In Celebration of Amjad Nasser, a Poet Who ‘Mourns Himself While Still Alive’

Via the always excellent ArabLit came the news this morning of Amjad Nasser’s illness. I met him many years ago, in Paris, & he & his writing were immediately very close to me. It was he who sent me a xerox of the out-of-print English translation of Niffari’s Book of Stations, a sufi concept — the station, the maw’qif — that would become essential to a core aspect of my thinking on a nomadic poetics. It was also Amjad who first translated poems of mine into Arabic & published them in the pages of Al Quds Al Arabi in London, the paper he co-founded.

 Last month, Jordanian poet, journalist, and novelist Amjad Nasser published a small collection of poems online about coming to terms with the end of his life after his brain tumors had resisted treatment. The poems have been met with shock, grief, and admiration:

The poems were apparently written after a visit to Charing Cross Hospital in London, at which Nasser was told that treatments had failed to control the tumors growing in his brain.

Nasser was born Yahia Numeiri al-Naimat in al-Turra, Jordan in 1955. He started his career as a journalist and activist for Palestinian rights, working between Amman, Beirut, and Cyprus. His poetic debut, Praise for Another Café, came in 1979, when he was twenty-four, with a preface by the great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef.

In 1987, Nasser co-founded Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily newspaper in London, and he worked there in the decades that followed.

Although Nasser is best-known as a poet and journalist, he has published in multiple genres, including poetry, travel writing, and novels. Indeed, his work weaves between styles and genres; the narrator of his poetic novel Land of No Rain says, of his own writing, that it doesn’t fall into a “category that’s recognised on the literary scene, and it’s hard to persuade people that it exists.”

But Amjad Nasser’s work does indeed exist — poem-novels, poem-travel-writing, and poem-journalism — and is widely celebrated among authors and word-lovers. This week, the literary journal Akhbar al-Adab dedicated an issue to Nasser and his work, which features essays by Ghassan Zaqtan, Tarek al-Tayeb, Qassim Haddad, Hoda Barakat, and others.

Several of Nasser’s works have been translated into English. In 2009, poet-translator Khaled Mattawa brought together a collection titled Shepherd of Solitude: Selected PoemsNasser’s first novel, published in Arabic in 2011, appeared in English in 2014 as Land of No Rain. Its translator, Jonathan Wright, called the book “as close to being the book I would have liked to write as any Arabic book could be.”

Also in 2014, one of Nasser’s poems, “A Song and Three Questions,” was chosen by the Saison Poetry Library as one of the “50 greatest love poems of the last 50 years,” among all poems worldwide, and Nasser was invited to inaugurate New York University’s “Gallatin Global Writers series.” However, the US Department of Homeland Security denied him entry into the United States. Nasser instead inaugurated the series over Skype.

Nasser went on to write a second novel, Here Is the Rose, which was longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and he won the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Literary Creativity in 2019.

Two more collections of Nasser’s poetry have been translated to English. The travel-poems in Petra, translated by Fady Joudah, formed a collection I carried around in my bag for weeks, drawing it out to read and re-read at odd moments. This collection of travel-poetry is a must-read for anyone who has visited Petra, will visit to Petra, or wants to imagine the great Jordanian archaeological site and its histories. Nasser’s A Map of Signs and Scents: New and Selected Poems, 1979–2014, brings together poems from three decades worth of collections, translated by Joudah and Mattawa. That collection, which contains Petra, was longlisted for the 2017 National Translation Award.

There are several moving essays in Akhbar al-Adab. Hoda Barakat’s opens, roughly:

I came late to reading Amjad Nasser. But from the time the first poem from the first collection fell into my hands, I knew that I would read everything he had written and was writing.

His books are in my office on the shelf by the sofa, and I return to them often. No friendship brings us together; I don’t think I have ever met him, even by accident. I did not look for a meeting, and I would have avoided such a conversation had the chance been foisted upon us. For the poet puts in his writing that which carries me to meet him whenever I read him, as a true brother-in-spirit. And, as usual, I am afraid of betrayal, of disappointment, as personal knowledge can fix a low ceiling over a beautiful imagination…

And Amjad Nasser is one of those rare people who pushes you to write after reading him, after you wolf down his words, line by line. His little voice directs me to the characters in my own novels, and sometimes I imagine he is talking to them. Or standing next to one, behind a window somewhere.

Nasser is also known for his justice-driven politics and long-time support for Palestinian rights, which is presumably what earned him a block from US Homeland Security.

In a quick interview several years ago, I asked Nasser about the role of the writer: “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.”

The poet, novelist, journalist, and editor will be greatly missed.

His recent poems

On Facebook; not yet in translation

Translated by Sinan Antoon:

Adam’s Kingdom

Song of Myself

If You Are Passing Through Rome

Do Not Do What the Romans Do

Translated by Fady Joudah

A Postponed Poem for New York

03-03-03

Meritocracy

Translated by Atef Alshaer:

Delirium

Mothers

A Perfect Pony

To Mark Strand

Translated by Khaled Mattawa

A Resemblance

Phases of the Moon in London

Translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas

Old Radio

Seven Bridges

Poems translated by the Poetry Translation Centre:

The Poet

Stone

Savannah

Interviews and reviews:

Amjad Nasser: ‘Without the Other, There Is No Self’

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

Amjad Nasser’s ‘Here is the Rose’: ‘We Can No Longer Tell Tragedy from Farce

The Lyric, Slapstick, Romantic, Academic ‘Land of No Rain’

Also:

When Your Name is on the Blacklist

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