only the crowd of people. No. It is there even in the media, on television. When you have a flood of too many things, you don’t inspect the good thing in the middle because they get swept away. The flood has got both the good and the bad together.
So we need a little more respect when it comes to churning out content. We don’t want the media to be a recycling bin. Planners and thinkers need to make new content for every type of media using every type of resource. Ignorant people cannot be deciding what is to be shown, what is to be printed. When you find a book printed with no grammar, lots of mistakes, typing errors, it is disrespectful not just to the writer, but to every man of literature.
Are you writing another novel currently?
I just finished my new one, and signed the agreement for it to be published soon. It’s called the Alturjuman. It means the interpreter or the translator. It’s about someone who’s living abroad. For the first time, a novel has 28 chapters and each chapter has a different narrator. And all these narrators, they don’t meet, they just narrate. This narration takes you through the novel and its events right down to its conclusion. Of course, the timeline is set in 2010. That’s the timeline I chose to write this novel in because I didn’t want to interfere with what happened in the last six years.
Is Alturjuman based on real incidents or is it largely fiction?
It’s a mix. Of course, some people will say that that character is this man or that character is that man, but all of it is me, actually. Because one man could resemble or want to portray more than a thousand.
Is your poetry an antithesis to the onslaught of modernity or an accomplice to it or somewhere in between?
You cannot calculate it on old terms. It is new. That’s one. Number two. I’m against the current. I mean, I don’t want to be merely one in the field. I don’t want to be one drop in this kind of current. I want that solitude, that unique difference to be very appealing and very real. That’s why I’m interested in language. I’m very keen on exploring language. I want my travels to be there in my poems and my novels. I try to use my imagination to put even the food I see and eat in my poetry and my novel. In this case, it means that I’m trying to put Ashraf in his work. Which is a must. Ashraf should be and must be different from others. I’m trying. I hope it works.
How do you deal with the tribulations of the writing process? Do you get stuck while writing?
Yes, it happens, of course. When I started, before I wrote my novels, poetry came easier. After having written the novels, poetry became harder. It was as if poetry became angry with me. But I think this is a moment in life. Things that need poetry have become too difficult in life. Being a poet itself has become too difficult because you have to continue creating new things. You have to be new every time. Repeating yourself is no good. It means dying a slow death, day after day. Having these new things with you, this revolutionary thing around you, this is a difficult thing.
When it comes to writing, I think, I start in my mind. I keep writing in my mind before I come down to paper, to note down. If I go on enough in my mind it becomes easier to go on during the writing process and be different.
After writing in the mind, do you write on paper or on machines?
Mostly on machines. Because not only is it easier, but it also reshapes the poem in front of your eyes, as if they were in the printed book. So you are aware of what to rebuild it into at once. And this, of course, after the imagination process has shaped everything in your mind.
Which Egyptian poets are you influenced by?
I like Salah Abdel Sabour, I like Amal Donqol. They are really prominent and modern too. But alas, they are decades old. Among the modern poets, I can give names. But if I forget one, the other will blame me. I like many of our writers now. Different ones, like Samab Hussain, Ibrahim Al Masri, Hada Nabeel, Iman Mersal, two men, two women. This kind of new poetry deserves to be appreciated. It needs to come away from Facebook or few books here and there. It should be available much more to readers.
Is there still a thriving bookshop culture in Egypt?
Yes, there is, but it’s a matter of business, and it depends on the bestseller strategy. Also, translated works are more famous than authored works.
Could you talk about your special connection with Hemant Divate?
Last year, I started The Silk Route Literature Series to build literary bridges between poets and writers from different cultures. The first one I translated into Arabic in this series was the famous poet and publisher from India, Hemant Divate. His work was in Marathi, his own language and was translated into English by Sarabjeet Garcha. I used this English translation to introduce his work to the Arabic world. I would like to take this good chance and launch it here. And I’d want to thank and congratulate him for successfully conducting the Mumbai Poetry Festival 2017. I consider Hemant one of my favourites because if I hadn’t liked his poems, I wouldn’t have translated them. They are modern, closer to the street. Even an Egyptian like me can understand the familial tensions he depicts in his poems because he talks about the family in a universal way.
What is it in you or in your interaction with society and culture that spurs you to write so voluminously?
The feedback. The feedback, whether it is from my own self or from others gives me energy enough to write and to keep on writing. When my wife reads one of my poems and tells me her point of view, it encourages me. Yesterday, when I was reading “A Street in Cairo” and everyone came to tell me, the same thing happened. Writers need this kind of encouragement. They need encouragement not only to sell their books or appear on TV programmes, but even as feedback, as valuable human feedback. It means that his message, the poet’s message, has come around to its own source.
Have you had to deal with negative feedback to your poetry?
In discussions, yes, when someone doesn’t like it or doesn’t understand. It’s never been offensive. For example, if I bring a word like baguda in my poem. Not many readers have been to East Asia or watched or been next to a baguda to understand. So this can be a discussion. Not more than that. Not aggressive or attacking or anything.
What’s your message to young poets of tomorrow?
Readers of Facebook are controlling the media of Facebook. But when you look for some other kind of readers, some other origins, they are the real ones. Everyone on Facebook, seems to be a poet, a writer, a photographer, a novelist. It’s okay. It’s freedom. Mark Zuckerberg gave us the chance to do this. But let us talk, let us understand away from that blue wall. Let us appreciate or go through things or go deep. This is the task. This is the real life.