#2 The Expired Time Machine
by Ammar Haj Ahmad
Tiny house, Big Home
When you’re the youngest child in a big family, you do everything to get the attention that you think you need, from absolutely everybody. You cry easily if you don’t have your own glass of tea when the whole family are having theirs. I call it a ‘glass’ because that’s how we drink tea in Syria, in tiny beautiful glasses in which we pour the tea from a giant stainless-steel pot. You try your best to get involved and have an opinion on everything. You also want to learn about all the football players in the World Cup, so you can loudly recite their names like a live commentator while your older brothers are watching the match, so that they in turn can be amazed by your talent! You play, for no apparent reason, the role of the lonely child, sitting apart in the room next door, waiting for someone to call you over, even if it takes ages for the call to come! And that is exactly how I was.
But in spite of all the family activities into which I tried to poke my nose, there was one thing, only one, in which I could not participate until I became 11 years old. Before that age, I would only be allowed to listen with a vivid desire to one day be allowed to partake of this activity, for it was a terrific thing for a family, full of music, words, speech, performance, reading, reciting, gathering, tenderness, love, beauty, laughter, competing voices, soulful throats AND tea. It was the “poetry competition” game, in which only classical Arabic poetry was admissible! These were the rules: one member of the family begins with a verse of a poem.; the rest of the family then need to find another verse which begins with the last letter with which the previous verse ended. And for a big working-class family, it was easy for us to form at least two or three teams. It didn’t cost anything and all you needed was a good knowledge of poetry and a sense of its musicality. It was a cheap yet incredibly rich game. The rounds went on for hours and there I sat listening to hundreds of beautiful verses of poetry, heavy lines describing wisdom, courageous words on generosity, and so many poems on unconditional, crazy love. Of course it is a technical game in a way as well, for you have to be able to remember as many verses as possible so you can readily find a verse that begins with the appropriate letter. And I always wanted to be a contender but my sources in those very early years were limited to what I heard from the family during the game, and it is of course a sort of nonsense to repeat literally what others are saying.
High Marks for a Love Poem
It is the time where I have to fill my soul and mind with poetry, love and DRAMA. I am a student in the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, the old city with its incomparable ancient smell and brilliant beauty. It was only recently that I had taken part for the last time in the family poetry competition. And in the library of the Institute, the words of a beautiful piece of writing just landed in my hands. And I read:
To your eyes, your two planets That pour light into my own;
To the two dry springs that, like destiny
Never quench the thirst of the lost;
To your eyes, a heart sings out
That same heart that never stops bleeding;
Oh how the tongue that calls out for you
Wishes that its call should melt on its palate!
And I continued reading until the end! Here was a poem by Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, entitled Whims, where he merges the classical way of writing poetry with modern free verse.
Al-Sayyab was one of the pioneers of Arabic modernism, alongside Nazek Al-Malaekah, Shazel Taqa and Abdul Wahab Al-Bayyati. Not only did he change the rules of classical Iraqi poetry, but of the entire Arab world. Al-Sayyab died in his thirties in bed, after experiencing a long illness, poverty and many one-sided-love affairs, which pushed him cruelly to his own solitude, and to his paper and pen. To quench the drought in his life, and allay his frustration at the lack of love and money, his poems are like strangled cries, to other countries and other people, filled with pain and despair.
When I read this poem, I decided to perform it in my elocution exam, for which I eventually got a high mark!
A Bow and Arrow with an Inaccurate Aim!
The curve of Regent Street in London is, for me, one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture I have ever seen. As you stand in the middle of it, you don’t know that it is going to open up to the beautiful Cupid with his bow and arrow standing on one leg in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Looking up at this curve, you feel the timelessness of people’s movement, and you might for a second experience it as a river that has been turned upside down, the sky as its water. You experience for a second the contradiction between being surrounded by thousands of people, shops, flowers, buses black cabs, weirdos with cartoon-character costumes etc… and the fact that you are alone, where nostalgia unfolds its pages of longing, and walks shoulder to shoulder and step by step alongside you and all your memories, the memories of the footballers and the World Cup, the verses of poetry with the voices of the family members and the “poetry competitions”, the tea, the skill of pretending to be upset for no apparent reason the unconditional motherly love, Damascus and acting schools and my moments of failure, love and its betrayals when we become so clumsy if we’re happy and unbearable divas if we’re not. And of course this all leads to the lines of Al-Sayyab, knocking on the door of my longing to join me on my walk here in Regent Street:
A rupture already?
Before we have even finished our glasses?
Did you break them,
Before we even got drunk?
A rupture already, when Spring’s dew
Is still falling on a greenish summer?
A rupture? Will you prevent the eye
From looking when a light shimmers?
And do you plan to stop the reflection of my imagination,
Rising from the river, from flowing?[i]
I was standing there in front of Cupid, tourists taking pictures in his presence. I was staring at his arrow, which never worked with many people, people like Van Gogh or Sarah Kane! Here I was again, the child with the same voice and his own glass of tea, blaming Cupid and his mother Venus, that they never visited Al-Sayyab during his short life. And thinking to myself: will my family, with our growing number of nephews and nieces (and there are many of them), ever gather again to play that game? This time, I will have my own tea glass and I will read to them not only one verse of Al-Sayyab’s poem but all of it!
Don’t miss ‘Poetry from Iraq‘ (7pm, 20 February at The Mosaic Rooms) an evening of discussions, readings and screenings, chaired by Ammar Haj Ahmad.