Nizar_QabbaniThis is a picture of Nizar Qabbani. The title of this post is the title of one of his poems which deals with putting the homeland first. Because this is about literature in crisis, writing in extremis, and putting the immediate needs of the country before fiction and imagination. And in many ways, in his twists and turns from love poetry to political commentary, Nizar Qabbani exemplified the struggle between political engagement and literary writing, between letting loose the imagination and asking permission of the homeland.

Recently Ahdaf Soueif said that “in times of crisis, fiction has to take a back seat.”  Soueif has mentioned that she feels it is not possible for her to think about writing fiction when she is invested in the reality of what is going on, in the actual struggle she documents in her writing.

She talked about this at the World Writer’s Conference, as the keynote speaker at a session with the title “Should Literature Be Political.”

Nihad Sirees agrees, as M Lynx Qualey discovers.

Creative writing is stalled today. Not just for me, but for many other writers. The imagination withdraws to an interest in tangible reality. The superstars of writing today are those who write articles about “the events in Syria” or “the Syrian crisis” and, finally, “the Syrian revolution.” People have come to prefer reading posts on Facebook, the latest breaking news, or even a rumor to reading a story, even if its subject matter is the revolution. People are nervous about the country, about reality itself. They rush to read any article analyzing or interpreting what is going on…this is not the time for imagination but for analytical and journalistic talk.

But how does this period of intense crisis relate to the historical endemic sense of crisis which has often been seen as propelling fiction? In an article from 2008 Ahdaf Soueif herself notes that “Despite the many obstacles it faces – censorship, a lack of translations, exile – Arabic literature has never been more vital.”

In case you doubt the Arab world is in ever increasing crisis, here’s a press book sampler on “Crisis in the Arab world,” identified as essential reading.

And so how, in modern literature, does the contemporary crisis whatever that happens to be relate to one of the most wide-spread modern narratives about the Arab world, the story the Arab world tells itself, the sense of an endemic situation of political paralysis and cultural stagnation and the breakdown of the myth of Arab identity, of Arab nationalism revealed as a mistaken identity?

Is it all about victimization? What does “giving up”  involve? Retreating from current explosive reality into a room to write fiction or transforming reality into fictional narrative?

I found this reflection on “Literature in times of crisis” interesting though it was from a European perspective:

What can – and should – writers do in times of crisis? In light of ongoing political and economic tension in southeastern Europe, three respected authors from the region share their stance.

I started thinking about this in the context of the Arab world when reading Claudia Roth Pierpont’s article “Found in Translation”  in the New Yorker  back in January 2010, In particular this passage:

But what about literature? Is it possible for anything like the grandly traditional novel of character development and moral nuance to emerge from societies in extremis, from writers routinely constrained or assailed?…It should be no surprise that the prison novel has become a major Arabic genre; the icy emptiness of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag has been replaced, in the literature of duress, with Arab writers’ crowded and sweltering cells. How could traditional fiction comprehend this reality? Whether any book will outlast its moment is impossible to say, but what follows is an account of some novels that are worth reading now, and that may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention to wars and prisons somewhere else

And for more on this, or rather for reactions to this, read Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)” which ArabLit reviewed here.

All this makes me think of putting the country before the story, shoving away foolishness, imagination, for sorrow, reality, which makes me think of Nizar Qabbani’s poem لا بد أن أستأذن الوطن (“I Must Ask Permission of the Homeland”). Which is the reason for the title. And below is a translation:

يا صديقتي
My friend
في هذه الأيام يا صديقتي..
These days, my friend
تخرج من جيوبنا فراشة صيفية تدعى الوطن.
A summer butterfly called the homeland emerges from our pockets
تخرج من شفاهنا عريشة شامية تدعى الوطن.
A levantine arbor called the homeland emerges from our lips
تخرج من قمصاننا
From our shirts emerge
مآذن… بلابل ..جداول ..قرنفل..سفرجل.
Minarets, nightingales, cloves, quinces
عصفورة مائية تدعى الوطن.
A mynah bird called the homeland
أريد أن أراك يا سيدتي..
I want to see you, my lady
لكنني أخاف أن أجرح إحساس الوطن..
But I am afraid to injure the feelings of the country
أريد أن أهتف إليك يا سيدتي
I want to call out to you, my lady
لكنني أخاف أن تسمعني نوافذ الوطن.
But I am afraid the windows of the homeland will hear me
أريد أن أمارس الحب على طريقتي
I want to practice love my way
لكنني أخجل من حماقتي
But I am afraid of my foolishness
أمام أحزان الوطن.
Before the sorrows of the country

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