Qassem Haddad: The penman of Manama
Qassem Haddad is Bahrain's best-known poet and literary authority. He is, perhaps even more importantly, one of a handful of Arab voices active on the Internet and eager to network internationally. His site, Jehat Al-Shi'r, is arguably the online resource for Arabic poetry, certainly the most popular web site of its kind. Born in Bahrain on the eve of the Palestine War of 1948, he rose to prominence as both poet and activist; and themes of freedom and justice, however indirectly, have constantly informed his writing. Now chairman of the Bahraini Writers Union -- which he co-founded in 1969 -- Haddad also established Bahrain's first cultural magazine, Awaal , and contributed to the development of an eponymous theatre troupe. Among many other honours, Haddad was the recipient of the Uwais Poetry Award in 2002.
It was Qassem Haddad's participation in Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafi's Spring Festival for Music and Poetry that afforded the chance to meet him. A profoundly modest man, even at his poetry reading in Makan he seemed all but impenetrable. On speaking to him the next day at the Pyramisa Hotel, it seemed more obvious than ever that this is a man who prefers expressing his love of the Arabic tongue to talking of himself or his career. In the light of his profound knowledge not only of literature but indeed of almost every subject that came up, it seems all the more surprising that he never completed his secondary education: "I had to work to help my family; literature was more than enough compensation, anyway." Even while still a student, Haddad was working. At the tender age of 10, indeed, a job at a Manama public library provided a lasting encounter with books: "The time I'd spend at the library was maybe double that I was spending at school. I had no idea at the time that leaving school would provide a unique opportunity to read freely, outside of the predetermined frameworks of academia. The bitterness stayed with me." He goes on to point out that in the sixties, when he started writing, "the cultural movement was one face of holistic progress, an expression of the need for justice and freedom." Detained for trying to establish an oppositional party, Haddad experienced, in prison, "the best five years of my life", growing in human as well as cultural terms -- enough to produce, in September 1973, Flower of Melancholy, a poetic summation of his sense of homeland and home. "Changing the world is not the poet's responsibility," he says, 33 years on. "Giving in to the illusion that literature can bring about political change is detrimental on both fronts. It's a totally different mechanism. This is an important lesson that writers involved in ideology can benefit from. Literature effects only a sort of change -- in the spirit of people, their sensibility and their convictions..."
The tranquillity his poetry produces is in some sense paradoxical, since he has testified -- on www.qhaddad.comwww.qhaddad.comas elsewhere -- to "living in an inclement hell", a place where everything is subject to doubt, where words never convey the entirety of experience. Incredibly prolific and widely translated -- Haddad has 20 books to his name -- the afflicted creator believes that it was deprivation from reading and writing as a political prisoner that gave him such an insatiable compulsion to produce: "The purpose of political detention is to defeat the prisoner from within, so that your life after prison is different from before. It's being aware of this that saved my soul as a poet. In fact I think it was poetry in the sense of a universal energy filling the soul that kept me intact. Nor is this unique: thousands all over the world have had the same experience." Though he gave up his political ambitions, Haddad maintained his quest for freedom through literature, the maintenance of which in the Gulf has been enough of an outlet for his day-to-day energy. A lesser spirit might have emigrated; and, political activities aside, Haddad has had plenty of occasion to find stimulation outside his country of origin. He chose to stay on in Bahrain, embodying a relation he has frequently attempted to express: "My country, which I know/Was my own country. And I, an alien/Yet out of the wound/As a difficult child labour/ Comes my country..." Though opposed to the notion of "Gulf poetry" -- a nonsensical notion invented by politicians -- Haddad thus belongs like no other Khaliji poet. One notion to which he is equally opposed is that of generations of poets, another "silly classification" as evidenced by the readership he has acquired among much younger poets in Egypt. Likewise "the death of poetry": media, even publishing policies do not reflect what people actually read: "The reader is not a single clear-cut block. Nor do I believe that poetry is a popular art. It will always be a small, exclusive audience -- one that, in the Arab world, sadly, is still identified with the economic- political elite." At his own Makan reading few poets were present, many young enthusiasts -- reflecting these thoughts precisely.
Familiarity with the electronic age is yet another example of what sets Haddad apart: he is one of very few Arab poets using a computer keyboard directly rather than pen and paper; he made the shift in the mid-1980s and has never looked back. This year Jehat Al-Shi'r, the inimitable online resource he created, celebrates its 10th anniversary: "This experiment came at a time when the cultural scene was in dire need of a new stimulus -- the mid-1990s. Sadly to this day Arab literati are still Internet shy, even despite the freedom and opportunities for interaction it offers. I've recently added photo and painting pages, because it is my belief that contemporary poets are not as aware of the visual arts as they might me; Arab visual awareness is on the wane. The site is being constantly updated, it is always in the throes of some new change, again because I believe change is essential to the creative process. Besides the visual art pages, I'm also putting together a new narrative section, to include novels and short stories with a poetic sensibility." All of which is by way not only of a holistic approach to culture but, perhaps more significantly, of contemporaneity. As he explained to a small audience at the Mubarak Library, following his reading, contemporaneity is something to which he commits himself; his musicality, for example, is not to be identified with canonical metres, since it is a contemporary musicality: "I do not limit myself to the poetry of verse. In every text there is a music invented by the writer and appreciated by the reader. Yet Arabic writing is still uncomfortable with this kind of freedom. There should be no restrictions on poetry, on whether it is written in verse or prose." That said, Haddad finds "the silence" of the most recent writing "disturbing". It is as if, he says, "it was written for the deaf", for "when I read poetry, I love to feel the beauty of the Arabic language in it" and these texts boast no such beauty. Is that why Haddad writes of melancholy and fear, of enemies and grievances -- more or less traditional poetic themes that readily lend themselves to the Arabic tongue?
"However many enemies are to be found in my work, I do not talk of my own enemies," he says. "It is not something you can interpret so directly. Poetry is full of its own symbols, which you cannot iron out like that; it is never so flat. An enemy in a poem of mine could be simply an opposite of the self. No one can live without such opposites." Yet there is a well-tamed fear in his eyes as he says so. At least he has managed what few Arab literati have even attempted: a collaborative exhibition at the Bahrain Arts Centre involving poetry by Haddad, music by Khaled Al-Shaikh and painting by Ibrahim Bu Saad: "I've done many such projects with artists, musicians and poets. I am taken by the idea of combining poetry with music, and photography, which drives me towards interdisciplinary dialogue across creative fields. They are experiences that enrich me and hone my poetic senses; they open up new horizons in the way of genre, which is all the more relevant to the future of writing. This could be one of the rare benefits of globalisation..." Be that as it may, indeed, Haddad has travelled widely -- something, he has said, that taught him "rhythm". The outward journey is as essential as the inward: "I thank poetry for my wings. Thanks to poetry, I have travelled far, and met people I would never have met had I not been a poet. The forces that make international seminars and conferences possible make up, for me, a kind of universal kindness." Yet he has no favourites: "Every city has its own flavour. Every place creates its own poetic mood. It is neither fair nor useful to compare one city to another; sometimes a few hours can make a more lasting impression than an extended stay." At the doorstep of his seventh decade, Haddad is typically melancholy: "I have a strong feeling that life has escaped me completely. I will attempt to compensate for what I have failed to achieve yet, for what I have hidden away in that magic box up there is double or triple what I have written. To this day -- and this is important -- I come across work by other poets that amazes me, so much so that I wish I had written it myself."