There is something magnetic in the poems of Shaimaa El-Sabbagh. I say this even though the lyricism of most translated work tends, in my view, to fall flat. Different languages are built differently, with different grammatical constructions and syntactical idiosyncrasies available for poets and wordsmiths to play with. This wordplay, as well as the fun and beauty it potentially invokes, can often be, well… lost in translation.
This isn’t the case with El-Sabbagh’s poetry. Whether this is a testament to her own skills or the translation abilities of Maged Zaher I can’t really say, though I suspect it’s both. In any event, the two poems that have been released to an English audience since her death five weeks ago on January 24th at the hands of Egypt’s security forces have proven to possess a real pull.
There is an unavoidable sense of anxious tension running beneath the fluidity of the words, a sense that the achievement of real and unabashed beauty requires Herculean strength. “A Letter In My Purse,” the poem translated by Zaher and posted at ArabLit.org the day after news of her death broke, accomplishes a subtle, sly humor by personalizing a lost or stolen purse:
I am not sure
Truly, she was nothing more than just a purse
But when lost, there was a problem
How to face the world without her
Because the streets remember us together
The shops know her more than me
Because she is the one who pays
It’s an off-kilter kind of poem, honoring an inanimate object that uniquely seems to synthesize commerce and emotional attachment. A comment on gendered commodity fetishism? Perhaps, in a glib way. Given that Sabbagh was a Marxist we can reasonably surmise that she was at the very least aware of that axis when she wrote the poem. But more than that, it’s a peek into how our own routines and attachments twist our feelings and thought-processes into the most absurd kind of torture.
In “I’m the Girl Banned from Christian Religion Classes,” there is a distinctly more aggressive, defiant tone at play. Sabbagh’s words find violence in the mundane:
I’m the girl banned from attending Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass
Although I am a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus
In Train Station Square at the height of the morning
Even then, all the windows were open and the blood was racing the cars on the asphalt
The eyes of the girls were running in Heaven, catching the forbidden rocking chair.
The useage of religious iconography -- particularly Christian iconography -- is somewhat puzzling. According to the New York Times article on her death, Sabbagh was raised by conservative traditionalist Muslim parents, and she is reported to have frequently rebelled against her upbringing. This would prima facie rule out the possibility that the Christian imagery is intended as a jab against religious repression -- or at least any such repression which with she has direct experience.
Far more likely is that the imagery of crucifixion is deployed as a tool to communicate both outsider status and martyrdom. The two themes seem to weave together tighter and tighter through the short poem, bolstered throughout by the energy of someone refusing to be cowed by anything or anyone. There is a sense here of the woman who, upon being told “smile baby” by a lecherous passer-by, responds with daggers in her eyes. Moreover, that this kind of refusal is both secretly and collectively shared.
It bears mentioning here that Sabbagh was part of a poetic milieu somewhat on the fringes of the Egyptian literary scene. Her use of language was hardly conventional, neither coming off as plainspoken nor conforming strictly to the abstract. According to the NYT piece:
She became one of a small group of published Egyptian poets working in the avant-garde style of free verse but using popular, colloquial Arabic. Rejecting the grand and overtly political themes favored by the previous generations, she focused instead on the details of everyday life. Her generation “stopped doing noisy politics,” said Maged Zaher... “There is politics, but it is not sloganeering.”
Sabbagh apparently had a passion for giving the colloquial its intellectual due. Her Masters degree from the Academy of Arts in Cairo was in folklore. She researched the traditions of small villages and towns up and down the Nile Delta, many of which have been dwindling for some time. Friends in the Socialist Popular Alliance Party of which she was a member called her “the voice of the revolution” for her skill with leading chants, and reading her poetry it seems that her words were intended to lend the same kind of uplift.
* * *
There is something stark in the treatment of Shaimaa El-Sabbagh’s death. Just two-and-a-half weeks before she was gunned down in Cairo, the Charlie Hebdo shootings had taken place. All of a sudden we were barraged by vociferous messages defending freedom of expression (including artistic expression) from tyrannical violence. Yet here was a poet slain by police with impunity. Western leaders had little to say.
We can rationalize this if we like, or pick away at the crude parallel: There was only one killed in Cairo compared to twelve in Paris, and there’s no proof Sabbagh’s killer targeted her because of her writing; they did it because they were a cop and it’s the cops’ job to dole out violence at the behest of a repressive state apparatus. But the rationalization most likely to run through the head of any president or prime minister tempted to say anything about her killing was probably that, unlike the Paris killings, the death of Shaimaa El-Sabbagh was carried out at the hands of a government supported by the West. There’s very little political cache in supporting artists’ and writers’ right to life when they aren’t targeted by your scapegoat du jour.
Note: Red Wedge will be publishing two of Shaimaa El-Sabbagh's poems this weekend for our International Working Women's Day issue.