Building Bridges and Connecting Cultures: An Interview with Nizar Sartawi, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

In times like these, when the world leaders are bent on building walls between the nations and cultures, and people are more inclined to see their differences from others rather than their commonalities, there are some people who have dedicated themselves to building bridges by transcending the barriers of languages, ideologies and national identities, and devoting themselves to serving literature and art. Nizar Sartawi, a well-known Arab poet, essayists, and translator, who writes in both Arabic and English, is one of those ambassadors. Nizar Sartawi has penned over 20 books, including 13 books of translations, that are a part of his ongoing translation project, “Contemporary Arab Poets Series.” Born in Palestine and living in Jordan, Nizar Sartawi grew up with the love for poetry and a sense of loss for his land that is often felt in his writings. It is this feeling as well, that fuels him with an inspiration to give voice to many Arab writers like himself by translating their work into English. He has also translated a large number of non-Arab writers into Arabic to connect the cultures and literature of the East and the West.

It is our honor and privilege to have Nizar Sartawi as the guest editor of Life and Legends’ fifth edition, which is focused on Contemporary Arabic Poetry, and to interview him, so that he can share his inspirational journey with us.

Nizar SartawiKSC: Nizar Sartawi, we welcome you to Life and Legends as our Cultural Ambassador and thank you from our heart for accepting the invitation to be the guest editor of Life and Legends’ fifth edition.

NS: Thank you so much! It is a great honor indeed to be interviewed by a prestigious magazine, such as Life And Legends.

KSC: You are a Palestinian poet living in Jordan. What made you leave Palestine and move to Jordan?

NS: To start with, I was living in Nablus, a city in the West Bank, about 50 kilometers north of Jerusalem. The West Bank of the river Jordan was annexed to the east bank of Jordan in 1949, after the occupation of the majority of Palestinian territories by Jews, who declared the occupied lands as the State of Israel in 1948. The 1967 war between Arabs and Israel led to the occupation of the rest of Palestine, namely the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the time I was only 16. Two years later when I finished high school, I left for Jordan to go to college. After graduation, I worked in Jordan, then got married and settled in Amman. I could not live under occupation and see my people insulted, molested, arrested, jailed, tortured, or shot dead on a daily basis. As you may know, the West Bank is like a large prison, and so is Gaza. These days my people there are suffering more than ever before. Their lands are confiscated for the purpose of building more settlements, their trees are burned by settlers, the cities under Palestinian authority are besieged, their houses are broken into in the middle of the night, many young people, even children, are assassinated in cold blood. Living in the occupied territories is simply like living in Hell.

KSC: How did you become a writer? What inspires you to write?

NS: I strongly believe that a poet, or artist, is born rather than made. Education, of course, adds a lot, but I do not think it helps to create a poet. I started writing poetry when I was 14. To write Arabic poetry, particularly in the classic style, one needs to be very sensitive to the music of poetry, and recognize if the lines are written metrically or not.

As for inspiration, it often comes all of a sudden. The other day I saw a dry brown leaf, I held it in my hand, and began talking to it… that sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I did feel a great empathy with it, and I wrote a poem. Also, think of what is happening in the world around us… wars, killing, turning cities into rubble… Could we say that is inspiring? Of course, we could! It is atrocious; it causes us to feel angry or sad, and that can be inspiring.

KSC: What was the first thing that you ever wrote and published?

NS: That was a funny experience; and not mine. I was only 15, living in a village in the outskirts of Nablus. A friend of mine was courting my neighbor, who was probably 14. I wrote a short poem about him. Another friend read the poem and sent it by mail to a paper in Jerusalem. A few days later I was surprised and of course thrilled to see it published in one of the best newspapers at the time. My friend sent the second poem I wrote on the two lovers, and again it was published. I wish I had kept the paper.

KSC: You write in both Arabic and English. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a bilingual writer?

NS: Writing in one language gives you focus. People, usually your compatriots, know you and your work better. But you may not have the opportunity to connect with the rest of the world. On the other hand, writing in another language brings you closer to the international community, and that gives you the opportunity to read their poetry and learn. But it will be on the expense of writing in your native language. Besides, your own compatriots may not be able to read what you write in a foreign language, and that is a big loss.

KSC: You have translated the work of many writers and poets from Arabic into English and vice versa. When did your love for translation begin?

NS: To start with, I studied English in college. I practiced technical translation for a couple of years after graduation, but that was totally irrelevant to literary translation. What really happened is that I abandoned literature for almost three decades. Coming back to the world of literature in 2010, I could see the big gap between me and it. It was very slow and somewhat painful, so I began to toy with translation. When I saw it was well received, I was encouraged to do more translation. It was a learning process.

KSC: Are you inclined to translate more into Arabic or English?

NS: Naturally I am inclined to translate into Arabic. The rule for translators is to translate into their native language, simply because they master it and its culture far better than any other language. Though many people think of me as a bilingual, I don’t see myself that way, no matter how well I speak or write English. My understanding of English has not been reinforced with a firsthand experience. I have been to England once, in 1992, where I spent 11 days. Other than that brief visit, I have never been to any other country, like the US, where English is the first language, and where the cultures and sub-cultures English represents are prevalent. Nevertheless, I have translated a lot of Arabic poetry into English, about 80 poets.

KSC: What do you look for in a piece of literature that inspires you to translate it?

NS: I mostly translate poetry. A poem or piece of literature that tempts me to translate it is one that is well-written, that engages my heart and soul, and that treats an interesting subject that appeals to the Arab readers. Also it should be translatable; some poems use too many words or expressions that have no equivalent or anything close in Arabic. I do not translate texts that are culturally incorrect. After all I am translating for Arab readers, not just for myself; therefore, I have to be careful about what I choose to translate.

KSC: Tell us about your early publications and the latest book soon to be published. How can the readers in other countries obtain your books?

NS: My first book was a poetry collection in Arabic, followed by an anthology of Jordanian contemporary poets. Then there were two volumes of selected poems translated into Arabic, one by Indian poet Sarojini Naidu, and the other by Italian poet Mario Rigli.

The latest book or rather books to be published are one collection of poetry in English, which will be published in the US and another in Arabic to be published in Jordan. A third book that I hope to see published is Bare Soul by Indian American poet Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, editor-in-chief of Life and Legends. I am planning to have my books be available through Amazon soon.

Books of Nizar Sartawi

Books of Nizar Sartawi

KSC: How do you see the evolution of your literary journey as a poet and a translator?

NS: When I started writing poetry, I never thought I’d ever quit. And yet I did. Coming back to poetry six years ago was like coming back home. And yet, I had to tread softly and carefully, for I had missed a lot. I moved slowly but steadily. Even when I took to literary translation, I tended to be somewhat literal. Then I gradually began to move towards a more liberal style. In the future, I hope to connect with more international poets and introduce them to the Arab world. As for poetry, I do not have any specific plans except to continue writing. In a way poems tend to write themselves; I think they exercise as much control over us as we do over them.

KSC: Were you influenced by any writer or poet? Who are your favorites?

NS: In Arabic poetry, I have great admiration for Palestinian resistance poets, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qasem. Among English poets, I love the romantics, particularly Keats and Shelly, but I also enjoy reading Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound. Among the English and American novelists, my favorites are George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner, Hemingway and a few others. These are the writers and poets who contributing to shaping our modern literary era.

KSC: Please describe the literary scene in the Arab world. What is being written there?

NS: That is a question that needs pages, or rather a book. Suffice it to say that Arabic writing is going through a great change. In poetry, post-modernism is in vogue, and prose poetry is gaining a lot of ground. And there is a lot of experimentation going on.

In the novel, realism is not out of fashion, but a lot of fiction revolves around the question of identity. Social values are also being questioned in many novels. And the historical novel has attracted a number of writers. A number of novelists are examining how our modern history was shaped, what social and political forces brought us to where we are now. This again is related to the question of identity. Let me give one example. Egyptian novelist, Radwa Ashour, who passed away in November 2014, wrote at least two historical novels. One of them, Al-Tanturiya (The Woman of Tantura, 2010), is about the life of a girl who grew up in Tantura, a coastal village to the north of Haifa, which witnessed one of the worst massacres committed against Palestinians by Zionist forces, in which 230 armless people were killed, according to a Jewish eyewitness. The girl leaves the village, and, moving from place to another, she eventually settles in Lebanon. The rest of the story narrates her life and the life of Palestinians, their continuous suffering in the diaspora.

KSC: How different is modern Arabic literature in comparison to what is being written in the Western world, especially in English?

NS: To answer a very complicated question briefly, I think the difference is basically cultural. Arabic literature tends to be more conservative, although liberalism as a trend is becoming stronger. But modern Arabic literature is influenced by Western and world literature, more these days than in the past.

KSC: How do religion and politics influence modern Arabic literature?

NS: There is what can be called Islamic Literature. But the majority of writers tend to be liberal to some extent. Some religions throughout history have not been very friendly towards literature. But of course, Islam exercises its influence indirectly through the cultural and social values in the same way as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or any other faith is somehow reflected in the literature of the people embracing this or that faith.

nizar-sartawi-speakingKSC: In one of your interviews you have said “… by moving between languages, I am moving between nations, and building bridges – bridges of peace, understanding and love – bridges that invite people – even entice them – to cross to the other side, if not physically, at least mentally and spiritually.” Have you ever faced challenges in creating these bridges due to bias, ignorance or politics?

NS: Honestly, NO. Writers like to be read by people who speak another language or have a different culture, just as you and I do. We write to be read, if possible, by the largest number of people. I could say that I have made thousands of friends among writers and readers, but not a single enemy that I can think of. If there are any chagrined people, I do not know about them. I live in peace with myself and the world.

KSC: Who are your favorite Arabic poets and why?

NS: I can name at least four: Khalil Jibran (1833-1931, Lebanese), Ali Mahmoud Taha (1901-1949, Egyptian), Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964, Iraqi), and Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008, Palestinian). I love Jibran for his humanitarian poetry and his spiritualism. Taha’s romantic poetry is lovely; it appeals to me probably because it reminds me of the great romantics of English poetry. Al-Sayyab contributed to the revolution in modern Arabic modern poetry, which marked a departure from older forms. Darwish is known as a symbol of peaceful resistance; he has inspired thousands of poets in the Arab region. But of course, I especially like him because much of his poetry is about the Palestinian cause in particular.

KSC: You have translated many female poets writing in Arabic. What is unique about the literature of women writing in Arab nations?

NS: Female poetry tends to be romantic in nature. Love and the homeland are among the more salient female poetry motifs. But there are also some poets who treat the female identity. This may suggest that some of their poetry leans towards feminism. That might be true, but feminism as a movement in the Arab region is not so strong, partly because of the influence of religion. Let’s say that what we have is a shy type of feminism. But we do have a few bold female voices: Jordanian poet Zulaikha Aburisha, Egyptian poets Fatima Naoot and Muna Helmi.

KSC: Do you think women have equal rights and freedom as men in Arab countries? What is preventing them from having equal status in society? Where should change begin and how do you support it?

NS: These are three questions in one! The second and third imply the answer to the first. But I would like to ask: Where in the world have women achieved equal rights? We all know that equality in legislation and the constitution are one thing and practice is another. Even in the most advanced countries, women still suffer from violence at home and harassment at work. Moreover, both in the private sector and public sector there is always a glass ceiling for women. They can see the upper echelons, but they cannot reach them. New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries might be an exception.

As for equal rights for both men and women, we have a long tradition of women being inferior to men. Women do not have the chance to make decisions for themselves. Tribal norms are still powerful in this respect, and religion too has a strong hold on women. For example, in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive.

But I can see how this is changing rapidly, even in legislation. Women are proving they are not less capable than men in any type of work, except perhaps in jobs that require physical strength. Gradually women in the Arab world will be able to have equal rights. I see that coming soon. And I am so happy to see it happening. YES, I support it… very strongly!

KSC: You are a busy writer and a professional who travels extensively on cultural missions. How do you manage to join forces with the writers around the world, and how rewarding do you find your literary pursuit and why?

NS: I think poets can do a lot when they join forces together to support humanitarian causes, such as world peace, human rights, women’s and children’s rights, and so on. Poetry and translation have helped me a lot in this direction. Through Facebook and other social media, I have been able to connect with a large number of world poets. It is a virtual connection, but in many cases, it has changed from the virtual to the actual. I’ve met poets from Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Africa. This, together with the translation efforts, has helped in building bridges between poets, not just Arab with non-Arab poets, but poets from outside the Arab region whom I have introduced to each other. That in itself is a very gratifying achievement – to serve humanity as the member of the “nation of poets,” to use the words of my great friend, African-American poet, William S. Peters Sr.

KSC: What is the functional value of poetry in life?

NS: Poetry’s value lies within itself. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” wrote Jon Keats. Yes, certainly, true poetry is a joy forever. Having said that, I personally believe that beyond the aesthetic value, poetry is great when it has a message that touches our life. In these tough times, poetry cannot stay in an ivory tower. It must come down and connect with humanity.

KSC: When you are not writing or working, what do you like to do?

NS: Reading of course. But I like to work in the garden as well. Also, I do not mind doing some house work. And I enjoy spending some time with my children and play with my grandchildren.

KSC: On political stage, there is a mistrust among Arab countries and the Western world. Since 9/11, this mistrust has deepened further. How has this phenomenon affected the Arab writers and the prospect of cultural diplomacy in the world?

NS: The majority of Arab writers if not all of them are against terrorism. Unfortunately, however, they have been affected negatively by what you rightly call “mistrust”. For example, to participate in a cultural activity, I need to obtain a visa. That is alright in principle, but the process is becoming more and more complicated every day. Every terrorist activity anywhere makes things even worse. Cultural diplomacy is at its worst; that is a general impression. On the other hand, these developments do not seem to affect our interpersonal relationship as poets or writers. We trust each other. Recently I have received invitations from friends in different countries to visit them and stay as a guest in their own houses. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and tell them that for me this trust is invaluable. I love them all.

KSC: Do you think art and literature can influence politics in a significant way; and a writer, poet, journalist and artist can contribute in finding solutions to a national or international crisis?

NS: I don’t have any illusions about this. I think everybody knows that these creative people you’ve mentioned do not have the ability to stop wars and bring peace to the world. Nevertheless, I do believe that they can have an influence, no matter how small. They can create and encourage resistance to war among people, they can tell the world about what is really happening in war-stricken areas. And in many cases, they have some influence over politicians. So: YES they contribute, even if slightly, to solving crises.

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted Resolution 2334 in favor of Palestine. How hopeful are you as a Palestinian, about the two-state solution after this?

NS: In light of the current Israeli government policies, I cannot say I have any hope. For one thing, the Israeli government has made it clear that they will not honor this resolution. For another, the new U.S. administration has pledged to give full support to Israel, even in building more settlements.

On the other hand, the resolution is positive; it may have some unwelcome ramifications for Israel. Here is what a journalist wrote four days after the resolution was taken: “Resolution 2334 implicitly encourages the International Criminal Court (ICC) to advance towards prosecution on the ICC’s current preliminary examination of whether Israeli officials have engaged in the ‘war crime’ of settlement building.”

KSC: What is the most precious memory you have of Palestine? Would you ever like to return to your homeland?

NS: In my childhood, we used to live near Jerusalem. Going with my parents to the old city, and walking in those vaulted narrow roads and markets is an experience that I enjoyed so much and will never forget. Also leaving Jerusalem occasionally to visit my village Sarta, which we left when I was only a few months old, is another unforgettable experience, particularly when we went to our olive orchard. And yes, I would love to return to my homeland.

KSC: What are you writing next?

NS: I will start translating a poetry collection by my friend William S. Peters Senior. We met in Morocco last October in an international festival. He wrote a collection named Morocco Love. He honored me by asking me to write a foreword for it. I did, and the book will be published within the next two or three weeks. My translation of the collection will come next.

KSC: You are a widely-recognized poet and translator, who has received many awards and honors. What do they mean to you?

NS: Prizes and awards are precious because they mean your work is appreciated. They indicate that people read and love what you write, and that I think is the most valuable thing about them.

KSC: If you have to give a piece of advice to the writers, what would that be?

NS: I would like to use the advice that Chilean poet Nicanor Parra gave to young poets. I suppose it is good for all writers. This is what he said:

Young Poets
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
… … …
In poetry, everything is permitted.
With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.

To these great lines, I would like to add: “No matter how famous you become or how many awards you win, keep these three words in mind: Modesty, Modesty & Modesty.

KSC: Do you have any message for the world affected by wars, terrorism, hunger, poverty, discrimination, environmental disasters, etc.?

NS: In wars, there are no winners, not even those who acquire new territories or new resources. I can’t understand the glory a nation finds in subjugating another or the joy an individual feels in murdering or inflicting pain on another.

My message to “the wretched of the earth” (to use Frantz Fanon’s famous book title): “I belong to the nation of poets that embrace your cause as their own. Let’s all struggle to free ourselves from these degrading conditions. These words do not come from the ivory tower. For I am one of you. My people, the Palestinians, are suffering because they live either under occupation or in the diaspora.

KSC: Do you have any cause close to your heart?

NS: Yes, freedom for my people.



More about Nizar Sartawi at –

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