Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah brings us closer in this interview with Al Jazeera Net from his poetic world and questions of memory and the damage of the present moment. As much as the dialogue raises answers, it raises questions that do not stop at the borders of language and clash with the pain of wars and the hope of liberation from all the bracelets of tragedy, forming a cognitive moment to narrate the memory of a poet who adapts language to reveal with it our fresh identities by traveling and traveling in the jungles of the Arab man after he was overthrown by places in the spaces of existential anxiety.
Nouri Al-Jarrah is one of the poetic experiences that glimpse in the memory and present of our contemporary Arab poetry because of its ability to make poetry and life two types to express what constitutes a tributary of resistance.
The poet has several poetry collections, including: "Boat to" Milan 2016, "River on a Cross" Beirut 2018, "No War in Troy" Milan 2019, and "Stone Serpent" Milan 2022. His complete poetry works for the Arab Institute for Studies and Publishing were published in three volumes between 3 and 2008.
In addition, a number of critical books have been published on his poetry and poetic experience. He has many translations of his poetry in several languages, and recently published by the major Italian publishing house "Montodori" a translation of his book "Exit from the Eastern Mediterranean", by the orientalist Francesca Maria Curao, and by the house "Act Sud" in Paris translation of the anthology "The Smile of the Sleeper", for which he recently won the prestigious Max Jacob Poetry Prize, and his victory was celebrated at the House of French Writers.
Al-Jarrah has an important number of books in travel literature, and intellectual issues in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and French, and he has lived in London since 1986, and has been supervising for 22 years the Ibn Battuta Award for Travel Literature, and has been the editor of the London monthly cultural magazine "Al-Jadeed".
In addition, he is the founder and co-founder of a number of cultural magazines, most notably "The Critic" London 1988-1992, "The Writer" London 1993-1995, "The Poem" Cyprus 1999, "The Journey" London 2005, "Damascus" London 2012-2013, "The New" London 2015 until today. These magazines have played influential roles in Arab poetic and literary life, linking what is happening in the Arab immigrant and exile to what is happening in Arab cultural geographies.
And to the text of the interview:
There is no expression of human conscience stronger than poetry. He is unique in being the most able to touch that mysterious emotional energy immersed in us, and awaken emotional components, feelings and sleeping memories, while he enriches the imagination with amazing and strange images that compete with reality with its ordinariness and looseness, or with its cruelty and ferocity.
- To what extent can poetry in its contemporary eloquence deconstruct the discourses of war and the tragedies of the identities disjointed man? Is poetry the spirit of the age or do its influences not go beyond the limits of creativity in language?
This question wants to surround poetry without aspect, starting with its language, the limits of its aesthetic and expressive energy, its ability to deliver messages, its place next to other poetic cultures, and its competence in expressing the spirit of the times.
And the content of this alone needs a thesis. Let me speak on the guidance of the question, and outside its limitations.
Let us first recognize that there is no expression of human conscience stronger than in poetry, it addresses the depths, music shares with him something of this, but poetry is unique in being the most able to touch that mysterious emotional energy immersed in us, and awaken emotional components, feelings and sleeping memories, while it enriches the imagination with amazing and strange images that compete with reality with its ordinariness and looseness, or with its cruelty and ferocity, and overcome it by forming a parallel world full of surprising, funny and beautiful strange, and all that is new and sudden.
A look at the cultural history of man puts the boats of poets at the forefront of the human armada (the great fleet), poets are the prophets of the ages, they were and still are, despite all the illusions of criticism and critics who were active on the coup between the times of modernity and beyond, that is, since the twentieth century until today, in defining poetry by fabricating descriptions, terms, signs and captivating borders, and poetry cannot bear to captivate or restrain them, not because of the lack of merit of the critical attempt, but simply because poetry in its deep being is a mystery And the charm and beauty are inexplicable.
Not in my opinion alone, and not in the eyes of poets alone, poetry will remain the soul of every age, as long as it is deep in the land of conscience, and foresees invisible horizons, which can only be revealed by insight. The miracle of poetry is that it can be the spirit of rising nations and lost nations alike. Being associated with the first emotional experiences of human beings since the dawn of civilization, from hypnotizing the child to the temple hymn, passing through the lullabies of shepherds and the addresses of hunters to their prey, the art of poetry has always been associated with magic.
The poem has the power of prophecy because its poet is the seer who rebels against small time and its police and its signs, stepping with his poem in the visible land and his soul flying in the space of the impossible.
The fundamental question that has always occupied me, especially in the years of blood, is the question of whether the poet, who is agitated by the great collective sufferings as his own, will find the language in which he will write his poem in the time of tragedy, not to depict, record and chronicle, but to shake the tree of terror and create the counter-example, replacing the heroes of empires, with the absent faces of man, with aborted wishes, dead dreams and the absent voice of the victim who is expelled by historians into the blindness of whiteness. Herein lies the challenge. It is a language challenge first.
My poem has been changing dramatically since the blood of young people from cities and countryside flowed in the Barada River and did not stop for a decade and two years. In the last decade, it has become impossible for words not to be wet with blood, or for the poem to turn its back on the breath of air saturated with the smoke of fires, and the young bodies hidden in shrouds.
Since the blood of urban and rural youth flowed in the Barada River (in Damascus) and has not stopped flowing throughout a decade and two years of mass crime with impunity, my voice is no longer mine alone, and my poem has been changing dramatically. I can point out that in the last decade my poetry has taken a trend that has been more epic than before.
This was noted by critics such as Khaldoun al-Shamaa, whom one of the works described as a "counter-epic", and in Mufid Najm's reading of the "hanging poem" out of place, or the poem of exile. In the last decade, it has become impossible for words not to get wet with blood, or for the poem to turn its back on the breath of air saturated with the smoke of fires, and the young bodies hidden in shrouds. There is no dignity for the mute poem, nor for the poet who escapes from the truth with an elusive tongue or a severed tongue.
Is it conceivable that the poet Narcissus (a Greek myth referring to narcissism) remains wandering behind his image in a time of mass destruction, and is it worthy that he remains happy in being the master of the existential labyrinth, and his philosophy of ethereal self-reliance as a self-sufficient being, it is the initiator and the news!
I remind you of your names, Damascus, of the heavens that trembled and floundered on the stones of the mountain,
and of the wings with which the river overflowed... pic.twitter.com/rFmXRXIVa8
— Nouri Al-Jarrah | Nouri Jarrah (@NouriJarrah) March 20, 2023
There must be something new, a new language, in the time of the popularity of crime and criminals with impunity, the time of major betrayals of constitutions, philosophies, religions, principles and values, contempt of conscience, the time of usurpation of rights by legitimate instruments, the transformation of states into militias, the transformation of their presidents into hired killers, drug dealers and advisors to the occupiers of their countries, the time of the gigantic of the young, the revenge of the bastards against the honorable, the shame of honor, the time of concentration camps and refugee tents, and the boats of those fleeing hunger and tyranny, the time of legitimate lies, the time of the predominance of images over meanings, and the preference of the thing over the soul. In a time like this, the poem cannot continue to be written as it was written before, there must be a new language for our poetry, another language, a language of courage in the face of human drama in its extreme forms.
Epic, in the forms and structures that come to me, is my current poetic choice, where the poet's voice can fragment and the voices of his poem are multiple.
The poet is not just a butterfly hunter, but a skilled craftsman and his talent based on a high culture has undermined him to venture with words that will enable him to extract the poem butterfly from the larva of language.
- Is poetry in our time the poetry of all times, or is its modernity no longer penetrating that time due to the power of technology and the canning of modern man in capsules to tame the way of writing tragedy?
Some critics like to consider erasure in the philosophical sense of the word as a peer and a natural antithesis of writing, perhaps the other side of it, or as an extension of it in time and things. But isn't death, in turn, another face of life, as a mystery as it is the mystery of whiteness, without which there is no ink or writing?! The miracle of poetry lies in its extraordinary ability to penetrate, to break through barriers, including those impregnable that language itself establishes with its continental structures.
The deepest and farthest injury occurs when the poet succeeds in inventing a new language, a language that belongs to no other. The poet is not just a butterfly hunter, but a skilled craftsman whose talent based on a high culture has undermined him to venture with words that will enable him to extract the poem butterfly from the larva of language. The poet washes the words from her past, gives her a new life, takes her out of her rigid neutrality in the dictionary to her dynamism in the poem. And it's okay to repeat here: poets come from the future. Therefore, they do not need to think about it, but to delve into the present and fill it as the epicenter of all time.
The poet's vision in each age is linked to his exploration of the moment and its dimensions, which means belonging to the spirit of the age. The poet's visions are necessarily linked, to his fertile imagination, to the nature of his work with words, to his senses, his feelings, his deep intuition connected to his vigilant conscience, and his delicate spirit that imbibed beauty from each of them, he is the mystic of times who watches over the idea of love, human kindness, and the beauty of existence.
When the forces of evil threaten human existence, and darkness prevails, the poet is the bearer of the lamp and the voice of conscience, and the first fighter in the trench of humanity. The "I am the poet" is necessarily universal, as it senses every (hidden and weak) nation in existence, giving it an essence superior to its initial one.
As for the poet's themes, it is what emits the colors of the rainbow in the forest of poetry.
- The Syrian soprano Lubana Kuntar chose poems for you and sang them, how do you view this attempt? Can this meeting between you be developed into a work that constitutes a qualitative addition, and provides a model that renews the relationship of poetry with music and sound?
In fact, this experience began with Mrs. Labana choosing a section of my hair in "Boat to" and singing it in her lavish operatic voice, and the result was a song called "Ya Sham", which she presented in her concerts in America and Europe. Later, I and her began collaborating on other poems, and we shared a musical poetry evening together in Sweden last year. I cannot judge this experience, musicians are more capable than I do, but I consider Labana's voice, singing abilities and high culture to make this experience, which has not yet been professionally recorded, a work of high aesthetic value.
- Nouri Al-Jarrah writes a poem grafted with philosophical questions and epic dimensions in addition to her poetry, and this is what distinguishes the experience and makes it unique, what can you say about your poetic lives?
My writing of poetry went through a number of stages, and because I recently touched on my poetry articles on my most recent poetry, I will dwell more on the early stage, in Damascus, as the childhood of experience, and in childhood we acquire most of our advantages as beings. Like every beginner, I wrote in search of a voice, I read and wrote with passion who discovered the city of magic, in that period I wrote a lot and published a little, groping my way on my path from the history of poetry and poets, and from poems that fascinated me. I published little of the poetry of that period in my book "The Boy".
I read poetry to add to my blood the blood of poets. I read not to memorize what I read, but to forget, to imbibe the images, imaginations, senses and ideas in poetry, and to forget the special themes and formulas that distinguish a poet from a poet. I explored the spirit of poetry and obsessed with words like a possessor.
Later, I realized that my poetry at that early stage was characterized by an existential tendency, romantic in a language that carved towards simplicity and was not devoid of symbolism, and seemed overwhelmed with astonishment at things, in a poem with structures that are sometimes frife, characterized by a rebellious childish tendency. This is the poetry of an early life, which cost me years to leave for new positions in writing, punctuated by diligent research in language, reflection on existence, and a preoccupation with issues of human struggle for justice and freedom in a dysfunctional world.
The six years between my first and second books I traveled between Beirut, Cyprus and Greece and knew my life during which I spent anxious and intermittent stays here and there, during which I left the Mediterranean region permanently, to reside in London, where my second poetic book "Keeping Up with the Voice" was published and constituted a fundamental turning point in my writing of poetry and in my understanding of it, as I developed my writing practice and my intensive critical and aesthetic readings, especially my focus on reading philosophy and mythology, as well as theater and psychology, and diving into the books of the Arab Sufi heritage, to form together basic sources that contributed In developing an awareness of poetry and my relationship with language as it would have been what it would have been without these readings, as well as following up on what is written and published of contemporary Arabic poetry in newspapers and periodicals for my contemporaries of poets and some of their predecessors from the living, based on my work as a literary editor.
We title our poems, and this behavior is the most oppressive practice that the poet performs against the poem, so how can we define it!
I look in my library and smile, every book in it alerts me to the fact that no poet comes out of the fabric of itself, this is a myth, my poetry necessarily owes it to my readings. Every passion we have for books and words, with poetry we loved, has left an impact on us of some kind. This is not contrary to the fact that the poet's poetry at all stages of his experience carries something eloquent features that appeared in his early poetry.
The poet's real life is his dual life, his residence in two parallel and conflicting worlds. If the poet could not formulate his presence in this painful and costly equation between reality and its richness and imagination and what ripples in it, and makes his poem the linguistic child of this strange marriage between the two worlds, he will not be able to be a poet.
Finally, we title our poems, and this behavior is the most oppressive practice that the poet performs against the poem, so how can we define it!
I can talk about my poem, but not to explain it in order to reveal its secrets. The explanation of the poem by its poet is like a lover stripping his lover naked and proceeding to describe her to others! This is a very strange demand!
I was delighted to have won the Max Jacob Prize twice, once when I could dedicate the prize to two children with whom the world turned its back, a Syrian refugee and a Palestinian refugee, and once when I glimpsed an overwhelming sense of happiness in the eyes of those I loved.
- She recently won the French Max Jacob Prize, which is one of the important awards given to a poet distinguished by his experience. What does this award mean to you and what do you think of this experience?
I hope that I do not sound shocking when I say that literary awards, despite all the noise and controversy surrounding each other, in terms of positive and negative meanings, cannot be considered necessary or decisive in the lives of writers and poets.
The most good poets are those who did not receive awards. Their hair today is one of the most beloved of award holders and pursuers, so I am content that I have been happy with the award twice, once when I was able to dedicate the prize to two children who turned the world around, a Syrian refugee and a Palestinian refugee, and once when I glimpsed an overwhelming sense of happiness in the eyes of those I love.
The funny thing is that after the award ceremony, I lost my passport, and lived in Paris homeless for days running after a travel document.
- Between your book "Exit from the Eastern Mediterranean" and the paintings of the Syrian plastic artist Asaad Farzat, the juxtaposition and consolidation of the relationship between poetry and painting, and the absence of boundaries between genders, it is evident this artistic interaction and linguistic and visual cohesion. To what extent can painting contribute to shaping the reader's awareness of the beauty of the poem and its poetry to open the door to interpretation?
A painting cannot translate a poem into the language of formation, or make an artistic interpretation of some kind, without turning it into a kind of "illustration". This is not what Asaad Farzat sought in his exhibition in Paris, inspired by the poem, because he realized that it was not the duty of the painting to perform this function.
The artwork carried out by Farzat is a parallel aesthetic adventure generated by the spark of receiving the poem and emotion with it and perhaps living its atmosphere for a time, but, in my opinion, the artist as soon as he dipped his feather in colors and began to face the whiteness of his cloth, until he went on a journey of his own, an internal journey with the self, the poem was an instigator for the artist to recover those painful images of the Syrian boats sailing in the Mediterranean, in a tragic mass exit to escape the Syrian Holocaust, and the disasters of tyranny and occupations, the artwork here is not The fruit of inspiration for a poem and enough, but the fruit of the convergence of a poet and artist's awareness of the enormity of the tragedy that struck Syria and the Levant, turning Syrians into surfers, and food for the beasts of civilization and the fish of the seas.
- Finally, what do you mark in the poet, in light of these strange times in her negligence of human rights and hardship for all?
In dark times and at the height of moments of despair, the poet must catch the ember of hope, without doubting that the future of the poem, but the tyrants have their destinies written in history.