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March 2015

Omar Hazek: Prison Letter on Why He’s Dedicating his New Novel to his Nephew


This letter, which ran in Arabic in Al Masry Al Youm, was titled, “I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart”:omar-hazeq-23039I was still in the same prison, in the same cell, in nearly the ninth month of my two-year sentence on one hellish summer night in a terrible August. One new inmate was added to our ranks, making our count 23 men in a cell whose area was 3.5 x 5.5 meters, including a very tiny horrendously dirty toilet, in a space beset by rising violence, beating, and widespread scabies.Such a life has granted me a treasure of humanity and introduced me to people who would be impossible to meet outside the confines of my cell. Some of these prisoners have taught me so much. Some of them granted me great support and true friendship, which has helped me remain a lover of life and of people. I should have mentioned those people and should have dedicated this novel to them. However, I preferred to leave that for my more recent novel, Life in White, all of which is written in prison, as prison has played the leading role in this phase of my life.It was last April when I learned that Ahmad, the son of my eldest brother, a seven-year-old child, knew of my arrest and had seen pictures and footage of my trial hearings. He saw me handcuffed and recognized my family’s pain and sorrow — despite all attempts to conceal this from him. His innocent childhood could not bear this suffering, and he fell prey to psychological illness out of fretting for my sake, and for himself, that I would be tortured or beaten, which he deduced from what he could see on TV and the internet. He started to recover slowly, only after he was told that I was released from prison, had traveled to work abroad, and would soon return, laden with gifts and safe from the hands of the evil people who beat and imprisoned the youth.I have wept a few times here — mostly for my mother, at times for prisoners who faced pains beyond their capacities, and sometimes for Ahmad. Ahmad grew up in a home near ours. He visited us frequently with his father. He would enter my room while I was reading or writing to greet me and then run to play. He would not forget to come and greet me before leaving, smiling with his round, soft cheeks.  He would open his small palms saying, “loos,” which developed into “aloos” with time, meaning filoos, or money — because I used to give him coins every time I would see him to buy some candy.

Why should a child like him pay so dearly for my personal choices in life? My family members were severely affected — especially my father and mother. However, they were all able to appreciate that these costs were paid in defense of a conviction. However, Ahmad alone had to pay the dearest price, which I am not sure he will be able to completely overcome. It is indeed a dear price paid so that the youth of this nation may make small steps towards their freedom, dignity, and their now-wasted rights.

During her last visit, my mother told me that dear Ahmad had a recurrence of the attack after having achieved tangible progress. At night, I put the draft of my novel close to my face to hide my emotions. I cried for my beloved Ahmad — whom I have known as an innocent child full of vitality and joy; fond of wandering in parks and on beaches; a lover of candy, juice and potato chips. I wept for Ahmad who suffered from my imprisonment more than I have.

Ahmad, who had been looking at the family photo album, took away a photo and sat with it in a corner. His mother saw him whispering to a photo, “I miss you … I miss you so hard,” and suddenly she saw it was me in this picture.

My beloved Ahmad, I want to apologize to you from the bottom of my heart, despite the fact that I have not committed a crime deserving imprisonment, for begetting you all that suffering. I want you to know when you grow up and when God blesses you with healing and peace, that you have paid a very high price for our dignity and humanity, and that your noble pain, along with other noble pains and blood, will create a great spirit. This spirit will inspire our struggles until we achieve the goals of our revolution. This is why I implore you not to waver and to pursue the path regardless of the price and my fate. You are a great comrade along the path.

This is why I dedicate to you — and only you — my novel. Out of love and in apology to you, Ahmad Essam Hazek.

Haid: Why you need to join Planet Syria

Syrian Poet Al-Ma’arri: Through the Lens of Disability Studies


This interview with Dr. Tom Shakespeare first appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature website:shakespeare1-300x300Scholar, blogger, and public-health advocate Tom Shakespeare recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3. The first radio essay in the series focused on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.Shakespeare is a sociologist focused on disability studies who currently lectures at the Norwich Medical School and is also keenly interested in disability arts. His interest in al-Maʿarrī began with a post on his blog, “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” where he writes about disabled people of consequence throughout history—that led to more reading and research, and the essay on Radio 3.

For the LAL blog, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”

ArabLit: How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?

Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.

I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”

I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.

Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.

[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.

AL: As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?

TS: The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.

What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.

I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collections Tinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.

I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.

Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.

The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.

AL: It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?

TS: It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.

He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.

I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.

What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.

Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.

If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.

AL: You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.

TS: Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.

He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.

We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.

AL: How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.

TS: Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.

AL: On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?

TS: I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.

If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.

For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.

We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.

I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.

And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.

AL: You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?

TS: “What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.

AL: What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?

TS: I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.

Danny MacAskill – Epecuén – 2014

CLICK to explore the town of Epecuén with Danny:
Watch as Danny MacAskill brings a forgotten city back to life with his latest street trials film. Following on from 2013’s mind-blowing ‘MacAskill’s Imaginate’, Epecuén is the latest film from Danny MacAskill.

Directed by long time collaborator Dave Sowerby, we’ll see Danny take his riding back to the roots of trials riding, exploring the forgotten town of Epecuén in Argentina, a location that has been submerged for the majority of the past 25 years.

Pablo Novac, Epecuén’s only resident throughout the troubled times, gives a brief history of the location culminating with his thoughts that he ‘…can no longer see what use this place has for us now,’ MacAskill however has other ideas.

Danny MacAskill is renowned for pushing the levels of both his riding and filming with previous releases ‘Way Back Home’ and ‘Imaginate’ accumulating over 50 million views between them; Epecuén is set to raise the bar once again.

Be part of the conversation by using #epecuen

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Netanyahu Deserves the Israeli People, and They Deserve Him


If after everything, the Israeli phoenix succeeded in rising from the ashes and getting reelected, something is truly broken, possibly beyond repair.

Zionist Union supporters wait for the appearance of Isaac Herzog at party headquarters in Tel Aviv after exit poll results March 17, 2015. (Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner)

The first conclusion that arose just minutes after the announcement of the exit polls was particularly discouraging: The nation must be replaced. Not another election for the country’s leadership, but general elections to choose a new Israeli people – immediately. The country urgently needs that. It won’t be able to stand another term for Benjamin Netanyahu, who emerged last night as the man who will form the next government.

If after six years of nothing, if after six years of sowing fear and anxiety, hatred and despair, this is the nation’s choice, then it is very ill indeed. If after everything that has been revealed in recent months, if after everything that has been written and said, if after all this, the Israeli phoenix succeeded in rising from the ashes and getting reelected, if after all this the Israeli people chose him to lead for another four years, something is truly broken, possibly beyond repair.

Netanyahu deserves the Israeli people and they deserve him. The results are indicative of the direction the country is headed: A significant proportion of Israelis has finally grown detached from reality. This is the result of years’ worth of brainwashing and incitement. These Israelis voted for the man who will lead the United States to adopt harsh measures against Israel, for the man whom the world long ago grew sick of. They voted for the man who admitted to having duped half the world during his Bar-Ilan speech; now he has torn off his mask and disavowed those words once and for all. Israel said “yes” to the man who said “no” to a Palestinian state. Dear Likud voters, what the hell do you say “yes” to? Another 50 years of occupation and ostracism? Do you really believe in that?

On Tuesday the foundations were laid for the apartheid state that is to come. If Netanyahu succeeds in forming the next government in his spirit and image, then the two-state solution will finally be buried and the struggle over the character of a binational state will begin. If Netanyahu is the next prime minister, then Israel has not only divorced the peace process, but also the world. Piss off, dear world, we’re on our own. Please don’t interfere, we’re asleep, the people are with Netanyahu. The Palestinians can warm the benches at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, the Israel boycotters can swing into high gear and Gaza can wait for the next cruel attack by the Israeli army.

The battle for all these has yet to be officially decided. The next prime minister will be crowned by Moshe Kahlon and the heads of other small parties. At the time of this writing, Kahlon has yet to declare his intention. The ball is in these parties’ court; they will decide if Netanyahu continues. Most of them despise him, but it’s doubtful whether they will have the courage to turn their backs on the public. That will be their test. That will be the test of their courage and integrity. Moshe Kahlon and Aryeh Dery, do you truly believe Netanyahu is better than Isaac Herzog for the society and social welfare you purport to care for? Does the country’s decent and courageous president, Reuven Rivlin, believe Netanyahu will be a better prime minister than Herzog? There is a lot resting on his shoulders now – but the fact that a figure like Netanyahu and a party like Likud succeeded in maintaining power as the country’s leading faction already says a great deal.

Netanyahu is threatening to surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest running leader. He is already in second place, and yet it’s hard to think of one significant achievement on his part. The list of damage he has done is long. But he is the nation’s, or much of the nation’s, chosen one. That choice must be respected, even if it makes it difficult to hope for a good outcome. The only consolation is that another Netanyahu term will prompt the world to act. That possibility is our only refuge.

Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist, writing opinion pieces and a weekly column for the newspaper Haaretz that often focus on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. A notable journalist on the Israeli left, follow him on Twitter: @levy_haaretz

You probably won’t read this piece about Syria

AJE this week ran special content on a grim milestone because it’s important. But our data told us something: few cared.

17 Mar 2015 13:47 GMT |

  • Injured women arrive at a field hospital after an air strike hit their homes in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. [AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra, File, Aug. 15, 2012]

    About the Author

    Barry Malone

    There’s something in her eyes. Something more than the bafflement you so often see in the faces of innocents victimised by the wars of others. It’s something that haunts. Something that reaches you most powerfully not in your mind, but somewhere more prosaic. In your guts. In your bones.

    Her expression seems to plead directly. To ask of you, do you care? Do you see me?

    When we saw this image, there was no other that seemed more apt to lead our website on March 15th, the day Syria entered its fifth year of misery and mayhem. Its fifth year of slaughter.

    Several human rights groups, and many Syrians, had a powerful accusation to make that day. The world, they said, had failed the country and her people. The world didn’t care anymore.

    The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

    Sometimes journalism itself feels like a fight to get people to care.

    And as often, maybe more often, it’s a fight to get yourself to. Every day, the media deals in stories of death and devastation and despair. Too often, it feels like work, just there to be processed. A day’s pay to be earned.

    But we have a duty. Because these are other people’s stories.

    And they deserve to have them heard.

    On the anniversary, we published a lot of content. There were stirring documentaries, powerful polemics, Syrian paintings, infographics, analysis, interviews, features and news. There was streaming TV. We tried to take our audience into the lives of those caught up in this.

    And all of it was fronted with the bloodied woman, that gaze taking up most of the screen.

    But the number of people who came to our site that day was far lower than expected. As we watched the analytics, tracked our traffic, that stinging accusation of apathy seemed justified.

    There are variables, of course. Anniversaries don’t tend to grab the imagination, some people may prefer other news organisations for Syria reporting, and perhaps our work wasn’t what it could be.

    Then there’s fatigue. It’s been a rough few years for the world. Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine, Somalia and more. Dark stories dominate.

    I have never heard so many journalists say that the job is grinding them down nor so many people who watch the news say that they cannot stand to do so anymore. Bearing witness is gruelling.

    Confronting our indifference

    We have seen a stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012 with intermittent peaks when it makes headlines – Assad says something unusual, the possibility of Western missiles.

    Recently, though there have been occasional spikes, they appear mostly related to ISIL. The taking of Fallujah, the fall of Mosul, the detestable beheadings, and the sledgehammering of history.

    The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

    We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don’t do as well. Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.

    When we tweeted the accusation that the world didn’t care, many people retweeted it. But most didn’t click the link to read our stories. Perhaps they wanted to be seen to care. Perhaps they believed that people should care. But they didn’t care enough to read what we had written.

    That’s a shame.

    Because this was an opportunity to take stock. To stand back. To reflect on the fact that more than 220,000 people have been killed and half a country’s population pushed from their homes. To ask the Syrian people what they need from us. To pressure our governments to take them in.

    Our indifference is something we need to think about and talk about. As journalists, we should question our performance. As people, our humanity. Because we can do better.

    And that woman in the photograph should know that we see her.

    Barry Malone is an online editor at Al Jazeera. Twitter: @malonebarry

    Source: Al Jazeera

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

At his popular talk at this year’s Emirates LitFest, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said that he writes poetry to preserve his ability to criticize:By Sawad Hussainbarghouti

The Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival featured a session with Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti titled Out of Place. While the introductory part of the session focused on what place means to Barghouti as a poet, the remainder delved into other ideas: including the obsession with the past, the use of hyperbolic language, and aesthetics in Arab poetry. Barghouti shared his wisdom with a sizeable audience, making them laugh at times, and leaving them pondering his heartfelt statements at others, not least because they could – and should! – be applied to life as we live it. Spontaneous applause after such statements was not uncommon, and attendees were left wanting more.

The following expands on key themes Barghouti touched on while responding to questions posed during the session.

What does place mean to you?

Barghouti started by saying that thirty years of exile have taught him that there is no one definition of place. The idea of “place” was taken away from him a long time ago, he said, as he pointed out that he is four years older than the state of Israel. He played with the idea of “time as place, and place as time.” The past is a place, he said, before sharing that he has learnt over time that barriers do not define a place.

He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. 

He then posed the question: “What happens when the difference between here and there becomes blurry?” He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. In both personal and national cases, these two contradictory places can be the same place, or can even become one place.

What makes you write poetry?

Translations of Barghouti's work. Photo credit: Sawad.

Barghouti responded that he wanted to preserve his ability to critique. In poetry, he clarified, you have the ability to critique the self: your family, your nation, your life, your party, your religion, your work, your president…

Today, he said, man has lost the ability to critique this individual and collective self. True critique, Barghouti went on, is when one critiques oneself. “It’s not when Hamas criticises Fatah, or vice versa,” he expanded by way of an example. “Rather, true critique is if Hamas’s leader would criticise himself … everything under the sky is open to critique. This is what led me to poetry.”

With relation to how criticism has played a role in his life, Barghouti said: “I cannot coexist with the ‘ugly’. My life, its standards are not right and wrong, not halal and haram, but the standards I have are the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘ugly’ … There is such a thing as a beautiful mistake and an ugly correctness.”

When asked to give examples of each form, he specified that a beautiful mistake is something he can be happy in committing. For example, lying in order to give someone hope to live another day is a beautiful mistake. On the other hand, an ugly mistake he explained through an illustration: If an audience member — being a friend of Barghouti — asked to borrow a hundred dollars, he would lend it to him; if the money has not been paid after a year passes, Barghouti posited that he would be well within his rights to file a complaint against the borrower. However, Barghouti sees this outcome as wrong. “There is a friendship, circumstances not allowing people to pay,” he said. “People see this as crazy, but it’s better that I forget the matter altogether.”

The UAE is a young country, forty-three years old. Poets have said that with the skyscrapers and increasing development, the only place for cherished childhood memories of grandmother’s house is in the poem. What do you think?

Barghouti said that houses have changed, families have changed, the world has widened and it has advanced. “We are a people who have almost forgotten how to think of the future. [There are] political parties [that] want to go fifty years back and live there. If the past is our dream for the future, then when will we live? The past isn’t a dream. What[ever] from it [that] deserves to continue in the present will do so, and what doesn’t deserve to continue will disappear on its own.”

Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.

“I’m for human and architectural progress, and not looking at the past with excess consecration or romanticization. Tomorrow is what matters. What happened to us yesterday, we don’t live today. Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.” Barghouti’s response was thunderously applauded by the audience, which marvelled at how a man who has lived through such a tumultuous past could be so optimistic about the future. Numerous tweets were hurriedly posted to share this statement with the wider world.

You’ve talked previously in other forums about tabriid al-lugha, literally a cooling of the language – what do you mean by this?

Barghouti responded that he speaks in a tangible language that any Mohammed on the street would understand. He avoids speaking like the intellectuals on TV, who he says perhaps do not even understand what they are saying themselves at times with their roundabout ways of expressing simple ideas. “When I say ‘a wall’ in poetry, I mean a wall. Choose language that is shared between [us].”

He went on to refer to his experience as the Chair for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction panel this year, and the type of writing he witnessed in some of the novels that came before the panel. “In some of the books I read, there were phrases such as ‘brutal aggression’, as if all aggression isn’t brutal!” The use of such modifiers for nouns that are already clear points to lazy writers, he said. Hyperbolic language makes writing ‘heated,’ Barghouti continued, before making clear he prefers to ‘cool’ it down, to make it simple.

He then offered the following sentence as an exemplary illustration of his point: “‘Ahmed entered. I looked at his face, and saw that he was very tired.’ I, as Mourid Barghouti, when I read this sentence, I get rid of the ‘very;’ it weakens the idea of how tired he is. ‘I saw that he was tired,’ is much stronger than ‘he was very tired.’ The writer who puts ‘very’ in his writing loses the ability to convince you just how tired that person is.” He concluded his answer with the thought that the more detailed he gets in his writing, the less hyperbole is needed.

Is the aesthetic in your poetry always political?

“We writers write about two things, nothing more: life and death. When death is violent – caused by criminals, invaders, settlers [and] dictators – then you are writing a poem you could label as political. But when death is caused by say … what happened with Romeo and Juliet, then we can’t call it political. We are living in a place where we are almost eager for natural death; this is a strange place for us to be living in.”

Barghouti then walked the audience through his writing process:

“My aesthetics are dictated by my rough copy. By my first leading lines. When I start the poem, with one or two lines, they are my theoretical guides. I don’t follow any literary theory. I follow my first lines. These would lead me to a book-long poem; these would lead me to a narrative poem, an epic, a haiku, a three-line poem … I am faithful to the way I start my poem. The rhythm comes with it, the rhyme, the music, the philosophy, the length, the temperature of the poem are all suggested by the way it starts. If you follow literary theories, you cannot be a genuine writer. The first rough copy will guide you […] I hate labels. I don’t use the term political poem, love poem; those labels say nothing. It’s akin to a label that you put on your luggage when you are leaving for the airport: it says whose luggage it is, but never tells what is inside.”

Remembering Radwa

Mourid Barghouti ended his talk by reading a poem dedicated to his late wife. The rhythm of his syllables and the cadence of his phrases gripped the audience, who could not help but feel that they had witnessed the recitation of one very long yet engaging poem. Many were struck by his immense humility, and how he continually thanked the audience not only for their attendance, but also the very intellectual nature of their participation.

Labelled as a Palestinian poet, we know where he hails from and what his profession is, but sitting through Barghouti’s session at the Emirates Airline Literary Festival assured the audience that what they witnessed was a mere scratching of the surface of a literary giant who goes far beyond the casing of conventional definition.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.

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