Interview with Hedy Habra

By Rewa Zeinati

Publications, Paintings and the Multi-language of Art

Rewa Zeinati: Your collection of poetry Tea in Heliopolis was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 International Book Award in Poetry. Your book Flying Carpets won the 2013 Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention in Fiction and was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Short Fiction. You won an Excellence in Teaching Award 
at Western Michigan University in 2014. And your individual poems and short stories have been published widely and often. What drives you on?

Hedy Habra: I feel honored and grateful for these publications and awards. I have been studying, writing and also teaching Spanish language and literature for a very long time. I believe that these continued activities stem from an insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning combined with an urge to share and communicate my enthusiasm and love for languages and literature. With each project, I learn a bit more about the world, about others, but mostly about myself. Literature is the best way to transcend one’s reality with its unavoidable ups and downs. Immersing oneself in the virtual space created by fiction or poetry allows for a much richer and more intense life.

RZ: How has being multi-lingual and multi-cultural shaped your craft, if at all? And while growing up, who affected your writing the most, and how?

HH: I was born and raised in Heliopolis, a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt, and was schooled in French, Arabic, and English. I was mainly influenced by French literature and read extensively. I have always loved Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aragon and Paul Celan as well as most of the classics. I studied Pharmacy in Beirut’s French St. Joseph University, and lived there till the onset of the civil war.

After spending several years in Europe, I came to the United States where I pursued graduate studies in English and Spanish. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty, but my list would be endless. My favorite author is usually the one I am reading and enjoying at a specific moment. Each great author provides a unique experience. Some of my favorite Middle Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry, and Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.

When I first discovered Latin American literature, I knew that it was the sort of writing I would like to emulate. My favorite writers are Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, for fiction, and Octavio Paz, César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, for poetry, to name only a few. But I admire lots of Spanish and international authors, so it is hard to tell which writers have left an imprint on my work. I am also a great admirer of the fiction of Italo Calvino, Alessandro Barrico and Dino Buzzati, and I try to read them in the original Italian.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

HH: For me, it is a desire to reread the poem over and over again. I am very sensitive to a poem’s music and to the way the language flows. I love poems with striking images that create unusual and unexpected connections but that still won’t reveal it all, letting the reader make the leap and use his (or her) imagination.

RZ: What makes good fiction?

HH: I guess that my preference goes to novels that are well crafted and require the reader’s participation like Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction. I have read each of his novels several times, always with renewed delight and interest. I love stories that have a surreal or fantastic dimension, that’s why I regularly reread Buzzati, Calvino, Cortázar and Borges. Good fiction is a text that you want to keep returning to, always discovering something new in its pages.

RZ: Some writers dedicate a couple of hours in the morning to write. Some after a jog. Some wait for the evening hours to settle down. What is your process?

HH: I don’t have a specific routine or ritual. Sometimes working in the yard, gardening or walking helps me enter a meditative state that is propitious to writing. It does seem to me that I am constantly writing, with occasional interruptions. And because I also like to write criticism, paint and cook, it is necessary to juggle with time.

I have always kept a journal, and at times, I like to leaf through the pages and highlight some passages that strike me for different reasons and seem to lead me into writing. I always record thoughts, impressions, epiphanies, and have tons of drafts and material that serve as inspiration. Many of my poems are inspired by visual art.

I find myself writing in different languages in my journal. Oftentimes, I work on the same poem in three different languages because some lines would come automatically in a different language associated with new images that I then try to translate, and by doing so I find unexpected ways to express the same thought. This process enriches each version in a reciprocal movement like osmosis.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

HH: I have just finished revising my second book of poetry and sent it to my publisher. Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by paintings. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted a watercolor to illustrate the cover of the forthcoming book, as I did for Tea in Heliopolis. I am also working on a collection of poetry that focuses on my personal connection with the Middle East. Some of the poems are responses to what is going on in the area in an attempt to convey the sense of helplessness that we feel when we see it all from afar.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

HH: Print and online literary journals are very important. I subscribe to several journals, such as Poet Lore, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Nimrod, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and read them with great interest. They are a bridge that allows readers to discover a multiplicity of voices and genres, and enables to keep up-to-date with the evolving tendencies of contemporary literature.

RZ: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, or other writers of many native tongues?

HH: I would say that persistence and discipline are indispensable. I think we learn writing by reading. So the more we read, analyze and try to emulate the authors we admire, the better our own writing will become and we will eventually find our own voice. This works for painting as well. Visual artists first learn to copy the classics before developing a distinctive style. Regarding multilingual writers, I would recommend that they maintain their languages alive by reading constantly in the original. Writers should consider this ability as an advantage instead of a hindrance. In addition, every language brings along a wealth of original metaphors, which cross-pollinate and enrich one another.

From “Gnomus”

By Philip Metres

Returning from Amsterdam, when the ship’s supply of beer ran out, Russian sailors stumbled upon Tsar Peter the Great’s wunderkammern, his wonder cabinet of glass-jarred curiosities: a fetus dressed in lace; a four-legged rooster; botanical landscapes built from plants and lungs; a two headed-sheep; a vial of a sleeping child, its skull removed; a handkerchief into which a skeleton “cried,” made of brain tissue; a severed arm, and held in its hand, a heart; a tiny head cradled in the open jaws of a gecko—all suspended in alcohol. Who started the rumor, we don’t know—that when they tipped the glasses to their mouths to slake their impossible thirst, the sailors must have closed their eyes—lips kissing the sweet wet flesh.

Interview with Frank Dullaghan

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.

Interview with Nathalie Handal

By REWA ZEINATI

Exploring convivencia

“Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits,” says Nathalie Handal, award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. In this interview, Handal talks honestly about her craft, her role as a woman writer, and what she discovers to be “home.”

RZ:  In your new collection, Poet in Andalucía, you re-create Federico García Lorca’s journey, Poet in New York, but in reverse. What inspired this collection?

NH: Poet in New York is one of the most important books written about the city. Lorca is a poet who continues to call us to question what makes us human. Andalucía has always been the place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge and contend, where Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions remain a mirror of a past that is terrible and beautiful. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York of Middle Eastern roots—and this being a crucial moment in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—I wanted to explore convivencia which in Spanish means “coexistence.” The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture…. It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar…. Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.” So recreating Lorca’s journey in reverse became increasingly important to me.

RZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this collection?

NH: Coming to the understanding that although peace is possible if we desire—because what people want most is to live—we stand far away from that reality. It was challenging to weave hope into the poems, staying true to my vision while also understanding the fundamental forces that continue to lead us into conflict states instead of conciliatory ones.

RZ: How is this new collection, Poet in Andalucía, different than anything you’ve written before?

NH: I had a blueprint, a map of the book before I started it.

RZ: You were listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2011” and one of the “Power 500/The World’s Most Influential Arabs” in 2012 and 2013. Where has your inner strength and powerful voice sprung from? And how do you cultivate it?

NH: Staying faithful to my vision and understanding that every challenge is an opportunity for transformation, and a deeper more fundamental power.

RZ: How are women, writers or not, in your opinion, empowered? How do they get that fierce fearlessness, do you think?

NH: From what they have endured, from those who inspire them, from other women, from love, from that luminous-kickass-energy-force-inside.

RZ: Where is ‘home’ for you?

NH: I suppose I’ve given versions of the same response over the years. Today, I will simply say that home is where you can see the most profound side of yourself.

RZ: You have promoted international literature through translation, research, and the editing of the groundbreaking The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award and the W.W. Norton landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond. How important is it to promote international literature, and why did you feel these anthologies were necessary?

NH: It’s vital—one of the most fundamental ways to understand other worlds; their history, culture, traditions. Coming for the Middle East but also having a global identity, I almost didn’t have an option. Thank goodness I enjoy editing and translating. It’s a tough job.
The Poetry of Arab Women was prepared to eradicate invisibility: to provide an introduction to Arab women poets, to make visible the works of a great number of Arab women poets who are virtually unknown to the West, to make visible many Arab-American women poets who are marginalized within the American literary and ethnic scenes, and to demonstrate the wide diversity of Arab women’s poetry, which extends to other languages besides Arabic and English.
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond was conceived following the events of September 11th, 2001. Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and I started this journey together because we felt troubled by the negative views showcased in the media about the East. Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits. We hope this adds to the ongoing dialogue between East and West. This anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today from the East, bringing together the works of South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. The collection includes 400 voices from 55 different countries writing in 40 different languages. The work included is diverse in style and aesthetic from political, to apolitical, erotic to experimental.

We are currently planning the 5th year anniversary celebration of the publication of our anthology in Hong Kong this summer. Simultaneously, we are launching the Language for a New Century website intended to reach educators and to assist them in adopting and teaching the contents of the book. Beyond this, the LNC site will be an energetic space where teachers, professors, students, readers, poets, and anyone interested in this anthology and the amazing voices from the East can go to for more information.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing themselves in Arabic as well?

NH: We don’t owe our heritage as much as we owe ourselves—whatever it is we feel or need. We can’t force connections and alliances. We have our personal circumstances and histories, and shouldn’t be judged by those realities nor assigned expectations. After all, a person might speak Arabic and not feel connected to the Arab world and culture. And another might not speak the language and feel very linked to his/her heritage.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once in an interview that what makes us human is our ability to answer thoughtfully, and change our minds later. That resonates with many people, surely, many of whom are probably afraid to perhaps voice this resonance. What is it about changing our minds that terrifies us so much? And is this confirmation an integral part of what makes us creative? What makes writers, writers?

NH: It doesn’t terrify all of us. I find it rather reassuring, comforting. As for what makes writers, writers. I can’t speak for all of them, I can only tell you, as a writer, I’m a romantic of sorts in search of an impossible perfect.

RZ: You have been asked this question countless times before, but I will ask you again, forgive me; how do you define yourself in terms of identity?

NH: A Bethlehemite—who is also French and American—with Latin American, African and Asian influences. A Mediterranean who is also very much a city person.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that, “homeland is one thing and home is another.” How so? And do you find yourself constantly in search of one or the other in your writing?

NH: Not any more. They appear and disappear but I’m very clear on what each means to me. Home is the place I have chosen to exist in, my cities, Paris and New York. Homeland is where I am originally from, Bethlehem.

RZ: You’ve lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. You are of Palestinian descent and write in English. Does the Arab in you feel empowered?

NH: I only write in English but my poems include French, Spanish and Arabic words because they are an integral part of my English or maybe I should say, the way I communicate. These languages coexist inside of me harmoniously. Speaking various languages has expanded my interior and exterior world in a multitude of fascinating ways.

RZ: In an increasingly globalized present, where the world seems to be shrinking faster than a new phone app is created, (or maybe not!) and the distinctive, discerning features of each Arab culture seems to be vanishing, how can art reconcile us with the idea that we may become increasingly obsolete? (or maybe not?)

NH: Arab or any other culture will not become obsolete. It’s our fundamental pulse, and we instinctively preserve our cultures. We re-imagine them but will not let them disappear. I don’t see the distinctive features of each Arab culture vanishing. I can recognize certain unifying spaces especially when it comes to social media but every Arab country is graced with its unique and ancient histories, cultures, traditions, art and literature. We continue to cherish, nourish, and add new twists to them. Even if every generation complains that certain elements of their culture have been lost, the essence remains very much alive.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

They are an important meeting field of ideas, minds and creative talent,
where we communicate, challenge, change, learn, and are exposed to a
constellation of voices.

NH: What advice would you offer emerging writers?

Read as diversely as possible, and don’t be in a hurry to publish. If you
persist and are dedicated, you’ll find the bus that will take you to the
terminal where you’re meant to begin your writing life.