The Lebanese Bassam Hajjar (1955–2009) is a poet and a translator of silence. His poetry reminds us of George Steiner’s famous statement, “when the poet’s word ceases, a great light begins.” Perhaps because he was a dedicated translator, he hesitated and listened well for the charged silence in what he wrote and what he translated.
Salim Barakat is a Kurdish-Syrian poet and novelist, born in 1951 in Qamishli, an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse city in northern Syria. He lived in exile for years before settling in Sweden where he has resided since 1999. He has thus far published over forty-six works of poetry and prose, including three autobiographies, a memoir of wartime, and several children’s books. He enjoys a peculiar celebrity and following in the Arab world, among critics, scholars, and other poets.
The writers and artists of Beirut’s Hamra street remember a day in 1973 when a young man from the northern village of Shabtin stood handing out his poetry to passersby. It was Wadiʿ Saʿada (b. 1948) with a stack of handwritten copies of his first poetry collection, The Evening has no Brothers. Stepping outside the established avenues for “making it” in the world of writing and publishing, Saʿada placed himself and his writing out in the open, literally on the side of the street.
The Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut (1934–2006) embraced the persona of the outsider, the loiterer, the hobo. He performed it in his life and in his poetry. This marginal posture guides and supplements the reading of his work and the perceived achievement of his poetic project.
The story goes that he joined the Baʿth party because its office happened to be closer to his house than that of the rival political party. Moreover, the Baʿth had the added advantage of a fireplace in the winter. And so, by accident, he ended up as a political prisoner in the Mezzeh prison outside of Damascus where he began writing on cigarette boxes. It didn’t occur to him that his writings were poetry until he showed them to his cellmate (none other than the poet Adunis) who said they might very well be. This is how al-Maghut himself likes to portray the beginning of his poetic career and his politcal invovlement, a funny coincidence.*