Book Review: Memoir explores poet Amal Donkol and cultural life of his era

Osama Fatim, Saturday 20 Jan 2018

The book reveals the legendary personality of Amal Donkol and the cultural circles of the 1970s and 1980s

book cover
Mozakerat El-Ghorfa Tamania (“Memoirs of Room 8”), by Fahmy Abdel-Salam

Mozakerat El-Ghorfa Tamania (“Memoirs of Room 8”), by Fahmy Abdel-Salam, Cairo: El-Mahrousa, 2017.

The only poet whose poetry was heard in the square during the 2011 revolution was Amal Donkol. He has a reputation of being aggressive and ruthless on the personal level yet a sensitive, well-read, intelligent poet.

Amal Donkol died at the age of 43 in 1983, after a brave struggle with an aggressive form of cancer. 

Recently, Dr. Fahmy Abdel-Salam, a close friend of Donkol, published a book entitled Memoirs of Room 8, to correct this image. The title takes its name from the room at the National Cancer Institute where Donkol spent the last three months of his life.

The book reveals much that has not been told about the cultural circles in the 1970s and the 1980s.

“Amal Donkol had to live in a rough reality, in a society that judges a person by his money and car. The poor poet had to present his poetic jewels to these guys, hence the intensity in dealing with the phony artists, the semi-talented, while grasping his dignity and pride,” states the writer.

Abdel-Salam, who was present in these circles, filled his book with situations showing the nobility and chivalry of the poet and illustrating that he loved life and people and was hard on the parasites of cultural life.

The writer has at times used aliases and other times real names in dealing with the cultural circles that Donkol moved through.

The main reason for is to avoid legal repercussions, and also to send coded messages to those low-lives that claim to be intellectuals and writers, without dignifying them by mentioning their names, and Abdel-Salam certainly does not lack the courage to confront these people with his opinions.

The book shows that Donkol was a legendary personality who possessed an amazing gift in understanding people, and the courage to deal with them in the correct way, put them in their place and appraise their talents.

At the same time he would stand by the weak against the bullies of the intellectual life. His strong words, capacity to articulate the correct response, and his support for justice made them fear him, Abdel-Salam writes; their response was to try to give him an aggressive reputation.

The writer also analyses some of Donkol’s poems. One of well-known favourite is the first movement of Spartacus’ Last Words:

Glory to Satan, god of the winds

Who said no in the face of those who said yes

Who taught Man to destroy nothingness

He who said no and did not die

And remained a soul in eternal pain

This poem was inspired by the movie Spartacus from 1963; the poet saw the chains that still hold humans in bondage and wrote this courageous poem, starting by glorifying Satan in the first verses.

The real meaning was glorifying freedom and he found nothing to express freedom better than the winds and no one to personify freedom rather than the great rebel himself, who disobeyed the creator himself and paid a dear price.

The poet’s creativity, intelligence and sensitivity are embodied in this poem, which is still well-known and often recited. His exceptional talent is parallel to the exceptional character he showed when facing death.

He faced cancer with courage; he learned that his end was near at such an early age, yet never showed self-pity. 

The writer also describes Donkol’s courage in his last days where laughter never left him when he received his visitors in the hospital, the malady never weakened his resolve, he never complained or felt victimised and he never tried to acquire any gains from his illness.

In the only TV interview he gave, when he was asked about his illness he stated firmly that his malady was a personal matter. 

Abdel-Salam was inspired to write the book by Hamlet’s last words to his friend Horatio near his death.

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart

Absent thee from felicity a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

To tell my story.

The book is a must-read. It is written in non-academic language and reveals facts that were previously unknown about the poet, while analysing his poems in a very talented way that explains them with both simplicity and intelligence.


Short link: