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With tenderness and fire

ANJANA RAJAN meets Idris M. Tayeb, Arabic poet and counsellor at the Libyan Embassy, whose anthology of poems has just been released in New Delhi... .

"I WOULD like to be known as a poet, not diplomat," says Idris M. Tayeb, Cultural and Press Counsellor in the Embassy of Libya. But for an Arabic poet to be known outside his linguistic domain his work must be understood, and this is why he has translated his poems into English for the first time. The anthology published by Samkaleen Prakashan was recently released in New Delhi. Having had his short stories and poetry translated variously into Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Chinese and German, and some of his works prescribed in Italian universities, it is not with an eye on the West that this dapper journalist and prolific writer - who has taught at The Third University of Rome, lectured at Delhi's Jamia and finds greater comfort in academia than administration - has taken to English. Posted in New Delhi for the past two years, he hopes to share these poems with the people of India.

Tayeb's dedication "To Mahatma Gandhi: as a peaceful fighter, and Nelson Mandela: as a violent peacemaker" is significant. With the anthology titled "Fires of the Sea, Tenderness of the Desert" the interconnection of opposites is an important theme. Written between 1979 and 2002, some of the poems were written in India and are originally in English.

Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi who has been associated with the publication - a collaborative project between the Libyan Counsellor, editor Shibani Ahuja Kapoor and painter Kanchan Chander, whose paintings provide illustrations for the poems - hopes Tayeb's poetry will be translated into Hindi next, but recommends the translation be done from the original Arabic rather than the English version. The problem with this, says Tayeb is that while it is possible to find people well versed in Arabic and Urdu, the combination of Arabic and Hindi is rare.

Translating can be seen as "betraying the text", like transferring honey from one plate to another, he says. Something is bound to be lost, yet there will be honey in the new plate too. And, "till the day we speak one language," readers will have to sacrifice some of that sweetness. Yet, there is "richness in that diversity" points out this linguist who speaks English, Italian, German and French besides his native Arabic, and would love to learn Hindi too if his commitments allowed him time.

It is much easier to translate from a foreign language into one's mother tongue, yet Tayeb has chosen to do the opposite, not merely because as the original poet he is "authorised" to make the necessary changes, but also because when others translated his verses, "they made me sound like a Victorian English writer," he recounts, emphasising that he wishes to retain the "strange ideas" in his work rather than ironing out its cultural distinctiveness.

As a poet among diplomats, he feels privileged since in his decade of diplomatic experience he has found that those who have no art to share end up "just exchanging smiles". Culture is the route through which understanding is fostered - "the safer and more profound way".

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