Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Truth Teller

It’s a wonderful thing when poets write prose. Their perceptions are so acute, clarity of expression so exquisite, and images so fresh that reading their prose awakens the mind and refreshes the spirit. When poets write, they restore the act of reading as active engagement and appreciation, like listening to a stirring song, offering a respite from reading as necessity, as chore, or as mild form of torture. For this reason alone, reading Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here is a stimulating experience, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to Palestine and the Palestinians. If you happen to be so attached, Barghouti offers rousing reading plus a haunting, heart-piercing love song.

Because Barghouti is a poet and not a journalist, policymaker, academic, or any of the other very important people that determine how we perceive Palestine, we experience it anew. We experience the permanent disorientation of being Palestinian, either constantly on the move or forcibly fixed in place, always at the behest of others. We see things that are never shown, like the petty joys and idiosyncrasies of ordinary people striving for normalcy. We smell the oranges, jasmine, and coffee that have a special place in the poet’s taste-memory. We hear the sublime voices of Fairouz and Luciano Pavarotti, sacred parts of his writing routine. Reading I Was Born There is like living in Barghouti’s mind for a while, a rich, funny, profoundly insightful place to be.

Written in the same contemplative voice of his earlier I Saw Ramallah (1997), Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here(2009) continues his journeys into Palestine after a 30-year exile. Unlike his first visit in 1996, however, this time the poet’s shuttling back and forth between Cairo, Amman, Ramallah, and his birth village Deir Ghassanah are shadowed by grave events: the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, Ariel Sharon’s 2002 reinvasion of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Iraq war in 2003, the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, and the subsequent machinations of the losing Fatah to unseat Hamas, backed by Israel, the United States, and client Arab regimes. The book also takes in events of personal significance for the poet, like accompanying his son Tamim (himself an accomplished poet) on Tamim’s first visit to Dar Ghassanah and Jerusalem in 1998; Tamim’s deportation from Egypt in 2003 by Mubarak’s government for opposing the Iraq war; and the poet’s brief, unhappy tenure managing a World-Bank funded cultural project for the PNA in 1999.

Barghouti’s pensées are structured in 10 intricately arranged chapters and a four-page coda, chapters that move back and forth in time in a non-sequential ordering that mimics the workings of the mind. The sensibility that made I Saw Ramallah so original and compelling fills the pages of I Was Born There. There’s Barghouti’s poetic concision, the capacity to distill volumes into a few arresting lines. “The occupation soldier stands on a piece of earth and confiscates it, calling it “here”; all that’s left for me, the owner of the earth exiled from it in faraway lands, is to call it “there.” There’s his distinct approach to philosophical rumination. I don’t mean the declamatory, vacuous musings that often pass for philosophizing, but the sort of disarmingly simple, sharp, quiet observations of an introspective soul. As he and Tamim stroll through the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Mourid wonders what it must be like for Tamim to finally experience the city after only knowing it through stories, statistics, and photos. He thinks, “But imagination cannot be cancelled out by reality. The reality that surprises us soon generates in the mind another image. I wonder, is there a reality outside of human imagination? The answer perplexes me.”

But the real pleasure of Barghouti’s memoir are the images that grace nearly every page, images that can only be crafted by someone of uncommon sentience. The powerful opening chapter is chock-full of these. Titled “The Driver Mahmoud,” it tells the story of Barghouti’s trip from Ramallah to Amman via Jericho, on the eve of Sharon’s reinvasion of Ramallah and other Palestinian towns in spring 2002. The Israeli army is on high alert and has blocked major roads. Barghouti takes a taxi from Ramallah to Jericho with six other passengers, helmed by an indomitable young driver named Mahmoud who’s determined to get his passengers safely to Jericho, from where they will take a bus to cross the bridge into Amman. To avoid Israeli checkpoints, soldiers, and tanks, he veers off the main road and takes unpaved back roads in the middle of fields.

Older than his years and unconsciously heroic, Mahmoud takes out a thermos of fresh coffee and small plastic cups and distributes them to his passengers. Barghouti notes, “With the pouring of the first cup, a cunning race ensues between the scent of cardamom and the scent of coffee. The cardamom gets there first, of course.” He looks out the window and sees massive uprooted olive trees as far as the eye can see, “lying out in the open like humiliated corpses…For every olive tree uprooted by an Israeli bulldozer, a Palestinian peasant family tree falls off the wall. ” As the car winds its way through the wilderness and the misty grey valley, it comes to a complete halt in a ditch. Now only a deus ex machina can save them, thinks the poet. Within minutes, a huge yellow crane appears between the trees, gleaming under the drizzle, operated by two young villagers gesturing to Mahmoud to prepare for the rescue operation. Mahmoud reassures his passengers, “Fasten your seat belts, don’t be afraid. We’re going to ride the carousel!” The metal fingers of the crane clasp the taxi, “like fingers plucking a pomegranate seed,” lift it and put it back down on the embankment. All disembark and hug one another, and “we find ourselves clapping, as if celebrating a grand victory.”

Barghouti’s image-making, poetic concision, and philosophical rumination in the new memoir recover the same themes he broached in I Saw Ramallah, themes that are by turns political, aesthetic, and formal. For it would be a mistake to read Mourid Barghouti as a Palestinian poet, rather than a poet who is Palestinian. To be sure, his identity is one wellspring of his art, but his art is not contained by his identity. His sensibility as a writer is just as acute as his love of homeland. Formally, Barghouti uses to great effect the technique of association of ideas. An observation or sensation triggers a memory, which calls forth another memory, which may be followed by a meditation on some object, a preview of some future event, or a return to the present. Each of the book’s chapters is intricately structured in this way, narratives nested within other narratives that flow back and forth across time and space. In the remarkable, eponymous fourth chapter of I Was Born There, while visiting Deir Ghassanah with Tamim, father and son come upon the village school. Mourid is prompted into a reverie on the contrast between his hardscrabble childhood and his son’s relatively privileged upbringing. We’re then transported to an extremely moving flashback into the poet’s childhood, his first time in school, and why his birth certificate lists his first name as Nawaf. The memory morphs into a loving, heartbreaking portrait of his orphaned mother, robbed of an education and forced into a marriage, twin tragedies that she spends her whole life ensuring that her children and grandchildren won’t experience.

Chapter 6, “The Ambulance” is another standout example of the technique of nested memories. At the height of the Israeli reinvasion of Ramallah in 2002, when Israel besieged the city and blocked entry, Barghouti undertakes a risky venture to cross into Ramallah from Jericho in an ambulance. The experience prompts a memory of the first time he rode an ambulance years earlier in Amman, while accompanying the body of his beloved brother Mounif on its return from Paris. A small detail about the devastating death of Mounif recalls for the poet his presence at the hospital bedside of Palestinian historian Emile Touma when he died in Budapest in 1985. Then, Barghouti is momentarily jolted back to the present when the ambulance worker asks him a question, which prompts another memory and portrait of fellow Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouti, who had recently died of cancer as Mourid was being smuggled into Ramallah in an ambulance.

Given the events of the past few years, what was only hinted at in I Saw Ramallah is spelled out in I Was Born There. That’s to say politics, the corruption of the PNA, and its groveling before the Israelis. A stand-in for this state of affairs is the detested figure of Nameq al-Tijani (Glorifier of the Crown), Barghouti’s sarcastic moniker for the lowly, careerist PNA underling who will sell his soul for a handful of shekels. Whenever he sees this type on a bus or at a café, the poet tenses up and removes himself from the premises, so revolted is he with what the Nameqs of Palestine represent. The poet reacts the same way to his one-year stint in 1999 directing a PNA cultural project riddled with corruption. An episode bitterly remembered and elliptically recounted, Barghouti first confronted the corruption at his new workplace, then resigned in protest and went off to Amman for 35 days. After the mediation of trusted friends, he returned to Ramallah to reluctantly finish out his term, though mentally he retreated into the security of his inner world. Of the experience he states tersely, “I decided to respect my voluntary isolation and resume it forever.”

Disillusionment with the PNA isn’t the only political theme in I Was Born There. More original are Barghouti’s reflections on the Palestinian condition. Much more sharply than he articulated in I Saw Ramallah, in the new memoir Barghouti nests Palestinian displacement within the broader regional condition of dictatorship. “Occupation, like dictatorship, doesn’t just ruin political and party life but also individuals’ lives, even those who are non-political.” No Palestinian family is without tangible experiences of ill-treatment and obstruction at the hands of Arab governments. So what is the difference between Israeli occupation and Arab dictatorship? Watching helplessly as Egyptian policemen yank Tamim out of his home in 2003, rifles pointed at his back, Barghouti says, “Violent power is the same, whether Arab or Israeli. Brutality is brutality and violation is violation, regardless of the perpetrator.”

Barghouti is a gentle soul and a discerning mind, but that doesn’t mean he won’t occasionally lapse into unoriginality and coarseness. I grew tired of his gratuitous jabs at Arab feminists, his predictable disdain for the overt religiosity of some Palestinians, especially women in his family, and repeated announcements of his disgust at the PNA. An unusually hateful remark about Palestinian women who veil their face (p. 241) made me sad, not simply because it’s the secular mirror-image of religious bigotry and intolerance, but it commits the same blithe reductionism that the poet so vehemently detests.

For it’s his uncompromising refusal to simplify that makes Barghouti a writer to reckon with. In I Saw Ramallah, he spelled out his disdain for cheap rhetoric masquerading as art: “I wondered again about that rubbish they call the ‘poetry of the stones’ and the poems of solidarity with the ‘children of the stones.’ It is the simplification that takes the accessible and the easy from the human condition and so blurs that condition instead of defining it, misrepresents it at the moment of pretending to celebrate it. It is the eternal difference between profundity and shallowness. Between art and political rhetoric.” (Ahdaf Soueif’s translation).

The battle against platitudes, derivative language, and sheer numbness is fought out on nearly every page of I Was Born There. The poet-philosopher isn’t merely “resisting” but engaging in the most difficult, the most rewarding task there is. “I don’t weep over any past, I don’t weep over this present, I don’t weep over the future. I live with the five senses, trying to understand our story, trying to see.”

Neither the lamenter of his people’s sufferings nor the chronicler of their greatness, Barghouti is something else. “We will tell the story as it ought to be told. We will tell our personal histories one by one. We’ll tell our little stories as we lived them, as our souls, eyes, and imaginations remember them. We won’t leave history to be the history of great events and kings and soldiers and the tomes on dusty shelves. We’ll recount our individual stories, the stories of our bodies and senses that to the ignorant eye appear to be shallow, incoherent, and meaningless. The meaning is etched in us, one by one, women, men, children, trees, houses, windows, and cemeteries where no national anthem is played, and forgotten by a historian blind of pen. We’ll recover history as the history of our fears, our anxieties, our patience, the desires of our pillows and our improvised braveries, the history of preparing a dinner meal.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Wonderful World of Kamel Kilani

A long time ago in Baghdad, under the reign of Haroun al-Rashid, there lived a moderately wealthy trader named Ali Cogia. One night, Cogia had a portentous dream in which a shaykh exhorted him to make the pilgrimage to Makka forthwith. When the dream recurred the following two nights, Ali decided he had better heed it. He packed up his belongings, rented out his house, and gave his neighbor Hasan a large earthenware jar filled with olives for safekeeping. Unbeknownst to Hasan, Ali hid one thousand dinars of his savings in the bottom of the jar under the olives.

Cogia spent seven years on his travels, going from Makka to Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Bilad al-Fars, doing a brisk and profitable trade and enjoying the sights. In the meantime, his neighbor Hasan accidentally happens upon the dinars and decides to filch them, refilling the urn with fresh olives. But lo, Ali returns a month later, thanks his neighbor and retrieves the urn. When he finds no dinars, he gingerly asks Hasan if he has borrowed them in a time of need. Hasan lies through his teeth, Ali takes him to court and loses, and finally submits a petition of complaint to Haroun al-Rashid himself.

On the eve of deciding Ali’s case, al-Rashid goes on one of his incognito perambulations around Baghdad, inspecting the condition of his subjects. He overhears a group of boys acting out the court case between Ali and Hasan, and is highly impressed with the acumen of the boy who plays the judge. The next morning he dispatches his vizier Jaafar to summon the boy, has him sit in judgment over the real Ali and Hasan, gently chastises the judge who exonerated Hasan, and rewards the boy with a sack of 100 dinars for his uncommon discernment.

Forever after, on moonlit nights, children all over Baghdad and beyond would role-play the story of traders Hasan and Ali, just as the children’s judge and his friends had.

I first read this story decades ago one lazy summer afternoon. It was the first I heard of Baghdad, and imagined how it must be a wonderful city full of mystery, riches, and exotic headgear. Harun al-Rashid going undercover struck me as most clever, his elegant folds and drapes perfectly disguising him, no doubt. And he was so progressive, taking seriously a common little boy who happened to be more astute than the most senior judge. Excellent.

I gobbled up more stories from Alf Layla, as selected and expurgated by a man named Kamel Kilani. There was the one about greedy Baba Abdallah, another Baghdadi trader who gets his just desserts by being blinded and then eaten alive by a pouncing lion. Then there was the good Abu Sayr and the evil Abu Qayr, two Alexandria tradesmen who seek their fortunes in some unnamed North African city. After a string of cruel acts, the dastardly Abu Qayr gets his just desserts too, by being stuffed into a sack and hurled into the sea. And of course those wicked robbers, who meet a most horrible death by having boiling oil poured over them by the plucky Morgiana as they crouched hiding in oil jars.

The hard-won triumph of good over evil, the endurance of basic impulses of greed and wanderlust, the recurrent human failure to think through consequences-- these are the building blocks of Kamel Kilani’s strange and wonderful story world. It’s a world that captivated me and millions of other young readers ever since he published his first story in 1928. The stories are handed down from generation to generation; my grandfather bought them for my father, who loved them and introduced me to them. The genius of Kilani is that he managed to make his stories didactic but not preachy, edifying yet fun, written in mellifluous modern standard Arabic but without a hint of stilted formality. Kilani understood the power of story, and made it his life’s work to enchant young people.

Kamel Kilani Ibrahim Kilani didn’t set out to be the modern Egyptian pioneer of children’s literature. He just adored stories and had fond memories of a Greek nanny who raised him on a steady diet of fantastic myths and legends. He also recalled being captivated by tales of Abu Zayd al-Hilali and al-Zanati Khalifa recounted by an itinerant Azharite poet and storyteller in Midan al-Qala’a. Kilani was born on 20 October 1897 in the citadel neighborhood in Cairo, to a father who was a prominent engineer. He studied English literature in high school and enrolled at the Egyptian University (now Cairo University) from 1917 to 1930, reading French and English, and also attending Arabic grammar, logic, and morphology classes at al-Azhar. He spent a few brief years as a high school English teacher and was then appointed as an editor and reviser at the Awqaf Ministry in 1922 (where Naguib Mahfouz also worked), where he spent the rest of his career until retirement in 1954.

Kilani’s day job didn’t prevent him from becoming a prolific, prominent man of letters in the vibrant Egyptian cultural scene of the 1920s-1940s. His passion was the preservation and cultivation of the Arabic language, and he was party to polemical debates with Ahmed Amin and others against the increasing use of ‘ammiyya in newspapers and books. In 1920, Kilani began hosting a literary salon that met every Saturday at his home, and between 1929-1932 he was part of a short lived, pan-Arab literary club named the Arabic Literature Association that included Ahmad Shawqi, Khalil Mutran, and Sameh al-Khalidi as members.

After a brief and unsatisfying stint as a literary critic, which Kilani abandoned because he considered it a quick route to vacuous fame, he opted for excavating and disseminating the gems of Arab letters to a wide audience. He spent his evenings combing through the rich fund of classical Arabic poetry, from which he had memorized hundreds of quatrains, sifting, selecting, and redacting his favorites and publishing them in accessible editions that were soon to be reprinted over and over and distributed throughout the Arab mashreq. Before long, Kilani became a one-man translation and editing powerhouse.

In 1923, he produced the philosopher-poet and skeptic Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri’s 11th century Resalat al-Ghufran (with a foreword by Taha Hussein), and in 1943 Dar al-Ma’aref published an English translation by Gerald Brackenbury based on Kilani’s Arabic redaction. There followed Diwan Ibn al-Rumi (1924, with a foreword by Abbas al-Aqqad), a history of Andalusian Literature (1924), Diwan Ibn Zaydun (1932), chronicles of the prophet’s life and that of his successors (1929), al-Ma’arri’s Resalat al-Hana’ (1944), and a score of books on literary criticism, collections of Greek myths and European stories, and a travelogue based on his visit to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine in the early 1930s.

The 200-some stories that would eventually constitute Kilani’s library for children and young adults began with the publication of Sindbad the Sailor in 1928. As he would in many of his stories, Kilani prefaces the story with a brief dedicatory page to one of his four children, and in a brief foreword notes with chagrin the sorry state of Arabic books for children compared to the attractive and well-produced ones for European children. He wrote: “Since our children are in need of Arabic books that instill in them the love of reading, I availed myself of the opportunity provided by their instinctive orientation to hearing stories and embarked on publishing a suitable segment of stories from One Thousand and One Nights and other sources.” He exhorts parents and teachers to help explain the language to young readers, and matter-of-factly remarks “girls are no less in need of these stories than boys.”

The ten stories from Alf Layla would be followed by story sets that Kilani translated and redacted from a remarkably catholic range of sources: Shakespeare plays, the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Indian narratives, Greek mythology, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ibn Tufail’s Hayy bin Yaqdhan, the travels of the Andalusian geographer Ibn Jubayr, Joha stories, and tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm. In the 1940s, Kilani produced some of his stories into lovely, quite readable English, placing the Arabic text side by side with the English rendition.

Here’s an extract from Scheherazade the Vizier’s Daughter, in which Scheherazade makes a winning case to her skeptical father, convincing him of her bold plan to transform the murderous Shahriar:

And so, if the gazelle, through her artifice, has been capable of drowning in the water, the ghoul of beasts, surely I am capable—God willing—of drowning the ghoul of women in a flood of magic which will fill his heart with mercy and compassion and replace his cruelty and aggression with security and tranquility for my friends. Needless to say, you are prudent enough, father, to realize that the cruelty and violence which Shariar shows are not due to his base nature, but rather to a casual mental derangement, which befell him when his wife became unfaithful and betrayed him…And it is quite likely that had he come across a good and staunch woman, he would have been loyal to her and enjoyed her company, and thus would have reverted to his old ways of charity, compassion, justice, and kindness.

In addition to the literary adaptations, Kilani penned a delightful series he called “Scientific Stories” featuring a menagerie of frogs and toads, geckos, rabbits, owls, industrious bees, squirrels, and spiders, all conversing with each other in perfect Arabic. The critters expatiate on the beauty and harmony of the natural world and rue humans’ casual cruelty to animals. Some stories are supplemented with mini-dictionaries at the back, containing animals’ diverse Arabic names. Did you know that the bear is also called Abu Juhayna?! And the giraffe is Um Eissa?! (A large collection of Kilani’s stories, including the Arabic-English ones, can be downloaded here).

Kilani received accolades for his work starting as early as the 1930s, and no shortage of honorifics: “A leading light of the literary renaissance”, “The pedagogue of the generations”, “The pioneer of Arabic children’s literature.” He was canonized in his own lifetime, with several of his stories replacing the atrocious fare that students were force-fed in schools in Egypt, Palestine, and the rest of the Levant. And countless luminaries wrote contemporaneous and retrospective paeans to his dedication, modesty, sense of humor, and sheer love of his métier.

But thankfully, Kilani was not co-opted, and remained essentially a lone man in his study, churning out fantastic story after story in impeccable Arabic, almost until the day he died in October 1959. It was as if he was communing directly with the minds of children, addressing them as “little reader” in the text, occasionally appending witty verses for memorization at the end of the story booklets, stocking each story with beautiful, expressive illustrations (of unknown provenance), and always including synonyms of unfamiliar words in the text, so that you’re effortlessly building your vocabulary while enjoying the tale. I was especially happy that all the stories had clear and thorough vowellization. The lack of these in other books tormented me; how was I to know that there was a shadda in قبعة if there was no tashkeel?!

Boredom was banished by Kamel Kilani. My attention was held in thrall by all the strange and fantastic goings-on in his story-world, and I resolved to visit Baghdad when I grew up and could do whatever I pleased. I revisit the stories now and am awed by Kilani’s perfectionism; his fidelity to the original stories, making only surgical redaction; the accuracy with which he transliterated foreign names into Arabic. Kilani obviously delighted in language and was exceptionally skilled in building narrative momentum. But his enduring appeal lies in the singular gift of all superb storytellers, the capacity to excite fancy and kindle imagination.

“She was the most beautiful of her kind, the best of form, the most pleasing to behold. Her handsomeness, the brightness of her eyes, the neatness of her tiny pink nose, the nimbleness of her fur-covered paws made her a model of comeliness. If you saw her saunter and strut in her white drape, you wouldn’t be able to contain your admiration. Her most coveted food was clover, which she favored over all other kinds of food. It’s no surprise that her friends and companions called her 'The Clover Flower.' She was, among rabbits, as beautiful as the flower that sprouts on cloverleaf.”