Saturday, 20 October 2012
Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi at the Mosaic Rooms: "The Jewels of Minutes and Hours"
Leave that glass of memory to memory -
let its essence transmute all these nights into gold
Leave the voice of Ali Farka Toure
through the silvered light of that room,
a room inlaid with the jewels of minutes and hours
- Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, from 'Garden Statues'
The work of Arabic-language Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi burst into my life earlier this year when I saw a link posted somewhere to the poem 'Small Fox'. A small poem, like its title, but also like a perfect flower or a striking piece of jewellery. Browsing through other poems on the Poetry Translation Centre website, which has been working with him for some years now, I found poems about love and longing, Sudanese history, the imprint of the Nile on Africa, the artistic legacies of Sudan alongside those of other civilisations, and many other subjects. Although I would love to read the poems in the original Arabic (and definitely can't), I was amazed at the delicate flow of images, the emotional integrity and the intricate detail that they presented.
I heard Al-Raddi read at Poetry Parnassus this summer and it was a big highlight. He also very graciously signed my chapbook of his poems in translation. He is currently in the UK for a residency at London's Petrie Museum, where he has been working on a series of poems relating to their ancient Sudanese artifacts. He has been a legendary poet in Sudan for many years and held an influential position at the Al-Sudani newspaper as cultural editor before losing his job for political reasons. His life and work is a reflection of the fact that writing poetry can be a controversial, volatile and dangerous act in certain parts of the world. The fact that he is a pre-eminent poet in a country like Sudan, where poetry is the number one art form, is also an indication of his stature in African literature.
This week I went to an evening of Al-Raddi's work at the Mosaic Rooms, an institute for the promotion of Arab-world arts and culture. It was chaired by Sarah Maguire, the founder and director of the Poetry Translation Centre and an acclaimed poet, who has translated many of Al-Raddi's poems. It was a great evening in an intimate space - Tower House on the corner of the Cromwell Road, which also happens to be the building which formerly housed LAMDA, my employers (although before my time) - and we were surrounded by the lovely crystalline-organic paintings of the Moroccan painter Yamou, who is currently featured in an exhibition there. It was also great to see such a diverse crowd; English and Sudanese poetry enthusiasts were both well represented, among others.
The evening fell into three main parts: Al-Raddi and Sarah Maguire reading some of his older poems in the original and in translation; a discussion with Joanna Oyediran, the Sudan Programme Officer at the Open Society Initiative for East Africa; and the reading of some of the poems that have resulted from Al-Raddi's Petrie Museum residence. Among others, we heard the poem 'In the Company of Michelangelo', which was inspired by one of Al-Raddi's earlier visits to the UK and exhibitions of Michelangelo's work which he saw here - it beautifully evokes the universality of the great artist's vision: "I left you radiant,/resplendent,/wherever your throne sets down".
The discussion with Joanna Oyediran touched on the recent creation of South Sudan and its implications for regional and African politics and art. I was very struck by her description of a map of Sudan where South Sudan had been painted out as though it didn't exist and had never existed. Al-Raddi's work sits at a challenging crossroads; he writes in Arabic but is an African poet, and Sudan is a recently fragmented country which has struggled repeatedly with civil war and rulership by oppressive governments. The poems from the Petrie residence were fascinating, but Al-Raddi declined to tell us exactly which pieces in the museum they referred to; apparently the poems are still works-in-progress, and all will be revealed in time. I also really enjoyed the lively question and answer session at the end, and Al-Raddi's comments on the importance of translation, which as he pointed out equips the poet with different skills and a different style in their approach to poetry. He said that "attempting to write a poem is like embarking on an adventure", and that this was the spirit in which he'd approached the Petrie residence.
Here are a couple of photos from the evening, courtesy of the Mosaic Rooms. First, Sarah Maguire and Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading:
And the panel discussion:
This was a wonderful evening and I look forward to further exploring the haunting and complex work of this African poet.
Photos © The Mosaic Rooms