Wednesday, 29 January 2014
Khaled Mattawa's 'Echo and Elixir 2': Remembering Cairo
Cairo, 2010. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd
Ever since I visited Cairo in August 2010 there has been no way I could ever forget it. Cairo felt like a drug of a city - intense, exhilarating, destructive, terrifying and then addictive. Less than six months after I was there - three years ago - the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution happened and I couldn't look away as snipers shot their own people on the streets where we'd raced around in the astonishing heat. It's always been difficult to look away.
ECHO AND ELIXIR 2 (Khaled Mattawa)
When I think of Cairo's taxi drivers, who seem to take centre stage in this poem by Libyan/American poet Khaled Mattawa, the first thing I think of is staring death in the eye, but in fairness, I think most of them were quite competent; just driving a million miles an hour in a place which laughs at road safety or seatbelts. And some of them will talk, though I found out that if you're a woman accompanied by a man or men, they'll probably address all their remarks away from you and to your companion(s).
So this is a poem about Cairo in the dizzy rushing quality of its images, the overload, and the sense - while you're in it - that the whole world is Cairo. But like the few other poems from the Echo and Elixir sequence that I've read, 'Echo and Elixir 2' is about trying to synthesize the strands of a complicated and multicultural world (and personal experience), about colonial atrocities and economic realities, about how harsh historical truths will never leave us. Mattawa grew up in Libya and moved to the United States as a teenager. He translates great Arabic-language poets such as Adonis and Saadi Youssef, and when I went to Poetry Parnassus in 2012 I hoped to hear him read, but he couldn't make it in the end - I think because he was in Libya, where he was very involved in the post-Gaddafi artistic movements. He was recently appointed to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, a great honour. He is well placed to write this kind of poetry, of dislocation and a multiplicity of experiences.
"I'm sad and tired of truth,/and as usual I'm never believed," says the speaker. The poem has both the excitement and the harshness of Cairo, and it cloaks real frustration in wryness. The taxi drivers and the speaker arrive, but where? They speak "all the languages/of the world" - but they argue. This is what we have to work with, the speaker seems to be saying, but to what end will it lead? Egypt and the Arab world are still asking these questions.