Fear and loathing in Tahrir Square
While Menna Taher describes the place Amal Donqol occupies in poetic consciousness, Youssef Rakha
attempts a reassessment of that place
Amal Donqol (1940-1983), the poet best known for La tussalih (Do not make peace), perhaps the most famous statements against the Camp David accords, is commemorated this week for the 28th anniversary of his death.
Hailing from Qina in Upper Egypt, on first arriving in Cairo Donqol was so overwhelmed by the complexities of the city he left after one and a half years, then came back to capture its every nook and cranny with his words. In a relatively short period on earth, he left behind a range of timeless masterpieces that can always be re-read and re- interpreted.
Donqol's upbringing was tough. His father, an Azhar scholar, was a strictly religious man, but he was also a poet and an Arabic teacher, which allowed the young man to delve into the territory of literature. This helped to form Amal's outlook on life and connected him to the Arabic canon which was to remain a strong influence through his life.
"My main connection to life is through books, my outlook on life is derived from books," Donqol says in Ateyat El Abdnoudy's documentary Hadith Al Ghorfa Thamanya (Talks of Room # 8), a reference to the hospital room in which he lost the battle with cancer; his last poems were collected in Awraq Al Ghorfa Thamanya (Papers of Room # 8).
In the opening scene of the documentary, Amal's mother recounts what he was like as a child. "He talked like a man. I never felt he was a child," she says. "He used to read his father's books, but he also read his brother Samir's comics. He read everything."
In a publication celebrating his 70th birthday, A'shaq al Iskandariah (I adore Alexandria), Amal's brother Anas Donqol says the main trigger of his brother's poetic endeavours was their father's death when Amal was still at the tender age of 10. The misfortune left Amal bitter, but it also gave him personal strength and a sense of self-dependence that instilled in him a hatred for all that is phony and contrived.
His poetry is a web of images entwined with perceptions, thoughts and historical references that almost always end with an attention-grabbing stanza: the influence, it is sometimes though, of the poet Ahmed Abdel Moaty Hegazy. On finishing a poem by Donqol, the reader gives a slight smile, emits a chuckle, experience shock or even take a few minutes to contemplate.
The profound influence of holy texts is evident in Donqol's writing. In A'shaq al Iskandariah the critic Abla El Roweiny, Donqol's wife, explains that Donqol was never tied to one place; he always moved from one friend's house to another, which is why he never collected a library of his own. Four books, however, always moved with him: the Quran, the Old and New Testaments and the history of by the 15th- to 16th-century Egyptian historian Ibn Iaas.
In Al 'Ahd Al Aaty (The next testament), Donqol arranges his poems in the same manner as the Bible. Sifr Al Khurouj (Exodus), for example, also known as Oghniyat Al Ka'ka El Hajariya (Song of the Stone Cake), a reference to the circular paving in the middle of Tahrir Square, was written after the student demonstrations of 1972 -- and takes on an epic dimension through the manner in which it emulates holy texts -- another powerful amalgam of images and exchanges almost cinematic in its realism.
Oghniyat Al Ka'ka El Hajariya is the poem in which Donqol found his voice, his work reaching maturity in terms of depth and power -- this was confirmed when it resulted in the shutting down by the authorities of the magazine in which it was published, Sanabel.
Yet despite his success, despite his command of verse and ability to apply verse rules in a modern, free-verse framework, Donqol's first experience with poetry was not successful. When he first showed his work to his school teacher, also a poet, the teacher's advice was for him to give up poetry altogether. This made him all the more determined, however: on hearing that a man was traditionally considered a poet once he had memorised 1,000 verses, he proceeded to do just that. Before too long he knew 1,000 verses by heart.
In learning both traditional and modern poetry, he wrote down huge numbers of verses by, among many others, Aziz Abaza, Ibrahim Nagy and Mahmoud Hassan Ismail. The next time he tried his hand at poetry, his teacher was impressed. "When I was young I couldn't imagine how a human being might write poetry," Donqol admits in the documentary, "because all the poets we read were already dead. For me it was a closed door."
For his part Hegazy remembers Donqol as a central part of the transformation that gave way to free verse, to which many critics -- Abbas El-Aqqad, for example -- were deeply opposed. "The readership of poetry in the 1940s was very limited," says Hegazy. By incorporating daily life and simplifying metres and rhymes, "this new movement brought back the readership." The Egyptian pioneers of that movement were Abdel Rahman El Sharkawy, Salah Abd El Sabbour; Hegazy himself adopted the style around 1955.
Both Hegazy and Donqol were initially opposed to free verse. "I felt it was a sort of escape from the constraints of poetic language and the melody that is produced by its metered verse," Donqol said in Ateyat Abnoudy's documentary. "It's only when I read 'Port Said' by Abdel Rahman El Sharkawy that I adopted this style." Variation within the poem itself characterises the new form, allowing the coexistence of imagery, detailed descriptions, contemplative speculations, abstract ideas and straightforward narration.
Despite Donqol's strong and outspoken political position, his poetry never took a propagandist turn; instead he took the subject matter and transformed it into something personal and intimate. Even while denouncing the Camp David Accords, Donqol used the epic myth of the Arab prince Al Zeer Salem, who vowed to take revenge for his murdered brother.
Donqol's poetry is in fact loaded with all manner of mythical and epic as well as everyday characters: the war veteran with the wooden leg, the waiter with whom he experiences a moment of distrust and disgust, or the woman with loose socks. In Al Bukaa Bayna Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama (Weeping before Zarqaa Al Yamama), often read as a comment on the 1967 war, Donqol actually predicts the defeat; he uses another character from Arab mythology, a woman with extremely sharp eyesight who could see the enemy approaching while they were still two days away.
In Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah (Spartacus' last words), one of his more pessimistic poems, Donqol expresses how Spartacus felt while waiting for his death sentence. In a bleak premonition he says that each Caesar is followed by another Caesar, calling for people to teach his son how to bend down to the ruler. Perhaps such timeless references make Donqol's poetry even more alive even in the context of today's political events.
Donqol is also a master at capturing the soul of a city: he brings out the worn-out side of Cairo, celebrates Alexandria with vigour and zest; he also wrote beautifully about Suez. In an epistolary exchange between Hegazy and Donqol, Hegazy marvels at the way Donqol describes the sea: "Your poems about the sea don't only describe nature, and your bond with the sea is not that of mere imagery, but it seems to be a secretive experience you share. The sea provokes your sub-conscience and conjures up your magical and mystical roots."
Donqol is still alive in the soul of his poetry. Though his body gradually gave out in Room # 8, the way the flowers that accompanied him during his last days, he is alive not only in the memories of those who knew him but those who read his poems as well.
It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: "political" poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn't always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.
In this context it may be said that Donqol's best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol's political poems ( La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah ) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).
The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as "personal rights". In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet's role in a forcefully homogenised "modern" society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet's readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol -- or Darwish -- afford to write poetry for its own sake?
Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a "half revolution" (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss's expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat -- the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation -- with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.
Rather than situating itself -- also pragmatically -- within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.
At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the "stone cake" of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake -- and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem -- is quite another.
The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence -- something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.
Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called "What Arab Spring", in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the "political" poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.