This is a complicated poet to encounter. He is, the back cover tells us, “one of the leading African poets writing in Arabic today”. He’s also a journalist and founder of the website Sudanese Ink (link above). Since the 2005 constitution in Sudan, Arabic and English are the two official languages of the country, though Sudanese Arabic is the dominant spoken medium. This is a country with allegedly 134 live spoken languages! Literacy levels are contentious: estimated by some as low as 25%; by others nearly 70% (although there’s no consensus on what language is being read).
Against this fascinating background then, this little white pamphlet containing only seven poems, with a double text of Arabic on the left and English on the right. It’s lovely to see the Arabic lettering on the page, travelling right to left as its partner English travels left to right. The beauty of that script and the visual spacing somehow adds colour to the experience of reading. However, I had so many questions after the experience, was so unsure of my own reactions—that I remain uncertain about whether and how they might or might not be appropriate.
Sabry Hafez (Research Professor of Modern Arabbic at SOAS) tells us in the introduction that Al-Saddiq is influenced by Abdul-Hayy, “widely considered the father figure of Al-Saddiq’s generation”. Abdul-Hayy had “a clear aversion to the hackneyed expressions and sonorous musicality” of traditional Sudanese poetry and preferred “complex imagery, multilayered metaphors, mythic allusions, succinct diction” and so on.
As for Al-Saddiq, it is “the metaphysical dimension of his poems” that both “distinguishes them form those of his contemporaries and… makes him so difficult to translate.” Al-Saddiq himself said: “If the poem creases to be multilayered, with a complex and sophisticated view of life, it ceases to be modern.”
From this I take the general idea that form and musical repetition is Out. Multi-laying and metaphysical metaphor is In. I remain a little worried about modernity conceptually linked with “a complex and sophisticated view of life” because it implies that such a view is intrinsically superior. But let that be, for a moment.
The first poem is ‘Small Fox’ and some readers may remember this from Poetry Review. Immediately on the page you can see that the line breaks are very different in the translation from the Arabic, both in number and length. Why? And the English version ends with no punctuation—not so much as a full stop, while the Arabic ends with an exclamation mark. There are lots of exclamation marks in the original and lots of ellipsis. The ellipsis carries over but not the exclamations. We don’t really approve of exclamation marks in English poetry, do we? We somehow connect them with ‘hackneyed expression’ territory.
Is the ‘Small Fox’ deeply metaphysical? Not sure. He is certainly symbolic and interesting. Complex and sophisticated view of life? I’m not sure that I want one of those, but if I did, I don’t feel it is here. This is a love poem, quite an evocative piece, easy to relate to, with a strong, simple central metaphor. Ted Hughes has partly scuppered foxes for poets writing in the English tradition, but still this poem works for me on its own terms.
In other poems, the metaphors get mixed up in my head. Here, for example, are a few lines from ‘Theatre’ (a ‘rabab’ is a stringed instrument):
Waiting in front of a door that's behind you,
I watch it open with a rabab
so you can go back to the past withn your spotless future,
refilling your boats with light after they'd rotted through ashore,
restocking the wares of your mighty stories
like a bird refurbishing its nest
There is a metaphorical door here, perhaps a literal rabab (I’m not sure), figurative boats, figurative wares and finally a person compared to a bird. That confuses me in any language.
However, although I have no expertise on poetry in Arabic, twice I have heard poets read in that tongue and admired the beauty of the sound and the marvellous feeling of rhetoric and power. I imagine that feeling could somehow sweep through multiple imagery and even make it work. I am just not quite sure.