Of knives and jackets
Poet Girgis Shoukri, one of the Nineties' more engaged representatives, tells Rania Khallaf
about his work at home and abroad
Born in Sohag in 1967, Girgis Shoukri is one of the more prominent poetic voices to have emerged in the last two decades. Writing in prose, like many of his contemporaries, he produces autobiographical reflections on contemporary urban life; and his work, widely acclaimed in Egypt and beyond, has helped lend credence to the individually oriented, daily-life poetics of his generation of poets.
Which poetics found unexpected, post- Frankfurt Book Fair support last month when a selection of Shoukri's poems appeared, in German translation, with the prestigious house Verlag Sabon. The selection follows Shoukri's achievement since 1996, when his first book, Asqut Tahta Hiza'i (I fall under my shoe) came out, and includes poems from the three later and by now better known collections, Ragul Tayyib Yukallim Nafsahu (A kind man talking to himself, 2000), Ahamiyyat Al-Kalb fil-Masrahiya (The importance of the dog in the play, 2000) and Wal-Aydi Utla Rasmiya (And the hands are an official holiday, 2004). Benefiting from the rhythms and cadences of the vernacular not only in Cairo but in Upper Egypt, ironically observant and open to a range of cultural influences, Shoukri's work may well change German perceptions of contemporary Arabic poetry; perhaps more importantly, in the long run, it gives an accurate idea of what the so called Generation of the Nineties is about.
"The Swiss publisher had encountered some of my poems two years ago," Shoukri, a modern-day incarnation of one of the Fayoum funerary portraits, recounts, "while I took part, together with several young Egyptian poets, in the 2002 exchange initiative, New Writings from Egypt and Switzerland -- a project that took us to Zurich, Basel and Lausanne." Shoukri pauses. "And it seems he liked my poems at once, because only a few months later he asked me to send him more poems. He was evidently thinking of translating my work -- with a view, as it transpired, to producing a bilingual selection." This, Shoukri adds, was no easy decision for Sabon, who have published virtually no Arabic poetry -- not so much because of its "hectic place of origin" but rather because publishing poetry in general seldom makes for profitable business in Germany. Yet the experience of launching the book in Switzerland would suggest that poetry, even poetry written in Egypt by an Egyptian, can be popular enough. "My readings took place mainly in Zurich," Shoukri recounts, "but afterwards I moved to Stuttgart and read in a string of cultural centres. They were rather intimate encounters, these, facilitated by the presence of Monica Schnider, the young German poet who read the German translations of what I was reading. I initially thought it was pointless, absurd -- my reading in Arabic at all, since nobody in the audience could understand a word of it -- but then, surprisingly enough, the audience would engage with my voice, asking me to go on when I stopped. They must have enjoyed the sound of the language..."
One feature of Shoukri's work that proved particularly popular during those encounters is his tendency to draw on the mute implements of daily life -- the hammer, the knife, the dish, the jacket -- making them the heroes of his poems. "The Jacket poem was highly appreciated in the last few readings," Shoukri recalls. "The audience liked the idea of investing inanimate objects with spirit -- an unusual thing that we don't usually do in our daily life. Following the Jacket reading," he says joyfully, I remember this 12-year-old girl who insisted on buying the book, fascinated. Audience turnout was considerably good," Shoukri goes on, "with 60-70 people per reading, which is considered good. People think of poetry and they think -- human beings, feelings and relations. So maybe they like my work because it deals with abstract ideas. In fact," the poet explains the reason behind his fascination with tools and other objects, "it is largely due to a rare accident, a coincidence. When I was only 12 years old, I came across a colloquial Arabic translation of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and I liked it so much I ended up knowing some quatrains by heart. But the important thing is the feeling the book gave me -- it was a creature, with a life all its own, you thought it was going to move or make a sound. Since then I've always had the feeling that things are creatures, with their own spirit, their own emotional life. It' something sometimes expressed in one's occasional, but very serious attachment to a shirt or a pair of shoes -- you unconsciously chose to wear it all the time, without really knowing why. Such was the case with Jacket : I used to wear this jacket every day for two years. It was only much later that I realised I was not wearing it to go out in, but going somewhere with it, in its company."
Such focus on the inanimate, while reflecting an underlying desire to be isolated from the human (which Shoukri identifies with the inimical), it also conveys a political message -- against established (selfish, human) power -- that extends to all forms of authority. It would not be unfair to say that this is typical of the Generation of the Nineties, but Shoukri dislikes the classification of groups of writers into generations, identifying himself simply as "an Egyptian poet". He is "entirely opposed to such classifications" because, he says, "I like to be esteemed through my work, my books, not according to some silly notion of where I stand in a supposed chronological progression." Shoukri contends that the classification was intentionally invented in the Sixties -- for political reasons. His belief is that, if such classification must happen at all, it should be based on trends or achievements in a specific genre. Besides," he says, more contentiously, "I see no common elements among the work of the so called Nineties poets." The statement is reminiscent of a line from "And the hands are an official holiday": "Some knowledge stands in the way of realising my dreams." The acquisition of knowledge, he says, is a complicated process. "Sometimes, when you know more, you become more depressed. Sometimes I wish I was ignorant, especially when it comes to news of war in the media, for example, where knowledge is an awful thing..."
Shoukri's poems are not without metaphysics, however, and his treatment of the questions of life and death sometimes reflects his Coptic upbringing. "I learned the concept of Christian love from religious literature, but also from Greek philosophy and the sayings of Muslim figures like Ali Ibn Abi Taleb," he explains. "Because of my upbringing, I studied Christian literature closely, and I've since realised that the concept of Christianity is purely metaphysical -- which explains the immaterial, ethereal feeling in much of my writing. German philosophers like Hegel and Kant influenced me at an early age as well, so did Sufis like Ibn Al-Arabi and Abul- Yazid Al-Bustami. When I read philosophy, it is like recharging my mind; and such reading has no doubt contributed to my approach to writing. It was so important to me it could be said to have presented an obstacle to my interaction with real life." Writing had come to a standstill in 1992: "I nearly stopped completely, and started exploring themes to write about. Then I discovered the contradiction between the abstract themes I was thinking about and the fact that I spent the whole day wandering through the streets. I mean, the more I became involved in society, the more my writing showed it. But the challenge was to combine the two modes of relating to the world. By 1996, after gradual searching and experimenting, I finally found the missing link I needed."
Once again, as he sips his coffee, Shoukri brings to mind images from his work, an important feature of which is his depiction of religious ritual. "Sometimes religion figures as a stand-in for authority in general, to critique power," he says. Most of his poems, indeed, reflect a conflict between the power of the Church and the uncertainty of religious belief. "Christianity is full of myths and imagination, horrific biblical stories. It's a religion that deals with metaphysical, not everyday themes. For example, I've always wondered about the Old Testament prophets' clashes with God. And there are characters, like Judas, with whom I sympathise, but whose situation I cannot understand: he was born to do evil, but he ends up hanging himself in remorse. This conflict is expressed in a poem called 'The Meaning of Tragedy'..." Asked if he has a holistic literary project to accomplish, however, Shoukri replies, "I do not write simply for the sake of writing. I have my own choices in reading and writing. My goal is to write simply and deeply at the same time, and to express a viewpoint -- an equation that's not always easy to resolve... Poetry has not been popular since the 1960s," he adds, "though the times through which we live are critical and complicated. But I believe poets share part of the blame for the fact that poetry no longer helps people live through them; they shoulder the responsibility, writing ambiguously, something that can often be interpreted as merely playing with words -- a kind of language game."
Shi'r (poetry), by contrast, he says, is derived from shu'our (feeling), something that necessitates a level of depth that mere mastery of language can never achieve. "Of course the feeling in question must be honed, nurtured, made profound. But I write only when my feelings are vivid. If I started to think, I would stop writing immediately." But has he, at a time when the novel seems to be taking over -- the so called Era of the Novel -- tried his hand at other genres. "My experience in Europe confirmed by feeling that this idea was wrong from the start, though if we are talking about Arab readers, we might as well be frank and admit that the vast majority read neither novels nor poetry -- and no longer even go to the theatre. No doubt we can say that we have a contemporary poetic movement, but what it amounts to is a group of independent voices. The paradox," he goes on, "is that while we claim that poetry should be an essential part of social and cultural life, the government is still discussing ways to eliminate illiteracy. The maximum number of copies of a novel or a book of poetry published by state-supported institutions never exceeds 3,000. So who reads us? The crisis is a general one," Shoukri insists, "and crisis it is, there is no doubt about that at all."
Images from his poems keep drifting through the mind: a musician handing music out of a bag to passers by; a man turning into a camera... "I am constantly preoccupied with the power of the image, its authority over all aspects of life. I believe that we live in an age of images, which might as well be called an age of silence. Through history, in ages of silence, boundaries were pronounced, with clear divisions between happiness and misery, the good and the bad. Executions took place in public, on the streets; and the scene of reality was incomparably more violent; the violence was palpable, physically present. Such ages produce their own styles of writing. In ages of images, like ours," Shoukri goes on, "violence is sublimated into imagery of every kind, so that reality has given way to the image, which in its turn produces another, a kind of hyper reality... And the poet should develop new ways to discover the relation between written poetry and images seen on the street." Such, no doubt, Shoukri has achieved to an extent, surprising the reader with vivid images of rare power. The poet, he says, should move around like a camera, clicking away mentally to capture what surprises him. "For if I did not surprise my myself, I'm not going to be able to surprise my readers..."