Purple prose of Cairo
South China Morning Post - Sunday March 27 2005
What do Egypt and Hong Kong have in common? Well, a dozen eager poets, for one thing. Annabel Walker gets chapter and verse on an innovative programme
WATCHING THEM RELAX over a drink, the poets from the Outloud collective make for an unruly bunch. Good-natured arguments about points of prose are punctuated by shrieks of protest over a poorly defined word, but there's a relaxed informality that plays well against the mixture of cultures and nationalities.
In a few weeks' time, they'll be transported from the regular familiarity of their monthly poetry readings in Central to venues around Cairo - a place only two of the 12 have ever visited and not, you might think, a likely destination for a bunch of English-language poets.
Poet, writer and translator Sayeed Gouda had the idea for the trip - he's Egyptian, after all - and will be herding the boisterous group around a week of poetry readings as well as a photographic exhibition by US poet and photographer Madeleine Marie Slavick and paintings by Indian artist Gauri Narain.
'I hope to create the situation for more exchange,' Gouda says enthusiastically, explaining his long-term aim of encouraging major writers and poets from Egypt to come to Hong Kong and take part in events such as the literary festival.
You can't help but feel that Gouda, by day an accountant for the Kuwait Consulate, has got his work cut out. It's not just that on the day we meet one of the poets is sporting a tie decorated with large pink pigs - something that mightn't cause much amusement among Muslims, given that their dietary laws forbid the eating of pork - there's the fact that the poetry scene here is small and there are few established literary links to Gouda's native country. Whereas poetry is a cherished form in Egypt, here and in the west it's sometimes seen as a dying art. Fortunately, Gouda is devoted to reviving it.
The trip to Egypt is a continuation of his pioneering efforts that began a year ago when he started the first monthly Arabic poetry group. Initial interest was slight, but that served only to inspire him to think up other ways to get people interested in poetry.
'In the beginning, my idea was to do mainly Arabic literature and poetry,' he says. 'But I discovered that the Arabs here are in the minority and they were either businessmen or not really poetry lovers. I didn't know many Arabs here, so I had to change my strategy to concentrate on foreigners by translating.'
Gouda, a Chinese-language graduate who studied in Beijing in the late 1980s, uses English as the common thread for his monthly meetings, and reads poems in Arabic and Chinese. His translations mean that the audience, which ranges from 10-20 people, can enjoy many Arabic poems they otherwise wouldn't hear. As a student, Gouda says he was dismayed by how little cultural exchange there was between Egypt and China. In Egypt, he was shown Chinese movies and a few works of literature, but that was about it.
'There was no real contact between writers,' he says. 'I felt it was very important for writers and poets to get together. Once you know poets of a different nationality you learn a lot from them.'
Since becoming friendly with the Outloud crowd, Gouda has been busy translating their work into Arabic. At last count, he'd translated close to 60 poems. Depending on the poem's length, each Hong Kong poet should be able to share half a dozen of their works with the Egyptian audiences. They'll read them in English or Chinese, and Gouda will then read translations.
He also plans to publish a book of the poetry and says newspapers in Cairo have asked to publish some of the works. 'One of my ideas is for an anthology of Hong Kong and Chinese poetry and to get it published in Egypt,' he says.
For the Outloud poets, the trip is a dream come true. Many are well travelled on the literary circuit - Sichuan-born, Hong Kong-based Zheng Danyi, for example, has read in Asia, Europe and New York - but nonetheless happy to pay their own way to Egypt.
Gouda talks with energy and enthusiasm about the work of the Hong Kong poets and translates their work at no charge. Still, it's more than a love of literature that drives him. He says that in recent years there's been a dangerous polarising of Arab and western cultures, with few on either side keen to stop the demonising of the other. Most of the poets agree and some of the work that will be read in Cairo deals with the fallout since September 11, the recent US presidential election and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
'There's a problem of how to bridge the gap between Islam and the west since September 11,' says Alan Jefferies, an English teacher for the British Council and one of the poets who'll be travelling to Cairo. 'Because the poems have been translated into Arabic this gives me the chance to reach a completely new audience.'
Martin Alexander, who was born in Libya, sees the trip as a chance to connect with his birthplace. It's also the first time his work has been translated. 'My father speaks Arabic, so to be able to send him my poems in Arabic was kind of a link to where I was born,' Alexander says.
For others, such as children's author Sarah Brennan, the journey is a chance to share lighter work with universal themes about love and personal experience. 'My subjects aren't deep and meaningful,' Brennan says. 'I'm going as the comic turn.'
Outloud meets the first Wed of every month; Arabic Nadwah meets the last Thurs of every month, Photogalerie, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2521 7251
Sunday March 27 2005