Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Elliott Colla


Why banning “Arab” authors from US is censorship

Excluding important Arab writers from the literary dialogue also punishes US readers.

Last updated: Oct. 8, 201


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On September 30, Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was scheduled to give the inaugural address at the Gallatin Global Writers series.

Nasser is a major Arab poet, whose “A Song and Three Questions” was chosen by The Guardian as one of the 50 greatest love poems of the past 50 years and whose debut novel, “Land of No Rain”, was acclaimed by Ahdaf Souief and Elias Khoury, among others.

Nasser is also a law-abiding British citizen who does not need a visa to take the short flight from London to New York City.

Yet Nasser was still prepared.

According to Gallatin series organisers, the author “was carrying his books and an official letter of invitation from NYU” when he arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Jordanian British poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was prevented from boarding a US-bound flight [Peter Money]
But as he got ready to board his British Airways flight, an attendant at the gate handed Nasser the phone. Someone from the US’ homeland security department wanted to talk to him. As Nasser wrote about the experience:

“The strangest ‘conversation’ ensued:

Your name, your father’s name, your mother’s name, your paternal grandfather, your maternal grandfather, your great grandfather, your height, your weight, the colour of your eyes, of your hair … at this point I told the homeland security person: It is turning white now! ‘What was its colour before? Brown?’ he asked. ‘No, black,’ I said.”

At the end of the conversation, Nasser was told that he could not board the departing plane, which in any case had already left.

The faceless homeland security officer would not disclose the reason Nasser wasn’t allowed into the US.

“Just like that?” Nasser asked. “Just like that,” the homeland security officer responded.

Nasser’s talk was still held, via Skype. But Homeland Security did manage to prevent him from the warmth of a personal address, from speaking individually to fans of his work, and from fruitful discussions with other writers.

Not the first

Terse denials of entry like Nasser’s aren’t common, but his was certainly not the first.

In the spring of 2012, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was scheduled to tour with Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah.

Zaqtan’s “Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me“, translated by Joudah, had just been released by Yale University Press.

Joudah put a great deal of work into organising a tour, but, despite urging from the ACLU and PEN America, Zaqtan didn’t receive a visa. Zaqtan’s participation in his spring tour was reduced to a pre-recorded message.

Few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events. Organisers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

After increasing pressure, and statements of support from a broad range of US writers, Joudah managed to reorganise the whole tour and finally get Zaqtan a visa in the fall of 2012.

Yet despite the relative rarity of rejections, few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events.

Organizers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

Novelist, translator, and academic Elliott Colla says that he has invited a few Arab authors to the US for events, including a recent talk by Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, and has not yet had any trouble. But “the process is intimidating and time-consuming”, Colla wrote in an email. “And it could be that the sponsoring organisations do not have the people-power [or wasta] to pull strings when that needs to happen.”

Arabs aren’t the only authors who’ve been refused visas for literary events.

It took Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow, a vocal critic of the US National Security Administration (NSA), three attempts in order to enter the US. When he was turned away from a flight last September, he was given no reason, although many presumed it was because of the author’s criticism of NSA spying operations.

Denying entry to writers isn’t new.

Under rules barring “communists and their sympathisers”, the US has denied entry to acclaimed writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda,

and Graham Greene. But visa procedures have tightened yet further in the last decade.

A 2012 New York Times report notes that, because of new difficulties, “requests for the standard foreign performer’s visa declined by almost 25%

between 2006 and 2010″.

During that same period, “the number of these visa petitions rejected, though small in absolute numbers, rose by more than two-thirds”.

Leftists like Marquez, Neruda, and Greene were the previous focus of US exclusions.

But in the last decade, exclusions seem to be shifting towards artists with Arab names.

Subjected to scrutiny

In 2011, for instance, British theatre director Tim Supple brought a pan-Arab ensemble to Toronto to perform a new version of “One Thousand and One Nights”. The New York Times reported that the company “had no difficulty obtaining visas for Canada and Britain, but an engagement at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival had to be cancelled when nine of the troupe’s 40 members were subjected to the additional scrutiny and time ran out.”

In 2012, the New York Times suggested that many international performing artists were now writing the US out of their tour schedules because of increasingly difficult visa procedures. And that was for non-Arab performers.

What does Nasser’s banning mean for US readers?

They are not prevented from accessing his ideas, as they can certainly still pick up copies of his brand-new “Petra”,

his gorgeous novel “Land of No Rain”, or even an older copy of his “Shepherd of Solitude” .

But author-author, and author-reader interactions are also an integral part of literary development.

Excluding important writers like Nasser from the literary dialogue punishes US readers, reduces their exposure to Arabic writing in translation, and potentially limits American literature.

Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Al Jazeera

Adonis on How to Read ‘Real’ Arab Poetry

I am disseminating this article posted by mlynxqualey on July 17, 2011. I erased the commentary. I will add a few comments.

Poetry that reaches all the people is essentially superficial.

Real poetry requires effort:  it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception.”

Replying to one translator-poet Khaled Mattawa’s students who said that poetry was an insufficiently popular form, Poet Adonis s added, “I suggest you change your relationship to poetry and art in general.”

Elliott Colla translated Adonis’  “Ambiguity” in the new journal Asymptote.

Adonis writes (via Colla):

“Ambiguous is how a reader describes a text that he cannot grasp, or that he cannot master in a way that turns it into a part of what he knows…

Since Islam, Arab society has lived in a world of complete certainty…

In this manner, poetry, the verbal weapon of the Bedouins, was transformed into an instrument serving the mind, not unlike how a spoon serves the mouth.

The value of a tool-instrument lies in our trust and ability to rely upon it. It lies in the confidence we place in it: We lift the spoon to our mouth everyday without thought or effort. We wear shoes everyday without thought or effort. So too are we supposed to read and understand a poem: without thought or effort.

So poetry becomes a form that we can consume, like a Popsicle or pop song, without thought or effort. But why clarity?

Because clarity is a necessary function of the oral arts.  Oration is a form of articulation that imposes on the speaker a distinctive rhythm, a directness, simple words and clear ideas.

And the need for clarity was further solidified by Arabic poetry’s status as a “science”.

Arabic poetry began, like every science, to describe reality in terms of minute detail and what is adequate, and its primary value became tied to its use and benefit.

In this way, poetry began to move within an intellectual-rational framework, that is, it became a kind of reiteration, a mold, a subject to study and apply, something concerned with presenting “the truth” more than something concerned with innovation and invention.

Those were the “old” poets.  What is “real” poetry?

…The poet is a poet only on one condition: only insofar as he sees what others do not and that he discover and push forward.

And who is reading poetry?

…the reader who proceeds from memory, custom and received tradition, far from the spirit of constant advance and discovery, carries on in his thinking when faced with a poem as his body carries on when faced with a substance to consume: he does not consider himself the owner of the thing until he has consumed it. This kind of reader is good for everything but poetry.

The difference between reader and poet is a form of complementarity that compels the reader to become another creative genius, another poet. (End of quote)

What did I understand?  Even this short exposure, general in nature and needing many detailed example for proper comprehension, was good enough at the third reading for me to comment.

Most of us, start our hand at writing “poems”.  We believe that holding a diary to expressing our confused ignorance about our feelings, life and the universe, is a dangerous enterprise, it reveals our weaknesses, though life is ours and we are the stronger in hope and plans…

As we try to emulate the poems of our favorite poets, the feelings are gone, the diary is gone, our perseverance is gone, our emotions are hidden even deeper, and we missed the train.

What would have happened if Rimbaud failed to publish his work at this young age? Passed this great opportunity, Rimbaud lived in obscurity, nothing of value resurfaced.

A Poem is an excellent means to describing the confused emotions and feeling, describing the confusion, and not making sense of why we are confused. There are many different other expression forms to explain “what make sense”: Poetry is not one of them.

The good poems of pre-Islamic period were beautiful:  They were frank, bold, individualistic, and described accurately the environment and the customs.  They told stories and were downright slutty, as direct as folk songs.

The pre-islamic tribes didn’t enjoy a steady and timely communication with urban civilization, and the only innovation was displayed in more dramatic description of emotions…

After Islam, poems were inclined to becoming lyrical, general, sticking to the new culture of One God, and the sharia or the religious laws.  It became very difficult to be inventive since individuality was a dangerous tendency that was proscribed.

Poets needed the support of princes and emirs to survive in this most valued and appreciated job: memorizing poems was still a great tradition among people, and reciting poems was the best means to being recognized.  Poetry became an industry, with consensus standards, and becoming inventive and innovative in poetry style and topics was not profitable.

Even the most “revolutionary” poets had first to prove that they mastered the traditional style and language before they ventured into their own style. The content of poems didn’t vary much.  The urban poets mocked the life-style of the nomadic tribes, but could not resist boasting of belonging to a tribe, even a faked tribe of his own invention, though they have not linked with the tribe for decades and forgot entirely how to survive in a nomadic environment. For example, Abu Nawas.

You could read in a single poem many topics, and get confused what is the purpose of the poem, if not for targeting my doors, hopefully one of the topics will strike a chord in a rich provider.

For example, Abu Tammam, a 10th century poet, could be considered a modern poet: He focused on satisfying the wants of society, particularly, the caliph and princes who expected decent poems that won’t antagonize the perception of a divine authority.

So how modern poets, after Islam, could circumvent the restrictions if not taking refuge in sciences, and borrowing new terms that didn’t exist, and trying to explain the terms in poetical forms?

In translating poems, it is vital that the context be explained extensively in a note, unless it is a poem written by a youth, expressing the confusion in his emotions and feelings.




May 2022

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