Osama Al Danasouri
Four poems by, and three pieces on, the late Alexandrian poet Osama Al Danasouri who passed away in January 2007. Al Danasouri has four collections of poetry to his name: حراشف الجهم [The Scowler’s Scales, 1991], مثل ذئب أعمى [Like a Blind Wolf, 1999], على هيئة واحد شبهي [In the Semblance of One Resembling Me, 2001], and عين سارحة، عين مندهشة [One Eye Wandering, One Eye Amazed, 2003]. All these poems can be found in his complete works, published by Merit. His prose work, كلبي الهرم، كلبي الحبيب (Dar Merit, 2007) [My Decrepit Dog, My Darling Dog] published posthumously.
The three short pieces on Al Danasouri are by Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Yasser Abdel Latif.
The beer celebrations
(From The Scowler’s Scales)
For Alaa Khaled
For you: the whisper of fire in my lungs
And the loathsome stench of a small forest burning,
And for me:
A brazen lust that forever draws me towards your blood.
My friend, who spent his life hidden behind his size,
Who dubbed himself “The romantic bull”
In calculated concealment,
At last came clean with us:
He had a secret sister unknown to his parents
And he was a jinn, wanton and wild beyond compare,
And he wept to remember how God would drag him by the nape, by force, each Friday,
To the barber,
Then he began devising scathing jokes to put Him down.
And we realized:
All this time he’d been a prophet,
But tried hard to hide a warped relationship
Which bound him to the Lord.
My big-hearted friend:
Soon enough we’ll hold beer celebrations
And you’ll have me listen to much talk on women’s thighs
And full breasts.
He would visit me in my perpetual residence at the hospital
And when he showed
My trapped piss would flow and my kidneys would ease.
I never saw him in his military uniform.
She came with him one time and went
And he told me that she wept a lot that day.
At last, I saw that it was him I loved,
That it was for him I’d shell the egg each morning:
But it was too wide for his mouth and too tough for his brittle teeth
And because he hid from me his hunger
His innards stayed empty all the while,
Empty but for me.
Four takes on a single scene
(From Like a Blind Wolf)
Why feel lonely,
With a bed so wide
And within view
A low-slung plaster sky
In which you roam with your wandering eyes
To discover what you sought: deficient portraits
Of compliant strangers
And silent wars that never end?
Why feel lonely
When you can spend the night in the bathroom
Applauding the gush of piss from your bowels
Then bend down, inspecting the thick froth,
To think of the first beer you drank
And the first blind hand that clamped upon your tool
To knead it,
A long plastic rod
Indifferent to the screams of your childhood?
Why feel lonely
When likewise by night
You can break the straps carefully bound
About your swollen files,
That the air in the room’s suffused
With pungent odours
Of times past?
Why feel lonely, then,
When here you are, struggling intently across the airy lounge,
Between the balcony and the witchy eye,
In the room’s dead centre;
When, after swaying a little,
You can drop down on your back,
Legs and arms flung wide,
And with stony eye,
Direct an unflinching gaze at the lamp hanging from the ceiling,
And straining your hearing a little
Can also enjoy
Marking the faint ticking of your watch?
(From Like a Blind Wolf)
Women, my friend,
Are purest rumour, which mystics get caught up in believing,
Indeed, some take it so far as to claim that they’ve
Spoken to her
Sat with her
We did it. I’m a rational man,
But in what my senses tell me,
And this keeps me safe, enough
That my eyes be not deceived by chimeras;
My best guess:
That they’re the remnants of shop-worn legends,
Of religions that belong to extinct civilizations…
Enough, my friend,
I beg you.
(From One Eye Wandering, One Eye Amazed)
I’ll speak frankly
And I’m guessing you’ll be surprised,
But I have great faith in your good sense
And so: maybe you won’t be taken back at all.
I’m the older friend, storehouse of your secrets,
Telling you—not in jest this time—
That you are a beautiful woman;
Desirable and beautiful.
I can no longer bear—excuse me,
Better judgement can go to hell—
Your beauty puncturing me with sharp fangs:
Not tickling me; making me bleed.
Your flower has fully bloomed
And begun to send its scent abroad in all directions.
I’ve no desire to pick it,
No: leave it on your sappy, playful bough
To sway… and my dreams rocking right and left.
I only wish—so much!—to wrap like ivy round your branch
And finally press my snout to your pulsing stigma.
Do not be afeared:
Will be enough to send the soul surging once more
Through my dry veins.
At the fields’ edge
(From One Eye Wandering, One Eye Amazed)
I shan’t lie:
I never gave them more weight than a grain of wheat before!
And if you want the truth,
I never realised I was so passionate about them
Most beautiful of creatures!
Bark, my brothers!
How much I’d love to stand on the balcony
And lift my voice to you,
But my bark sounds only within me.
Never you mind:
Here we are at dead of night,
Here are the streets, returned to your possession:
Beneath your paws now, a city entire,
And you might see, every so often, a human shadow
Passing you by, hastening, holding his breath,
The stench of his fear, which makes you gag, goading you
And you pursue him till he stumbles in his robe and tumbles
And you laugh
Then make your way back, happy and contented.
Come now, conduct your wedding feasts
And if you will, your wars,
Only, for my sake,
Do not stop barking.
It’s you, you lop-tailed terror;
How can I ignore your voice?
As though now, in you, I insult one of them,
Or rather, it’s as though you mock him
And the others laugh.
How happy you are, ye dogs.
You laugh so much,
Feud over titles
And mutter confidences back and forth.
How happy you are… truly.
But hang on:
I’m a country boy like you
And like you I don’t understand just why it is I’m here,
Yet my luck’s not so very bad:
See, the city’s spat me out to the field’s edge
In a neighbourhood abounding in wasteland:
That give in, vanquished, one after another.
So: what are you—
No, what are we—doing tomorrow,
Osama Al Danasouri: The sick wolf of poetry
Yasser Abdel Latif
January still lies ahead, with the New Year’s celebrations for 2013, with all the sinister implications of that “13”. January still lies ahead, and with it, the sixth anniversary of the passing of Osama Al Danasouri, the sick wolf of poetry, and yet there is a distinct feeling that he is hovering about above us, uttering his woeful howl from somewhere up in the planet’s outer atmospheres. It’s no coincidence that various different people have summoned up his memory in recent weeks. On Facebook, Hassan Abdel Mawjoud mentioned him, putting up a photo and some of his verses. A few days later, Hani Darwish wrote How great, now, is our need for Osama Al Danasouri, while on the same social website, Hamdi Abu Golayyel, his closest friend in the last two years of his life published chapters of the book he never finished about his final days.
I remember our last meeting.
Not the last exactly, because I bade him farewell on his sickbed one evening in the early days of 2007, a few days before he died, and the last thing I heard him say was, “A really rotten phase,” to describe the illness that killed him, as if by calling it a “phase” he might lessen my terror a little, reassure me that he’d pull through and get back on his feet. But I was talking of another meeting, about two months earlier…
I was taking a break from work in the Horriya Café in Bab Al Louq at noon one Friday and Osama came in stepping lightly, carrying as always a new packet of paper tissues and his pack of Lights. He was busy writing chapters of his beautiful and painful book My Decrepit Dog, My Darling Dog, but that day he read me his last poem, dedicated to his wife Sohair. It was an overdue love poem, in which he expressed to Sohair his profound gratitude for the unstinting love with which she bore his long illness and changeable moods. The poem was published in Al Ahram and Osama gave me the original manuscript, which I still have on my desk in Maadi.
The first time I met Osama was in ’90 or ’91, though I’d encountered the poetry before the man. We were still students at Cairo University, writing poetry and frequenting the Meadow Flower Café, which acted as a kind of union for urchin poets. From the older generation we saw Ibrahim Dawoud and Ibrahim Abdel Fattah playing endless games of backgammon and Fathi Abdallah forever and eternally smoking shisha while the scholar Hisham Qishta peered out at the world with a worried gaze from behind huge spectacles.
We got to know Bashir Al Sebaai and Ahmed Hasaan and they became close friends.
It was with Bashir that we first saw an elegant old man wearing a full suit with hair swept back like a foreign gent from a former time. He was Anwar Kamel, the sole surviving member of the Art and Freedom group, the Egyptian branch of the global surrealist movement. Anwar Kamel edited a magazine at the café called The Palm Shoots, two photocopied pages of prose and poetry selections from Arabic authors and in translation.
One day we got hold of a copy, which contained verses by a new generation of poets from Alexandria and we read the names Mohab Nasr, Nasser Farghali, Alaa Khaled and Osama Al Danasouri. There was no Internet then, no fringe magazines to carry the creative output of our generation and those a little older than ourselves. Even Akhbar Al Adab was still to come. Anwar Kamel’s Palm Shoots was the only way to find out about poets who lived just 270 kilometres away; it was Palm Shoots that brought us that unfamiliar spirit from out of Alexandria.
About a week later Alaa Khaled and Osama Al Danasouri came down from Alexandria and showed up at the Meadow Flower, and myself, Ahmad Yemaani and Mohamed Al Metawalli got to know them. Alaa was tall, a prolific writer who wrote his poems in tiny handwriting on white paper, which he carried in huge quantities in his bag. Osama was short, dapper and wrote sparingly. Each new poem was an event in itself. We also learnt that he had lived with a bladder disease since boyhood, a disease which would subsequently develop into kidney failure. Both had been born in 1960, which made them nine years my senior and a decade older than Ahmad and Mohamed.
Our friendship with the two poets was strengthened by intermittent visits between Alexandria and Cairo until Osama relocated to Cairo for good in 1994, settling in Faisal with Ahmad Yemaani, Iman Mersal, Haitham Al Wardani and Mohamed Badawi as his neighbours, all of whom lived through the nineties in a single residential block. Today, only one of them remains in that gloomy neighbourhood.
Osama was born in the village of Mahallat Malik in Kafr Al Sheikh and lived in Desouq and Ismailiya and in Alexandria, where he had a beautiful apartment that looked out over Sidi Gaber station from the ninth floor, and then in Cairo. He only once left Egypt, for Saudi Arabia, where he worked for a while as a science teacher in the late nineties.
During his twelve years in Faisal, Osama produced two poetry collections, Like a Blind Wolf (1996) and One Eye Wandering, One Eye Amazed (2003). He had released his first collection The Scowler’s Scales in Alexandria and it seemed that in Cairo that he had washed his hands of the book and its poems, though this didn’t stop him publishing In the Semblance of Someone Resembling Me in 2001, a collection that contained old poems in aamiya (poems that perhaps predated Scales and went back to his youth) with the addition of a single, later poem in aamiya, an elegy to the poet Magdi Al Gaberi.
We were aware of a hidden epic playing out in Osama’s personality, which he brought to light in My Decrepit Dog when he talked about his incarnation as a celebratory aamiya poet. In one chapter he recounts how, in his first year of university in Ismailiya, he would recite his aamiya poetry at student festivals, even singing it on one occasion. It seems that relocating to Alexandria immediately after this produced a complete change in Osama’s personality. Not only did start writing in fusha, he became known as a “heavy” poet, one who took his poetry seriously.
In the same book Osama wrote:
My whole life, I have always considered myself (as have others), and still do, to be a poet… I lived in the Land of Poetry and regarded myself as a citizen of the first rank. Now because the Land of Poetry is a land that exists beyond the real, it does not appear precisely the same in the eyes of all its inhabitants. One sees it as a fertile oasis, a bountiful land: green trees all year round. For another it is barren and desolate: he walks for leagues and miles, past mirage after mirage, until, in the end, a single tree appears, a lone fruit hanging from it; for a little while he seeks its shade then goes on walking, his mouth wetted with the sweet juice, his stomach at rest… Each pities the other… The first, so excessive is his pity for the second that he cannot see him at all; as for the second, he can see the first full well and knows just how wretched he is. He knows, too, that all the fruits he hoards are nothing but chinaberries: good for nothing. This is how Osama saw himself—of the second sort, of course—and this is how he explained his lack of productivity and his long breaks from writing.
The poet Abbas Beidoun said of him: “This is exactly the kind of poet that remains a poet whether he writes or not, who procrastinates so much that you forget he once wrote something once or twice…”
In his last weeks, Osama discovered an ability to write reams of prose and he began setting down the chapters of My Decrepit Dog, one after the other. He wrote, as Mohamed Badawi said, “like someone eating through the last of his supplies: nervy, engrossed and hurried. Every time he produced a new chapter he would carry it about with him wherever he went. He sent it to distant friends and read it to those close by, just as he would read his poetry…”
The book concludes with a scene of hope renewed amidst the remorselessness of the disease: a kidney transplant. Had Osama finished the book? Or almost finished? As long as Osama’s life had continued, it’s my belief that the book’s pages would have kept step with him.
Hamdi Abu Golayyel
Whenever I see a green Polo I say to myself, “Osama!” I don’t mean, of course, that I dash after it like a idiot; rather, that I stop still, lose my way, and sometimes break out laughing at the thought of our excursions in the green Polo. Osama would drive me as far as Al Talebiya and drop me off to finish my trip, crossing both lanes of Pyramid Road, hopping over the steel divider in the middle (one time, I fell; I’m telling you: flat on my face), and taking a cab into the underbrush of Talebiya.
For years we’d act with each other as though this were a generous and considerable favour, one for which I’d continue to thank Osama, waving gratefully until he vanished into Faisal Street. Then a friend of sound judgement, a neighbour from my building, gave me to understand my error: “Brother, even the microbus is easier. Call that a lift?” Yet for years I went on waiting for the chance for a lift in the green Polo; for years I kept on killing myself, twisting round in thanks and gratitude and appreciation until he vanished into Faisal Street.
The green Polo is just one model from the life of the ever-renewing and unique poet Osama Al Danasouri. Before that he had a Seat prone to shuddering seize-ups that were usually worst on up-ramps. Osama thought highly of it—the green Polo, I mean—and he always felt he wasn’t taking proper care of it. We usually rode it at night and oh, how lovely it was at 11pm, how lovely, with us perfectly happy, the mood just right, with the green Polo and Umm Kulthoum on the radio and, if Umm Kulthoum’s song didn’t quite fit the bill, then Osama would play one of his purchases which he held in such esteem: Ahmed Al Bereen for instance, or Abdel Al Mutallab or a rare tape of Faiza Ahmed that he remained proud of his whole life long.
Sometimes Osama would talk and usually tell tales of odd coincidences and situations that would make us burst out laughing, and always he would drive confidently, smoothly and with perfect manners, but if he sensed any slight or liberty he was capable of squashing you flat. One time that’s literally what he did. He was driving along the street when he got caught up in one of those disasters so common back then. Suddenly, with Osama proceeding along happy as you like, there appeared in front of him a young man mincing across the middle of the road. He honked at him—not a blind bit of notice—and Osama got angry, he lost control, and stamped on the accelerator smack into his back. And the odd thing was, brother, that the mincing youth was upended on the ground and took off running.
The only time we didn’t speak or listen to songs in the green Polo was the night he started his last book, My Decrepit Dog, My Darling Dog, the book he rose up from death to write and no sooner finished writing than he died.
We left Dar Merit at the ideal time, 11pm exactly, and in an extraordinary state of joy and gaiety and contentment. I was swaying along to Umm Kulthoum—Since the day my sweetheart went away, I’ve been tending to my wounds—when suddenly Osama stretched out his hand and switched off the radio. I glanced at him and saw that he looked grave—or lost, say—and I shut up. I sensed that my silence relaxed him. He seemed preoccupied, captured, by something. True, he handled the Polo confidently and smoothly but he looked as though he were gazing into some deep chasm, not with fear, but with awe and joy. And suddenly: “I want to speak. I feel the words whirling in my chest.” He felt his chest and I don’t know why, but I had this image of his words like ribbed things, ribbed zones: dips and rises and bottomless caverns.
“What do you say we go to a café in Faisal?”
We found a cosy corner and sat on a couple of chairs away from the people on the edge of the road. And Osama began to talk, his theme the grand old, foolish old days, the days I lived so profoundly and with such extraordinary pleasure. I was the happiest man on the face of the earth. Nowadays, I know that I’m the most insignificant, but such knowledge benefits me nothing. How I wish those days might return.
Osama, the city spits out its scum
Hamdi Abu Golayyel
Osama grew up in a religious environment, one with a deep-rooted adherence to religious principles and law, a family that through generation after generation had gone to Al Azhar. And he was observant. From the first, he was observant. He prayed at the proscribed time, fasted during Ramadan and the other periods of abstention (on Mondays and Fridays, too, sometimes) and he remained observant until he travelled to Saudi Arabia.
Out there, on the blessed tracts of the Hejaz, he began to change, or rather, grew indolent. He went over to the dark side is what it was. Of course, he didn’t go all the way over. He stayed a true believer all his life and in his last days broke down, fell from his pedestal, as he sought to prove to his mother that he really did pray. But he started to neglect the rites and the observant family noticed His father the sheikh grew most upset. He feared woe, damnation and a bitter end for “his eldest” and to leaven his doubts with certainty, asked him the very question his mother was later to pose: “So, Osama… So, my boy… Are you a believer in Our Lord and in Islam?” And, of course, Osama got the self-same fright and answered with the very words he spoke years afterwards to his mother: “What are you saying, Dad? Good grief! Of course I’m a believer! And I believe a lot, as well!” But he never became observant. Day after day his conviction grew that the true meaning of faith and religion was one thing and what the pious did, something else entirely. By the end of his life he was couldn’t stand them. Sometimes he’d burst out at me: “Brother, I loathed narrow mindedness, I loathed fanaticism and racism and ignorance and intolerance.”
Osama went to Saudi Arabia for work. He stayed in Medina, close by his father who had gone before him, and he got a job as a teacher, not just of geology, which he had studied, but of everything. He used to give private Arabic language lessons to a most peculiar boy who hated studying and teachers and Osama in particular. He’d try to get rid of him any way he could and would frighten him with “the iguana”, concealing it behind his back then suddenly brandishing it in Osama’s face. Osama would fall backwards then take off running, the kid on his tail.
Anyway, Osama worked in Saudi Arabia for five years and would visit Egypt in the summer holidays. During the holiday in his last year there, 1991 I think, his first poetry collection, The Scowler’s Scales, came out. He published it at his own expense, a limited number of copies, and naturally he took a few back with him to Saudi Arabia. He gave the collection to the headmaster and a few of the teachers, including a Syrian teacher who wrote poetry himself, and spoke to a friend of his in Riyadh, the poet Saad Al Hameedein, telling him that he was keeping a copy of the collection for him. Saad invited him to pay a visit to meet some Saudi writers and spend a couple of days with them.
The Hajj was looming and Osama decided to spend the Hajj holiday with Al Hameedein in Riyadh, but his father, the sheikh, wouldn’t let it lie. As we know, Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia perform the pilgrimage every year—two birds with one stone, as it were—and Osama himself had gone on Hajj more than once, and the sheikh made an issue of his decision, linking it to what he viewed as Osama’s change.
“You pray, then do you, Osama?” he asked him. “You honestly pray? Here you are, in the Prophet’s backyard, not praying and now you’re going to miss the Hajj?”
But Osama stood firm. He claimed his holiday, took off to Riyadh and had a great time. Al Hameedein held a part in his honour attended by writers and intellectuals.
He had his holiday, came back and went to school. He was writing the date and the name of the next lesson on the blackboard when the headmaster suddenly opened the classroom door: not so much open it as slam it shut.
“What have you done, Osama? What have done, my boy?”
He glanced around in terror and dragged Osama to his office. He shut the door and made certain it was shut.
“The intelligence services are after you!”
The Syrian teacher had informed on him.
Now the security services understood what “scales” meant. It meant “scales”. “Scowler” left them baffled. Some said it was a reference to the king, others went much further, but in both cases the only outcome was woe, ruination and great wailing, and before his eyes Osama saw stretched out the deserts of the Empty Quarter, the wild beasts and the folk tales he had heard. Fortunately the headmaster was from a prominent family and fond of him, and he told him that the only solution was to leave Saudi Arabia on the spot: to be in Egypt within forty-eight hours. As so it came to pass. Things panned out and Osama was able to get away.
Of course the sheikh, the kindly old dad, almost perished out of fear for his son and did all he could to save him from certain destruction. But he hadn’t forgotten the business with the Hajj, the blessing that Osama had abjured when he travelled to Riyadh, and at the very height of the crisis he uttered the phrase Osama was to repeat his whole life through:
“Osama, the city spits out its scum.”