Saif al-Rahbi
Saif al-Rahbi
Poetry is my home and I cannot live outside it
My childhood

I was born in the village of Suroor in the interior of Oman. The community I was born into was very traditional and conservative. To use a modern sociological term, it was patriarchal. In the family, my father was the symbol of authority and possessed all control and power. In addition to his social status, my father’s image was further strengthened by the fact that he was a prominent religious and a tribal figure in his community. This social power was sometimes reflected in the way my father treated us, which was far from any form of intimacy. I still remember my mother’s hidden tears when this figure of my father was at its most powerful and patriarchal.
As for women, they were extremely marginalised, but let me say, it was not one hundred per cent. Women were actively present in agricultural activities and at festivals and celebrations. They performed several social roles, but as independent human beings they were totally inconspicuous beside the powerful presence of patriarchal values.
Having said that, it was a very co-operative community. People used to help each other and our community enjoyed a high level of social and spiritual cohesiveness. It was a homogenous society in harmony with the material and spiritual contexts of its life.

Schooling & education

The cultural atmosphere into which I was born was very traditional, but at the same time it was very rich, especially so far as religious studies and debates were concerned. Oman developed a distinctive intellectual character, which is reflected in the hundreds of books written by Omani scholars on religious and other matters. However, despite this wealth of traditional religious studies, Oman lacked modern schools. Before 1970, children used to go and study in mosques and katatib (Qur’anic schools) and even under the shade of big trees. There were only two small modern schools, in the capital Muscat and in Salalah in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Oman was living outside time, frozen at a very backward stage, medieval. I must have written my first poem within this cultural milieu that was bound by my ancestors’ cultural and social heritage. Despite this, however, the traditional system of learning had many advantages in that it greatly broadened my knowledge of the Arabic language, and of literature and heritage in general.

The shock of the “outside” world

As a child, I was eager to leave my village, that place which revolved around itself like a hand-mill. News and ideas about the world outside Oman were brought to our village through the BBC Arabic Service and by expatriate Omanis who worked in some of the Gulf states. Those Omanis used to describe what they saw and experienced in the countries where they worked. They would talk about “strange” contraptions that we did not know in Oman, such as televisions and air conditioners. They also used to talk about politics and about Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom they presented as the saviour of the Arab world.
My first direct contact with the “outside” world came when, for the first time in my life, I saw the sea and ships and travellers in the town of Matrah, a suburb of Muscat. That scene, which shocked me, was in fact a practice run for my later detachment from my village and homeland. In Muscat I was a pupil at the Saidiyyah school and completed my elementary studies there, supplementing them with religious study at Al-Khor mosque. The chief religious scholar at that time was Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khalili, who is now the Grand Mufti of Oman.
It was during that time that I started writing poetry and discussing literary issues. Of course the poems I wrote then followed the form of the traditional Arabic poem. Sometimes a poem of that sort was religious: the poet would use the form to raise a question on a particular religious matter. The finished poem would be passed to a religious scholar who would answer the poet with a poem in the same metric pattern and rhyme.
Despite the deep-rooted traditional cultural atmosphere, the winds of change and difference that blew in the central Arab capitals were felt in Oman. We started to ask new questions and to exchange opinions on religious and literary matters – which was not common in our conservative society. Those simple questions and opinions were the first cracks in the solid system of my inherited beliefs, and in my relationships with religious scholars and sheikhs. And they were the same questions that opened wide the gateway to leaving Oman.
Of course, leaving Oman so early in my life has had a deep impact on the development of my personality and poetry. I raised questions about things which others took for granted, such as homeland, belonging and cultural identity. There is also the tragic side which is more difficult to appreciate. It has to do with questions of existence and the presence and absence of place. Once a place settles in my mind – in my poem or in my real life – it soon disappears, leaving more and more existential cracks.

A teenager in Cairo

I went to Cairo in 1970 when I was only fourteen. I still remember my first steps there. I spent the first days there in a hotel overlooking al-Ataba Square in central Cairo. For the first time in my life I saw huge crowds of people – women, men and children. Thousands and thousands of people. That was a traumatic experience for a young boy coming from a country with a very small population (around one million people at that time). I remember I had a problem finding accommodation so I went to Sheikh Mohammed al-Faham, the Sheikh of al-Azhar Mosque, who immediately gave an order to provide me with a room in accommodation reserved for students from Islamic states. I didn’t stay there long, however. After a short while I moved to Doqqi, which was a favourite area for students coming from the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.
Politics was the main thing that haunted students then. Involvement in politics was a haven for our dreams of changing and developing the Arab world, and of unifying it. Our ideas were very simplistic. But deep down I had doubts about our reformist dreams. There was a huge contrast between the prosperous lifestyle of students, especially those from Gulf countries, and the political ideologies they adopted and promoted. This chasm between reality and dreams pushed me to literature, and that is where I was able to find myself.

The meaning of poetry

What does poetry mean to me? I wish I could answer that question. It’s a simple question and yet it is so difficult, complicated and multifaceted. When I started writing poetry, it was not because I was attracted to something called “poetry”, but now I am entangled with it in the same way I am entangled with life as a whole. I have become inseparable attached and loyal to poetry. I can’t imagine a moment of my life without poetry. Poetry is my home and I cannot live outside it.
In poetry, I find myself drawn to the issue of human pain; feeling pain is not only a stimulus to write poetry it is an intrinsic human characteristic. Poetry transforms that feeling of pain into a rich and fertile experience.

Discussions on “prose poetry”

As for the heated discussions on “prose poetry” that still go on in some Arab cultural circles, I do not engage in such debates. I think they are very artificial. Prose poetry [the European free verse form], is not searching for any legitimacy and is not in competition with other poetic forms. What should be debated and analysed is not the legitimacies of poetic forms, but rather the actual achievements of different creative forms. Such discussions would be so much more fruitful and productive.
And as for the future of Arabic poetry, I don’t think that one form will ever achieve a final victory over other forms. In fact, the idea that the future is on the side of prose poetry is not very different from the opposing view which holds that the classical poem is the final form in the history of Arabic poetry. Forms of poetic expression are open to change, and are influenced by reforms and changes at many different levels of life.
Having said that, I do find myself attracted to one particular poetic “worldview” more than others. But I don’t need to defend the prose poem – the form in which most of my poems are written – because it has proved its worthiness, and nor can I say that it is the ultimate form of poetry just because I write my poems in it.

Modernism and Arabic life

On the question of the effect of modernism on contemporary Arabic literature, I would have to say that Arabic modernism is an unfinished project that has touched only a few aspects of Arab life. It is a sort of crippled modernism. It is present only in literature and has not touched other spheres of Arab life, especially the social and technological spheres. We are so backward in those areas of life.
Let me say, even, that modernism is similar in a way to its opponent, fundamentalism. While fundamentalism is blind to modern life and tries to live in a past which it regards as sacred and perfect, Arab modernism has not been able to fulfil any spiritual, cultural, economic or technological needs in Arab life. Its reforms are only superficial. It has not reached into the depths of Arab life and brought about any real changes in the “essence” of that life. Of course, this is not to deny some of the achievements of Arab modernism, especially in the development of Arabic poetry, but we also must be conscious of its shortcomings.

The Arab-Western relationship

The Arab-Western relationship has witnessed many developments and turning points. However, I think that what has really caused the current breakdown in this relation is the period of Arab renaissance in the early twentieth century. This renaissance happened through elite groupings, political parties and intellectuals who were all involved in a process of redefining their own cultural identity and, based on that identity, redefining the West and their relationship to it. Several ideological, intellectual and political stimuli influenced that process, and led to a disturbance in the relationship and in an understanding of the West. Generally speaking, at that time the relationship with the West was based on a clash with it. Of course, we should highlight the fact that the West at that time was the colonial power in several parts of the Arab world, and that the West, along with the Ottomans, was a major reason for the backwardness of the Arab world then.
But leaving this relationship of clashing ideologies aside, there is a bright side to that period – of an intellectual nature: Arab culture benefited in many respects from its contact with the West. If we look at the different representations of cultural life, including thought, philosophy, fiction, poetry and criticism, we easily notice the deep influence of Western culture. In fact, Arab intellectual elites have come to know and appreciate several aspects of their heritage, such as Sufism and Jahili or pre-Islamic poetry, through the influence of studies made by Western Orientalists who used established Western methods of study. So despite the current period of misunderstanding and lack of mutual trust between the Arab and Western worlds, the relationship between the two worlds is strong, and will no doubt regain the stability and productivity that have been witnessed in the past.

Cultural identity and universal human values

You ask me about the move in certain circles in the West to redefine the self and cultural identity into a narrower and more limited image than the universal human values promoted and presented by the West as the real nature of its civilization, and whether I agree with it. In fact, I don’t agree with that development. It does not accord with having a deeper understanding of Western culture and thought. It could be true of a particular political trend that is narrow-minded and has limited philosophical and cultural horizons. This is a trend that has brought anarchy to contemporary international relations, in a similar way and extent to that produced in the Arab world by the backward fundamentalist discourse. So both these two fundamentalist discourses, Arab and Western, have led to the current state of breakdown in the Arab-Western relationship. They have led to great destruction and anarchy, and to a violent opposition that cannot be justified rationally, culturally or ethically. Here, we have to be able to distinguish between, on the one hand, a semi-theological discourse, which is violent towards other cultures because it is based on intellectual and religious dogmatism in its understanding of history and politics, and on the other, the liberal discourse of Western thought and culture that is universal in nature.
We cannot, of course, deny that the fundamentalist discourses on both sides (led in the Arab world by Islamic fundamentalists and in America by neo-Conservatives) are the dominant political discourses at present. This could be due to the huge technological and media explosion. The victory of fundamentalist and conservative views has marginalised, in both cultures, the discourse of universal human values. Despite this victory, we can still see a space for creative and fruitful dialogue between the two cultures, dialogue between a culture that has reached cultural, economic, political and technological maturity, and a culture that has a deep intellectual heritage but lives in backward cultural seclusion.

Bridging cultures through translation

Translation has always played the role of bridging different cultures. Translation is an indicator of relations between cultures. Translation into Arabic in the past was prized, reflecting deeper cultural influences, while the current state of translation in the Arab world is pitiful: we don’t have Arabic echoes of the huge literary, philosophical and scientific developments of the West. There are no attempts in the Arab world to translate these developments into Arabic.
There should be a systematic and well-planned pan-Arab translation project. Of course, we cannot deny that there are some Arab institutions that have taken important steps in this regard, but it is not nearly enough. Translation should be supported by Arab states and it should be performed in accordance with a clear development framework.
Because of the lack of translation of contemporary Western knowledge, we find an interesting phenomenon in Arab culture: that debates on Arab culture still echo schools of literary theory or criticism that no longer exist in the West. In that sense, the lack of translation deeply affects Arab culture . We also find that the Arabs living in the West have not been active culturally there. Their press and institutions communicate in Arabic and they seldom have access to written or visual media in the Western languages. I think this is a glaring defect which negatively affects views and stereotypes about Arabs in the West.
It is here that we can appreciate the significance of specialised literary and cultural magazines, such as Banipal, that present Arabic literature in a Western language. The world has changed, and there should be, along with such few yet significant magazines, Arab television channels and newspapers in Western languages. So, back to the issue of the role of translation: I think that there are many things translation could do in developing Arab-Western relations as well as in developing Arab culture itself.

Editor-in-chief of Nizwa

I feel that I shoulder a heavy cultural responsibility towards my home country and I try to do this within the existing constraints. I don’t attempt to achieve the impossible but in my capacity as editor-in-chief of Nizwa I try my best to do something significant in the Omani and Arab cultural sphere. This magazine is a literary and cultural magazine, based in Oman. It encourages Omani writers but also publishes writers from all Arab countries as well as Arabic translations of cultural and literary texts from different languages of the world.
On a personal level, I came back to Oman after a long period of living abroad and I experienced the problem of adjusting to a environment that had undergone a tremendous change. After such a long period of being apart a painful distance was created between myself and the people I loved and adored. My relatives are one example: I love them very much and they are part of my past, my memory, but that distance keeps me away from them. I feel very sad, as this special kind of psychological estrangement resists any form of treatment so deeply entrenched is it in my soul.

Interview by Abdulla al-Harrasi
in the Omani capital Muscat