Farouk Shousha: Cry my beloved language
A month or so ago poet Farouk Shousha's popular television programme, Umsiya Thaqafiya (Cultural Evening) was discontinued for the first time since 1977. A forum for interesting figures from all over the Arab world, the weekly show fell prey to faulty scheduling: it was to be broadcast at 3am instead of 8pm, its regular time for decades. A veteran media figure, Shousha thought it was "a humiliation to one of the most successful programmes on Egyptian television" and refused to go on. A loss though it was for the audience, the poet says it facilitated a long overdue revision of his professional schedule.
On his 70th birthday at the Supreme Council of Culture, the well established poet -- also former director of the national radio, former chairman of the Egyptian Writers Union and, since 2006, secretary- general of the Arabic Language Association (ALA) -- looked much younger than his years. When the first volume of his Collected Poems appeared in 1985, no one expected Farouk Shousha to stop writing. And seasonal and unpredictable as his output remains, it has been flowing uninterrupted since then; indeed a new volume is due to appear early next year. "I am happy to be honoured during my lifetime," he said to his friends and admirers, "not, as is the case with so many intellectuals, long after I die." His wry smile gave way to deep emotion. "I feel I am truly born again."
This is hardly the age of poetry, critics say. Shousha's presence derives, rather, from the relevance of what he has to say, the multiplicity of his registers and his gift for condensation. Among his earliest poems, Ila Musafirah (For a Woman Going) was first recited in the 1950s at the Dar Al-Uloum (Arabic Language College) seminar hall. Enthusiastically received, it was a significant stop on an already long journey. "I find recalling my childhood difficult," Shousha says. "But it's an exercise I perform to recreate my village in my vision. Like most Egyptian villages, my village fell into the trap of civilisation, with the result that it is neither a real town nor the generous place I grew up in. It overlooks the canal that connects the Nile to the lake of Manzala [in Damietta]. And its name, Al-Shu'ara [the Poets] has bewitched me since childhood. When I went to the kuttab [Qur'an learning school for children], I realised that a chapter of the Qur'an had the same name, so I thought it was a sacred place."
In fact it was named after the rabab bards for which it was famous; but they too inspired the young Shousha: "their tales of Arab warriors were associated with the struggle to free Damietta from foreign invaders in the 19th century. From the family, especially on Ramadan nights, I could see the great Sayed Hawwas performing at a café flanked by fields. My first sense of rhythm came from these poems, recited, ironically, in the vernacular," not in the standard language in which Shousha has always written. "My father had ten brothers, and he was the only one among them who received an education. I continued that tradition, which wasn't all that difficult. The kuttab provided a strong foundation of language." It was also an opportunity to daydream about the tales of the Qur'an; and when the cholera epidemic of the 1930s drove his parents to lock him indoors, Shousha used the time to read poetry, starting with Ahmed Shawqi and an important if forgotten bi-monthly, Al-Riwaya (The Narrative), which published Derrini Khashaba's translations of world literature and was edited by Ahmed El-Zayat, who also edited the renowned Al-Risala. Later, in the Damietta Library, Shousha undertook a systematic reading of Arabic poetry from the pre- Islamic greats to the then contemporary Mohamed Nagui. "It was there that my first poems were born," he remembers. "In 1951, when I was 15, I even completed a verse play in which the companions of the prophet all figured. Surprisingly enough, it was actually printed in full by the Damietta Secondary School."
Already he was known as the Students' Poet, encouraged by teachers and consulted by peers. This, he says, is when the seeds of the radio announcer were planted in him. It was on the radio that he fell in love with Taha Hussein, otherwise known as the dean of Arabic literature, too. Shousha was among the earliest graduates of Dar Al-Uloum, and among his peers were some of the most prominent poetic voices of his generation, including Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi and the Sudanese poet Mahmoud Al-Faitouri. Together with the likes of Soliman Fayad and Wahid El-Naqqash, they would gather at the Jordanian novelist Ghalib Halasa's. A well-off bachelor, Halasa became a kind of patron of the arts, and his house witnessed the birth of many a man of letters in the 1960s. "It was there that I realised the 1952 Revolution was but an illusion," Shousha recalls, writing his most famous poem, Al-Da'ira Al-Mohkama (Tight Circle), an accurate reflection of the intellectuals' shock and distress with the defeat of 1967, the symptoms of which the 1973 victory did not cure Shousha, he insists, "because Israel is more and more powerful and influential in the region". For Shousha the poem was equally a reflection on city life, feeling like "one among nameless millions" -- a state of affairs that made him in one sense regret departing his village.
Shousha joined the radio -- in 1958 he took the presenters' entry exam casually on the advice of a friend -- at a time when it boasted some of the most prominent names on the cultural arena, and he worked with such figures as presenter Samira El-Keelany, actor Mahmoud Mursi and scholars Louis Awad and Rashad Rushdi. Shousha is reluctant to talk about the effect of the media on his writing, though he remembers the late critic Ali El-Ra'i -- himself a radio presenter at the beginning of his career -- warning him against this "profession of trivia". At least it afforded an insider's access to the political scene, and a clear perspective on the regime's corruption. In 1963 he was the first announcer to be dispatched to Kuwait for training, during which time he lived with the late Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayab during the last stages of his illness; for this reason he describes it as "the most important year of my life". Shousha would spend the day with him, leaving at night, and come back the next morning to find that Al-Sayab, despite his state of paralysis, had dictated a new poem to the nurse.
"He would speak of 'the smell of Arabic poetry'. Arabic poetry is not a concept I'm comfortable with, because over hundreds of years it is held together by the most tentative string. But sometimes I read a poem and it feels translated, because it doesn't carry that smell." In his recent book, Thaqafat Al-Aslak Al-Sha'ikah (The Culture of Wire Barriers), Shousha speaks of unqualified poets, more interested in festivals and the media than in poetry itself.
Shousha is, after all, among the guardians of the language -- a position formalised with his joining the ALA, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary next summer and, under his supervision, in the process of completing the Arabic Encyclopaedia, the subject of a high- profile conference last March. It is an ambitious project, with each entry tracing the history of a word from its first appearance on, comprehensively divulging its associations and uses. "Unfortunately," Shousha says, "there is no time limit for the project. This year we've agreed on the methodology, at least. It is true," he remarks, "that the ALA is not always taken seriously by Arabs, but it is well to remember that it is not a state institution; in the end its recommendations concerning the usage are in no way obligatory, though the Ministry of Education has taken them into account on many significant occasions." A member of the ALA since 1999, Shousha believes the institution should make a connection with readers through dictionaries and magazines, and be present on university campuses.
The deterioration of the language in Egypt, he believes, is due to the low standards of radio and television announcers, and to the fact that teachers make very little effort at schools. With the disappearance of libraries and cultural activities from schools, he says, levels of literacy were bound to drop. "This also dates back to when the people agreed to listen to presidential and parliamentary speeches in the vernacular, starting in 1952. Before 1952, all official discourse had to be in proper Arabic. The average minister could speak in fusha for two hours on end." A critic of foreign education, Shousha nonetheless sent his two girls to French schools, encouraging them to read Arabic: "I didn't want to play the role of the teacher in my own home." Arabic will live on, he believes, "simply because so many universities around the world are teaching it". As a professor of Arabic literature at the American University, Shousha was a guest lecturer in China, and the university he visited had 1,500 students in the Arabic department. "A student asked me, in clear Arabic, about the difference between the image of Arabs in literature and in the media. I told her to believe the writers, not the radio announcers."
Shousha's poetry is often described as emotional, because of the predominance of the theme of love. "My relationship with women starts with my mother, who encouraged me to read and write poetry. I have a lot of respect for women. A poet who lives without a woman," Shousha says, "is a poet who is divorced from the universe. In the absence of women, there is no real life, only a desert. Critics tend to think that my poems were written for specific women, but this is not true. Sometimes the point is something else, like the relationship between Egypt and the Nile. The women in my poems are often associated with my sense of Egypt as my country. There is no such thing as a muse. The strength of a modern, well-educated woman is sufficient to inspire me. When I feel like writing, I rush for pen and paper, whatever else I am meant to be doing."
As a media figure, Shousha has only ever presented cultural and literary programmes, the best known of which is Lughatuna Al-Jamila (Our Beautiful Language), the first episode of which was aired in 1967. "For all those years I've kept away from every potentially negative influence in the media, like political programmes. Even when I became director of the radio, it did not change my view of the media as essentially misleading. But I made no intellectual or political concessions. My first collection of poems, published in 1966, has pieces that announce imminent defeat." Of the censorship he had to impose on himself he says, "since I stopped working officially at the radio, I've felt freer. Sometimes I wonder how I spent 39 years in this building, in such complicated relationships with such complicated people." A politicised writer, Shousha was spared the experience of political detention -- a very unusual thing for an intellectual who came into his own in the 1960s. "There is nothing in my life to justify that particular horror," he smiles. "I've never believed in political parties. The true intellectual is his own party."
At the age of 70, Shousha keeps up his habit of walking by way of exercise. "I was born in the middle of the fields. When I was six I had to walk for an hour to get to my school in Damietta. The road was muddy, my fingers would be chilled. Now I live in Zamalek and I walk to the ALA every day."
photo: Sherif Sonbol