In recent years the annual Prague Writers’ Festival has done much to promote writing from North Africa and the Middle East in the Czech Republic. This year was no exception, with the award-winning Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud and the Egyptian poet Mohamed Metwalli prominent among the writers taking part. David Vaughan caught up with Mohamed Metwalli to talk about his poetry, the complexities of writing in Egypt today and the pleasures of Prague beer.
Mohamed Metwalli is well known in Egypt both as a writer and a literary editor. As well as producing several collections of his own poetry, he has managed to publish many other Egyptian writers who otherwise would never have had a chance of finding a readership. He insists that politics and poetry do not mix, and that poetry is not a good tool for social change, but in a country that is in a state of political flux, politics is never far away. Five years ago, the so-called Arab Spring took its name from the Prague Spring of 1968 and brought hopes for democratic change in Egypt. The Prague Spring was short-lived, followed by invasion and two decades of reaction and political suppression, so I began our conversation by asking Mohamed if he felt that the Arab Spring was the going the same way?
“It’s very disappointing, completely frustrating, because after the January 2011 uprising, people thought they were going to get their freedom back, they were not going to be under a dictatorship any more, and of course it was hijacked. They call it a revolution sometimes, but it wasn’t a true revolution because it didn’t have its theories like the French Revolution with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the others, and it didn’t bear fruit. So that’s why we should agree to call it an uprising. There was a lot of hope back then and then it was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was completely against the dreams of everybody who is not a Jihadist. We suffered under the Brotherhood for a whole year and there was another uprising, when the army took over, supposedly to support the people against the brotherhood. Everybody was calling for the army to intervene because they couldn’t take a theocracy. Egypt has a unique nature. It could never be a theocracy, like Israel or Pakistan or Iran or Saudi Arabia. In the end it turned out that the army took over. It’s another dictatorship and it’s another frustration of the hopes. A lot of intellectuals have been put in jail, as prisoners of conscience. For merely protesting in the street against the government they’ve been put in jail or have disappeared.”
Continuing with the analogy of Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring, it makes me think of the period of “normalization” after the Soviet invasion when so many people, particularly people working in the arts – writers, artists, people involved in theatre – suddenly found themselves being silenced. Do you feel that what is happening in Egypt is a similar process?
“It has some similarities. A lot of people now are afraid to speak out. People are afraid to protest because there are terrible laws restricting protests anywhere. A lot of thinkers have been put in jail because of that. One of them is Islam Behery who is a religious thinker who tried to rejuvenate the religious ideology. Ahmed Nagy is a novelist who has been put in jail because of pornography. The accusation is of ‘disparaging religion’ or blaspheming, which is very strange because we have just got rid of the Islamists and suddenly the generals are making a demonic pact with the Islamists to silence them or contain them, by applying these anti-constitutional laws. The constitution declares there should be no imprisonment for expressing an opinion or for writing, but now they don’t want to activate the constitution. This is sad because there is a pact with the Islamists. This is very sad.”
I know that you don’t like the term “political writing”, but is it actually possible, as a poet, not to be political in such a situation. If the government is making everything political is it actually possible not to be?
“Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes you resort to metaphor. Today you heard my poem, The Barbarians. In the back of my mind of course I had the Islamists – the barbarians invading the city:
When the barbarians attacked the city
They only found a one-armed boy holding a big frog
Which they confiscated,
Cooked its legs with bread crumbs,
Then commanded it to jump,
The boy laughed.
They grew suspicious,
So they searched him,
And in his pocket they found two marbles!
When you talk about using metaphor, is it a form of self-censorship?
“It is not self-censorship because I never wrote direct poetry, or politically explicit poetry, and I’m against it. I mean it’s against my nature, so I don’t find myself self-censoring. My propensities are all about artistic writing. It’s not about politics, but politics could show up, in your subconscious, in the back of your mind, or in the form of a metaphor.”
I notice in the poem The Barbarians, for example, that you have the little boy laughing at the people who pull the legs off the frog and expect it to jump. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes, the idea of the child seeing through the absurdity of those who have the power and in a sense that is subversive.
And tell me about Prague…
“Actually it’s wonderful. They have wonderful beer and the architecture is beautiful, the old city is just fascinating. The only problem for me is that people don’t smile a lot, especially to strangers…”
That’s a big problem!
“There are a lot of smiling Czech friends here in the festival. They are lovely. One of them even gave me a hug. But if you walk in the street and you don’t look Czech, or if you’re just walking and smile at somebody, it’s rare that they smile back. I used to live in the US and they’d say, ‘Good morning, hello, and have a good day sir!’ Everybody who doesn’t know you would just tell you these things. In Egypt too they would just be smiling and cheerful. But here, I don’t know, but the majority of the people that I’ve met in the street, they just don’t smile. Other than that I’m enjoying my stay very much.”
Can we expect some Prague poetry from you?
“Well, it might happen, because these things come up to you out of the blue, after the experience is digested.”
You mentioned the poem about the barbarians. What about the other poem that we heard at your reading today?
“The other poem was actually a fable and it was called The First Sin. It’s kind of metaphorical. There are a lot of characters who have some theological or historical references, things from the Bible, things from mythology. I like to write fables sometimes.
I lost my sons on the road
When they were young.
I gave the first a gift of a pocket watch.
The second, I placed a charm around his neck.
And the third a map.
The first son learned the upheaval of time
Since he was a leader
And he led a tribe of dwarves up a mountain peak
In the countries that lie outside of history
To show them their god, using his watch as a compass
But he never learned the way back,
So he disappeared from the mountains and the history books
And was made an example of debauchery in the holy books.
As for the second, he saw his god in a charm.
He cuddled it until he fell asleep,
Like someone cuddling a pillow, instead of a lover
He was discovered by a well-known cartoonist,
Became rich out of modeling for caricatures
And now he cuddles a sack of gold and a famous pop star in his bed
As for his soul, it was lost on the road
And people say a few dwarves found it torn to shreds,
In countries mentioned in the holy books.
As for the youngest, he kept reading people’s hearts through his map,
He sentenced many to death for high treason
When their hearts lay outside the map
Some became mountains,
which he climbed to become wiser
but the mountains quivered
And some became forests
where he learned poetry
from the animal’s mouth
But the animal devoured him
with the wisdom of a poet.
The rest became a sea
which drowned him.
Was I to blame for my gifts?
The poem is rich in religious references, to the Bible, the Quran, to the story of Moses, for example...
“Yes, of course. If these have any artistic or poetic use for me, I use them for the sake of art. I will resort always to religious or Biblical or even Quranic references if they can make a poem stand, and I use them stripped from their traditional connotations.”
You’re familiar with the process of translating from Arabic to English. I know that you translate your poems together with your wife, who is a native English speaker, and you also translate from English into Arabic.
“I translated the book Three Stories from Cairo by my wife, Gretchen McCullough.”
How do you find that jump between the two languages?
“It’s the secret of the craft. I won’t tell you! It is really a horrendous jump between the two languages. They just don’t relate to each other in any sense of the word and, especially with poetry, I have to make the Arabic sound like the original, so that if you read it in Arabic you would think that there is an Arabic speaking poet who wrote it.”
What about the other direction, translating your poetry in English?
“In translating my poetry into English I’m usually aided by an English native speaker – this time it is my wife Gretchen McCullough – because of the idiom. She adjusts the idiomatic phrases for me because it’s not my mother tongue in the end. She studied poetry before, so she’s both good at literature and language. So I was lucky to get a translator who has both talents.”