Amjad Nasser: ‘We Have to Listen More to Reality Than We Used To’

by mlynxqualey

Amjad Nasser is not Amjad Nasser:

In his novelist-role.
In his novelist-role.

“Amjad Nasser” is the pen name of a poet, journalist, travel-writer, and novelist who was forced to leave his native Jordan when he was just 21. After that, he lived in Beirut and Cyprus, working as a journalist and poet, finally ending up in London in 1987.

Since then, he has carried multiple identities, some of which can be glimpsed in his debut novel, Land of No Rain. He is an editor and a poet, an essayist and a novelist, a travel-writer and a fantasist. Here, in an interview published first and in a different form on Qantara, Nasser talks mostly in the guise of a public intellectual.

ArabLit: How has your idea of ‘the role of the writer’ changed from when you were a young writer in Jordan, through your travels, to moving to London, and till today?

Amjad Nasser: My opinion hasn’t changed much since I started working in the cultural field, but it’s become less optimistic over time. I used to consider the intellectual’s role important in the political and societal processes of change, especially in societies that suffer from a high prevalence of illiteracy – as is the case in most of our Arab societies – and from the effects of a simplified religious discourse on these highly illiterate societies. I still see it as such, but with less optimism and more caution in passing judgment.

The sure thing, in my opinion, is that words are important, and without them there are no correct actions. But actions in our Arab world today appear devoid of words, whether they are actions of terrifying religious extremism – which though carried out by a small group, are loud and possess a dreadful capacity for death and destruction – or are fomented by Arab regimes that have gone back to tyranny after the revolutionary actions of Arab youth failed to trigger deep changes in the structure of these regimes.  We now live in societies without words. There are weapons, explosive belts, alliance planes, the return to military regimes and emergency laws, which are considered the most capable means of protecting nations from fragmentation and extremism. Of course, this isn’t right. The military hasn’t done, in the past or the present, anything except silence freedoms and suppress their people’s hopes for freedom.

In a situation like this, I think that we lack the intellectual’s role, one of making meaning of things. But this doesn’t mean that the intellectual is a messenger, or an angel — certainly not; he is not a superman either. The process of change takes a long time, especially social and cultural change; this is the most difficult of tasks. Political change can take place with a military coup — one regime is destroyed and another comes to take its place — but does society change in the same way? Of course not! As such, we have to stick to our work and keep the faith, we Arab intellectuals; whether we’re in our homelands or in the diaspora, or in exile, it is necessary that we intervene in the life of our societies, and that we don’t limit our roles simply to the technical aspects of the cultural process, as Edward Said said.

AL: Have the last four years (since January 2011) changed anything, in your mind, for Arabic writing – either for journalism, poetry or creative prose?

AN: It’s definitely changed, but it’s difficult to say what exactly has changed. Meaning that I discovered that poetic texts that we didn’t care about, or that we labelled provocative and direct, nationalistic even, held a prominent place in the slogans of the Arab Spring. Poetry that calls itself political was at the forefront of the demonstrations, in the culture and expressions made in the squares, and the movement of the crowds on the streets.  Likewise, songs that we used to think we’d never hear again made a comeback on the radio, television and other means of communication. And what helped it happen, in the way it took place, is the communication revolution led by social media, and the emergence to prominence of the citizen-as-journalist phenomenon, which was extremely important in the youth movement and in revealing the governments’ oppression – or rather their crimes – as was the case in Syria.

It’s difficult for me to predict the destiny of Arabic creative writing, but I think that we have to listen more to reality than we used to, but without being slaves to it, and without being mechanical reflections of reality.

All this happened. But has the poetic text truly changed, and have these great events had direct impact on the novel, the story, or journalism in general? This had to take place, and is still happening. It’s difficult for me to predict the destiny of Arabic creative writing, but I think that we have to listen more to reality than we used to, but without being slaves to it, and without being mechanical reflections of reality. Creativity isn’t a mirror of reality, as they say, but rather perhaps creativity is what reality should be.

AL: Where are Arabic poetry, novels and other prose going? What do you think are the most interesting developments? 

AN: Nowadays, there is no voice in Arab societies except that of politics or religious discourse, whether the thought is issued by terrorist groups or the Arab regimes’ clergymen (those we call the sultans’ religious scholars). As if we only discovered religion today! As if Islam just fell on us today and hasn’t been in existence for the past fourteen centuries! I don’t think there are any societies in the world that are as preoccupied with the issue of religion as we are. Consequently, where will poetry or prose or the novel find a foothold in a space so preoccupied with thought and counter-thought? We respond to religious and terrorist extremism not with reason and logic, sciences, literatures or enlightenment, but with religion itself. In other words, we respond with the problem itself. Both extreme and moderate religious camps control all the discourse in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, there are interesting trends in new Arab poetry, and in the novel’s steady trajectory, and the transformation of the novel to what resembles a record of reality. This is good and bad at the same time: good because the Arab novel is still crawling and hasn’t produced a huge corpus as is the case with poetry; and bad because this encourages a leniency in the quality of the novel, and in its technical and aesthetic level, and especially its linguistic quality.

The catastrophe bedevilling new Arab writing is the inability to use the Arabic language well. The writer will not be able to write a good novel without good command of the Arabic language. Language isn’t simply a vessel to transport meaning; rather, it is a deep expression of existence itself.

The problem of language — there isn’t space here to discuss it, but it is one of the biggest problems facing not only Arab creative writing faces today, but also Arab reality. As a result, how can reality change without possessing a language to help it change?

AL: Can one be a great poet and yet be allied with a repressive government? How does an author maintain some form of intellectual independence? 

AN: It’s difficult to be an accomplished poet who forms an alliance or reconciles with a repressive government. Even if his literary nemeses and politicians fall, a poet or an intellectual generally doesn’t have to applaud. We now have this type of poets and writers, who stand with the military and tyrannical Arab regimes in general in opposing the shared enemy, which are extremism and terrorism. The problem is that the Arab regime will in no time oppress these poets and writers, or those like them, after it’s finished oppressing the extremists and terrorists. This means that it behoves the accomplished poet, who has a sort of moral authority over an audience, to be independent of authority, even if he faces terrorism and extremism because his motives are different from those of the ruling authority; motives for combatting the very terrorism and extremism that the ruling authority took part in creating, whether direct manner or indirect manner.

How can you be an accomplished poet, or a poet of importance, and not be allied with a despotic, corrupt regime?

Who believes that ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the rest of the terrorist forces, aren’t somehow a result of tyranny, the suppression of freedom and the use of religious discourse to confront the Left and secularism in the Arab world? How can you be an accomplished poet, or a poet of importance, and not be allied with a despotic, corrupt regime? This is the state of affairs — it’s a bit difficult, especially in the current Arab situation, but it’s not impossible.

AL: What are society’s responsibilities — if any — toward the writer?

AN: Society doesn’t have a particular responsibility towards the writer or poet or artist in general. They’re a part of society, not above it, and not on its margins either. The right thing is for them to be a part of society, and when they are, they will fight for the freedom of this society, its human as well as financial development, and for its legal and civil rights. And when society gets such rights, it will create the suitable environment for the segment of the community that we call intellectuals. But a society can’t produce an environment or a service that it doesn’t itself receive or one that it is bereft of, like the freedoms of thought, publishing and opinion. The imposed censorship we have upon thinking, publishing and opinion affects the society in its entirety, not only intellectuals.

AL: How does mass exile change and inform Arabic literature? Will the increasing number of refugees change literature? 

AN: I think that Arabic literature will be affected by the large numbers of migrants and those in exile currently, especially in the West. You know what we call “Diaspora Literature,” which is produced by Lebanese and Syrian migrants in both the Americas. In particular, they modernize Arabic literature, which has only started changing since the times of stagnation witnessed during the centuries-long rule of the Ottomans.

Now, the number of Arab writers, poets, composers and filmmakers in the West is much larger than it was at the dawn of the twentieth century. This unprecedented phenomenon, never before seen in the history of Arab culture, must play a role in posing new questions about our culture. The difference is that the migrant and the exile — and they are both bad human conditions — will help in creating what is good, rather what is modernist in the general Arab life, in terms of writing, thought and production. Also, writing, thought and production that occur in exile are far from both official Arab and societal censorship. This is a good result that has arisen from a bad situation.

AL: How do journalistic writing and literary writing inform or feed one another? 

AN: Of course there is an exchange of impact between literary writing and journalistic writing. Journalistic language is fusha, or standardized Arabic, but it is closer to the street than the language that literature uses. Nevertheless, journalistic language remains more eloquent and rich in lexical terms and structure than street language.

As you know, we suffer from a type of dualism between the language of writing and that of the street. Journalistic language is almost a compromise between the two languages, and it has definitely had a large impact on the language of literature, particularly in terms of simplicity and the use of daily expressions that deliberately illustrate and get the message across. This middle ground is very important in the relationship between literature, which uses fusha, and the street, which speaks ’aamiyya, or colloquial. This is thanks to the increase in number of those who read and write in the Arab world, and the expansion of the newspaper-reading audience over time.

AL: What about digital connections, the Internet and such? How are they changing our relationship with words?

AN: We don’t know to where the electronic and digital worlds lead us … where they will go next. But what’s for certain is that we have entered a new age in human history, where the old writing styles and tools have been marginalized, their influence decreasing day after day. It’s impossible to go back, to the age of paper and pen, for the computer has nearly finished that age, and brings with it new ways of thinking and writing.

With the reduction to shorthand that has happened to language in the digital age, and with modes of communication undergoing transformation into code-like constructs, something has happened to language: the previously semi-stable, slowly changing state of things started changing quickly and moving towards shorthand. Is this good for writing? Frankly, I don’t know.

Upcoming generations won’t use paper and pen, and their physical and spiritual relationships with writing will be completely different from ours.

I’m from the generation that has a strong link with pen, paper, and table. I used to have favourite pens and papers, or favourite notebooks to write in, to the point where I couldn’t write without them. Now it’s a different matter: it’s rare to find me using a pen and paper. Upcoming generations won’t use paper and pen, and their physical and spiritual relationships with writing will be completely different from ours. I think that we are walking on this path that is difficult to predict, but it will increase human isolation and there will be more alienation in digital societies, so to speak.

Translation by Sawad Hussain, an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.

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