Abbas Beydoun
Abbas Beydoun
Writing the Language of Absence

The walls of Abbas Beydoun’s Beirut office are bare; the coffee table between us is covered with books, magazines, newspaper clippings, unopened correspondence, and every fifteen minutes a man walks in with handwritten newspaper copy to check with Beydoun, editor of the cultural page of as-Safir daily newspaper. Abbas Beydoun is a busy man and prefers to work at night, which is when we make our appointment. Over three hours, a couple of cups of coffee and plenty of phone and work interruptions, Abbas Beydoun, one of Lebanon’s foremost poets of the post civil war era, talks about his life, his experience as a poet, and about poetry in Lebanon to Camilo Gomez-Rivas.

The war made life narrow and small

With the start of the war, I stopped writing because I had a huge problem with the practice of writing. The war made the entire intellectual and political project that I had meaningless. It disappeared. In my imagination there had been a society, with the possibility for social and historical evolution. The war made us feel that there was no longer society, history or culture. My imagination – my declamatory imagination – was vast, and somehow, within this vastness there had been this historical project underway. And I had imagined that one could speak in the name of something, history, that one could posses a whole, complete sense of time and of the place one lived in, and this declamatory, songlike, celebratory language we used to use; with the war, all of that became meaningless. The world was reduced to rubble, fragments, and torn pieces. The community crumbled to pieces. And the place that was Lebanon also crumbled, in the abstract and in the material sense: you could no longer move around the country. It seemed that any idea of Lebanese history had been delusion. The idea of wholeness likewise. The war made one’s life narrow and small. One could no longer venture a language that went beyond small and intimate things. It was no longer possible to talk about the world other than through direct and small things.

The biggest example of this world is a room in a house. These limits of the imagination also become its source. After the war, the room and the house became the model for the imagination. And language itself became a language of daily things, without that great expanse, that delusional celebratory chant, a language that doesn’t possess decorative delusion, a language that sees the materiality of objects, their life, their thingness.
The poem “Sur”, which I hadn’t published, had lost its meaning to me. I had lost faith in it. In it there is song and rhythm, strong words and an air of the epic, the greater journey. All that was contrary to the world I now found myself in. So it was necessary that I find another kind of poetry.

Growing up

I was born in 1945, in a village in the south of Lebanon, near Sur, where we moved to when I was nine years old. I was born in a home that was relatively literate. My father was a writer, a traditional writer who was very interested in Islamic history. He wrote a number of books on different subjects, but the main subject of his writings was Islamic biography. He wrote a biography of Mohammad, and a biography of one of his wives.  He was well acquainted with Islamic history and with classical literature. So there was a library in our house, and it didn’t only contain the books of al-Mutanabbi, al-Rumi, the big classical poets but also books about Darwin, for example, and those of Shibli Shumayyal, who had undertaken the translation into Arabic and presentation of Darwin’s work. I studied in humble, undistinguished schools, because I was in a region that didn’t have other ones. And I was a lazy student – but not lazy in the real sense of the word. I started out disciplined but gradually became lazy.

My first trip to France was to study psychology but I didn’t complete my studies there. It was only a three-month trip, which I spent in Toulouse. I was around twenty years old, or twenty-one, so it was after finishing secondary school. Travelling then was easier. Lebanon was going through an economically comfortable period and lots of Lebanese students used to travel to France. Costs weren’t exorbitant so it was easy for a father to send his children to France. The country was in a much better state before the war. So I spent three months in France, working on my French, which I was pretty weak in at the start.

1967, 1968: a radical student

I returned to Lebanon and studied Arabic literature at Beirut’s Arab University, next to Mal’ab al-Baladi. When I joined the university in 1968 I became politically active in a communist organisation.  The year 1967 had been the year of the Arab dÈbacle with Israel. It was a very intense year. There was an enormous amount of enthusiasm and emotion and political debate. And as a result, I joined a leftist organisation. It later became the munazamat al-’amal al-shuyu’l [Communist Action Party]. It was a strange organisation, having critical, anti-Soviet tendencies, leaning towards Maoism without being Chinese, and at the same time it enjoined a sort of Marxist thought with feminism and democracy. A mixture, if you will, of radical Marxism plus European democracy, plus feminism.  It was a strange organisation because it brought tendencies together which at the time were understood as being contradictory. Maoist Marxism ‡ la European.

I worked for this organisation and through it I landed up in jail. A year after joining the organisation in 1968, in the aftermath of Israel’s commando operation at Beirut airport – the one in which the Israeli commandos burnt Lebanon’s civilian airliner fleet around 1968–69 – we started distributing pamphlets on reform by the people, and criticising the army. The army at the time was pretty much in charge, we were basically in a state of military dictatorship in Lebanon. So we were arrested, at least I was. And in jail I was tortured. I spent two days being tortured. It was a military prison and we had been arrested by the military police. We were beaten and our hands were whipped. We were beaten all over our bodies, and they did something called the farruj (the chicken). You know the farruj? They hang you like a chicken and beat you. And even use electricity, but it was light. The torture by electricity wasn’t too serious.  I spent three weeks in the military prison. And then they let me go. There was popular pressure from students for us to be released, and the government agreed to let us go. That was the first time I went to prison.

Charles Helou was then president. He had assumed the presidency after Fouad Shihab, who had been the head of the armed forces. Generally in Lebanon when the head of the army becomes the head of the country the government becomes, for all practical purposes, a military one, just like now. Military officers are the real power.
In every other office there were military police, military intelligence, torture. This first arrest led to continuous harassment. With the simple act of being arrested once, a person becomes the object of continuous harassment and becomes liable to be imprisoned again. I was imprisoned more than once, although sometimes for very short periods. Every time one went through a military check-point one was exposed to harassment. For a long time I felt I was in a state of siege or confinement.

Poetic beginnings

I started writing poetry very early in life, because I was born in a home where there were writers. I spent a long time undecided about what kind of writing to practise. I tried different forms, and at times very different genres. I tried poetry, essays, even theory. I couldn’t make quick decisions, so I spent years undecided. It was a long time before I decided to dedicate myself exclusively to poetry or to take up poetry as my main vehicle of expression. I published my first poem when I was seventeen. One of my first poems was published by Adonis, who was the editor of a publication called Lisan al-Hal. He didn’t just publish it, he wrote an introduction for it – though not only for my poem. He published four poems by young poets and he wrote the introduction for these four poems. I was one of those four poets. The poem I published in Lisan al-Hal was my first prose poem. Before that I wrote metrical verses, (not ‘amudi, but mauzun). That was around 1961 or 1962.

I wrote with many interruptions and without real enthusiasm for publishing. In the year I travelled to France I wrote a lot. I don’t really know how to unify these writings, or if they form a unit or a whole, but I wrote a lot. However, before travelling to France, I had already found many of the translations in Shi’r magazine very exciting, particularly the ones of works by Eliot, Lorca, Saint Jean Perse and another, a little less influential, Pierre Jean Juve.  
Eliot was translated in Shi’r very early on. Yusef al-Khal translated a number of Eliot’s most important works. Shi’r was founded by a number of pioneers of modern Arabic poetry, and Adonis himself was at the forefront, and Yusef al-Khal, of course. I was very interested in these translations. It was one of the distinguishing features of Shi’r. As far as I’m concerned, Shi’r’s most important feature was its translations. A number of essential poets of western modernism were translated during that time, such as Rimbaud, as well as contemporary poets, French surrealists such as AndrÈ Breton. Then there was Eliot – although I think their greatest work was in French poetry – but Eliot was translated and also Dylan Thomas. And even some poets who were young then were translated. Octavio Paz, for example, was translated in the fifties when he was still quite young. Saint Jean Perse was translated before he won the Nobel Prize. These translations were extremely influential for young Arab poets at that time. They were perhaps more important than poems by Arab poets themselves. I, at least, was very much influenced by these translations.

In France, I read a particular poet in French before I read him in Arabic translation: Pierre Jean Juve. Reading Pierre Jean Juve was for me a shocking experience. He would start talking about a gob of spit on asphalt, for example, which he then compared to his mother’s blood. These words created a huge shock for me, and this shock was very influential. The reading of Pierre Jean Juve’s book, The Sweat of Blood, was a big deal for me. This book has influenced all of my writing. It gave me an idea of a kind of writing that was tense as well as materialistic. A kind of writing that reflects states of nervousness. You feel like you’re reading a nervous book. It transmits this state. My reading of Pierre Jean Juve led me to pen a entire collection of writings which I have never published. These writings were fundamental to my later works, however, even though they were never published. I didn’t publish them because of the constant laziness that affects me and which makes me prefer the kind of work I can do alone. I mean, I can sit and write alone. But the idea of taking the book to a magazine or a newspaper was, for me, exhausting. And it still is. It’s still easier for me to sit and work alone. I can sit in the office for hours. But I write a letter and I get tired taking it to the post office, so in the end I don’t take it.
When I got involved in political activities I stopped writing. That political work filled all my time.

During one period, I was a member of the organisation’s political bureau, and I worked there on a daily basis. I don’t really want to say that I quit writing because of being a political activist, but it was an excuse to stop. I mean, I don’t know for sure which is truer: did I quit writing because of political activism or was it just an excuse because writing is an exhausting activity. The moment you take a rest from writing you start to fear it. When you quit writing you feel happy that you’re rid of it.

When you don’t write, you feel happy you’ve got rid of it, or been released from it. I spent years in which, for all practical purposes, I didn’t write a thing – except a few, short satirical poems about the organisation I was in.

But then, due to a mixture of boredom and fear, I left the organisation. And after I had left, I found that once again I couldn’t escape writing. I had been convincing myself that through political activism, I was doing something like writing, that activism was a service and that I was accomplishing something through it. After leaving it, I started to hurt for the act of writing. I guess I felt that activism was writing in another form. I felt that after leaving political work I found a power for writing within me which had been repressed. So suddenly I found myself writing with relative ease.
I had graduated from university and was working as a teacher of Arabic literature in a high school. In 1973 there was something called the Ramadan war with the Israelis. That war of 1973 rallied people again, stirred their sense of Arab nationalism. The war of 1967 had done something similar. Sixty-seven threw me into political activism, whereas in 1973 I decided to express my feelings through poetry. That and a quick reading of a book by Pablo Neruda brought me back to poetry. I wrote a collection of political, agitational poems. They were unadulterated political poems. One of them was later sung by Marcel Khalifa, ‘Song for Ali’. It was a kind of panegyric for terrorism.

I had been writing political agit-prop. I had this desire to participate politically through poetry. But without my realising it, I found myself writing a different kind of poem, a poem that became the story of a city. I wrote about the sea, the water and a city, and finished writing this poem in about five days. This poem is “Sur”, which is one of my poems that is most read. Sur is the name of my town. After writing the poem I didn’t publish it out of laziness.

Around then I published some poems in Adonis’s Mawaqif. And I gave him “Sur” to read. But the war was starting and that threw me back into political work, this time with the traditional, Soviet-leaning Communist Party. But it didn’t last. The Syrians entered Lebanon. They came in to frustrate the attempt of the Communists and their allies – the Palestinians, Kamal Jumblatt – to take over the country. And well, the situation became very bad for me. So I left for France. And this time I quit writing again for a few years.

Committing to poetry

When I was in France I had a nervous breakdown. I went into a depression. I was taken to hospital. I sweated a lot. That depression filled every moment of my day. It precipitated my return to Lebanon. And there had been many causes behind my depression: nostalgia, homesickness, a feeling of alienation and exile. It was bad enough to send me to hospital for fifteen days. And when I left I was still very tired. A long time would pass before I regained my weight. And I was taking a frightening amount of medication. In this period I decided to go back to writing poetry. I was trying to perform a kind of therapy through writing. And then I found myself returning to writing with enormous enthusiasm, to the degree that I started writing a book a year. I wrote continuously. And only then it happened that I made the serious decision to write poetry.

In France I read the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos and his poetry for me was a great surprise. His poetry can give a great weight to things. He transforms ordinary and trite objects – “a plate, a table, a button” – into interior elements. He has a special and intimate language. He says just about everything by means of the factual and the material. His language is one of a little life, but he has an incredible ability to talk about a button, for example, as if in a metaphysical voice. Ritsos’s passion for the room, the house and domestic things, and his abstention from song, was magical to me. So Ritsos, to a great extent, brought me back to poetry. He offered me a solution: the small world of the home can provide a whole language for poetry.

I wrote a poem published in the collection al-Waqt bi-Jar’at Kabeera about the war with a kind of air of Ritsos. In this collection it becomes clear that my imagination had learned not to sing. It is very unsentimental. There are no big words or concepts. No words like love or sadness. The writing tries to follow relationships without directly naming things. It tries to illustrate your relationship to these things without naming them. The idea of naming used then to fill me with fear. I wanted to see things without naming them.
My collections don’t really have stylistic continuity. Each book is a kind of investigation into different styles and techniques, different ways of imagining and different languages. And my last collection, Lufiza fi’l-Bard is, I feel, a kind of condensation of a number of different books. After trying out a number of different styles, I felt like writing a book that brought them all together.

When I talk about my life it seems I always mention foreign poets. This is because they presented us with a new language. It is always difficult to think how to translate, how to find a rhythm in one’s language that is parallel to the language one is reading in. I had to imagine Ritsos’ rhythm in Arabic.

Sometimes you stop reading poetry, and I am afraid of this: it feels as if poetry is dead. My experience of poetry is one of reading. And my writing of poetry is the experience of translating other poets. Between two languages there is generally no corridor or passage. Perhaps between French and Spanish there is, but not between French and Arabic. My reading of Ritsos was a point of departure for my experience of translating and writing.

Classical poetry often shows up in my poems as well. We learn this language as children. And this relationship to classical poetry is almost impossible to define. It’s in your skin. It’s subconscious and it’s a love–hate relationship. It was in my education, in my father’s use of the language. I would hear this language at home and so it is in my subconscious. I know this language. My father was a writer and a teacher and he had memorised the history of Islam. He could tell you the way different historical figures spoke. There was no distance for him between himself and that classical language. It was as if they were contemporaries. Maybe this is a peculiarity of Arab culture, or maybe it is particular to feudal, southern Lebanon – Shi’ites still feel that their ancient past is present.

Islamic, Shi’ite history used to form part of my father’s inner world. This thing used to bother me very much. I used to feel its weight, its burden. It was a kind of schizophrenia. I always felt I lived in a world that didn’t exist. This language is characterised by a kind of absence. I didn’t talk about the things I would see. Eliot, for example, mentions names of places in his poetry, whereas I used to feel that places didn’t mean much to me. So in my poetry, I tried to reinvent places. In “Sur”, I am describing a town in which I lived all my life but which I had never really seen. This is true to the extent that we lived in this town without our feeling it. We lived in this town of Sur in a condition of non-feeling. It gave us shelter, but we had no psychological or aesthetic apprehension of it. So my poem “Sur” is not a description of my memories of a place. It is rather a reinvention of a place out of need. It is an individual’s expression of his need for a place, to be in a place. And I think many people have written poems and novels [in Arabic] because of this need for creating a place.

Ambiguous relation to language

I am in a constant struggle with language, my language, because of the kind of house I grew up in. I strive to make my language weaker. This language has a great power or desire to show itself, to show off, to show how good it is. The kind of poet who points to how strong or how good he is in the language is the kind of poet I don’t like, even if I respect him. I can’t like poetry whose language doesn’t have a limit to how exhibitionist or how strong it feels. Poetry for me is not about making the language stronger. I’ve always had the idea that poetry, contrary to what is often thought, is actually the weakness of language, or the exercise of making language weaker. My problem with “Sur” is that the language is too strong.

After the war I developed this desire to write poetry with much weaker language, as if the strength and solidity of the language were related to the idea or the imagining of a solid and complete reality. With the breakdown of reality and with your feeling of it, language itself starts to look for something like it, something not complete and weak.

So I developed an ambiguous relationship to language through my experience of it, of working with it and thinking about it. On the one hand I didn’t want my poetry to be a struggle with language, nor about linguistic play because this seemed contrived to me, and it didn’t seem to me what poetry was about. But on the other hand, this struggle became interiorised. In Arabic, every word has an association in meaning that goes all the way back to the Qur’an itself. There is a special kind of noise in the language that weakens the meaning. So, the great project for me was to divide the language from the noise. That’s why in my first poems after “Sur”, the language I use seems almost neutral. It holds nothing personal. It can’t contain strong meaning nor can it hold a strong voice. It is inhibited and restrained. And even now the language in my poetry is restrained. This separation of language from noise was to find new meaning. So I had to go through neutrality first. I didn’t name things in al-Waqt bi-Jara’at Kabeera because by just naming things all this other stuff comes in with it. Arabic poetry has often been content to simply repeat the word love, a sort of tautology of love or sadness. I wanted to return to these and make them subjects or topics and not just results.

The violence of poetry

This experiment led to “Madafin Zujajiyyah”. I was then of the opinion that the problem of Arabic poetry was that it wasn’t violent. Violence is a fundamental aspect of language and it is an essential factor in one’s relationship with the world, in one’s clashing with it. Arabic poetry had been exhortative or furious but not violent. I felt that poetry was in need of violence and harshness. Linguistic fury was drowning out this violence, because violence requires a more direct presentation. Arabic political poetry is in essence panegyric or eulogistic. It is a poetry of acceptance of tradition and custom, of old imagination and values, like the presence of the knight and the chivalric in old poetry. You also find the schizophrenia of the martyr and his masochism.

My writing is in opposition. We need another place. Sargon Boulus, Wadih Sa’adeh and I are creating this place, creating an opposing or confrontational language without this furious rhetoric.
Violence is essential to one’s relationship to things. Previously, Arabic poetry was eulogistic; the words just swallowed the meaning and said nothing. My poetry remains somewhat silent, sort of secretive. I think other poetry has been clearer and more direct. Wadih Sa’adeh is more direct. My poetry is difficult. It can’t really be used by other poets. The next generation won’t find it easy to simplify, or to start something from it. For us to affect poetry we have to simplify it so that it can be used.

Poetry in Lebanon

Lebanon is a country that falls at the intersecting point of the world with the Arab world. This has led to there not beings a dominant form or style in poetry. But one can speak of general, different forms. There is the tradition of the metrical poem, which is strong and has undergone its own sort of evolution, although it was much stronger in the fifties and I’m not quite sure if there is now a new generation of practising poets for the form. Then there’s the prose poem: first there was the generation that was established by Shi’r. This is the generation that influenced our own. It was a kind of language laboratory, or a laboratory of expression. And to a great extent it was a kind of struggle – but often a game – with the dominant Arabic phrase. This is not necessarily the inherited (phrase), but the straight, normal one. These poets saw poetry as a struggle with language to the extent of attacking it. Another of its characteristics is that it is an interior poem. It avoids the outside, its meaning, language, its politics and topics. So it deals with inner subjects, personal ones. This kind of poetry is not concerned with politics, but with the psychological, the emotional and the religious. It is transcendental and often declamatory in language.

A second tradition within the Lebanese prose poem also experiments with language but it is not only interior. There is a great presence of the outside world, and it tries to express the permanent connection between the interior and exterior, from all angles: imagination, subject and language. This kind of poetry is about the lower world and not the one up high. The world of the home, of the daily life of particulars, the world of the things that surround us. Not the transcendental world but an earthy one.
This kind of poetry, from poets like Antoine Abu Zeid, Wadih Sa’adeh, Bassam Hajjar, is the one that is producing new poets or is being influential. It is clear that this kind of poetry is taking on different forms. My poetry tried to mix the big and the little, the daily and the epic, the particular and the metaphysical. The younger generation is more delimited. If you read Bassam Hajjar’s poetry [see Banipal No 9] and mine [Banipal No 3] you’ll see the difference. Bassam’s poetry is different, if you will. The language is not as wide, nor is the subject. The new poetry is simpler and more concentrated, more narrative. And this progression is natural. It’s trying to get rid of the disruption or the split in the poetry written immediately before. 

The new poetry is less composed and has a narrower lexicon. The latest generation, the young poets, well, they concentrate even more on the daily, on the normal and simple, on events and narratives.

It is hard to say whether there is a readership for poetry in Lebanon. The situation here is not like it is in Europe, where you do find readers. Even the very famous poets here don’t have readers and poetry is slowly becoming a secret activity. Poets read poets. Also, poets are the only ones capable of reading the works of other poets. It seems that the experience of poets, seen from a distance, is not very well understood. Poetry is often exposed to misreading, or to a poor kind of reading. So poets more and more read each other. And even if there are readers who aren’t poets, the decisive reading is that of other poets.

This leads to the target of poetry becoming very interior, without paying much attention to the outside. So the poet’s experience evolves following necessities that are more technical and linguistic, rarely thinking about outside concerns, like being better understood, for example, or writing on subjects more related to what is contemporary.

It appears that poetry progresses more according to inside forces and needs, without being very much influenced by what is happening outside the field, be it culture or life.