Belonging to Human Time: A Syrian Contribution to Arab Poetics

Poet Saleh Diab recently edited a bilingual, French-Arabic, anthology of Syrian poetry:

By Daniel Behar, Hussein Bin Hamza

Saleh Diab. Photo credit: Michel Nachef.

Saleh Diab’s recently published bilingual anthology in French and Arabic consecrates the Syrian contribution to Arab poetics and world poetry. This selection was compiled and translated over the course of more than eight years. In this interview, Diab presents his views about the place of Syrian poets in modern Arabic poetry, discloses his criteria of selection as an anthologist, and addresses the importance of translating poetry of high aesthetic merit from Syria in the current context of the proliferation of shallow media images of the country and its arts. He also speaks of his own personal investment in reading and translating these poems, offering by the way a poetic theory of translation.

The interview was first published March 20, 2018 in Ḍaffa Thalitha, the cultural supplement of the UK-based news platform al-Arabi al-Jadid and is translated with the author’s permission. I have also added seven poems from the anthology in my own translation into English. 

Daniel Behar

PhD Candidate, Harvard University   

Saleh Diab: My anthology tries to throw light on Syria’s most beautiful face[1]

By Hussein Bin Hamza

Since the beginning of his career, Saleh Diab has been busying himself with poetry. Not only in writing, but also in reading poetry and keeping up-to-date with it, in studying the history of Arab poetics and its modern developments that went off in various currents and included varieties of experiences and idioms. Saleh, who lives in Paris, published several collections of poetry: A Dry Moon Watches over My Life (1998), Greek Summer (2006), You Go for Me with a Knife, I Go for You with a Dagger (2009), and I Went Through My Life (J’ai visité ma vie2013). Aside from his own work, Saleh has also translated and written scholarship on poetry. He wrote a Doctoral Thesis on modern Arabic poetry, a Master of Advanced Studies thesis on “Arab Women Poets after Nazik al-Mala’ika”, in addition to a Master’s thesis on “the Body in the Poetry of Arab Women.”

His latest book, Contemporary Syrian Poetry (Poésie Syrienne Contemporaine, Le Castor Astral, 2018), recently appeared in French from Le Castor Astral (with a beautiful, expressive cover by the artist Youssef Abdelke). It is an anthology of modern Syrian poetry, and as anthologies tend to do, the book has already begun to draw responses and controversy. I talked to Saleh about this anthology and the ways in which it proposes to read Syrian poetry today:

Hussein Bin Hamza: What is the importance of publishing an anthology of Syrian poetry today?

Saleh Diab: The book claims the title of “Contemporary Syrian Poetry”, and so, this anthology cuts across a country called Syria, and opens up to the Arab world in its entirety. The horizon is distinctly an Arab horizon. Its importance lies in the fact that it tries to fill a gap, pave a road yet untraveled by French readers and scholars, a different road leading to modern Arabic poetry. Syrian poets opened crossings and paved paths, molded styles and discovered untouched poetic terrains in Arab poetics. Had we omitted three of them: Adonis, Muhammad al-Maghut and Nizar Qabbani, Arabic poetry would have probably looked very different today. The three of them crumbled traditional literary trends and invented new poetic sensibilities, initiated deviations, and started esthetic and artistic coups. However, in my mind, there is no stylistically particular Syrian poetry distinct from the poetry written in neighboring Arab countries. There are no multiple Arab poeticities. There is only one Arab poeticity. Individual poets, in multiple poetic idioms, are included in this poeticity. Syrian poetry had been formed in close connection with poetry in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and is therefore part of an all-inclusive picture which is the picture of Arabic poetry. An anthology of poetry written in Syria is a poetic event on an Arab scale, and not an exclusively Syrian affair. And yet it presents a different image of Syrians, an image expressing the most beautiful gifts they gave to the Arab world and the world at large.

HBH: Do you think the anthology is an esthetic, poetic intervention in response to what is happening in Syria in the past seven years? Was this your intention, and if so, how?

SD: When I started working on the anthology, I had no political purpose whatsoever. I was thinking about it long before the war. In the beginning, I started translating poems by Arab poets into French to assess the measure of their poetic strength in a different language. For the last ten years, I have also been translating Arab poets into French and vice versa for the purpose of poet gatherings here in France. During a conversation with my thesis mentor, he pointed out to me that a gap in the French library needs to be filled by producing an anthology of modern Arabic poetry in French, and that’s what I have been working on for years.

As any anthology, my selections aim to preserve and consecrate a certain poetics, to single it out and dwell on it, to include it and exclude other things. What stood before me was how to present the most dynamic models in a poetic movement and among poetic texts in Syria over a century. I did not merely choose poets by name, and did not randomly select poems to go with each poet, but carefully selected poems that spoke to me, poems I’ve grown friendly with. I hung many of them on the walls of the rooms where I lived, and many have remained in my memory. I was determined to present French readers with what was most innovative in the Syrian poetic lab. I selected them after reading the full works of each poet, with precision, care, and inventiveness like someone arranging a bouquet of flowers, coming back home in the evening after a walk and setting it on the table. That’s what the Greek term “anthology” originally means.

But in the face of human savagery and the collapse of all moral values, the pathetic role changes between victims and executors, martyrs and mercenaries, the widespread organized barbarities, the exploitation of the poor as firewood in the war’s furnace, I wanted to present these Arab esthetic achievements through their Syrian example and its human depth in defiance of the proliferation of greedy political propagandists and blood merchants in the media presenting shallow kitsch as great Syrian literature. I wanted to convey to French readers a voice other than the fake voices spread by politicians, NGOs, and certain political parties. The other voice, which is being purposely erased, and which I celebrate, is the real Syrian poetic voice. It is the face of Syrians and their name.   

HBH: Are French readers also the target audience for this vision, in particular since that the book is published in a French press that specializes in poetry?

SD: Of course. But the translations are not meant solely for those who can’t read Arabic. They are also for readers versed in Arabic poetry, who make themselves into translators while reading, since the book is printed in both languages.

It is very important, of course, that the book is printed in a publishing house that specializes in poetry, with distribution in both France and Francophone countries, a non-partisan publishing house which has been one of the central publishers loyal to poetry for over forty years. That gives the book a good name, a sense of recognition from poetry specialists and the literary community outside the ideological interests and the profit-seeking tokenization of the Syrian tragedy.  It is also supported by the National Book Center (CNL) that consists of expert reader professors, who allowed the book to see light. I’ve prepared for French readers those poems in which the imprint of translations from European poetry is most visible. Hopefully, these foreign texts will be received so that they can have an afterlife through their French reader, who is invited to see the other, the foreign, up-close, and enter deep into the other’s culture through poetry. In the wrinkles of these poems we may find the esthetics of European poetry, but the Arab poets drank it all up and sank it in their own poetics. To re-introduce it in Arab form to its French readers involves us in a process of role-exchange between self and other. That’s one of the traits of translation. Here the languages meet on an equal level where there is no dominating and dominated language.

HBH: As in any selection or any anthology, some experiences are embraced and some are put aside. What happened in this anthology and according to what standards?

SD: Of course, certain esthetic and artistic criteria preceded the choices I made. These criteria are a fruit of my subjective reading and my personal views on poetry. I do not measure poetry by ideologies. This is an anthology, but it is also a unified book, and it should be read from start to finish. I chose the names based on chronologic succession, pausing to examine the relative poetic position occupied by the experience of each poet. Like any anthology, it presents the reader with a number of deliberate choices. It is an anthology, not an encyclopedia or lexicon or a comprehensive survey of each and every poet. A bouquet of chosen poems and choice depends on taste. I chose poets for whom poetry was an existential concern, poets who raised fundamental questions about its meanings and techniques, who addressed the relation between poet and self, poet and world, poet and cultural heritage, absorbing the poetic accomplishments of predecessors and contemporaries, those who turned esthetic achievements into personal ones and tried to go beyond these achievements each in his own way, poets who gave personal experience a central place in their poetics. The language of these poets is free from direct, provocative sloganizing, whether ideological, sexual, religious, or morally didactic. These poets put their heart, soul and life into their poetic experience and saw poetry as an act of belief, a dynamic identity open to the future. They went a long way in inventing new forms of expression.  I set aside those texts that read like rhetorical or sentimental writing exercises, and those whose language was too descriptive or too much like newspeak.

I did not consider gender either. Poetry is a literary genre and not a social condition. There is nothing poetic in making one quota for men and another for women. There was only one quota and that was poetry.  Arabic poetry is indebted in its spaces and forms to many translations that were lifted to the status of originals. True poetry is universal in nature. I think that I chose the poems whose humanizing vision and language structures intersect with my reading in world poetry. There are poems in dialogue with translations from Rilke, Ritsos, Vaptsarov[2], Saint-John Perse and Attila.[3] I translated what I liked. A translator is a crossroads, a transmitter of thoughts, poetic values and cultural goods. From “there” to “here”. But translators must find something precious to translate, something of poetic value urging them to insert the other into the self and open the “here” onto “there”, the other onto the self and vice versa, in a process of back and forth between two cultures and languages. I’m frankly baffled by the objections of some people to my selection on moral grounds, by the grumbling about the absence of X’s relatives, friends or loved ones, and by the complaints that I didn’t include enough of Y’s poems, or the demands that I drop a quarter of the anthology because Z has a political dispute with the one of the authors.  No one can take my place and read these poems like I did. Taking that away from me would be like robbing me or changing my title. They are asking you to play active part in a book which carries your signature, the anthology of your precious flowers which you want to dedicate to your loved one. These poems called out for me to translate them with their rich offering of poetic value and esthetic merit. Translation requires humble men and women who will hug other people’s poems with affection and celebrate them as if they were their own.

HBH: It should be noted that you decided to include almost none of the poets of 1960s.[4] Why?

SD: I did not construct the collection generationally. In my opinion, poetry has nothing to do with this kind of periodization. I think, though, that what by agreement is called “the sixties generation” of Syrians can be divided into three groups: the first group is of poets who derive from the esthetics of the Adonisian poem and recycle it. These poets do not interrogate his poetic language and go beyond it, but simply imitate it. The second group intersects with “resistance” poetry and has artistic structures similar to those of Nizar. These poets went in the direction of socio-historical writing with clear messages. In my opinion, these are two traditionalist groups that wanted to be derivative rather than creative or generative. They re-used what had already been produced with formal variations and took on forms of expressions drawn from predecessors or contemporaries. As for the third group, these are the poets who displayed genuine poetic consciousness and whose writing goes beyond the two other groups. They looked to writing as an extension of their bodies and souls. This would be the group of Syrian poets who budded and flourished in the free air of Beirut. They discovered new poetic forms, developed new methods of writing, and opened up to the world. Until now when I read the poems of this group I sense their faithfulness to poetry. They saw poetry as a kind of inner creative process whereby ordinary seeing transforms into vision that establishes a connection with inner life, reassembles the world and creates it anew. This group posed fundamental questions about the identity of Arabic poetry, the relation of poet to self, poet to world, poet to language and turāth. Questions of life and death that embrace the cosmos. The poet is revealed in their poem as responsible not only for himself but for the entire world. Their poetry speaks to me even today.        

HBH: From the eighties and nineties, you decided for the work of poets emerging from the University of Aleppo forum.[5] Why didn’t you include any poetic experience from the third millennium?

SD: I don’t consider poetry through the generational lens. Badawi al-Jabal’s poems speak to me far more than those of the third millennium. Again, the anthology is not constructed generationally. The city of Aleppo served in the 1980s as a literary workshop that greatly enriched Syrian literature, and the University of Aleppo literary forum is, in my opinion, the last Syrian experimental lab in terms of poetry and literature. The forum’s poets showed a sharp poetic consciousness and despite the paucity of their poetic production, they wrote poems of lasting value. Their poeticism interrogated the poetics of Shi‘r magazine as well as the poetics of the seventies, or what is known as the poetics of orality [al-qasida al-shafawiyya]. They also benefited from some of the poetic experiences in Lebanon of the late 1970s,[6] opened up to translated world poetry, and re-connected with the Arab cultural heritage. The strongly posed questions of genre: prose, poetry and turāth, the relation of poetry to reality, the task of the poet and his relation to politics and esthetics.  Their poems are timeless, belonging to human time and human place. They were not seeking after fame or publication because they thought that a poet can write only one book of poetry in his lifetime, or even one poem that carries his language and particular esthetic stamp.

In my opinion, the problem of third millennium poets, as you call them, is first and foremost with reading. They have not read carefully enough the history of the modern Arab poetic movements, starting from Gibran and Rihani passing through Shi‘r magazine and the Iraqi innovators, and ending with the Kirkuk group and other Syrian and Lebanese poets. Their writings reveal the limitations of their poetic consciousness. The main stumbling block in their discourse is the ways in which they use language and poetic speech. They write in esthetic molds that have already been tried and exhausted. Their writing is conformist in this sense, and recycles phrases, patterns, sentences and methods that have been used up.

HBH: In the anthology’s French section, your translations seem to give off a whiff of artistic composition. The mere preference for certain kinds of experience is a bias informed by personal taste. Translation thus elevates personal taste to the level where it merges with artistic composition, or in the lesser estimate, carries over esthetic molds. Does the pleasure of publishing this book lie there in the end?

SD: The translator is the author’s double and his shadow-figure. He plays a kind of shadow game of mirroring with respect to the original. The translator has to follow in the footsteps of the poet, to keep pace with him [literally: to stay hoof to hoof with the poet]. Translating, he both reads and writes. Or more precisely, he labors to attain an image from the original poem. Reading and writing meet in the process of translating. The translated text belongs to the author but the image belongs to the translator. That’s why there is a copyright law to protect the rights of translators, because this image is the property of the translator, not the author. Translation is a form of writing.  It allowed me to enter the most intimate mihrāb (prayer niche) of poets and see what concerns them and matters to them in the finest detail of their creative work. It made me read their texts deeply and understand them. I would not have been able to translate them with ordinary reading. Perhaps I had a certain desire to possess the poems I love through translation. Maybe I was dreaming I could become all the poets I translate. In translation reading and writing cross paths and come together, a meeting enshrined in love. I have created versions of the poems and have tried to come as close as I can to the original texts. I’ve made an effort to infuse the spirit of the poems in different bodies of language. I have caused them to transmigrate and live in other bodies.

Ultimately, I think that the horizon of this anthology is distinctly human. The poems I chose do not belong to a specific time and place, but to human place and human time. When I read them, I don’t think of form and content, but of an enormous existential joy. The poems are no longer verbal constructs in language but amulets interpreting for me a mysterious world, to which I find no final explanation.

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Embroidery

By Saleh Diab

Translated by Daniel Behar

We have a country

where we left our friends

tangled together in sorrows

or picturing snow

hoping for the hilltops of their solitude to whiten

 

What can we do

underneath a foreign sky

but listen to forgetfulness

as it embroiders our lives

like lace;

but regret adequately

in the open air

and dry up

reading books.

 

From: A Dry Moon Watches over My Life, Beirut, 1998

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Place of Refuge

By Nazih Abu Afash

Translated by Daniel Behar

 

Whenever you see a group of people agree on the Word of Truth,

know for sure that you – you, the singular person – will be the scapegoat.

Hence: do not agree to less than being all alone.

 

Be alone

alone with no support, no doctrine, no companion:

that will be your heroism.

 

The worst thing an ewe can do

is seek refuge inside the herd.

 

2/4/2011 (published in al-Akhbar, 3/1/2013)

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Siege

By Bandar Abd al-Hamid

Translated by Daniel Behar

 

My friend Abbāsa and I

feel besieged by big cars

and imported perfumes

we escape to the empty side-streets

and talk about little wars

the prices of matches and tea

and Saddat’s visit to Israel

my friend says

that she heard a vague statement

made by the American Foreign Secretary

she laughs, my friend Abbāsa,

and steals a small white flower for me

and we stroll along

pass by the military court

I extend my hand

and touch hers stealthily

I tell her about Tell She‘ir village[7]

and confess to her

that, in my childhood,

I used to play in mud.

 

From: Adventures of the Fingers and the Eyes, Damascus, 1981

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The Orange

By Munzir Masri

Translated by Daniel Behar

 

Life begins from your two thumbs

holding the orange from its middle and top

the moment you are hit in one eye

with a squirt from its spirited juice

as you break it in half.

 

Alive. And before you

two slices of orange

I can see no higher moment of bliss

you should aspire to no higher moment of bliss

strictly defined, life

is what you, in a moment, will squeeze out

between your teeth…

 

Damascus

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Aleppo

By Muhammad Fu’ad

Translated by Daniel Behar

Where letters are locked up in mailboxes

and the passerby,

moving from one café to another,

drinks his coffee salted.

where boredom rises up

stone over stone

and the old epic tales

are no good anymore

for passing the time.

 

Peace upon you, insects

climbing up the table

the waiter

will clear you out

with one blow

from his dirty rag!

 

From: The One Left Aside, Damascus, 1998

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Never Mind

By Adel Mahmoud

Translated by Daniel Behar

 

O, policeman

my dear policeman

raise the gallows higher

a little higher

a little bit higher

towards the blue sky:

For I am

a tall

man!

 

From: Drafts on the World, Damascus, 1981

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The Dagger

By Riyad al-Saleh Hussein

Translated by Daniel Behar

 

The man died

Dagger in his heart

Smile on his lips

The man died

He takes a walk in his grave

Looks up

Looks down

Looks all around

Nothing but earth

Nothing but the shining fist

Of the dagger in his chest

The dead man smiles

And fondles the dagger-handle

The dagger is his only friend

The dagger –

A dear memory from those on top.

 From: A Mountain Goat in the Woods, Damascus, 1983

Saleh Diab was born in Aleppo in 1967. As a poet, journalist, and literary critic, he has published in numerous newspapers and periodicals. He has translated a number of poets from Arabic into French (Salah Faïk, Huda a-Daghfag, Yehia Jaber, Youssef Bazzi, Mohamed al Maghout, Nazih Abou Afach, Riad As-Salih Housein, Abed ar-Rahi al-Khassar, others) and from French into Arabic (Jean-Yves Masson, Jacqueline Risset, Marie-Claire Bancquart, Gabrielle Althen, Annie Salager, Liliane Giraudon, Rachida Madani, Mohammed Hamoudan). He has also published three collections of poetry, Kamaroun Yabison Yatani Bihayati (Editions Dar Al Jadid, Beirut, 1998), which was translated into French as Une lune sèche veille sur ma vie (A Dry Moon Watches over My Life) (Editions Comp’Act, 2004), Saif Yonanai/A Greek Summer (Editions Mérite, Cairo, 2006), Tourslina Sikinanan, Aoursilou Khanjaran/ You Go for Me with a Knife, and I Go for You with a Dagger (Editions Charqiat, Cairo, 2009) and has edited an anthology of contemporary Syrian poetry, Nawares Sawdaa/Black Seagulls (Editions Maison de la poésie, Alger, 2007). Has also published a book of critical essays on contemporary women’s poetry in Arabic, Container of Sufferings/ Récipient de douleur (Editions Clapas, 2007). A collection of his poems published in 2013, I Went Through My Life/ J’ai visité ma vie, won the Thyde Monnier Prize of the Société des Gens de Lettres. In March 2018, Le Castor Astral  published his latest edited volume, Contemporary Syrian Poetry / Poesie syrienne contemporaine. His poetry has been translated into English by Paul Roddie, John Doherty, and Daniel Behar.

Diab has lived in France since 2000.

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Daniel Behar (dbehar@fas.harvard.edu) is a PhD student of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, currently writing a dissertation on modern Arabic poetry in Syria. His publications include poetry translations from Muhammad al-Maghut and Sargon Boulus into Hebrew.    

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[1]Ḍaffa Tahlitha”, Al-Arabi al-Jadid, March 20, 2018:

[2] The Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov (1909-1942) who was translated and widely received in Syrian poetry of the 1970s.

[3] The Hungarian poet Attila József (1905-1937), who was likewise translated and received in Syria in the same time-period.

[4] Bin Hamza here mainly refers to Muhammad Amran, Ali al-Jundi, Mamduḥ Adwan, and Fayiz Khaddur, the most representative Syrian poets of the period.

[5] al-Multaqa al-Adabi fi Jami‘at Halab is an important literary forum of young Syrian poets and fiction writers that used to assemble weekly in the University of Aleppo in the early 1980s. Some of the participants in this forum – Khaled Khalifa and Nihad Sirees particularly –  have become well-known on the Arab and international stage.

[6] Probably referring to the prose poem style of Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun.

[7] A village in the far north of Syria, right on the border with Turkey, and very close to the town of Kobane.

Click HERE to read more from this author.


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