Monday, November 9, 2020

Sorrow and hope in the modernism of al-Mâġûṭ

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

As Mr White was kind enough to cite in an episode of his Substack podcast Sisyphus Sits, I recently discovered and have been extensively quoting on social media the powerful words of the Syrian poet-laureate Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ, and in particular the slim collection of his early poems, The Fan of Swords. Owen quoted in full the poem I personally like best of his in that volume, ‘Shade and Noon Sun’:
All the fields of the world
are against two small lips.
All the streets of history
are against two bare feet . . .

Love, they travel and we wait.
They have gallows, we have necks.
They have pearls, we have freckles and moles.
They own the night, the dawn,
the afternoon and the day,
and we own the skin and the bones.

We plant under the noon sun,
and they eat in the shade.
Their teeth are white like rice,
our teeth are dark as desolate forests.
Their breasts are soft and smooth,
while ours are as dusty as execution squares.
And yet, we are the kings of the world!
Their homes are covered with pamphlets, accounts,
our homes are covered with autumn leaves.
In their pockets they carry addresses
    of thieves and traitors.
In our pockets we carry addresses
    of rivers and thunder.

They own the windows, we own the winds.
They own the ships, we own the waves.
They own the medals, we own the mud.
They, the walls and balconies.
We, the ropes and daggers.

Come, my love, let us sleep
    on the pavements.
Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ is a fascinating character in his own right. He grew up dirt-poor, the son of a peasant from Salamîya in Hama Governorate. Al-Mâġûṭ, a Shî‘a Muslim of the Nizâri lineage, joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party when he was twenty-one. Even though he joked it was only because the party office was closer to his house than the Ba‘ath Party office, and also because it had the added benefit of a fireplace during the winter, his attachment was apparently fairly sincere. He was an ardent Syrian nationalist and (it seems) a sincere admirer of the Christian leftist politician ’Anṭûn Sa‘âda who led the SSNP and was executed in Lebanon in 1949. Al-Mâġûṭ was arrested in 1955 and thrown into the infamous Mazza Prison in Damascus for his political activity and organising on behalf of the SSNP, and it was after this that he began writing on the insides of old cigarette boxes. His cellmate at the time, the celebrated poet ’Adûnîs, told him he might want to consider publishing his writings as poetry.

Al-Mâġut is a prose poet. He does not write, as you can see from the above, in a style laden with aphorisms and high-flown allegories, pæans to the lost greatness of mediæval Damascus and Baghdad. Nor does he write in a style popular among his contemporaries, which seeks to mimic the Western Romantics. Still less does he retreat into a mystical obscurantism. His use of allusions is occasional, and generally limited to well-known figures and events in Shî‘ite history: Fâṭima, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alî and the Battle of Karbalâ’, for example. He is a realist. He calls our attention to here. He uses immediate, tactile imagery. He talks about pavement and cigarettes, libraries and coffee-houses. Natural imagery and symbolism in al-Mâġûṭ’s poetry is present, but sparse. He looks for images that will be known and understood from experience. Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ’s style is innovative and path-breaking on account of this unflinching gaze upon the present, upon the reality in front of your nose.

And in that spirit, he draws our attention – leads us by the nose, so to speak – to the forgotten people and places, to the Biblical ‘least of these’. Although he is ’Ismâ‘îli, it is intriguing that he occasionally draws our attention to Christ, who weeps with the people who weep – or even occasionally writes as a penitent sinner confessing to a Christian priest. There are times when he weeps with God, with the rain. There are times when he rages at God, blames God for the tragœdies that befall undeserving people. This is where his poetry draws its resonance and power. He alternates between this righteous pain and sorrow, on the one hand, and a kind of cynical detachment on the other – even from his own art. He is able to satirise himself, mock himself, draw a kind of black humour from his circumstances and his powerlessness in the midst of police-state political repression and œconomic exploitation.

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ looks, mostly in vain, for the gentle spirits in a savage age – that savagery being imported from the West in the form of colonialism, political ideologies, fundamentalist backlash, fascist dictatorship, the war of the rich against the poor. In his poetry, this leads him to always take the side of the exile, the prisoner, the homeless person begging on the street. These were his fellow-spirits, whom he embraced in his prose poems. In his life, this led him to a fellow poet. He met one of his ‘gentle spirits’, Saniya Ṣalîḥ, to whom he dedicated at least one of his anthologies. He fell in love with her, they married and had two daughters. Both of them continued to write poetry, but sadly Ṣalîḥ remained under the shadow of her more-famous husband.

The volume I have been reading from, The Fan of Swords, has been translated by May Jayyûsî and Naomi Shihâb Nye. Jayyûsî is a scholar and member of the Muwatin Institute in Ramallah; and Nye is a poet in her own right, a poet of Palestine and of the Palestinian diaspora. This translation is indeed powerful and alive in its own right. It readily relates to the English speaker both al-Mâġût’s pathos and his posture of cynicism – both the hope and the hopelessness of his struggle. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this volume if you have the twelve bucks to spare.

Here is another one of his poems, ‘From the Threshold to the Sky’:
As the sad rain
    floods my sad face
I dream of a ladder of dust,
hunched backs,
palms of hands pressed against knees
on which I’ll climb the lofty heavens
and discover
    where our sighs and prayers are.

My love!
All those prayers and sighs
sobs and pleadings
from millions of lips, breasts,
over thousands of years and centuries
my words are even now
    next to those of Christ
My love!
We wait for the sky to shed its tears.

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