Iman Mersal on Saniya Salih
This is a translation of Iman Mersal’s article on Saniya Salih, published by Al Akhbar in August 2015 and available here.
One of us comes out from the other
I did not find Saniya Saleh in Cairo. The hunt began even before my trip to Egypt this summer. I tried calling the Tanmiya and Kotob Khan bookshops to get me a copy of her complete works (published by Al Mada) but they couldn’t. So when I arrived I dropped in at Dar El Shurouq where the poetry section is hidden beneath the staircase and confined to bestselling works of Egyptian dialect verse.
Poetry is better served at Madbouli’s across the square. You’ll find Mahmoud Darwish and Muhammed Al Maghut and Adonis clearly displayed on the first floor alongside Al Abnoudi and Ahmed Fouad Nigm. The experienced bookseller, who I’ve known since he was a young man working there in the ‘90s, said, “Who’s this Saniya Saleh?” and led me upstairs to search for myself through the warren of the second floor. There, quite by chance, I came across many books I’d despaired of ever finding: there were lots by the Tammuz poets and the Sixties generation, some from the Seventies, and even, lying on a table in one room, great tomes full of literary criticism of their work.
No sign of Saniya Saleh.
Pausing to clean my hands and clothes with wetwipes I imagine that this same table, laden with books and dust, is a dining table. There is the corpulent Muhammad Al Maghut, the Bedouin poet who refused to read philosophy and wrote for the simple and the poor—or so he likes to see himself. The wall behind him is covered in the portraits that artists have painted and drawn of him. Across the table sits the philosopher poet himself, Adonis, wrecker of the conventional and familiar, destroyer of the language of Qureish—or so he likes to see himself—delicately wielding knife and fork in demonstrative respect to good table manners, while the critic Khalida Saeed perches regally beside him. There are others there, less stellar, and I would have love to describe them all, but the room is cramped and hot and stifling.
By the door, which should have led to the kitchen, sits Saniya Saleh. I don’t know how she likes to see herself. I have no portrait of her to show.
The limit of what I can imagine, from what I’ve read of her and her work, is simply that she was a major poet. That she was a victim. That she deserved many readers and much critical engagement. But what is most commonly known about her is that she was a wife (the tireless, devoted wife of the man at the head of the table) and a sister (to the critic Khalida Saeed) and then a mother to two girls who maybe sleep in the room next door. From where I stand I can see her hands, and I remember what Al Maghut had once written about them: “With her beautiful unblemished fingernails she scratched the coffin’s rind, the mirror’s lightning”. He never again wrote about the fingernails of this woman, who was worn out by her office job, by arranging her husband’s life and putting his fame first at every turn; by preparing this very supper, even.
They are discussing important matters and she is biting her fingernails, hoping the visit will go well, that by evening’s end she won’t find herself in tears over a fight between the great figures or her own failure to end it.
When I imagine the voice of Saniya Saleh, a voice I have never known, I hear a low and muffled adeed, a whispered song of mourning which slips through to me amid the din of revolutionaries’ rabble-rousing slogans, of warriors intent on victory, of those broken by defeat angrily denouncing state, dictator and society, and a wasted, diseased language, of dreamers who want to change reality, demolishing its institutions even as they establish a new world just like the one they seek to change. Saniya Saleh’s voice does not capture the listener’s ear because it represents a poetic movement with forebears, founders and imitators, nor because it is gifted a silence in which to be heard. It is because it is an individual voice, unique amid poetic ostentation, able to survive with its distinctive tone and pierce you, though hemmed round by prophets, heroes, martyrs and leaders.
Saniya Saleh’s voice did not reach me when I was most in need of it. I should have read her in my early formative years, when I was asking myself why there was no modern Arab female poet with whom I could belong. I had not heard her name when I was thinking (not brave enough to say) that, for example, Nazik Al Malaika and Fadwa Touqan and Salma Al Jayyusi were important poets—poets to you went to in order to understand something of the development of Arabic poetry, of the contribution of women to this development, to recognize the lowered ceiling that the female poet was either unable to push aside or chose to shelter beneath—but not poets whose poems you would go to because you needed them. They are poets to read at your desk, to study in class, and always at midday when insomnia is far away and hidden, waiting in your room for when night comes. No one told me there was a woman who right at the outset of her career had written a poem like The Sky’s Body, which won the 1961 Al Nahar newspaper prize for best prose poem:
Here I am rolling, gravel to the abyss.
So let night be journey’s end.
What interests me about Saniya Saleh’s voice is not just its individuality but its wasted potential, those mysterious zones which she—despite being an Arab woman writer active in the ‘60s and despite the prophet-crowded space of that historical moment—could have opened up and did not. These impressions of mine are not advice on how to read her—I don’t make suggestions about other women poets in any case—but working through her four collections there is something that provokes me, the sense that some treasure has in large part been squandered in long breaks between writing, in the distractions of daily life, even in a lack of self-confidence which sometimes caused the dominant poetics of those close to her to draw her off her ground.
It seems to me as though the poems in her last collection, Remembrance of Flowers (1988), represent a possible development of those in, The Narrow Age, her first collection from 1964. I mean the profundity of her voice, its clarity, how deep it digs into the human grief that preoccupied her throughout her journey. In The Narrow Age it is images, not ideas, that claim you: you smell burning—you are not dazzled by the flames of the Baath Party, you do not encounter Phoenicians. The voice informs you, simply:
I am a prisoner
my homeland behind me
In her second and third collections—Execution Ink (1970) and Poems (1980)—the same voice comes through, freighted with new experiences: motherhood, the confusion of love and its defeats and betrayals. There are long nights in deserted houses; rain exiled from its sky; great seasons for gathering grass and others for burning it; death waits on thresholds and a victim tracks it down. These two collections contain some of the most beautiful poems in modern Arabic verse, a wildness of imagination and limpidity of language, side-by-side with poems whose language is awkward and whose imagery is banal. For instance, the third collection begins with a poem called Sham, Set Night Free. Astonished, we encounter a mother’s voice unparalleled in Arabic poetry to this day, a mother who must give birth to herself:
you slept inside me for whole ages,
listened to guts clamour,
roar of blood.
So long I hid you, for so long
until history might end its sorrow
until the great warriors end their wars and
the torturers flay their last victim,
until an age of light comes in
and one of us comes out from the other.
Then in the very same collection you read poems such as The Cattle Pen, The Autumn of Freedom, Dawn, The Dead Eagle’s Allowances, The Rats of History, poems which make you wonder what it is that has confused, or scattered, or driven away the voice you love. It is not a pretentious voice, nor is it false—it is simply as though, sometimes, the voice has joined a mass demonstration before catching itself in the act; or just wants to shake off the loneliness (“The loneliness of a woman at the gates of execution”). Maybe Saniya Saleh was aware of this herself. Didn’t she write,
so where is the great wind which carries the voice
(Years before the publication of her final collection, Saleh would state: “I have no ambition of any kind. I am too weak to change the world or make it beautiful, to raze it or build it. As the poet said, Why should speech in dream affect the world? I simply reserve for myself the freedom to dream and chatter.”) Remembrance of Flowers, I believe, was the ambition Saleh had striven for her whole life long, though she never described it to us that way—out of her shyness perhaps, or its own ungraspability. It is the liberation of the poetic voice from fluctuation and uncertainty, from some of the delicate refinement that at times characterised it, its self-confidence in itself no longer measured against the scale of the voices that surrounded it. Before Remembrance of Flowers, the city, its streets, its relationships, its clamour, was absent from her poetry. Nature, with the shadows and conflict and violence and death it contains, seemed a more appropriate setting for the movement of the spirit than legends and symbols, the inspiration of history and all the other things that played such a large part in the poetry of her contemporaries. In Remembrance of Flowers the body takes the place of nature, evoking its own history, its memory, the darkness of its desires and the personal anger that it itself had never before examined. And nature is evoked too, the nature in which the body moves. And there is the danger that threatens it with extinction. There is violence and vision and a flow that none but a great poet can capture. These are the poems which I have wanted to write about from the beginning, but this would have been difficult, perhaps, without first writing the above.