Poet takes a novel approach to history


Nadwah - Hong Kong

By P. Ramakrishnan


Award-winning poet Sayed Gouda found the switch from Arabic to English much easier than the recent challenge of moving from poetry to prose.

"I have lived here in Hong Kong for the past 13 years and  lost touch with the written Arabic language," he says with a laugh.

After 20 years as a poet, and with works published in Egypt's respected literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab, Gouda has released his first novel, Once Upon a Time in Cairo.

A leading figure in Hong Kong's literary community -  he organises Arabic Nadwah, a monthly reading of Arabic poetry at the Fringe Club - Gouda, 37, says the novel reflects the way  his work has changed since he arrived in Hong Kong in 1992.

"The first writer who really opened the door for me to read English literature was Thomas Hardy - it was Return of the Native," says the translator  and accountant for the Kuwait consulate. "I loved his style. I  later discovered that he was also a poet. I can see that he has chosen every word carefully. I see them as poetic novels."

Set in 1948, Once Upon a Time in Cairo follows three families living in one house. Each family claims ownership of the property, and their animosity spreads across generations. Gouda describes it as a parable of the Middle East.

"It's a symbolic novel," he  says. "Each character resembles  a country or a leader in the Middle East. And each chapter deals with a certain period of our modern history."

The novel starts in 1948, when Israel took over Palestinian land. The other sections are based in the historically important years of 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1981.

Gouda tears out a page from his notebook and draws diagrams. "The character Galilah - she represents Israel itself," he says. "The master of the district is El-King, the king. By that I mean Britain, the kingdom.

"In the old times, there used to be a master for the street or the district itself - a master who collects protection tax on people, a master who protects the family who claims the room. This overseer was Britain at first. In time, like an old lion who goes away, the El-King loses the power. The character of a sultan comes in - a new master. That's America. All the names of the characters have more than one meaning. In Arabic, all names mean more than what the syllables are."

Although the symbolism is clear, Gouda says the message of the book is kept vague. "Before creating any sort of art - whether it's a poem, a novel, a painting or a piece of music - should I have a message to convey to the reader?

"The answer in my opinion is, `Not necessarily'. Even if there's  a message, I shouldn't reveal it," Gouda says. "I can only convey  it wrapped in my work of art  and leave it to the reader to unfold it and understand it in  any way he likes.

"To be neutral is not an easy task, I have to admit, especially when I know that my countrymen will read it. But as a writer, I must be unbiased.

"I don't expect everyone to understand the story in exactly the same way as I do. It's almost impossible. I wrote it as a novelist, not a historian. If the reader enjoys it as a novel, I'm happy."


Once Upon a Time in Cairo  (Blacksmith) will be on sale this month for $98

 Friday, June 10, 2005


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