20 - 26 June 2002
Issue No. 591
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Senna:Arrivals, words, departures, words, and always at the right time
Radio, that hidden muse
(photos: Youssef Rakha)
Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Senna -- poet, radio host, former Azharite -- is as fastidious as they come. He lives on the Giza side of the Nile, near Cairo University, and seems a little hard pressed to think of an outdoor venue for our conversation. He ends up driving me, along with his wife -- Zeinab Abu Senna is a professor of Turkish literature at Cairo University -- to the Shooting Club, a place where the family seems to spend most of its free time. Abu Senna has one daughter, Mai, a first-year Cairo University student of mass communication of whom he is timidly, if resolutely, proud.
Click to view caption
"I recline, burning Dead Sea fish eat me/Out of my side grows a flower ..."
He retired earlier this year at the age of 65, having clambered up the slippery bureaucratic pole to reach the position of deputy head of Egyptian Radio. His latest book, Aghani Al-Maa (Water Songs), a General Egyptian Book Organisation selection of poetry edited and introduced by critic Abdel-Qader El-Qutt, has just appeared. It includes both old and new poems, testifying to an enduring creative vitality. We meet days before he is due to leave for Spain and an intense sojourn among the Muslim monuments of Granada. Between 1980 to 1998 he received, among other honours, the State Incentive Award, the Cavafy Prize, the Andalusia Award and the Yamani Foundation's Mohamed Hassan Fiqi Prize. He drinks warm milk and he doesn't smoke. He delivers answers to my questions in polished classical Arabic.
"I was Mohamed II," he begins. "I was born on 15 March, 1937, a year after my brother, Mohamed, had died at the age of 13. My father had promised to name his next male child after him. I grew up in very traditional, very provincial surroundings in the village of Wada, Al-Saff, on the eastern bank of the Nile, in the Giza governorate. Little did I know, one dismal winter night in 1944 when grief-stricken screams announced the death of my mother, that an ocean of poetry was waiting round the corner."
"My father -- a religious scholar who played a central role in the village's social life, resolving disputes and arranging marriages and such -- married soon after my mother died, that was the social and religious norm, and knowing that the marriage would be difficult for us to get used to, he sent my brother Yassin and me to learn the Qur'an in a Turkish school in Hussein, Shawikar Qaden, in preparation for enrolling at Al-Azhar at the age of 10. A cholera epidemic was rife throughout the country and transport was next to impossible. We were installed in a milkman's van that took us to Helwan, where we caught a train to Bab Al-Louq. A rare moment, this: to be seven years old, in a milkman's van and on your way to Cairo.
"In Cairo we were anxious and lost; and we lived like refugees, moving often, seeking out our relations in the sprawling, terrifying city. Sometimes I would walk around Al-Azhar by myself, reading the signs in the vain hope of familiarising myself with the city. One day -- and this is an experience I have never forgotten -- a big man with a cruel face grabbed hold of my hand and called to his companion to take me with him. To this day I don't know if it was an attempt at abduction or simply a joke. Provincial guile paid off, however, as I feigned submission until his grip on my hand weakened. And in a flash I set off running, running all the way back to Al-Azhar Mosque, where my relations were quietly studying their lessons. As soon as I saw them I broke down in tears. And it was in this way, early on, that I learned the perils of city life very early on. But at the same time, being away from my father, I had the opportunity to undertake my own cultural education, relying on a wide range of references and sources. This far from romantic provincial upbringing, combined with my religious education, you see, was intended to make me a religious scholar like my father. I let him down terribly when he discovered, through scandalised relations, that I wrote poetry. Poetry was very unusual; to his mind a poet was an itinerant beggar-musician who lied for a living. In a similar way, at around the same time, my earliest compositions were condemned by colleagues at Al- Azhar when I read them out during the open day. 'This is no poetry,' they yelled in unison..."
Abu Senna's passion for poetry originated in the anthems and slogans of demonstrators before and after the 1952 Revolution. He was, he says, "enthralled by the rhythms and cadences of these heartfelt cries for national freedom," and sought out their sources in Arabic schoolbooks. "It was thus that I became acquainted with pre-Islamic poetry, of which Imri'u Al- Qais seemed to me to be the purer, the more refined exemplar." Amawite ghazal quickly took over, though: "I stopped a long time at Omar Ibn Abi Rabi'a, who was different from his contemporaries, his language being simple in a way that approximates to our own. His poems manage to be narrative and dramatic even at their most lyrical. I fell in love with his frank avowals of love, his bold treatment of amorous adventures and his essentially romantic outlook."
A picture of Lord Byron in a gondola reproduced in Al-Hilal magazine introduced Abu Senna to the English romantic poets, and Louis Awad's translation of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound acted as the trigger to explore the ins and outs of revolutionary romanticism and Greek mythology.
"It was then," Abu Senna recalls, "that I read The Iliad and The Odyssey, and on the way encountered 19th century Russian classics as well."
By the early 1960s he was well on his way to developing a voice. His Azharite background acted not only to strengthen his grip on the language, he says, but to provide him with a foothold to transcend the religious outlook. He graduated from the Arabic Department of Al-Azhar University in 1964, and to listen to him now, he has never looked back.
"There was the romantic paradigm," he explains. "Then, towards the end of the 1950s, I encountered a group of young intellectuals whose outlook was radically different. This, I suspect, was the beginning of my awakening as a poet. These writers and artists -- and most of them were left-wing -- were reading, in translations published in Al-Adab magazine, the poetry of Aragon and Elouard, of Pablo Neruda, Gabriel-Garcia Lorca and Nazim Hikmat. At the same time they were promoting the pioneers of a new Arabic literary movement that aimed to do away with the rigid metrical structure of classical poetry, replacing it with freer rhythms and more flexible typography: Nazik Al-Mala'eka, Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, Nizar Qabbani..."
Abu Senna found himself at the centre of a cultural vortex: "It was the beginning of what would later be called the realistic strain in modern poetry, and I found myself instinctively adopting it. Through Al-Adab magazine we came across Sartre and Camus and French existentialism. I wrote an article in Al-Adab about Satre's trilogy Les Chemins de la liberté (Roads to Freedom). After the Romantic paradigm, then, there emerged the realistic paradigm, dominated by the search for freedom and equality and notions of human brotherhood. I never subscribed to a systematic political doctrine, but my poetry was influenced by all this. The 1960s generation was politicised, it is true, but I always followed my poetic intuition, writing both for and against Gamal Abdel-Nasser, for example. All the politics in me was automatically channelled into poetry."
Over the last 30 years, indeed, Abu Senna has drawn on Romantic, surrealist and modern sources alongside his knowledge of classical Arabic to produce what El- Qutt called "a self-regenerative and shining newness".
While distributing exam papers, Abu Senna's final- year Arabic professor Hassan Gad made a comment about "your relation who publishes in Al-Ahram." Fellow examinees laughed, Abu Senna recalls, pointing out to the professor that the Abu Senna who published in Al-Ahram and the Abu Senna now sitting the exam were one and the same person. The young poet had a well-deserved five minutes of fame.
His first visit to Louis Awad, the editor of the then popular literary supplement of the newspaper, was rather more of a disappointment. "Your poem [Alladhina Yasriqun Hubbakum, "Those Who Steal Your Love"] is good enough to be published," Awad told him. "But I won't publish it." On expressing his frustration, Abu Senna was told that Al- Ahram was a hurdle to be crossed and it should never be easy. Abu Senna tried to leave but Awad insisted that he should stay. "You are sick," he told him, "with the romantic sickness. But so am I..."
Abu Senna relied on the authority of the more sympathetic critic Abdel-Qader El-Qutt to publish the poem in the less prestigious Al-Shi'r magazine, but within weeks of sending another poem to Awad, Indama Nakounu Wahdana (When We Are Alone), a mutual friend informed him that Youssef Francis had been commissioned to produce an illustration for the poem for the upcoming issue of the literary supplement. Abu Senna was overjoyed: "Dr Louis had taught me a lesson in patience and modesty. The reason I was so upset was that he was publishing the poems of fellow '1960s generation' writers, so I couldn't see why he was excluding me, whereas in fact he was merely building me up towards what would be the greatest literary event in my life. For this poem presented me to more people than dozens and dozens of poems combined. It introduced my prospective audience to me in the best possible way."
His radio career notwithstanding, Abus Senna's importance derives largely from his (tentative) position vis-à-vis the aforementioned cultural vortex within which he was caught. "I was never all that politicised, something I do not, in the light of recent developments, regret. But my family and educational background did turn the process of becoming a poet into a sort of revolution, nonetheless. So at some level I was sympathetic with the forces driving many of my contemporaries. But in the end my only real concern has been my poetry. In things political, things social and personal, I've only ever really sought inspiration for my poems. None of these aspects of life was ever an end in itself."
This latter assertion finds support in Abu Senna's preference for a quiet, conventional family life; in the family context he comes across less as a typical Egyptian "intellectual" of that generation than as a state employee, the necessary adjunct of which is being a family man. His house, it turns out, is as ordered as it is simple: there is no place for clutter, no place for ostentation; a good deal of attention is paid to comfort and hospitality. As a poet Abu Senna sets a rare example of a life free of dissipation; moral rectitude and an upfront, transparent attitude combine to deliver a message of rarefied sophistication. "I've never had enemies, really. Some people are less sympathetic than others but when you act so as to deserve respect you get it." And even his poetry seems often to be more of an emotional- intellectual exercise than the expression of an individual perspective. Yet the one theme that has consistently underlined his poems, according to El- Qutt, is alienation. Rather than dramatising human isolation or linking it to politics, then, Abu Senna has chosen to ignore it, as it were, letting it reemerge subconsciously in the poetic exercise. "I have always followed my poetic instinct," he repeats. "That is my principal guide."
To his colleagues at the radio Abu Senna was a soothing, sedate presence -- unaffected, unambitious and deeply understanding. "After a long series of struggles," he recalls, "I was welcomed by my friend, the scholar and translator Fouad Kamel [head of Channel 2] who had heard of me and appreciated my vocation. He commended the work I did for the radio and was particularly enthusiastic about the inclusion of poetry."
Kamel was eventually replaced by lesser men, however. Overcrowded, ill-kept and inadequately funded, the radio's working atmosphere deteriorated considerably over the years. People like Abu Senna became increasingly isolated. "I would never speak ill of my colleagues," he insists, "but the situation is undoubtedly hard." To Kamel and Abu Senna the radio had been a cultural vehicle, a refined medium through which literature and other forms of knowledge could circulate. "Now," Abu Senna confesses, "there are too many people, many of them not as qualified for their jobs as they should be." Such a statement is particularly poignant coming from somebody for whom the radio had been a genuine inspiration. "It was ideal," he asserts. "The programmes I hosted enabled me to encounter contemporary literature in an oblique but vastly beneficial way. It was an inspiration..."
The year he published his first book, Qalbi wa Ghazalat Al-Thawb Al-Azraq (My Heart and the Blue-Dress Gazelle, 1965), Abu Senna's radio career took off. In 1967 and 1968 he was on a two-year state grant to write, and he produced two poetic dramas. Subsequently it took him close on a decade of constant give and take to move from the Information Department, to which he had been appointed a political reporter ("a white elephant, according to one of my colleagues"), to Channel 2 (later renamed the Cultural Channel), that part of the Egyptian radio concerned with culture and the arts. He was appointed to Channel 2 in 1975, and for quarter of a century hosted numerous poetry-oriented programmes in which he presented poets and critics, reading poems and translations of every conceivable kind. "Thanks to these programmes," he believes, "I was able to keep up with poetic developments very closely. It is the most appropriate job for a poet, I think, because while it doesn't use up energy it provides references and sources to enrich the work."
Abu Senna was fortunate enough to arrive at Channel 2 when it was headed by Kamel, who encouraged him and appreciated his work. And though he would never admit it, he was fortunate enough to leave during the channel's worst nadir, when petty power struggles and bureaucratic intrigues have shifted the emphasis away from culture and the arts, and as far as possible from poetry.
Letter from the Editor
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