Dr Reshma Ramesh on Egypt, inspiration and the healing power of poetry

Ingy Deif, Friday 26 Jan 2024

Ahram online talks with acclaimed Indian poet Dr Reshma Ramesh, who participates as a guest of honour in the Cairo International Book Fair.

Reshma Ramesh


Ahram Online: Tell us about your visit to Egypt; what did you have in mind as you saw it for the first time?

Reshma Ramesh: As a child, I read with fascination about Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs.

Some movies like ‘The Mummy’ took us on a fascinating ride to this mysterious country that was so different from India.

As a dentist, I have learned that Hesyre (2600 BCE), Chief of Dentists and Physician to the King during Djoser's reign, is actually the first dentist in history to be identified by name.

While studying dental science, I read that Egypt had the world's most ancient documentation of medical care.

I know that our own Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for ‘Gitanjali’, visited Egypt in 1926, met King Fouad, and interacted with scholars in Alexandria and Cairo.

Then, Gandhi passed by the Suez Canal on the way back from the Round Table Conference in 1931. Ahmed Shawki, the famous Egyptian poet, wrote an entire poem praising him.

Thus, having read and heard so much about Egypt, it is finally a dream come true to visit one of the most beautiful and mystical lands worldwide -- Cairo. As a state-invited guest to the Cairo Book Fair, I am very excited to meet writers, poets, and scholars from Cairo and other parts of Egypt.

I have read that in ancient Egypt, women had more rights and privileges than most other women in the ancient world.

I expect to see, meet, and read a lot of women writers at the Cairo Book Fair. I am already in touch with Dr. Sara Hamid Hawass, who has translated my poems into Arabic.

AO: What inspired you to tread the path of poetry & literature, & what still does?

 RR: Poetry is a means for letting out sadness, loss, and anger that brew inside me. It is also a way to explore the beauty of language and the power of storytelling and arrange words in such a way that they evoke emotions.

The enduring appeal of literature and poetry lies in their capacity to convey profound truths, ignite imagination, and offer unique forms of artistic expression.

I am inspired to keep writing because through poetry I can say the same things differently.

Also, poetry easily incorporates diverse voices and makes people pay attention to these voices. I love poetry because it makes me ask questions, and it makes me bold and brave. I am self-effacing in person, but my poetry is loud and bold.

As a doctor, I know that poetry can heal!

AO: You said, “Writers as culture ambassadors.” Can you please elaborate on that?

RR: Literature has the power to transcend borders and bridge cultural gaps.

The poet’s work gets people to see each other’s humanity, build a sense of common purpose, change the minds of those who misunderstand us, and tell stories in a way no policy or speech ever could.

There is a sense of urgency as we have a war, rising concerns over racial injustice, and the need to unite against global threats such as climate change.

Nationalism was a phenomenon taking root everywhere, and inevitably, the cultivation of native languages was seen as the logical instrument for expediting the development of national identity. Thus, poets writing in their mother tongue are the true cultural ambassadors, and translations become a significant tool to break language barriers and have poems reach the world.

Poetry rings increasing interconnectedness among different populations and cultures.

AO: How can the works of poetry & photography (your fields of specialisation) touch the heart?

RR: Poems frequently delve into universal subjects and human experiences, which helps readers feel more empathy, creating deep emotional resonance and connection.

The inherent beauty of language has the power to evoke strong emotions in people. Poets arrange language and sounds to produce a sensory experience transcending the intended meaning of words.

Poetry's exquisite language alone can arouse strong feelings.

Photography is one of the most powerful art forms. Unlike poetry, without words, the message is conveyed instantly, as humans can process an image in the blink of an eye.

A good photo can instantaneously elicit strong feelings in the viewer through its visual components.

A strong picture can evoke strong feelings immediately, creating a powerful visual impact.

Photography's ability to capture human experience can inspire, worry, or elicit empathy and understanding; it can change society and the course of history.

AO: 2023 saw you take your poetry to many countries worldwide. How did that impact your perspective?

RR: 2023 took me places; in fact, I visited 41 cities and seven countries, and in 2022, I visited 42 cities and six countries, which changed my perspective about the world.

Travelling is an opportunity to shift your angle and learn from other cultures, connecting with people just like us but with different views. It exposes us to international concerns and issues, helps us relinquish generalisations and stereotypes put forth by the media, and experience first-hand a new culture and experience.

Travelling can be a transformative experience, leading to personal growth and self-discovery, and reflection may find its way into their work, adding depth and authenticity to their poetry.

When I travel, I become enriched with the sounds, language, people, landscape, and traditions. Interacting with poets and writers leads to language exploration and linguistic nuances, which influence my approach to language and may lead to experimentation with linguistic elements and techniques.

AO: Do you see Artificial intelligence as a threat to the innovative literary world in the future? What draws the limit?

RR: Not at all. As a dental surgeon, a poet and a photographer, I never see AI as a threat but as a tool to make us work smarter and save time and energy that we can use to foster creativity.

AI can be used for tasks that can be repetitive, such as data collection, and that need less or no human skill. AI can only collate; it can’t create. Creative people can see the world differently and find answers innovatively, and artists are more sensitive to their environment, which no AI can replace.

An artist’s ability to evoke emotion based on shared experience, sincerity, talent, and unique skill cannot be matched by machines.

AO: In light of the Intl Cairo Book Fair, who are the Egyptian names in the field still making an impact?

RR: Naguib Mahfouz, whose impact on Egyptian and world literature endures.

Also, Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian novelist and political commentator.

Other impactful names include Alaa El-Aswany, Hanan El-Shaykh, Youssef Ziedan, Radwa Ashour, and poet Ahmad El-Shahawy.

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