As vernacular poet Amin Haddad celebrates the publishing of his latest book of poetry Ma Badalak (Do What You Will), Ahram Online talked to the poet about poetry, time, and all that is in between.
The poetry of Egyptian vernacular poet Amin Haddad is like a mural of colourful images lost from time but drawing on what is left of it. Born in 1958 to the great vernacular poet Fouad Haddad, Amin Haddad saw Egypt at its prime. Growing up in the rich cultural and political circumstances of the time has given his poetry a unique flair.
Haddad's verses seem to waltz with the tempo of time, celebrating memories that have passed and those that have yet to come with the same enthusiasm. This is a rare approach that makes him stand out from his generation, many members of which either denounce the past or look bleakly at the future.
In 2011, Haddad was awarded the international Cavafy Award for poetry, and in 2017 he was awarded the Best Vernacular Poet Award by the Cairo International Book Fair.
“The concept of time has always haunted me,” Haddad told Ahram Online. “I wrote earlier that ‘time is eternal, and sorrow is unbearable, while I have lived and died in astonishment.’ The concept of time and the idea of change burden me, and I haven’t yet accepted them. So, I talk about them in my poems in an attempt to be more familiar with them.”
Having witnessed some of the golden days of Egyptian culture, Haddad explains that being an artist has not been easy for him, let alone a poet, in the present day. He says that he has had to protect himself by aiming to be true to himself.
“You will always find people who will believe in you and others who will put you down. In the absence of true critical standards — something that has been absent since the late 1960s — this is especially the case, and it has affected the artistic and cultural map of Egypt as a whole,” he says.
Things are also getting more difficult for the individual because as the number of new writers multiplies by the thousand — due to the new publishing media — there are few critical standards to highlight new talents and filter out others. Prestigious literary awards like the Arabic Booker Prize, the Naguib Mahfouz Award, and the Sawiris Literary Prize can highlight unique talents, but the state needs to play a much bigger role in enhancing the cultural atmosphere of Egypt, he says.
“When I was a member of the National Poetry Committee, I realised that we had no data on how many poets there were in Egypt, let alone how many women poets or novelists,” he says. “But it is the role of state cultural organisations to highlight cultural trends.”
Nevertheless, Haddad himself is a star among his generation of poets and on the intellectual scene. Teaming up with the independent music company Eskenderella, he introduced his poetry to the younger generations who have identified with his words and held on to the hope and enthusiasm his words evoke, especially poems touching upon the 25 January Revolution.
“The Revolution gave me a unique language, exposure, and hope, and it underlined my belief in myself and in the Egyptian people,” Haddad says. He is a computer engineer by profession and a prominent figure in poetry at the same time. Combining both means that he is always fighting against deadlines and poems waiting to be written in the spur of the moment. “But the fact that poetry is not my profession is liberating, because it does not force me to write when I don’t feel like it,” he notes.
“I loved working as a computer engineer when I was younger. I was a computer developer, and the more I excelled in my job, the better the quality of my writing. As the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it: 'who am I to tell you what I am telling you?' It's about having self-confidence, so this idea does not haunt you. I have lost so many poems to deadlines and to precious moments with my children, for example.”
The debate between writing poetry in the vernacular or in classical Arabic, or in rule-bound, or free verse is an on-going one today. However, Haddad has managed to excel in many forms. “I started with the vernacular because it's easier to express oneself in it. In the vernacular, words come without an effort. However, later when I explored classical Arabic, and the music of the Qur’an, I was ready to try writing in classical Arabic as well, but in a softer version closer to the vernacular than to the true classical vocabulary.”
“Free verse is the most difficult, because unlike rhyming it does not give you a frame of music to maintain. It's like painting a very large painting with no borders, so where does it end? It has to do with a certain internal music within the poet, and it could be in my own rhythm. It has to be spontaneous because any premeditation could ruin it.”
“Another problem is that free verse can overlook the music of poetry, which is a core element of it. Poetry is an oral art form that needs to be spoken out loud and have music to it so that it can be memorised and hence preserved. But free verse is hard to memorise, and as a result, it can lose part of the essence of poetry. On the other hand, now I am trying hard to memorise my own free verse,” he says.
He has also created a poetry company called Al-Sharea (The Street) that showcases a new and simpler method of poetry recitation accompanied by music-making, turning poetry into something a bit like an operetta. It has been a great success and has attracted new audiences, especially from the younger generation.
Haddad explains that poetry, by definition, possesses music and therefore there is nothing odd about performing it with a musical accompaniment. If the singing helps to spread the poetry, so much the better, he says.
“In all nations, and not only in ours, the poet has been the conscience of the nation and its soul, because poetry is an art that cannot be translated. The core feature of the novel is events, and language may have little role to play. Music and painting do not need translation. But poetry loses a lot when it is translated because language is one of its core elements. As a result, it represents the consciousness of nations, like Pushkin in Russia, Shakespeare in England, Aragon in France, or — in the Arab world — Al-Mutannabi, Salah Jaheen, and Fouad Haddad.”
Amin Haddad’s first book of poetry was published in 1990, and since then his poems have been on an artistic journey, with each book striking a different note.
Rihet al-Habayeb (The Scent of Loved Ones) was first published in book form in 1990. “It took me ten years to write. It’s about things that can never come back. I wrote it with a pleasant naivety, as I was young and saw the world from a simpler perspective,” he says.
Halawet Al-Ruh (The Beauty of the Soul) was published in 1998, and it was the beginning of my writing on Iraq and Palestine.
Fil-Mot Haneish (Even in Death We Live) was published in 2003 and is a transitional period between the personal and the general causes I have written about,” he adds.
Badal Faqed (A Replacement), published in 2008, is the closest to me personally. It was written after the fall of Baghdad in the 2003 US-led invasion, when I started writing on the implication of this for everyday life. I was more courageous about writing free verse and in classical Arabic in this book, and I wanted to find my true voice.”
Al-Gaw Gamil (The Weather is Beautiful) is Amin's only children’s book, published in 2007. It was illustrated by artist Samir Fouad. He has also worked on other material for children, including dubbing Disney films into Arabic.
Working with his wife Amina Jaheen and later with his son Ahmed Haddad, Haddad has dubbed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Robin Hood, The Goofy Troupe, The 101 Dalmatians, and The Good Dinosaur.
His collection Al-Horeya Min Al-Shohadaa (Freedom comes from Martyrs) was published in 2012 and chronicles the 25 January Revolution.
Gezeret Al-Ahyaa (Island of the Living), published in 2014, is a book of prose and poetry, a cross-genre book that revolves around Al-Imam Al-Shafie district in Cairo.
“It’s where I grew up,” Haddad explains. “It’s in all my poetry, and it has had a vivid impact on all my writings. I wanted to write my impressions of it indirectly and poetically. It’s a residential area surrounded by cemeteries, with life at the heart of this ‘island’. The book is also about the absence of my father and the people around me. It’s a big part of my creativity as a human being. Al-Waqt Saraana (We Ran out of Time) is a continuation of my views but more in depth.”
As for his latest book of poetry Ma Badalak (Do what you will), he sails between the vernacular and classic Arabic which is a novelty in the work of the poet.
When asked if he has any special memories of his family, he remembers once helping his grandmother undo her needlework. “My grandmother used to do needlework, and once she made me sit in front of her and told me that she had done something wrong in the stitching and the whole thing would have to be undone and started again. She gave me the task of folding back the threads, and she looked at me and said, ‘you see Amin, pulling things apart is much easier than creating them.’”