Five Pillars of Islam inspire humanitarian message in new bilingual poetry collection

Tessa Ransford and Iyad Hayatleh at the launch of their book last September. 

Mike Knowles

In 2003, Iyad Hayatleh and Tessa Ransford met during a project to introduce Scottish and refugee poets to one another. Hayatleh is a Palestinian “double refugee” — raised in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, he had to flee Syria for political reasons. Ransford is an established poet and well-known figure in Scottish literary circles.

Their ongoing collaboration has resulted in Rug of a Thousand Colours, a collection of Hayatleh’s poems in Arabic, translated by the two of them into English, and Ransford’s works presented in English original and Arabic translation. The collection takes as its point of departure the theme of the Five Pillars of Islam, exploring through poetry the meanings and common values these have for two people from different cultural backgrounds.

Sarah Irving spoke to Iyad Hayatleh and Tessa Ransford for The Electronic Intifada.

Sarah Irving: Could you start by giving some background about the writers’ translation project you were both involved in?

Tessa Ransford: I was a member of Scottish PEN, the international writers’ organization. In 2003 some asylum-seeking poets asked to join, and one of them was Iyad. We thought that what they needed to become known as writers in Britain was to be translated, but that out of respect for both languages it should be a mutual exercise, not one-way. So workshops were set up which led to a spoken word event in Glasgow, and booklets, with the poems in both languages, and further workshops in 2006 and 2007.

Iyad was getting invited to read at events in Scotland but he was nearly always being invited as a kind of exhibit, a “refugee poet” or an “asylum-seeking poet.” But in 2006 he got British citizenship and I said to him, it would be nice if you could write in a more general way about what it’s like to be a Muslim in the West instead of what it’s like to be a refugee in the West.

I lived in Pakistan in the 1950s and ’60s, and I was always intrigued by the Pillars of Islam, they’re the same as what we have in Christianity. In the past, our fasting and prayer and alms-giving were more communal and outward, but it’s now become very internal, especially if you’re not a church-goer. So I thought it would be a challenge to myself to see what these things mean to me.

SI: A lot of English-language poetry is available in Arabic translation, and an increasing amount of Arabic literature is being translated into English, but you’ve chosen to present a bilingual collection. Do you feel that this is an important aspect of the project?

Iyad Hayatleh: Yes, [Tessa] is absolutely right for the translation to go in both directions. For a long time translation has taken only one trend, from English and other languages into Arabic, with a few exceptions. I see that it’s time now for you in the West to get to know more Arab poets and poetry, especially new voices that represent Arab reality now.

Arabic poetry is passionate and lyrical and rich in images and expressions, and the Arabic language has a strong ability to formulate words and model them with many kinds of metaphors to describe images in a way unfamiliar to English literature. I have noticed a thirst and curiosity here for that. Even before delivering the translation of the poem, I see people enraptured at hearing Arabic musical poetry.

TR: For me it’s definitely about people seeing how very, very close Islam and Christianity are. When I was writing the English versions of the Arabic poems I kept feeling that this could be our Cranmer prayer book [a foundational document of the Anglican church], many of the feelings and attitudes and expression are so similar. When it comes to the personal level there really isn’t a gap. I see this book as a kind of seed in the wind, and I hope it will grow plants.

SI: Do you think that literature needs to have a message, or can it exist for its own sake? Is Rug of a Thousand Colours a book which is trying to present a political or religious message, or are you happy for it to be seen simply as an artistic exploration?

IH: I believe that literature should carry a message, ethical or humanitarian — only then it will hold a strong enough ground to live and continue. It is not enough for literature to stand without this message, no matter how beautiful it is. On the other hand, no matter how noble the message is, it can’t be delivered if it doesn’t have artistic charm.

With regards to Rug of a Thousand Colours, I would say it’s a humanitarian message, not a religious one. The book is about life more than religion, trying to create understanding between people and making them realize that they are similar in many ways, and most of them have that caring for others despite having different beliefs.

SI: Iyad, how have your experiences, first as a Palestinian refugee in Yarmouk camp in Damascus and then again as a refugee in the UK, affected your writing?

IH: It has been a long journey. It began in a camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria, where I saw the poverty and suffering of my family and my people who had left their homes after the Nakba [the forced expulsion of Palestinians in the late 1940s]. Palestine was then a daily practice in their normal lives.

My grandfather, who was a poet and storyteller despite being blind, planted the love of poetry in my heart. I used to read to him traditional Arabic poems. It was an occasion to introduce the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and Tawfiq Zayyad to him and to myself. I took from my grandfather and from those poets vocabulary and pictures which I stored in the back of my mind for when I started to create my own poems.

In Yarmouk camp, I witnessed tears mixed with grief in my grandmother’s eyes, I suffered the bitter cold in the camp’s narrow alleyways, but I also felt the intimacy of people who lost everything but their spirits.

I saw them naming their kids, their schools, and their streets after the villages and towns they left in Palestine, to keep their memories alive. I grew up watching them use “Palestine” in their daily life so extensively so as to make you see and touch the homeland. I could not ignore this and put it aside. It had the biggest impact on my poetry and my life.

Here in Scotland it has not changed much. I already was a refugee before my arrival, the suffering and worrying of living in limbo while waiting for refugee status were not new. This experience only added to my thesaurus of nostalgia for Yarmouk camp and mixed with the longing I already had for Palestine. When I was living in Yarmouk, I would sleep and dream of Palestine, and now when I sleep here, I dream that I’m sleeping in the camp dreaming of Palestine.

SI: Do you see yourself now as a “refugee writer,” a “Palestinian writer,” a “Syrian writer,” a “Muslim writer” or just a writer?

IH: I have no problem being a mixture of those four identities, with a reservation about being described as a Muslim author. Yes, I am a Muslim, and I have an Islamic and Arabic background and culture, but I do not represent Islam in my writing, and do not like it when people look at my poetry from this angle. I only represent myself and my personal beliefs.

Today, I’m so proud to be a Syrian Palestinian refugee poet belonging to that simple camp which is threatened with destruction right now, and even more so that my family came from a village called Ashajarah, which no longer exists, between Tiberius and Nazareth in occupied Palestine. This village gave birth to many poets, artists and activists, including the cartoonist Naji al-Ali.

In Yarmouk camp and Damascus, Palestine and Syria have mixed together to create a unique person, me. Now, after the eruption of the Syrian revolution, I’m even more sure that I am a son of these two countries and am honored to belong to both of them. It has always been and is still my motivation to return to my village in occupied Palestine.

TR: I would love for Iyad to be seen as a Scottish poet. There are always elements of being a refugee because once a Palestinian always a Palestinian. But there are different kinds of Scottish poets — there are Scottish poets who are women and men, who write in Gaelic or English, and Scottish poets who wrote in Arabic. That’s how I would like it to be seen.

SI: Iyad, do you ever feel under pressure to be a “representative voice” of Palestinians or of refugees in a way that you do not feel is useful or appropriate?

IH: What I see as useful may not be visible to others in the same way. I like to describe myself as a natural poet, honest to my values first and foremost, who does not care about labels and stereotypes.

I write what I believe; I do not write to please anyone, any political group, and especially not against my convictions. I will not turn my back on the things that made the poet in me, like the plight of my people, the oppression, poverty, hope, dreams and determination.

The main issues now for me are Palestinian refugees and their right of return, despite the denial of this now even by some Palestinian officials, in addition to the issue of Syrian Palestinians, whom even the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] has turned its back on.

SI: What new projects are you working on?

IH: I was about to publish a collection of forty poems in Arabic, in Damascus, but circumstances have prevented me from doing that, so I published it online.

I’m also working with Palestinian visual artist Manal Deeb, who’s based in United States, to produce a book of poems and paintings. Most of the work has been done and some were exhibited at the UN in New York in November, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. I may also do another project with Tessa, and I’m thinking of writing a play about my life in the light of my family’s suffering in Syria.

SI: Members of your family have been killed, and others have had to flee their homes in Yarmouk camp. What is your feeling about events in Syria now?

IH: The Syrian revolution has cleared up a lot of misconceptions and exposed many leftist intellectuals who do not stand with the people of Syria. On the contrary, many have supported the brutal Assad regime. The Syrian regime has for many years deceived people and movements, especially those standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Bashar al-Assad, and his father before him, presented themselves as supporters of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli aggression. In fact they provided us with nothing more than propaganda, and have been a driving force behind the fragmentation of the Palestinian resistance, fuelling divisions and internal battles. This regime has deprived the Syrian people of their basic rights on the grounds of resisting Israel.

Unfortunately many leftists have stood with the Syrian regime against the oppressed people. This highlights the hypocrisy of those who claim solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza while ignoring Palestinians in Syria. I, as a Palestinian Syrian who lived in Syria for 40 years and experienced the nobility of its people, have no choice but to stand with them in their battle for freedom.

I feel I have to say, especially to Palestine solidarity movements: if the liberation of Palestine is at the expense of killing Syrian children and the destruction of Syrian cities and history, then I do not want this Palestine.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.