Poet Ghayath Almadhoun reflects on his position as refugee and how it has influenced his writing. Almadhoun is one of the invited authors of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival to be held at Fort St Elmo. Interview by Jean Paul Borg.
Ghayath, in an article penned by yourself you claimed that “poetry is still the Arab’s master art, old important and with a great heritage.” You call yourself a poet. However, your writing is anything but orthodox poetry; it takes on the form of prose poetry. You seem to have mastered the art of breaking the border between the two forms. Was this borne from the necessity of narrating what’s happening in your city of birth, Damascus, and subsequently to your life? On the other hand, is the poetry in your narration a compromise with your heritage?
I am able to simply improvise poetry, especially classics, on the traditions of Arabic poetry. I was born like this, but I do it just for fun, not for publishing. Maybe I’m still doing it to please the Bedouin in me, but in terms of serious writing, I go a different way.
I cut it myself, according to the path of modernity. I work on texts in an experimental way by building sentences and images in a complex way, in which logic mingles with dreams and memories. I write my nightmares in the form of love poems.
Does the prose poetry composition also reflect your position as a refugee, where sometimes you give the impression that your life is neither here nor there?
I was born as a refugee, because of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Europeans killed the Jewish and we Palestinians found ourselves as refugees in many countries. We paid the price without consent for a sin we did not commit, as a solution to this European long history of racism against the Jews.
In a recent interview, you counterargued the claim that your poetry is political. Yet, wars – present and historic – are often at the centre of your poetry. You mention refugees, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and massacres. Is the personal automatically political?
Yes, my poetry is not politics, it is my life. Of course, everything is automatically political, but I don’t like to categorize things, if the poets in Malta have had my life, they would have written my poems.
Mutilated bodies are all across your poetry. Do you feel it is your duty to tell this tale? Is this a political or personal tale?
I write my memories, my experiences, I reflect my life. My nightmares are an intimate part of my texts, I cannot be separated from reality. Most of what I write are love poems, but my dictionary is problematic. Poetically, when you look at the details, the devil is in the details.
In “A metaphor from a virtual world” you claim that “Since everybody is going to die in the end, the death rate in Syria and Sweden is the same.” This taste of irony is very present in your poetry. At other times your tone is either undecided or simply ironical, such as in your verse, “which is the harsher: the Swedish winter or the Arab spring?” Is this a substitution to the use of the metaphor?
In general, the metaphor is a patriarchal thing, the metaphor has been associated with hiding behind symbols, to escape from the eye of the watchdog. You often find that the metaphor flourishes under the rule of dictatorships. The poet is freed from the metaphor and the hiding behind symbols when he is liberated.
The irony is resistance.
The irony is bitterness that is coated with sugar, and at the same time, it is a purely human act, which other creatures do not do. The higher the pace of tragedies, the higher the pace of irony. In Arabic, we say: the worst affliction is what is making you laugh.
You also talk about a “virtual world.” Does life in European cities like Stockholm and Berlin, in comparison to your birthplace Damascus, feel like a “virtual world”? Can you identify a life in exile as “real”?
On the contrary, these days I feel that Damascus is the virtual world, that wonderful city no longer exists except in our memory, and our memory will disappear when we die. No one will believe us when we talk about the splendour of Damascus. The Damascus I was in has disappeared, it is from the past, and that past will never return, people died and the place was destroyed.
I believe that cities do not easily hand over their keys to strangers, but if we consider Damascus as the oldest inhabited capital, then all the cities in the world are a reflection of the first city, a simulation of some kind.
I am the poet of cities, I adore megacities, finding my loneliness in crowds, and I feed on this myriad of dreams and traps intertwined in one place. Cities for me are life, millions of dreams and possibilities concentrated in one spot, which is a very poetic situation.
While you have artfully crossed the border between prose and poetry, there is a feeling of ‘us and them’ in your writing. In your poem “We,” you (ironically) “offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilised world.” The European citizen is declared as someone “who enjoys the privileges of the first world,” while “we ate the flesh of dogs whose owners have been killed and the environmentalists objected.” Do you feel such an acute difference? After years in the West, does the distance grow in you or is it silenced?
I think there is no distance between me and the West, my Western friends and I are standing on the same side. On our opposite side stand Western and non-Western people, mostly right-wing, neo-Nazis, racists, Islamophobes, patriarchs, etc.
In “Évian,” you draw a parallelism between Syrian and Jewish refugees. This film has won the Best Poetry Film at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Why do you think it resonated so much in a German city?
It resonated for many reasons. First, I live in Berlin. Second, my relationship with Berlin is complicated. I was born a refugee because of this city, this city was the capital of the Third Reich, which caused the Final Solution, because of which, I lost my country, Palestine, to compensate for the Holocaust caused by Berlin.
Third, every time I remember that Berlin was totally destroyed 80 years ago, and now is a wonderful city, it gives me the hope that we will rebuild Syria.
Ghayath Almadhoun will be participating in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed on the 27th and 28th of August at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from showshappening.com.
13 August, 2021