The way I see it, any book, movie, composition, lecture, event or festival should leave you with a set of satisfying questions and terrifying answers. We, as uni students, live for this kind of excitement. Coming up with a clever question makes us feel smart. Then again, answers to clever questions usually make us cry and run to mommy. Despite that, I have taken a leap of faith one rainy Saturday morning and stumbled, face first, into the excitement of Hibr: A Festival of Arab Poetry.
The way this article works is a bit different than usual. I will introduce the clever (relatively) questions that I thought of during the festival and try to provide terrifying answers that I got. But first, let me set the scene… There was a lot of action even outside of lecture hall. Goldsmiths Palestine Society offered to take part in a letter writing campaign to show support for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Goldsmiths Middle East and North Africa Society shared their new poetry postcards and baklawa. Goldsmiths English Pen paid a lot of attention to the campaign for Ashraf Fayadh, a provokingly honest and insightful poet. He is sentenced to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes by the Saudi Arabian government. Goldsmiths English Pen sold zines with Ashraf’s poems and introduced a hashtag you can use to support the cause on social media – #freeashraf. The whole point of the festival was to have a day for discussion of poetry on campus and to celebrate and support freedom of speech. And that calls for a very impressive collection of writers, poets, editors, academics and translators – Dr Atef Alshaer, Dr Sarah Irving, Dr Naomi Foyle, Farah Aridi, Abdulkareem Kasid, Anba Jawi, Amir Darwish and Rayanne Chami. And thus, I am officially done with introductions and moving on to the clever questions.
Quick disclaimer: I am trying to be as accurate as possible, but this is not something I can look up again. Hopefully, I did not make any mistakes, but if I did – deep apologies.
What does ‘Hibr’ mean?
Ink (Also, according to Google, many many other meanings, but I think they were going for ‘ink’).
A lecture by Dr Atef Alshaer about poetry as a mode of resistance: Things have been bad for so long, writing about it kinda got old. What’s the next level?
Next level is post-resistance. What’s that? Resistance that’s not about resistance anymore. Writers have already exhausted themselves writing resistance. 70s was all about that. It’s almost fifty years later, but the conditions the people are in are pretty much the same. Writers begin questioning their role a writers. Declaratory statements no longer cut it. When statements aren’t enough, questions appear. And that’s the nature of Arabic poetry today – it’s question over question over question.
Dr Sarah Irving and Dr Naomi Foyle on editing books of Arabic translations: What is ‘bridge-translation’?
Firstly, a non-poet does a literal translation of the poem providing copious notes on any possible ticks, pricks and ambiguities. Then, those translations are given to actual poets (who, devastatingly, do not speak Arabic) and they make them poetic and pretty in English. ‘A Bird is Not a Stone’ is a collection of the works of twenty-five contemporary Palestinian poets translated using the ‘bridge’ method. Highly recommend to check it out, the poems there are just soul-ripping.
Also, a little extra awesome quote from Dr Sarah Irving – ‘Poetry is not the world of dictionary, it’s the world of the Thesaurus’
Why Arabic translations are such a big deal?
Basically, problematic is the question of beauty. Yes, Arabic poetry has been translated into English before. It was literal, political and overly academic. Nobody really cared for the aesthetic value and beauty of the poems. Which is crazy, right? How is a poem different from a BBC article, then?
Anyways, Dr Naomi Foyle and Dr Sarah Irving worked on Arabic poetry collections that ARE poetic, even in translation. ‘A Blade of Grass’ and ‘A Bird is Not a Stone’ are collections of beautiful Arabic poetry that were way too difficult to publish than they should’ve been. Examples of this inherent colonialism are as simple as our printing softwares not accommodating foreign scripts. There’s also a question of translation itself. Should translators be creative participants or mediums between the author and the reader? That’s such a horrible question, isn’t it? As a translator, of course, I would like to be a creative participant. As an author, I would hate it if my translator was a creative participant. Someone should do a TED Talk on this.
What makes a poem?
As any person at least moderately interested in poetry, I have sat through my fair share of poetry readings and the premise is usually similar. It’s pretty hard to catch the whole poem, so you’re just sitting there, waiting for a special verse or phrase to break through your own mind’s nonsense. Saturday’s readings were a bit different. Each poem was read two times – in Arabic and in English. I didn’t really think I can take anything away from an Arabic reading – I have absolutely zero knowledge of the language. But I could not have been more wrong. Words meant nothing, but there was rhythm, and sound, and emotion, coming from seemingly nowhere. I couldn’t understand what the poem was about, but there was music in it. Translations are different. There’s little music there. But the words finally have meaning and you’re forcibly provoked into thinking. After the readings, I dotted down in my notebook – MEGAPOEMS. Because that’s how it feels. You’re drowned by rhythm and then buried in thought. I suppose most poems do this, I just needed the two separated to really get it. Anyways, thank you, Hibr, for helping me discover the power of the MEGAPOEM and the beauty of the Arabic language.
Highlights from a meeting with Abdulkareem Kasid and Anba Jawi :
Yes, this is not technically a question. But let me tell you about that meeting with Abdulkareem Kasid and Anba Jawi. You can’t think of questions because when Kasid’s work is read and all you can do is just listen blindly (get it?) and awe at how pretty it sounds. These quotes may not be a 100% accurately worded, but that’s how I remember them and I WILL remember them for a long time.
- He bought a beat-up little edition of James Joyce and he was holding it the way a low-wage fashionista would hold a Gucci bag. (Anba Jawi about young Abdulkareem Kasid)
- I am the lion of Babylon.
- One bullet makes one man dead; one thought makes thousands live.
Meeting with Amir Darwish, MA Student at Goldsmiths, author of ‘From Aleppo Without Love’ – the first installment of a three-part autobiographical narrative: Why not turn your life into a fictional story, why does it have to be autobiographical?
It’s not gonna be honest. It’s hard enough not to leave things out or embellish when you’re writing about yourself. Distancing yourself even more would not help. Mr Darwish did say that he tries to be as truthful as possible. ‘I have to make it a clean pipe’ was his exact words, I think. He already distanced himself somewhat by writing in English. ‘The trauma happened in the mother language’, it would be too hard writing it in Arabic. Another reasons that Mr Darwish mentioned, for writing an autobiographical novel: strong influence of Frederic Douglas’ autobiography and also the feeling of catharsis that comes with writing down your trauma.
Mr Darwish has also supplied a quote of the day – ‘Writing poetry is too expensive – you need too much drinks’. Preach!
The day ended with an open mic. Rayanne Chami and Farah Aridi read their poems. Honestly, everyone who wanted read their poems. For a day that raised so many provoking questions and gave so many terrifying answers, it ended with a true and genuine celebration of poetry.
Huge thanks to all the people that came, to all the speakers that came, to Goldsmiths English Pen, who organised the whole festival and, most importantly, to the president of EPen Will Herbert, without whom this awesome event would not have been possible.
Looking forward to next year!
Words, Gabriele Sidlauskaite