Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ode to Izmir

Mohamed Metwali tells Rania Khallaf about his latest collection of poetry

Al-Ahram Weekly

A Song by the Aegean is Nineties Generation poet Mohamed Metwali’s first book in a long time. Published earlier this year by the Cairo-based Afaq, the 60-page book – a thematically connected text Metwali insists is a single long poem – is an account of six journeys to the beautiful Turkish city starting in 2013.

It consists of three parts, “Izmir 1”, “Izmir 2” and “Izmir 3”, each made up of a series of shorter texts. The first part tells the story of the subject’s first romantic encounter with the city, the second gives details of the scene: the gypsy girl singing for lovers, the sunset, the moon behind the mountains and the Aegean Sea. In the third section, the poet sounds like he has obtained the keys to the city; he wisely and confidently talking about the sea, as if he owned it and knew all its secrets.

In one of the third part’s most beautiful poems, “Izmir Cats”, Metwali gives up his questioning, unsure tone to state with emphasis that, while human beings and love have a life expectancy, cats live in eternity. In “Austere Montage”, a more typical poem, he brings together his signature tropes: stray dogs, prostitutes, a blind fisherman – and himself, though he is later demolished in the editing room. Here as elsewhere elements of the cityscape are paramount. With titles like “A Crow and A Moon”, “Peacock”, “Sea of Darkness” and “Dog’s Smile”, the poet pulls together a huge, panoramic view of the city.

“The poems,” he says, “are about the underbelly of Izmir. It is a pristine city, full of cafes and luxury restaurants by the sea. Upper class inhabitants go there to dine. But, on the other hand, there are gypsies selling flowers, street bands, and beggars. This is the aspect of the city that I thought worth writing about. I fell in love with the city. Izmir is a rebellious city, which has a unique Mediterranean aura. It is also reminiscent of Alexandria in the 1920s. It was originally an ancient Greek city called Smyrna, and when the Turks took over they changed its name, but it is still has the ambience of a cosmopolitan Mediterranean city.

“People there protest Erdogan’s policies, demonstrating all the time against the ruling political party, so I had no political trouble at a time when Turkey and Egypt are at odds. I wrote all the poems at night in the balcony of the luxurious Izmir Palace Hotel overlooking the Aegean Sea, where I could watch the whole scene, holding my glass of whisky in one hand and the pen in the other. I guess my muse has always been this tiny corner of the terrace. I made lots of friendships with waiters and street vendors, this is what I liked the most about being there. My frequent visits to the city allowed me to watch the small changes that happened every now and again.”

Asked if his new collection could be classified as travel writing, Metwali says, “I don’t like classification. It shouldn’t have to fall into the category of travel writing. It’s like Constantine Cavafy, who wrote many poems about Alexandria. They were just poems.” But being his first book on a single theme, unlike his last three collections, A Song by the Aegean does mark an interesting shift in focus.  

In “They Flew over the Gulf”, he tells an imagined love story between an Izmir girl and a man from outside the city who together take part in a demonstration. “I wanted to emphasise the class difference between the two lovers: an aristocrat called Mehmet, a form of Mohamed, and a gipsy girl called Guzel, which means ‘beautiful’ or ’sweet’. I used to watch lovers roaming the streets of the city, kissing and hugging. It was amazing.”

Born in Cairo in 1970, Metwali graduated from the Faculty of Arts’ English Department in 1992. That same year he was awarded the Youssef Al-Khal Prize for his first book, Once upon a Time, which was published by the Beirut-based Riyad El Rayyes. This was the heyday of the Nineties Generation, but does Metwali feel he managed to help mould a literary movement?

“Well, we have been long forgotten,” he says. “The critics have ignored us. But anyway I am cross-generational. It did not receive due appreciation. We established prose poetry as a trend. It was written by poets of the Eighties as well, but it was kind of rare. Now everyone writes prose poetry.

“However, I believe a healthy poetic scene should include different styles and forms of writing. Even in poetry festivals around the world, you notice that everyone is defending prose poetry as a single form of writing. This is a kind of fascist thinking. Prose poetry is just a form, and poetry has the capability of absorbing other forms. For example, the established Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef still writes in free verse.”

But why is it that poetry is unpopular compared to, say, novels. “Well,” Metwali says. “This is the age of novel. Poetry is like a vehicle, which has to be renovated, and it has to be fuelled with different styles. The reader has to be entertained when reading poetry.” Entertained? “I don’t mean that the reader should laugh, but the poet should intelligently hold the attention of the reader.

“What I am trying to do to make my poems work is to use some techniques from other forms of art like cinema, theatre, music; it is like pumping new petrol into the poetic vehicle to make it less banal. Poetry, of course, has no fixed definition. It is not a static thing. It is very dynamic. You can trace poetry in a novel, a painting, or even in normal life, that’s why.”

Metwali was a member of an independent theatrical group called Shaziya (or “Shrapnel”), famous for its unique performances in the early nineties. “I was also a student at the Film Institute for a year, simultaneously with my studies in the English Department, and due to stupid laws at the time, preventing students from studying in two different faculties, I had to quit. I thought of joining the institute once again, but when I won the prize in 1992, I decided that my career would be devoted to literature.”

Metwali’s next two books, The Story People Tell Here in the Harbour (1998) and Lost Promenades (2010) were published by Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, respectively: two literary magazines that defined the Nineties, the first having been cofounded by Metwali and the poet Ahmad Taha. Both magazines have long been discontinued, however.

“We stopped because we suffered financially,” Metwali explains. “No one was interested in giving us a fund. The times have changed. Now, everyone can publish a book either through government cultural venues or private publishers.” So you think there is no need for such independent literary magazines any more? “There might be a need for such magazines. However, the circumstances are not the same. Now, sadly enough, there is an unhealthy cultural atmosphere; writers cannot just get together and form a movement. The backdrop to encourage that sort of behaviour is no longer there.”

It was around the time that the magazines stopped appearing, in 2001, that the poet went to the United States. He lived in Seattle for three years. “It was a very enriching experience. I had access to the city’s museums and big libraries. Changing the environment is always healthy, because poets are easily bored. It helped me to develop new perspectives on people and life.” As for recent developments on the literary scene, Metwali feels the last ten years have not seen a common trend.

“It is more a matter of individual voices,” he says. The emergence of vernacular poets, working in Egyptian dialect rather than standard Arabic, on the other hand, he sees as a positive thing. “It’s very Egyptian. We are not actually Arabs. We have Mediterranean and African components in our identity. The Arabic component was forced on us through invasion. In my writings, I usually try to be close to the vernacular, to benefit from its unique, fresh flavour.”

Metwali’s next book, already ready for publication, has a political theme: a prophecy of the 2011 revolution, as he puts it. “Most of the poems of the new collection were written before 2011, focusing on the human element of political turmoil. During the years 2011-2013, I detached myself from politics, as it was really difficult to write on that topic. But these poems were already there.”

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