Lebanese poet Paul Shaoul met with poets, critics, journalists and staff of the General Organization for Cultural Palaces (GOCP) at the Cinema Palace Hall in Cairo on Saturday to discuss his collection Daftar Sigara (Packet of Cigarette Papers).
Shaoul is a poet, journalist and critic. His poetry collections include Narcissus Death, Papers of the Absent, and Like a Long Month of Love, in addition to Daftar Sigara. He has also published a number of books on modern French poetry and modern Arab theatre.
The gathering took place on the last day of Shaoul’s four-day visit to the Egypt during which he spent time in bookshops, publishing houses and with friends who expressed solidarity with him following the recent controversy surrounding his work.
The publication of Daftar Sigara by the GOCP as part of its Arab Horizons series was criticised by a journalist at the Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) official newspaper.
The controversy started when a journalist questioned why the GOCP had published a book that “encourages smoking,” Sobhi Mousa, editor of the series, explained to Ahram Online.
The newspaper published a full-page article with the headline 'Ministry of Culture Encourages Smoking' on 23 September. Reactions to the article spanned public and private newspapers in Egypt, Lebanon and other Arab countries, with intellectuals, writers, critics and journalists standing by Shaoul’s book and rejecting what they described as a new form of censorship. Despite calls to ban the book, it is still available throughout the country.
"We are being pressured, but I am not afraid and there is no turning back," Mohamed Abul-Magd, head of publishing at GOCP told Ahram Online. "We are owned by the people and will continue to promote culture for the Egyptian people," added Abul Magd.
During the gathering, Shaoul explained that the idea for the collection came to his mind 10 years ago when he was working for the culture section of Lebanon’s Asafir newspaper. On World No Tobacco Day, new regulations were to be imposed banning smoking in certain places. He protested, joking that smokers were becoming a minority whose rights must be defended.
Packet of Cigarette Papers is a slim volume dedicated to the experience of smoking, its simple pleasures, its deeper philosophical meanings, and interactions between smokers.
Refaat El-Saman, poet and critic, described how the collection sits between poetry, prose and even theatre script, stressing that the scope of poetry should be without limitations.
Ashraf Attia, a critic and professor, said he was intrigued by Shaoul’s attempt to explain smoking in such detail and likened it to Russian attempts to 'defamiliarise' everyday objects and approach them in a new way. Reading from the collection, Attia paused at the section where Shaoul describes his hatred of clean ashtrays that appear to be “without memory.”
Attia said the collection “personified the cigarette,” starting at the simple level of “how the cigarette felt” all the way to the erotic relationship a smoker has with his cigarettes.
Girguis Shokry, a poet and friend of Shaoul, described how when the collection was first published in Lebanon in 2009 it was not perceived as a poetry collection but like a text for the theatre because of its full descriptions of places, people, settings, lights, and even an explanation about what was happening in the empty spaces.
"Shaoul resembles what Aristotle would have considered a poet because he is both a writer of poetry and an actor and director of his pieces," Shokry added.
Despite the poor state of poetry in the region, Shaoul said the situation was not disastrous and that poetry was suffering all over the world.
He mentioned that in France poetry collections might sell just a few hundred copies.
However, he added that a new generation of poets was breaking new boundaries in France and that made him optimistic for the future.