One of the remaining marvels off the east coast of Africa is the island archipelago of Socotra, historically associated with Yemen, the nation which it belongs to. Socotra is a preserve of biodiversity with a local population not yet catapulted into the under-development pains of the 21st century. There is a fascinating film about the need to protect Socotra’s unique environment and its people from the devastating impact of uncontrolled “development.” Among the individuals speaking is Dutch ecologist Paul Scholte, who has extensive research experience both in Yemen and Africa. Check out both parts of the film here and here. There are a number of Youtube videos on Socotra, but most are tourist oriented and do not match the information level of this film.

Sir Flinders Petrie, Egyptologist

An Archic Sonnet

To know what man was, ere he wrote his name,
Inscribed the laws and precepts on the rock,
And sacrificed the best lamb of the flock,
We dig the mound, and wander o’er the plain.
To learn the mysteries of the past, we fain
Would search for hidden slabs, and keep in stock
The Relics we so love. Oh, to unlock
The door, and gain an entrance to the same! (more…)

Snow at the Sphinx

As the above photograph shows, even the treasured sands of Egypt are not immune to Mother Nature’s cold warnings. Snow is rare in Egypt and when it falls there is certain to be much interest in what such a climatic omen portends, especially given the mystery that surrounds the Sphinx. After Napoleon’s invasion, unsuccessful as it was from a military standpoint, Egyptomania raged in Europe. There are many poems, as well as paintings, that draw an Orientalist view of the region. Even Mark Twain set down Tom Sawyer over the pyramids. On this Christmas Eve, when the birth of Christ is celebrated throughout the world, including Egypt, it is well to remember that mystery is in the air. Given that General Sisi has admitted that his climb to power was foreordained in a dream, the mysteries coming out of Egypt are as alive as ever.

Oscar Wilde is probably not a name anyone would associate with the night before Christmas. But he did write a semi-humorous and rather long poem in 1894 entitled “the Sphinx.” The whole version can be found here, but I excerpt a few lines to assist in the holiday spirit:

A thousand weary centuries
Are thine, while I have hardly seen
Some twenty summers cast their green
For Autumn’s gaudy liveries.

But you can read the Hieroglyphs
On the great sandstone obelisks,
And you have talked with Basilisks
And you have looked on Hippogriffs. (more…)

On Marriage by Khalil Gibran

The following is a response by Dr. Najib Sifri of Lebanon to the post and poem entitled “The Collapse of Tradition” by George Elhage.

كتت أعتقدُ انني لن أقرأ لجورج نقولا الحاج قصيدةً مثل ” عقدة الجنس ” بعدما حملنا العمر ستة عقودٍ من الاعوام واكثر . ولكنه يبدو ان شعر جورج كالنبيذ الغالي كلما تعتق في خوابي السنين صار أطيب وارحب واكثر تأثيرا في معناه وفي مبناه ..
لقد حملتني هذه القصيدة الى سنوات الشباب الثائر على التقاليد الجوفاء وعلى الممنوعات السوداء وعلى المتاجرة بمصير النساء , وكأننا نعيش في زمنٍ غابرٍ اكل الدهرُ عليه وشرب !
صحيحٌ أنني وهو في ذلك الزمن قد قطفنا الرمان وتلذذنا بملمسه ومذاقه , ودخلنا فيما دخلنا اسرة الصبايا من كل نوعٍ ولونٍ وجنسٍ ولعلنا كنا من الاستثناءات التي ساعدنا فيها كوننا درسنا في مدارس مختلطة يجلس فيها هذا قرب هذه , وانتقلنا الى جامعة هي ايضا تقدس الحرية الشخصية لكل فرد رجلا كان او امرأة , اضافة الى اننا ننتمي الى طائفة دينية غير متعصبة ونسكن ايضا في امكنة لا حجاب فيها ولا نقاب .
هذه القصيدة التي انشدها جورج في القرن الواحد والعشرين تدلنا على انه حتى في ايامنا كان الامر افضل مما نحن عليه اليوم , فبدل من ان يكون القول الى الامام سر اصبح الى الوراء در …
جورج من الذين يتقنون صبّ المعاني في قوالبها فهو مهندس بارع في سبك العبارة وتحميلها لصدر وعجز مناسبين تمام التناسب , وهو فنان في ضبط الايقاع عدا انه مصور ماهر ذات خيال خصب وهذا ما يميز هذه القصيدة حيث ان هناك كثيرين ممن كتبوا في هذا الموضوع لكنهم اخفقوا , ولعل كل بيت من أبيات هذه القصيدة يحتاج الى صفحة اواكثر تدقيقا وتمحيصا وليس هنا المكان المناسب لهذا الامر , فليست هذه سوى رسالة شخصية لصديق يرسل الى اخيه خواطر من القلب الى القلب .
هي الثقة مشكلتنا في هذا الشرق , فلا ثقة لامٍ بابنتها , ولا ثقة لاخٍ باخته , ولا لزوج بزوجته , ولا بامة بنسائها , ولالرجل بنفسه ,لان تواريخ الشعوب مكتوبة على وجه نسائها فأين تقع هذه التواريخ واين نجدها واكثر نسائنا تضع الاقنعة السوداء على وجهها رحمنا الله وهنيئاً لجورج الحاج …..

On Marriage by Khalil Gibran

The Collapse of a Tradition, from Sacred to Profane: The Abolishment of the Institution of Marriage

by George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

In the Middle East, in general, gender equality, love, sex, marriage, emotional relationships, and the proper place of women in society and in the workplace are still issues of debatable outcome and still draw mixed interpretations and polemic conclusions. Simple rights, whether a woman should be allowed to drive, to walk into a mall unescorted, to openly date and be free to choose a mate, and to climb the corporate ladder and lead a company, such topics can still fuel serious debates and bring down questionable consequences. Of course, there are cases, in many Arab countries, where the few have dared to challenge the tradition and break the norm. However, these are rare instances where a woman, or a group of women have been bold and “wild” to take such dangerous steps. Overwhelmingly, women still lag behind and remain treated as second class citizens.

I have spent the last six months in Lebanon and have witnessed firsthand the destruction of what is commonly held as the sacred “marriage institution.” Of course, there are couples who fall in love and fight for their togetherness and try to make it the old fashion way, by earning the right to a successful marriage and a happy family, but by and large, marriage has become a commodity, a sort of contract that should yield a lucrative mutual gain, a connection with benefits, at best, a necessary evil that in some cases is performed under social, parental or economic pressures. Even further, unfortunately, it has become a monetized, materialistic show of wealth intended to keep up appearances while in reality; it is rather void of romance and any traces of love burning in the heart of either partner. (more…)

The historic town of Byblos in Lebanon

بمطعم بيبلوس يا غصون ميلي

by George El-Hage
[This poem was delivered in the Byblos Restaurant in NY City during a Zajal debate between me and Youssef Abdel Samad and attended by a large audience including the Lebanese and Saudi Ambassadors. This was the opening poem and as usual, it is a love poem in the classical format addressed to the audience and describes a Lebanese beauty where the imagery is inspired by the country itself.]

بمطعم بيبلوس يا غصون ميلي
صوبي وعاحبابي سلميلي

قولي لن نشّف الدمع بعيوني
مرّ الهجر وسنينو طويلي

ويا سمرة عارفك انو حنوني
وما بتتكحلي الا بميلي

كحلة عينتينك يا عيوني
احلا عطور من احلى خميلي

عنقك مشقة الارزه المصوني
وصدرك طلعة بلادي الجميلي

عيونك لونها من بحر جوني
وشعرك نسمة جنوبي العليلي

زرعتك ورد احمر عا جفوني
بقلبي فتّح زهور الفضيلي

كوني وين ما بدّ ك تكوني
بتبقي خمرة الحب الاصيلي

انتِ للوحي بليلة جنوني
شعر وخمر… لا تكوني بخيلي

اعطيني من شفاف الحمر موني
شفافك للصلا افضل متيلي

وعنك بالجسد لو بيعدوني
بتبقى الروح ملكك عالقليلي

ومجد فقرا وروما لو عطوني
ومملكة العروش المستحيلي

وتحت الارض لولا بيدفنوني
لما شفافك تغرّد باسمي
ليكِ برجع وقلبي دليلي.

Lebanese House by J. Matar

Poem by George El-Hage

كنّا ابتدأنا

عادتْ لنا الرؤيا وأبكانا اللقاءْ
طفلان لا يشفيهما غير البكاءْ

عادت لنا الأيامُ مزهرةً
ما همّنا الحسّادُ إنْ حسدوا.. سواء

فأبكي.. ولا تخشَي.. على كتفي
أشتاقُ أن تبكي على كتفي سماء

ما أروعَ اللحظاتِ تجمعنا
طيران عن أشواقنا ضاق الفضاء

هذي يدي ذوبي براحتها
عطراً ولوناً بعض بهجته الضياء

وتساقطي سحباً على عطشي
السيف تواقٌ إلى لون الدماء

يا ديمتي يا الآه من وتري
يا البالَ مرسوما بأنفاس الصفاء

إني لأشعر إذ أضاجعكِ
أني أضاجع كل أجناس النساء

أشياؤك الكانت تراودني
ظلّت وعوداً دونها غصص اشتهاء

Abdel Sabour

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

[For Part 1 of this essay, click here. For Part 2, click here.]

7. Sabour’s Departure from Traditional Arabic Poetry

Up until now, I tried to demonstrate Eliot’s influence on Abdel Sabour’s poetry, especially with regard to his themes and techniques. Because of the vast gulf that separates the two poets culturally, spiritually, and educationally, it seems a vain effort to look for absolute similarities. On the other hand, it is easier for the critic with an adequate knowledge of the traditional models of Arabic poetry to notice that Sabour’s modern poetry departed almost completely from the classical tradition.

Prior to his exposure to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Sabour wrote traditional poetry using the classical meters. After reading Eliot, the Egyptian poet adopted new themes, techniques, and structures. He no longer used traditional meters with the long, heavy lines, built on two hemistiches and rhyming with each other throughout the poem. This new type of poetry was able to come into existence and flourish after a long struggle led by contemporary poets like Abdel Sabour. (19)

Starting in the late 1950s, the experience of writing in free verse became a familiar occurrence. In the poetry of Sabour, not only the mood, style, use of myth and illusion, and the interior monologue resemble Eliot’s, but “we have a sense of aimlessness and isolation, of memory and futility, it is definitely the mood of The Wasteland and the Hollow Men.” (20) Moreover, there are clear-cut images in Sabour’s poetry which demonstrate Eliot’s great influence on the Arab poet’s attitude toward life and death. Sabour also makes use of Eliot’s theme of alienation and of his description of empty rooms. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot says:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.”

Sabour says, echoing Eliot in his “My Peerless Star”:

“Fingers of an eastern wind
Rub the window-panes.” (more…)

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