‘The Nakba was the core of our feelings and thinking’

At 94, Salma Khadra Jayyusi is one of Palestine's most distinguished literary personalities, who spent her life taking Arab literature to the world

June 26, 2020 08:10 pm | Updated 08:11 pm IST

Bridging the gap:  Salma Khadra Jayyusi has made profound contributions to translation and academia

Bridging the gap: Salma Khadra Jayyusi has made profound contributions to translation and academia

Palestinian poet writer, translator and anthologist, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, fondly remembers the ’50s as a time that saw the emergence of several female Arab poets and critics. Yet, the West and the world at large was unfamiliar with the vast repository of Arab poetry, especially those that chronicled the early Palestinian struggles. Awarded the Cultural Personality of the Year at the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, Jayyusi has made profound contributions to translation and academia, filling a glaring void, through the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA). She acquainted the West in Arab poetry and literature for decades, and is currently penning her memoir. Excerpts from an edited interview…

Looking back at your early days, how did your love for Arabic poetry and literature begin? Who were your early influences?

Both my father and my mother and other members of my extended family, especially my Aunt Jamal Sleem Nuweihd (who was a poet and a story writer, writing in poetry and in various genres of prose), they all encouraged our love of, and reverence for, poetry and literary prose. These were part of our upbringing and we all loved them. In the long winter nights, especially, we would gather and recite poetry from the long Arab literary tradition and memorize selections from it. One of my earliest memories was when I was five years old: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the most famous Jerusalamite and political activist of the time, would come to visit my father, as they were both engaged in the national struggle in their different ways: he would always, right at the start of his visit, ask for me to come before him and recite the poems I had learnt. Usually, it would be the first few lines from some of the Mu‘allaqat , the great classical pre-Islamic poems which all Arab students eventually study in school. My mother would coach me in them, from the books in our library. Naturally, I ended up studying Arabic literature in college. Moreover, the early classical pre-Islamic poetry, the Mu‘allaqat and others, were big influences on me as I started writing poetry: the power of the language, and their music helped shape my poetic instinct.

Your first publication, Return from the Dreamy Fountain , came out in 1960, in the early days of the occupation of Palestine. How did the political situation influence your works?

In my first anthology, the political upheaval and disaster of the loss of Palestine, the Nakba, figured very clearly. Much of the poetry, though not all, dealt with the struggle for freedom and independence from colonial domination that the Arab peoples faced. One of the major poems in the collection was Rootless , a long free verse poem that dealt with the dispossession of Palestinians from their land and country in 1948 at the hand of the Israeli settler colonial project. It was a poetic description of the condition of becoming a refugee, in its deepest dimensions. Many poems dealt with the various other struggles for freedom and independence from colonial dominance that followed on from that, including the Suez war in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. These events highlighted the sacrifices that generations of young Arabs were called upon to make in order to repel foreign intervention and domination and to move forward. The condition of youth faced with the call to arms, and the need for sacrifice and the interplay between memory, hope and will for the future that these moments of crisis represented were themes that emerged in my poetry at the time (and that of my contemporaries ). One poem in my anthology was addressed to my father about just such themes. My critical works, also dealt with the issue of commitment in literature, a topic that was hotly debated in literary circles at the time.

People, in the early days of the occupation of Palestine, saw nothing but the painful wounds of defeat and the fall into a world of treachery and deceit. The possibility of getting back ones’ rights came only after a long period of suffering and the general feeling of being in the grip of disaster. Much of our poetry revolved around the early days of the occupation of Palestine. or, as it is called in Arabic: the Nakba (the Disaster). The Nakba was the core of our feelings and thinking.

As a female poet, did you face any challenges in the Arabic literary world in your early career? And has it changed for women writers today?

This question keeps popping up whenever the writings of women are broached. Let us go back to the 1950s. This is a major decade for Arabic poetry and should always be revisited and kept in mind. The 1950s saw the Arab woman’s leadership in the changes that happened to the modern Arabic poem, but to this day, this is not emphasised the way it deserves. I am speaking here of the appearance of several women poets led by Nazik al-Mala’ika, the Iraqi poet and critic whose work in the 1950s changed the inherited forms of Arabic poetry.

I remember the ’50s also for being a decade which saw the appearance of several Arab women critics, some of them of major influence in their contemporary scene, again beginning with Nazik. But I also remember, with regret, the eventual and silent withdrawal of some of them from the scene, some taking to religion (Nazik herself, for example) after achieving very successful innovations in the poetic form within a changing scene. My book Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry which thoroughly discusses these innovations appeared just around the beginning of their silent withdrawal. But I must insist here that the earlier appearance of women poets and critics was very much welcomed at the start which showed an early modern and normal acceptance of women’s creativity and thinking. The ’50s welcomed all women poets and critics and spoke about their work with equal respect to the work of men.

PROTA was an ambitious and influential project. What led you to start it and what projects did it lead to?

I founded PROTA in 1980. In 1984, I visited the Nobel Academy Library in Stockholm, where I was attending a conference on Swedish and Arabic poetry. To my shock and pain I discovered that all they had of Arab literature were four slim unremarkable volumes. The Tunisian poet Moncif al-Wahaybi was with me at the time. It was then that I made the decision to drop everything else and dedicate myself to the dissemination of the best of Arab literature and culture into English, and introduce our literature definitively onto the world stage. We have a great, rich and sophisticated literary legacy that goes back hundreds of years, and was constantly changing and evolving. We have a vibrant modern contribution.

The wider dissemination of Arabic literature is one of the primary goals of my work. I love literature and I think that Arab literature and culture are very rich, and that it is important that they be given their rightful place in the world cultural landscape. I did most of the work in both PROTA and East-West Nexus from my base in the USA. We produced several big volumes of translation under PROTA, including: Modern Arabic Poetry: an Anthology (Columbia, 1987). 92 poets; Modern Palestinian Literature (Columbia, 1992) 103 authors; The Literature of Modern Arabia (University of Texas Press, 1988): 102 authors; Modern Arabic Drama (Indiana Univ Press, 1995); and Modern Arabic Fiction (Columbia, 2005), 140 authors.

There were also about 15 single author volumes of fiction, poetry, or personal narrative from across the Arab world. We also brought out translations of folk tales that figure prominently in Arabic culture, like the Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan and the Juha stories.

But then in 1990, beyond the translation, I founded East-West Nexus to produce and disseminate knowledge of the very rich and important contribution of Arab and Islamic culture and civilization to the world, starting with the European renaissance.

We produced several important works under East-West Nexus, with the goal of disseminating knowledge about Arab and Muslim thought and civilization. The two volume The Legacy of Muslim Spain (Brill, 1992) and the 2 volume The City in theIslamic World (Brill 2008) which won the Choice Book Award for Academic Excellence were received with acclaim. There was also a collection of books on the Arab history and culture of the city of Jerusalem.

Currently, we have tree volumes in process: a volume of studies on Muslim Sicily , which is in press with Qindeel Publications in the UAE, the translation of Kitab al-Tijan (The Book of Crowns) a very difficult text to translate but we are now at the end stage of finalizing the translation of the poetry sections of the text, and a volume of studies on Classical Arabic Narratives .

How aware do you think the West was of Arab poetry then, and how much has that changed today?

I don’t think the West (except in certain areas) was aware that we were the inheritors of a genuinely big civilization which certainly included a very weighty corpus of literature, both prose and poetry, especially poetry. I believe it was the limited exposure of our poetry to the other that led to this limited interest in the West. This is where my work came in. I discovered that where there are individuals (and now, finally, institutions) that dedicate themselves to the dissemination of a culture’s best, it is possible to make a difference. People across different cultures and religions are ultimately the same, and they recognize the human experience in all its settings, and moreover they can recognize excellence, originality, and aesthetic qualities.

When we started PROTA we worked with a number of highly accomplished English poets and writers such as John Heath-Stubbs, Charles Doria, W.S. Merwin, Christopher Middleton, Samuel Hazo, Christopher Tingley, Jeremy Reed, and Diana der Hovanessian among others, who all became real friends with us as the time passed. It was a warm and pleasant relationship and the work we undertook was immediately accepted by publishers.

Translations can be rather tricky, more so with poetry. How do you ensure that the cultural details and essence is retained?

One of the distinctive ways we worked at PROTA is that each work was first rendered into English by a sensitive bi-lingual but native translator, and then after rigorous checking against the original, it was given to an established writer in English (a poet in the case of poetry, a prose writer in English in the case of short stories or novels). Thus the text was cast in the English literary idiom which ensured that the final outcome not only authentically rendered both the form and the substance of the original, but did it in a way that could resonate with the English language reader.

Discussing the evolution of your work, do you see your poetry getting more personal or political over time, especially with regards to the changing political landscape of Palestine and the Arab world?

My poetry definitely became more personal with time. Despite the shock that accompanied the exodus from my country, many of my generation had remained capable of retaining some faith in human possibilities. This helped us cross over some frightful bridges and conserve some of our faith in life. This, however, started receding slowly, and while the older generation of my father continued to look for solutions, we, the direct generation of the Nakba, started losing faith. It seemed a farce to even discuss the aggression on our country and people after the loss of much of Palestine. My earlier poetry dealt with those issues, as I said above- in my later poetry, though I also still engage the political issues that come with our changing and increasingly unhappy political landscape in the region, I often engage them on a more personal plane. But there is also the condition of being human that appears in various poems in my later writing, and the themes of individual experience that must surely be universal.

At 94, you are now writing your memoir. How do you go about condensing your life in a book?

I have been working, now and then, for several years, on my memoirs writing on certain experiences. I have lived through many different turning points both personal and public, and both historical and cultural, especially in the field of poetry. I have witnessed different periods of struggle and the emergence of new sensibilities both in terms of certain perspectives towards the world, and in the forms of expression around them. I can say that I consider myself to have always been modern in the sense that I have ever been open to the idea of change, and to the idea of the plurality of human experience. This gives me a certain critical distance to view these changes and try to understand them. How they will all fit into the frame of a book remains to be seen.

At a time like this, when the world is struggling to cope with a pandemic, how do you view this moment in history as a poet, especially when you compare it to the various historical moments you've witnessed in your life?

In my mind I cannot compare this abnormal phenomenon to other historical moments I have witnessed: the Second World war and the Nakba were all man made disasters, this is something else. Despite my poetic vision, I am not attracted to any explanations of poetic or religious nature for this pandemic. For me, it lies wholly in the realm of science. It is a global human phenomenon and we all as humans need to take responsibility to heal the world of its plight. I find the image of many people dying all alone with no family to console them so deeply distressing that I have been as yet unable to respond poetically at all.

How do you envision humanity after the pandemic? What do you make of the new "normal" to come? Does that excite you as a poet?

It is one of the ironies of this pandemic that precisely at the moment when all people need to come together to defeat it, that people find themselves physically isolated from each other. This is the challenge that needs to be overcome. We need to struggle against a new isolation that can threaten us and which can leave us even more powerless in the face of such crises. What I find exciting is what I hear about many intiatives by different groups and people to open up and freely share the riches of the human spirit in the arts and literature, as well as in the scientific cooperation that is taking place now as people come together to fight this. Perhaps then a new imagination of our common humanity and new forms of living can emerge. This potentiality I find exciting.

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