Nouri Al-Jarrah: The next Arabic poetic masterpiece is coming soon

The London-based Syrian author discusses the power of language, seeing things through a child’s eyes, creating a world of odes, tales, and myths, and nursing the scars from ‘the tyrant of Damascus’.

Works by Syrian born poet Nouri Al-Jarrah include The Boy (1982), Ode to a Voice (1990), Hamlet’s Gardens (2003), and Noah’s Despair (2014).
Lina Jaradat
Works by Syrian born poet Nouri Al-Jarrah include The Boy (1982), Ode to a Voice (1990), Hamlet’s Gardens (2003), and Noah’s Despair (2014).

Nouri Al-Jarrah: The next Arabic poetic masterpiece is coming soon

A modernist third-wave poet, Nouri al-Jarrah has found solace in verse wherever he has lived, be that Damascus, Beirut, Cyprus, or London—the latter, his home since 1986.

He still uses words to reshape what he sees as a savage world and believes in poetry’s unique transformative capacity, even when all else fails.

Al Majalla spoke to him about his journey and motivation, his sense of place, and the future he sees for his life and work. For him, that future includes a great masterpiece of Arabic poetry that is yet to be written.

You've moved from Damascus to Beirut, then Cyprus, and eventually settled in London. What impact have these different places had on your creativity?

The interplay between writing and places—and a poet’s encounters with these locales—is intricate and layered.

Writing may originate in a particular setting, yet it possesses the capacity to forge its own realms.

In my poetry, there is no inclination to fixate on a place as stagnant remnants. It is more than nostalgia for static imagery within locations.

Instead, it embraces the perpetual and evolving tableau of these places, their dynamism, their capacity to astound, and their potential to beckon the imagination towards unseen vistas, inviting exploration beyond the visible realm.

In each city I've encountered, I've woven within my poetry mirror cities whose constituent elements are imagined from the visual fragments I have gleaned from the actual cityscapes I have seen.

I've woven within my poetry mirror cities whose constituent elements are imagined from the visual fragments I've gleaned from actual cityscapes. 

Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah

In this way, the city in the poem comes to life. The London in the poem is not the same London that exists on maps. Instead, it transforms into a London known solely to the poet.

The same holds true for Damascus, Beirut, or any city gracing the Mediterranean coastline. In poetry, the cities of the mind will forever diverge from those we inhabit.

If real and imagined images aligned, it would not be poetry. It would just be a record destined for the archives and nothing more.

Could you share your experience with the collection The Boy and what lessons you derived from it?

If there were indeed a lesson to glean, it would undoubtedly be rebellion. This theme permeates every aspect of The Boy. It is a rebellion against norms, traditions, customs, and the forces that seek to dictate the course of human lives. It is even a rebellion against the conventional forms of poetry.

An untamed imagination propelled my entry into the realm of poetry. When my debut collection was released, I noticed the subtle smiles of my fellow poets, who would later become cherished friends.

The title may have appeared unfamiliar then, and perhaps it still does to this day. This curiosity likely prompted my poet friend Abbas Beydoun to pen an almost disapproving article, asking: "Can poetry truly emerge from a childlike perspective?"

I approached poetry as a rebel, whose hope of changing the world had been lost. After engaging with a failed political movement striving for change, I found myself at a standstill.

That's when I chose to leave everything behind. I sought solace in poetry as my final refuge.

Language was the vessel in which I navigated away from the anguish, frustration, exhaustion, and stifling constraints that had enveloped me.

I approached poetry as a rebel, whose hope of changing the world had been lost. After engaging with a failed political movement, I was at a standstill. 

Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah

That's when I chose to leave everything behind.

Now, here I stand, poised to embark on a new journey into the realm of words, akin to Odysseus moving from one island to the next, from one unknown to another.

The Boy emerged as a testament to the discovery of language as a realm of enchantment, a wellspring of both blessing and power.

Have you ever felt that the Syrian saga has metaphorically crucified you?

If you were to revisit my compositions from the 80s and 90s, you would discern a profound transformation.

The likes of Letters of Odysseus, Invaders Are Born in the City, Greek Elegy, The Damascus Road, A Sleep for a Child, and Hamlet's Gardens were crafted in the years following my departure from the Mediterranean's embrace.

They were crafted amid a temporal and spatial exile that unravelled before the sea and land.

Covers of books by Nouri Al-Jarrah, who has lived in London since the 1980s.

These verses were based on the realisation that my existence in Western Europe was irrevocably altered and stripped of normality.

In the same way, they could easily be mistaken for reflections penned post-2011. Using the term 'crucifixion' does not hyperbolise the sentiment.

My poetry emerges from the profound anguish inflicted by the tyrant of Damascus: Hafez al-Assad, the father, who imposed his reign and painted a future, only for his son to emerge and unleash torment on Syrians for daring to yearn for freedom.

In the deafening silence of that dark time, I penned dreamy verses of freedom. In every word, I snatched that luminous flame from those who dared assume the mantle of gods.

Ever since, I have regarded the poet as a thief of fire, as a torchbearer. If people were to believe in miracles, it would be the miracle of poetry.

For the poet, they stand as Prometheus, enduring the gnawing of vultures at their chest, their verses akin to bleeding wounds.

Last year came your epic, The Stone Serpent. It narrates the tale of Barates the Palmyrene and his daring rescue of Regina the Celt. How do you describe this work and what lies ahead in your poetic journey?

The experiment of The Stone Serpent intertwines and diverges with the themes and motifs that have surfaced and vanished within my poetry.

This epic poetic endeavour juxtaposes the East and the West in a profound aesthetic and civilisational discourse through a tale of love.

The Syrian aspect is a pivotal element in civilisation amid the backdrop of a vast empire commanding both geography and humanity, spanning East and West.

At its core, it narrates the poignant love story between a Palmyrene warrior and a maiden from the Celtic tribe in Britannica, set during the era of Septimius Severus.

The language creates a world in which the ode, the tale, the philosophical fragment, and the myth can all thrive.

It is a language I find satisfaction in, as it has grown clearer and more refined over time despite its multifaceted layers within the poem.

Something novel entered my poetry with this book, something I once feared and avoided: thresholds and symbols accompanying the poem.

They don't elucidate vocabulary or meaning or patronise the reader. Rather, they forge a connection between the text and its cognitive space, akin to what Ibn Arabi accomplished in Tarjumān al-Ashwāq and T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land.

Read more: A look at T.S. Eliot's influence on Arabic poetry

The language used in The Stone Serpent creates a world in which the ode, the tale, the philosophical fragment, and the myth can all thrive. 

Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah

I took the same approach in my forthcoming work, which will be published later this year. I crafted a modernist narrative that opposes the narrative of brutality that threatens human existence.

True poetic modernity cannot exist without an ethical stance that champions the cause of humanity.

Contemporary Arabic poetry requires a familiarity with myths, heritage, and historical narratives. Why has modern poetry adopted this approach? Does it suggest a depletion of the creative reservoirs?

When it comes to contemporary Arabic poetry's engagement with mythology, heritage, history, and related references often considered cognitive, then, unfortunately, there is a limited presence in today's Arabic poetry.

Except for a few experiments characterised by fluid or single-threaded language, the Arabic poem often appears modest in ambition, lacking the intellectual exploration and experimentation poets should employ and enjoy.

Contemporary poetry, in general, seems to be adopting the forms pioneered by poets of the 1980s and 1990s without injecting any novel elements.

It is as if the momentum of poetic experimentation has ground to a halt, transforming this once-flowing river into a stagnant lake.

Contemporary poetry can now be so complex and sophisticated that it no longer resonates with educated readers who are satisfied with simplistic, song-like poetry.

There must be a dignified boundary between the poem as a horizon and reality as an abyss. This would give the poet choices.

It would allow poets to make more fundamental decisions about their connection with the art of poetry beyond their obsession with engaging readers who may not truly read.

Some say your era has been the golden age of modern poetry. Is contemporary Arabic poetry stagnating, or do its voices still hold the promise of innovation and depth?

The tapestry of modern Arabic poetry is woven with threads of remarkable resilience and adaptability. It has evolved alongside the linguistic shifts of the era.

The early 20th century was marked by literary renewal movements and illustrious figures like Gibran, with vibrant literary circles in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Beirut.

Arabic poetry has consistently mirrored the linguistic zeitgeist. Yet, over the last 20 years, there has been a perceptible ebb, a decline in the spirit of experimentation that once defined the Arabic poetic tradition. This has led to a clifftop, teetering on the edge of aesthetic stagnation.

Yet the Arabic poetic spirit is resilient, and emerging movements reinvigorate the art form with fresh perspectives and innovative language.

So, I prefer to see it through a lens of hopeful anticipation. The Arab world, both in the diaspora and within its native borders, is home to a plethora of voices. These voices continue pushing the boundaries of poetic expression with their unique aesthetic sensibilities.

I believe that the next masterpiece of Arabic poetry will be written in the near future. This is a testament to the enduring vibrancy and potential of our poetic heritage.

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