On poetry, tradition, risk-taking, and colonial barbarians

A conversation between Indian poet Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee and Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish.

Poets Najwan Darwish and Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee [Courtesy of: Richa Burman]

I first met Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish in the World Poetry Festival, organised by the Sahitya Akademi, in New Delhi in March, 2014. His poems left a special impression, and I spoke to him after the reading. We spent an evening together in Connaught Place, talking about poetry, Palestine, Mahmud Darwish and Mirza Ghalib. I also discovered he did not enjoy being photographed. 

Najwan lives in two cities: his birthplace, Jerusalem, and Haifa. The New York Review of Books, which published the English translation of his collection of poems, Nothing More to Lose, describes him, “one of the foremost Arabic-language poets of his generation”. Najwan’s poetry has been translated to over 20 languages. He is also a cultural critic and the head editor of the culture section in the Arab-language newspaper Al Araby Al Jadeed.

In February, I had the opportunity to see him again when he came to attend the biennale of Asian Poetry in New Delhi. I thought it would be a good idea to discuss our different and difficult worlds. We live in politically disturbing times. A fascist form of nationalism has waged war against minorities, migrants, and dissenters and its effects are being felt from India to Palestine and all the way to former and current colonial powers in the West.

Below are excerpts of our conversation in a cafe, at Delhi’s Khan Market.

Manash: So, colonialism has come between the coloniser and the colonised. But it has also damaged the coloniser.

Najwan: A lot of third-world thinkers would be busy trying to cure the coloniser, and analyse how colonisation damaged the coloniser. I am not interested in the coloniser. In either curing or advising him.

Manash: It has damaged the relationship they are also a part of.

Najwan: Everyone is part of the relation. But the amount of damage they inflict between you and your history, between you and your roots, between you and your land: It is quite damaging, both intellectually, and on the national persona. It induces a metamorphosis. It creates someone, who’s self-hating. A big part of our suffering today comes from self-hating politicians and intellectuals.

Manash: The coloniser comes and distorts your relationship with your own history and culture. But would you not also acknowledge the history of violence, of othering, before the coloniser had arrived in the scene? What about that? What about what happened in India, before the British arrived?

Najwan: You mean there were troubles before the barbarians.

Manash: Yes, there were troubles to which the Western barbarians added their own system of exploitation.

Najwan: This may have some truth. But I don’t see any historical novelty in locating our problems in a time before the arrival of the “barbarians”. Their arrival – invasion – was catastrophic. I don’t believe in blaming the victim. I like the metaphor of the coloniser as “barbarian”, as they use the word often to describe the colonised.

Manash: Yes. I must tell you, the Belgian poet and artist, Henri Michaux, wrote a book titled, A Barbarian in Asia. So, at least he acknowledged that!

Najwan: And Arthur Rimbaud too had some reflection on it, in his poetry. He called himself a savage.

Manash: For [Constantine] Cavafy, on the other hand, [waiting for] the barbarians who never arrive, barbarises us. There is always this fear of the other, painted as barbarian. In India, there is the fear of the Muslim. That Muslims will take over this country. An Indian scholar, Arjun Appadurai, aptly calls it, “the fear of small numbers”.

Najwan: This fear, we know, is a fabricated one. What matters now is we need to stand against, to reject, someone who oppresses and exploits others. The abuse, the exploitation, is what we need to denounce, before anything else. It is common for people from different backgrounds, to have certain fears about each other. These are problems of difference. People can overcome them with time, by knowing each other better. But these are not a system of oppression like colonialism, or neoliberalism.

Manash: The problem of exploitation and difference come together in the colonial project.

Najwan: Yes, colonialism mostly works on difference. They mis-transform the difference. Not even mis-transform. They mis-define the difference. In colonised societies, you can find people living with their differences, over hundreds and thousands of years. Why does trouble happen when the coloniser arrives? It happens because colonisation redefines differences.

Manash: We start seeing ourselves the way they frame the mirror for us. For example, the problem of Hindu fundamentalism is a product of colonialism.

Najwan: We have similar phenomena in the Arab world. Colonisation convinced some identities they are very special, and different from others, to get a better status and be closer to civilisation. It feeds a kind of fake superiority. They convince them they are superior and endangered at the same time. It’s a classical use of the fear complex.

Manash: This is Hegel’s “cunning of reason”. In my book [Looking for the Nation], I critique Hegel’s distinction between the risk taken by a self-preserving animal, in contrast to human risk. Hegel connects the desire to risk in human beings, to the desire for power. How can power be a higher human quality? Both remain, I argue, within the sphere of territoriality. Hegel’s distinction between animal and human (risking) doesn’t hold at the ethical level. Ethically, risk is the opposite. It is related to risking our vulnerability. We are human beings because we take risks. We risk the other. Love is a risk. Not necessarily against a threat. But the risk that takes you out of your house, beyond your sphere of familiarity.

Najwan: It is a risk. It is. Criminal thinking does not involve risk. Even fundamentalists do not like to risk.

Manash: They are calculative. They calculate their risks.

Najwan: The value of risk is often missed. Let me tell you a story.

Once, I was talking with an elderly friend. He was telling me, when he was at college in Jerusalem after the Occupation of 1948, a professor of history told the class, “All these troubles in Palestine were because of Umar ibn al-Khattab”. Umar is the second caliph [or political successor to] the Prophet. When the Byzantines surrendered Jerusalem to Umar, he did not make any religious, ethnic cleansing. He granted the citizens of Jerusalem their religious freedom. There is a document that exists till today, called the Al-Uhda Al-ʿUmariyya, the agreement given to the Jerusalemites who were Christians, that you are safe with your faith. According to the teacher of this friend, “This was the mistake of Umar. Umar left the Christians in Jerusalem. For this reason, we face Crusades till today. If he had thrown them out of the place, we wouldn’t have had Crusades.” The irony is that this history professor was a Christian himself, yet he thought Umar made a big mistake.

Let me take another, parallel example. In Granada, Spain, after the fall of the Arab-Islamic rule in Granada, (Granada was the last Islamic city to fall from the Muslims), there was a peace agreement between Isabella and her husband [Ferdinand], the Catholic queen and king, with the last Muslim ruler. According to the agreement of surrender, Muslims would be safe in Granada. They would have religious rights, etc. Within a hundred years, the Catholics committed genocide in Granada. They transferred all the Muslims, and committed several massacres. They imposed a monolithic, Catholic identity on the city. When I went to Granada the first time, I found a mono-city, bearing just one religious identity. All that survived of the Arabs, apart from the palaces, is probably a few gypsy songs and a few gypsy singers.

At that moment, I felt how much I am indebted to Umar ibn al-Khattab, who allowed me to grow up with Christian neighbours in a multiple society. Umar, he took a risk, fourteen hundred years ago. His risk – according to the view of the professor in the story – brought us the Crusades, and probably the Crusades brought us, the Zionist colonialism today. I am from a people, whose 60-70 percent of the population is in exile, are refugees. And the rest are under occupation. But if the time would come again, I would go with Umar and his risk.

This risk allows me to be a better poet. Without this risk, if I would imagine myself in a mono-society, I think I wouldn’t write what I have written.

Even in Granada, the best poet of the city, [Federico] Garcia Lorca, acknowledged his Arab roots, and [his] diverse heritage. In my opinion, for this reason he is Granada’s most memorable poet.

Manash: So we can draw from here, a certain description, if not definition, of a good, or great poet, or of poetry itself.

Najwan: It is the risk.

Manash: So a genuine poet, is one born out of historical confrontation, and one who acknowledges that confrontation, opens up to it, and does not deny the place of the other in that confrontation?

Najwan: No doubt. This is true for poets like Al-Mutanabbi, Ghalib and Hafez-e Shirazi. There is an interesting anecdote about Hafez. He lived in the time of Timur Lang’s invasion of Persia, and the Arab region. Historians say, he met Timur, when Timur invaded Shiraz.

Manash: Is it the same Timur Lang, the Mongol, who invaded India?

Najwan: You call them Mongol. We call them, al-maghoul, in Arabic. Timur himself was a Tatar. There is a story, when he invaded Shiraz. He was so violent. He asked his army to bring Hafez. Hafez was quite famous, then. I personally think, when Timur invaded the city, he was aware he was invading the city of Hafez. They brought him after they killed a lot of people in the city. Timur was surprisedHafez seemed a poor man, in a wretched condition. He hadn’t shaved, and wasn’t wearing good clothes. The reputation didn’t match the sight. Looking at Hafez, he told him, “In your miserable condition, will you dare to dedicate my two capital cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, for the mole in the face of your beloved?” [In one of his poems, Hafez had written: “Would that Shirazi Turk behold our heart; then, / I’ll gift, to her Indian Mole, both Samarkand and Bokhara.”] Hafez gave a smart answer. He said to Timur, “The extravagance of which you speak has put me in this state you see.”

When you think of it, it is a very clever answer to the invader. There was a lot of irony in it, a lot of dignity.

Manash: It reminds me of a legend, involving the 17th-century Persian poet from Kashmir, Gani Kashmiri. The Mughal King, Aurangzeb, asked his governor Saif Khan, to summon Gani to his court. When Khan conveyed the emperor’s wish, Gani refused to comply, citing his madness. When Khan questioned his claim, Gani tore off his shirt and walked away in frenzy. He too cleverly defended his freedom and dignity, against the royal order.

Najwan: But to come back to why we started talking about Hafez, the issue of risk.

Manash: Yes, risk and its relationship with poetry.

Najwan: The difference between a poet or an artist and others, lies in the amount of risk. When I was young, I used to meet people who wanted to become poets. I would pity them. They want to become poets without risking anything. And for me, I feel it doesn’t work. You can’t be a poet if you are risking nothing. If everything in your life is guaranteed. How you would become a poet? How you can bring a new sentence in the world, if you risk nothing?

Manash: Bad poets can’t take risks in language. Language is a reflection of life. If you can’t risk in life, you can’t risk in language.

Najwan: It seems so. It is connected. The issue that the amount of risk you have is the amount of artistic achievement you will achieve, they are connected. I don’t know how they are connected but they very much are. In the moment when I am risking, I feel I am a better poet. In the moment when I am less risking, I look at myself in the mirror, and say, “Soon, you will not be able to write anything useful.” Whenever I am in a safe situation, I would say, “OK, this is your end as a poet.” For this reason, you will see a lot of “poets” stop being poets after their forties. When they have a position, or job, or family, when they stop risking, and they start benefiting.

Manash: Poets wearing a tie and a suit?

Najwan: Some wear the tie and the suit as a mask for the authorities, and keep risking. It’s a combination of risk and knowledge. The tragedy of the poet and the artist is – that life is short. If we would have lived 300, or 500 years, anyone could have been a great poet. Anyone! When it’s only 50, 60 or 70 years, you need to have enough knowledge of things, of the history of poetry, of geography, and have enough human experience. All these contribute to the fine recipe necessary for a poet. Very few individuals are able to achieve all these in such a short time.

Manash: It reminds me of Rilke’s “For the Sake of a Single Poem”. He says in the poem, it takes a lifetime of experiences and memories to namelessly enter our blood, glance and gesture, for us to be able to write a poem. But what would you say of (Arthur) Rimbaud? He became a genius by 21, because he had read a lot till that age?

Najwan: No doubt about that. I don’t think a pastoral poet would do a huge thing. Since the 19th century, it is impossible to become a pastoral poet. A poet also needs to be an intellectual. It’s quite difficult to capture the world with a pastoral perception.

Manash: Poets have borrowed the pastoral mode. Say Walt Whitman. How do you find him?

Najwan: There is something missing in his lyrical brotherhood. I am afraid, the real (historical) other in Whitman’s poetry is nothing more than an abstract, lyrical construct. We need to see, for example, how the Black and Native Americans appear (or disappear) in his poetry.

Manash: By talking about everybody in his poems, he wasn’t talking about specific people. Just like the Arab is hardly present in Yehuda Amichai’s poetry. Only in one poem, he mentions the Arab shepherd looking for his lost sheep on Mount Zion, while the Jewish father is looking for his son. The Arab is represented as a shepherd.

Najwan: The Arab is not good enough to search for a son. He can only search for a sheep.

Manash: This is precisely the reflection of territorial imagination in poetry.

Najwan: I don’t see Amichai as an “Israeli” poet. For me, he wrote in Hebrew, but he belonged to the European tradition. Most of that generation of “Israeli poets”, those early settlers, they belonged culturally to the Western traditions, to the Germanic tradition of poetry, French tradition, the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Manash: Talking of traditions, I write in English, and am a reader of world poetry in translation, including the Indian vernaculars. I can read my mother tongue, Bengali, and Hindi which I learnt in school, besides English. I can understand Urdu poetry, though I can read only in the Devanagari script. But still, I can’t say which tradition I belong to. I feel I belong to many traditions, and none. I write from a sense of void, when it comes to tradition.

Najwan: You are a gypsy of traditions. When I look at my own poetry, I belong to the Arabic tradition, which belongs to wide geographies and cultures. It also interacts with other traditions. The Turco-Persian tradition is also part of my own. The Oriental traditions in general, including part of Indian traditions, I would think as my own. I am however not far from the Western poetic traditions, which are based on the Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions.

Manash: When I read Rumi or Hafez, I feel a connection, an affinity, which perhaps comes from my reading Urdu poetry. From having read someone like Khusrau, or even Ghalib.

Najwan: It came through Urdu and it came through the Arabs. āfeẓ, for example, is a Persian poet, but his culture during that time was an Arab culture. Hafiz wrote few poems in Arabic. He wrote a type of poems, called al-mulamma’at [also called, “patchwork poems”], which uses an Arabic verse or repeats some Arabic verses within a Persian poem. He belongs as well to the Arabic literary tradition. Even the word ‘ghazal’, the form which exist in the Persian language, and now exists in Indian languages, came from the pre-Islamic genre of love poems. We still call love poetry, ghazal. It’s like a circle. But the circle is much bigger.

The other day I was reading an interview of TS Eliot in Paris Review, taken in 1959. In the first question, the interviewer asked him the circumstances under which he begun to write poetry. You will be surprised, it was Omar Khayyam (the Persian poet, who wrote sparsely in Arabic) who inspired him at the age of 14, to begin writing poetry. Eliot’s Perso-Arabic influences remain unacknowledged. People of that generation of Anglo-Saxon poets took a lot from the Orient. For example, when you look at the personal life of Ezra Pound, you will find he gave the name, Omar, to his son. It is an old habit in Western culture to deny the Arabic debt. Seventy-eighty percent of what the West claims for itself was taken from the Arab-Islamic civilisation.

Manash: You might be showing some bias here?!

Najwan: You would think so. I used to think so, too. But my travelling the world and my readings in all these years, have made things clear. If you see, from science, to architecture, to literature, the influences are unbelievable.

Manash: What about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? It produced a break with tradition in the West, and the birth of a new, rationalist tradition.

Najwan: The Renaissance and it its consequences are unimaginable without the contribution of the Arab-Islamic civilization, which comes from the Eastern Mediterranean, since ancient times. The influence of the Andalusian experience and the contributions of people like Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Farabi, Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Al-Khwarizmi, Jabir ibn Hayyan, is well-known. The list is long.

Wherever you find something beautiful in the West, search for the Arabic influence.

Manash: I am absolutely persuaded by the Arabic influence. I am only saying, we must not reduce Western civilisation to influences alone.

Najwan: It is not our work to reduce, or even praise. The “tragedy” of Europe is its light comes from the Arabic oil.

Manash: A very poetic metaphor. Where is the oil in your lamp coming from?

The West appropriated Greece, while they left out Egypt. They thought the Greeks were rationalists, and they are the new rationalists. Unlike the West, we received and accepted our influences openly. In fact, tradition is not something geographically fixed. Tradition travels. It moves.

Najwan: No, not just moves. Sometimes, it emigrates.

Manash: Absolutely. Tradition is an emigre. Tradition is in transit.

Najwan: Yes, it would take roots in a new land. What interests me in poetry and in culture in general, is to follow these emigrations of roots and traditions. When we read poetry, for example, we enjoy how poets continue with a particular tradition, or break with it, or add to it. There is always something to do with tradition. Your poetic experience is experienced through tradition. We can’t get rid of, we can’t write, without tradition.

I don’t want to sound obsessed with my past, or with my identity, but I think we can’t embrace any identity if we don’t embrace our own. We understood modernity as the deserting of roots, of the past. Our intellectuals became Orientalists.

Manash: Finally, how do you see our connection as poets?

Najwan: Poets belong to different trees. There are poets I don’t feel affinity with. There are poets who belong to my family tree. It has to do with sensitivity, causes, and other things. There are poets I can’t stand. We prefer poets who risk what we risk, believe what we believe. I mean a wider, not narrow, meaning of “believe”. I wouldn’t stand a poet who thinks his culture is better than other cultures, that his nation is better than other nations. I hope I am not sounding like one, in this conversation.

The views expressed in this article are the conversants’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.