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Emirati poet Saif Al Marri: ‘Poetry is a bell that chimes in your heart’

Emirati writer Saif Bin Mohammad Al Marri on his inspiration, why Arabic lends itself to lasting literature and young talent from the region

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Saif Bin Mohammad Al Marri is now working on a collection of poetry.
Gulf News

In a span of 15 years, Emirati poet and writer Saif Bin Mohammad Al Marri has published five books: “Al Agharid” (Tweetings; poetry, 2001), “Al Anaqeed” (Clusters; poetry, 2003), “Ramaad Mushtael”, (Burning Ashes; short stories, 2006), “Beit Al Ankaboot” (Spider’s House; short stories. 2010), and “Ajras Al Huroof” (Bells of Letters; collection of articles, 2013).

Simplicity, imagination and spirituality are the hallmarks of the work of this noted Emirati poet and writer. That he has published only five books denotes the careful attention and detailing that he gives to what he writes, his high sense of art and the freshness of language. For instance, “Spider’s House” is the epitome of style and simplicity: his mastery of the vocabulary helped him adopt a writing style that mixed lucid prose and rich poetry because we live in era where readers prefer short expressions and have no time for verbosity.

Al Marri heads Al Sada Press and Publication, which publishes five specialised magazines: “Al Sada”, a social weekly for the Arab family; monthly magazines “Dubai’s Culture” focusing on literary and cultural spectrums, “Jewels” focusing on popular poetry and folk literature, “Girl Gulf” about women of the region, “Young Twenty” targeting the youth, and “Shahrazad” for young women.

Al Marri spoke to Weekend Review about his experience while writing poetry, short stories and articles, all at the same time.

A career combining poetry, short stories and articles is not easy. How do you manage such diverse fields?

If we go back to the origin of the universe, we find that it started with two letters — B and E. From the perspective of spirituality, God created the universe with these two letters. In its simplest form, the word “be” means to exist. But it denotes the existence of everything and beyond. In the Arabic tradition, the word is very important for man and his honour. It signifies the origin of all things.

Literature, poetry or story is a tapestry of words. Just as the cloth reflects the skill of the weaver and the quality of the yarn, it is about creativity and the beauty of the language. If the yarn is rich, the fabric will be silk, and if the quality is a level lower, it will produce wool. Likewise, the word is the basis of all creations.

Writing is workmanship and must be mastered, and language is its tool. Don’t these vary among writers?

Certainly. The higher the writer’s mastery, the more enriched will be his creativity and language. This is the overriding principle, whether it is poetry, story, article or a novel.

While creativity lies in the use of words, it is the idea that leads to the creation. Irrespective of the type of literature, the idea is the most important factor. Language provides the vehicle. In Arab literature, poetic story has been in existence since ancient times. I think writing poetry is the most difficult because it has to encapsulate an idea and use symbols to express it.

Is it possible to say that Arabic is distinct with its poetic flair and lends to creativity in all its forms?

Arabic has evolved over a long period and all this refinement makes it a perfect language. If we go back to the Islamic period, we find that Arabic was already fully developed. Without that, the Quran could not have been revealed. Why? Because it is a divine book, which cannot be incomplete.

With the passage of time, the language was further enriched by modern terminology and became more adaptable with the passing centuries. The advantage of Arabic is that we can understand texts written 3,000 years ago without even referring to the dictionary, unlike English, in which it is impossible to recognise the Shakespearean text just 400 years ago. This emphasises the fact that Arabic has longevity.

As to your question about how I use heritage language, I continue to get inspired by original texts because, as you know, Arabic has been under fierce attack.

Can we call compressed form of writing telegraphic language, especially in the short stories? Is it a way of writing?

I think short phrases express the meaning more lucidly. This is particularly important as we live in the age of abbreviations and summaries. A journalist now, for example, cannot write a story the way he did 10 years ago because the present reader is not like the reader then.

Do you believe in the concept of open texts in which the boundaries of genres fade?

This is what happened in world literature, but in our case borders still exist between different genres of poetry, story, novel and essay. An apple falling on Newton’s head would have been a routine event, but it was his insight and creativity that transformed it into a great discovery and created the theory that the laws of physics are built on.

As is said, the devil is in the detail, it’s the same in literature. Without detail, we cannot create literature. It is known that the spark of poetry is bigger than the spark in a story. The storyteller is like a painter. Ideas exist, but it is the creativity that turns the idea into an artistic story, which runs from objective reality, even growing virtual roots.

In your book, “Burning Ashes”, inspired by an imaginary story, did you mean it really?

Whether we like it or not, we live in a time of virtual reality. In fact, each story reflects virtual reality, but it could be located somewhere or it does occur at some time. Human beings live in history, which repeats itself. This is the process of writing and creativity as well.

Although the reader is aware that the story is fiction, he interacts with it, because it reflects his own attitudes towards these virtual events. Imagination plays a big role in our lives.

Do you think that the Arab writer interacts adequately with the problems of the society?

I don’t think so. What is happening in the Arab world does not find its expressions in the creative works, perhaps because the writer is not able to adequately interact with the surroundings or he waits for the ideas to be fermented into shape through literary expression.

The intelligentsia is often on the other side of the events because it is the mobs that are leading the events. The so-called revolution has destroyed everything, although the Arab discontent had erupted in the anticipation of a better life.

There is no revolution when it destroys countries. All the revolutions that took place in the world, including the French Revolution with all its repression, murder and persecution, had a positive outcome as they ultimately led to social peace and progress. This is not the case with the happenings in the Arabic world.

Is the Emirati story compulsive in your opinion?

I’m not a critic to evaluate it, but undoubtedly it has reached an advanced stage. This is linked to the development and progress of education in the UAE, a significant accomplishment in this field. We are preceded by Egypt, Iraq and Syria because these were the cradles of Arab civilisation, while we were living in a primitive fishing economy.

Our economy was miserable, but with the Union taking shape, everything changed, especially education. If we go back to the beginnings of a renaissance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we can consider that it is a short period. The UAE society evolved into an advanced one, although the changes have come with some negative aspects. It is natural that literary creativity follows the transformations in the society.

Did you try writing a novel?

I think a novel demands a bigger canvas and some major event that influences the writer. I don’t think I have witnessed an appropriate event yet. I was perhaps more fascinated by the short story.

A collection of short stories in homogeneity can be a novel. A novel can also be inspired by an event that happened to others. Generally, a novel implies a huge linguistic work involving events and heroes; it’s similar to writing epic poetry and its author must have that kind of standing.

I think the inspiration for writing a novel must come from within; it can’t be a planned effort. A short story writer can turn to the novel format when he has more details that are beyond the scope of a short story.

You write classical and modern poetry at the same time. Is this a precondition for success or is it getting used to the current way of writing?

If I write the first verse of the poem in the classical mould, I have to maintain it throughout the work; similarly if I begin with the modern style of poetry, I can’t turn back midway.

Poetry is a musical bell that chimes in the depths of your heart. Perhaps a modern poem gives you freedom from the dominance of classical poetry and wider space. The poet does not decide how to write the text, there is something mysterious in creativity that imposes itself on you. The most important thing is to communicate with human beings, because poetry can live for thousands of years, and poets engage with even the unborn.

There are those who say that the time of poetry is over and now it is the age of novel in Arabic literature?

Poetry is timeless in terms of its continuity and currency. It can be re-read over centuries. We still read poetry from 1,400 years ago or earlier, while you read a novel only once. Of course, each type demands a different kind of talent and ability.

Isn’t poetry more subjective than the novel?

Maybe. The poet expresses his self; you cannot expect him to feel only like a certain class of people. For example, the poet Bashar ibn Burd listens to Khalif Moataz Bellah. He describes the Crescent, saying: “Look at the boats of silver laden with ambergris.” It’s as if he is describing the courtyard of his home because Khalif was sitting there surrounded by gold, silver and ambergris.

We cannot expect a poet born in an affluent background to feel the agonies and deprivation of oppressed people. When the hungry crowd asked for bread, Queen Marie Antoinette told them: If you do not have bread, eat cake! Louis XVI’s palace had a bountiful supply of cakes.

We cannot compare one who put his hand in water with another who put his hand in the fire, as the proverb goes. We can excuse the poet for not suffering wretchedness.

Do you believe in the type of prose-poetry that young people write?

My personal opinion, not speaking academically, is that poetry without music bells is not real poetry. So, when we say “prose-poetry”, it is not poetry; because music is the spirit of poetry and a poem without music is like dead text without soul.

Poetry and prose are different. We do not have to confuse the two. When they refer to a prose-poem, maybe it means it was inspired by prose. In any case, such a poem expresses the feelings of its author.

Can the writer reconcile his career and creativity?

When creativity is turned into a job, the writer is dead because a poet is free but the employee is fettered. A job destroys the creator and consumes his time, which is a precious asset for the writer.

If the writer keeps honing his skill, which is impossible in the Arab world, his creation will be better. So I try to concentrate on my literary work in the summer months, and give more time for my journalistic career at other times.

But a great poet such as T.S. Eliot was working in a bank.

(Laughs) He was undoubtedly great; perhaps he imagined that all the bank funds were his, so working in a bank boosted his creativity.

There is a phenomenon among Emirati writers — they do not continue in the literary career; some of them write a few short stories or a novel and stop. What could be the reason?

I cannot answer this question. I reckon that writing is an exceptional event in the life of a human being. There may be justifications for such people not to persist, perhaps including a lack of bonding with the readers.

Recently, private publishing houses have entered the fray. Would this encourage Emirati poets or writers?

That’s right. Private publishing houses have been set up in the last 10 years. This prompted many young Emiratis writers and poets to publish books. I am optimistic about this generation. On the other hand, young Emiratis are also taking to the virtual world and social networking that is consistent with the growth of technology. The most important thing is to deal creatively with these technologies without becoming their slaves.

What is the next book you are working on?

I have begun a collection of poems I have written in the last five years to be published in a new book.

Shakir Noori is a UAE-based journalist and author.