Ali Shawwa is a Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist who’s lived in the Middle East, Europe and the US. Using a range of mediums from pencil to acrylic, Ali relates his experiences, memories, culture, and emotions through his artwork. His art is one of his most cherished creative outlets and after years spent observing, experimenting and evolving, Ali has developed his own unique style that led to a series of widely successful paintings. His latest series, Œiconic, focuses mainly on pop culture. With a degree in Environmental Design, he is currently the creative director for a niche book publishing company, Rimal Publications. Ali’s artwork has been acquired internationally by art enthusiasts in sixteen different cities. He lives and works in Dubai.
BY REWA ZEINATI
LOVE, CHILDHOOD AND THE ARAB SPRING
an interview with Dubai-based, Irish poet, Frank Dullaghan
Rewa Zeinati: You have three poetry collections, two haiku collections, you also co-founded the Essex Poetry Festival and edited Seam Poetry Magazine. You are a poetry judge for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. You’ve written award-winning screenplays and short stage plays, and are a regular book reviewer for the Dubai Eye Talking of Books radio programme. You are an Irish poet, born and raised, who is living and writing and publishing in and from Dubai. How did that happen? Why the Arab world?
Frank Dullaghan: It happened slowly and over a long period of time. I’ve been involved with poetry for decades. One can achieve a lot in that time if one works hard. I also think it’s important to give back to the poetry community for the gift of poetry; to encourage and foster others on their own poetic journey. Hence my involvement with the EAFL and their outreach programmes and the various writing workshops I’ve run.
With regards to why Dubai, my story is much the same as many ex-pats: I came here with my job and have stayed because Dubai offers good work opportunities. However, being here has opened a door into Arab culture and has given me wonderful opportunities to be part of a nascent and fast growing art scene.
RZ:Your latest collection of poetry The Same Roads Back (Cinnamon Press, 2014) is replete with loss,war,rebellion, and memory.You write poems about what is happening in Syria, in Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates.You write poems about your childhood and school years in Ireland, to your wife you write movingly, “what else do we need but the surprise of each other?” You write about your children. You write poems dedicated to Lebanese and Palestinian writer friends. I get the sense that the collection, really, is about ‘family,’ and/or ‘home’ in the literal and figurative sense. Is that true? And what does the title mean?
FD: I think most writers have certain themes or preoccupations which infest all that they write. Certainly family friends, and ‘home’ are important to me. I’m less interested in place than I am in people. What is the human condition? What makes us who we are? Why do we love? Where have we come from? What do we want? How can there be so much love in the world and also so much hate? I think poetry is a way of reaching out to find accommodation with the strange times and places we live in; it’s a way of celebrating the impact others have on our lives, and a way of sharing our understandings. I have made some strong and wonderful friendships since I moved to Dubai. These have been connections which have impacted my life. So I think my latest book also acknowledges and confirms this wonder.
Regarding the title, I think it points to a number of things – the act of continually revisiting our preoccupations; our need to investigate our roots, looking for reasons to who and where we are; the desire to reach some safe or final destination we call ‘home’; the completion of the circle, the path that takes us back to the beginning. I tend to go for titles that have a metaphorical quality, one that somehow feels right for the collection.
RZ: From your poem entitled “Dirty Poem” the lines, “there are children with dead eyes/ in the garden,women gone beyond grief./ There are men growing into wolves,/ picking at their teeth. There are bombs.” These gorgeous, heartbreaking lines pretty much sum up what has been happening in the Arab world of late. Has living in the Arab region shaped or influenced your craft?
FD: I don’t think it is possible to live so close to the countries of the Arab Spring and not deal with this in poetry. And I do find it all so heartbreaking. How can anyone watch the massacre in Gaza and not despair of human goodness? How do we manage to live in a world like this? There is so much pain. We must seek out the small, often personal, moments of peace and love. We must hold tight to our friends. Poetry is one way of surviving.
However, I always tend to come at these big themes from the individual point of view. I’m not trying to be some sort of public poet making grand gestures to a future generation. I think my work is quieter than that. But, hopefully, it is powerful nonetheless.
RZ: Has living in the Arab region influenced your perception of this conflict-driven space? What were your preconceptions about the region, if any, prior to living in Dubai?
FD: I think I was probably less aware when I lived outside of Dubai. Proximity does make a difference and friendships with people impacted makes it personal.But I don’t think my sensibilities have changed.They are just better informed.
RZ: What makes a good poem?
FD: Oh there are so many things – clarity of thought and communication, accessibility whilst maintaining depth (multiple layers of meaning), surprise, freshness, the ability to show emotional complexity etc. Of course, what makes a good poem is also a personal thing. I prefer poems that deal with human relationships rather than abstracts, I’d rather have sharp images over clever wordplay. I like the lyrical, a narrative arc, poems with a message that is delivered cleanly and with impact. I dislike poems that have too many classical references, that show off their learning, that are lazy (tired language, cliché, repetition without craft, shock words without thought), or that try to appear cool, have street cred, etc. but lack any kind of originality or substance.
RZ: Describe your writing ritual (if you have one!).
FD: Because I have always had a day job and one, moreover, that has always demanded a lot of my time, I tend to write in short bursts whenever I have the inclination/opportunity. I always have a notebook with me, so you will often fine me in a mall coffee shop,writing.When I can,I try to do a little writing first thing in the morning.That will generally only last for a few weeks before the world sabotages it. But, surprisingly, it often results in some of my best and most sustained writing.
RZ: What are you working on now?
FD: I seem to be writing memory poems again about my childhood and early adult life. And I’ve just completed a pamphlet length set of poems about a missing girl.
RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?
FD:They are very important.They can be a standard of contemporary excellence. They can introduce you to new voices and fresh approaches. They can act as an affirmation of the quality of ones own work. I believe, one absolutely must have published in literary journals before attempting to launch their own collection. If you want to write well, you need to read, and you need to listen to the choir of new voices as well as the established soloists. Not all journals will suit all people. But there are many quality journals out there, Sukoon being one, and local too, that it is always possible to find some you like. Support for poetry starts with literary journals and small presses. They are the lifeblood. They are what sustains the art.
RZ: What do you think is the role of literature and art in a region that burns with strife and fragmentation?
FD: To remind us of beauty. To affirm our humanity. To touch the creative, the human, the positive. To provide a counter- narrative to the small-minded dogmas and hatred of political and religious bigotary.
RZ: You were commissioned to provide the final translations of the poems by His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum,Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. Tell us a little about that.
FD: Yes, that was an unexpected honour at the end of last year. The way it worked was that I was provided with literal translations (I don’t read Arabic) and I worked on those to try and provide a poetic translation that would work for the western ear. The Nabiti poetry written by His Highness is a traditional poetic form from the Gulf couched in the dialect of the Bedouin. In Arabic, it is very complex in its rhythm and rhyming patterns. I did not attempt to reproduce this in the English translations but rather tried to convey the essential message and images of the poems. I was assisted in this by various experts who provided feedback on particular phrases.That said, it is also important to remember that the work includes praise poems for leaders and religious poems which will seem strange to western ears (though, historically, we wrote similar poems). I hope that my efforts captured the essence of the poems. Translation is always only an approximation. However, I believe that the results will be of interest to many and will, hopefully, provide some insight into the poetic works of Sheikh Mohammed. The resultant book Flashes of Verse was published by Explorer Publishing in a beautiful book and can now be purchased locally.
RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers?
FD: Read, read, read. Read quality and demanding work that challenges your craft. Look for critical feedback not the praise of close friends who believe your work is wonderful. It’s not wonderful. It may be brilliant for the stage you are at in your growth as a writer, but it can always be better. We only grow as writers when we, momentarily, set aside our egos for the sake of improving our craft. There is much to learn. Always. Every day. You never stop. Nor should you.