I wanted us to walk together: An interview with Arif Gamal
Intimate, moving, and wise, Arif Gamal’s Morning in Serra Mattu: A Nubian Ode (McSweeney’s Poetry Series, April 2014) explores issues of identity, community, and homeland, collective memory and loss, and the intersection of environmental, geopolitical, and personal history in contemporary Sudan. Arif was kind enough to discuss the inspiration and intentions that underlie his “mosaic” of interrelated poems with Late Night Interview contributor Amanda McConnon.
AMANDA MCCONNON: What was your process for taking such an extensive family lineage and distilling it into these poems?
ARIF GAMAL: Family is central in my life. My family happens to be different than any of the conventional families I knew around me in Khartoum-Sudan where I was born. The constant travels of my parents around the world dictated certain logistic instabilities and appreciable emotional confusion, at least for me. That was not an experience that I shared with my other family members or friends. There were brothers and sisters that I saw very rarely, like my older siblings: Aida, Asim and Alawyya, and others that were my guardian like Adil for a time, as I was, for a short while, guardian to Atif, my younger brother. Alawyya and Adil and some of my unforgettable adventures with them are mentioned in Serra Mattu.
Though I have memories with each and every one of them, I chose to write certain incidents and only during the wonderful childhood period. Evidently, as time passes the relationship between siblings change and new challenges crop up, especially for a family that rarely gets the chance to be together for more than a couple of weeks every other year. The period I wrote about meant a lot to me and I view it with enormous amount of affection and bliss.
AM: Obviously there is a lot of history that lies underneath these poems. I realize that it is impossible to summarize, but can you speak a bit about the historical events that served as impetuses for some of these poems?
AG: True, an enormous amount of history underlies each of these poems and each has its own beginning and its own finale, but the major cause is the fact that another dam has been planned to be built over Nubia: Kajabar. This means that the last of Nubia will be inundated and will disappear forever; like our own Serra Mattu, phased to oblivion under the Nile waters due to the construction of the Aswan Dam. The fact remains that the displacement of the Nubians after building the Aswan Dam did not benefit the displaced Nubians on either side of the borders, nor did it help the prosperity of Egypt or Sudan in the long term. This displacement was hard on many Nubians in the diaspora as they fought, and are still fighting ferociously, for the preservation and safeguarding of what is left of Nubia: land, people and culture. I found an urge to document Nubia and its culture but I needed it to be a document that was unique and universally understandable. Displaced populations are common in our world today.
Incidents in Kordofan and South Sudan were important to relate as both suffered the yoke of enormous amounts of prejudice and mistreatment from the politics and politicians of the time. Environmentally speaking, the Rash Ash land, where the Baobab tree grows and where the Dinka live, were some of the most remarkable places I have visited. It would not have been possible not to mention those places or the people who inhabit them.
I needed to write about my family also, and could find no better way to write about Nubia but weaving its story around my own personal history and that of my family. I wrestled with the vulnerability and fragility of my emotions as I relayed personal and sometimes misunderstood notions of characters or circumstances, but I found there is no other tool that can make it as genuine, sincere, and worthwhile to read.
AM: In “Baobab” you write, “the baobab enjoys living alone / unlike the redwood or pine or date palm / that flings up new young beside the grown.” In this book, landscape seems to act out of motives of its own that are sometimes harmonious with those of the people populating it, and sometimes not. What purpose did you hope that elements of the environment would serve when placing them in this book?
AG: This is one of the most important aspect of Serra Mattu as my love for nature is unequal to anything that I know. As a young adult, going around with my uncle to Kordofan I enjoyed the savanna and its forests. I also was able to appreciate the worth of water as an essential resource for all. “The Rash Ash Land” is one poem that I cherish and one that speaks to that. As I grew other aspects were formative in understanding that the river Nile, that we take for granted, is a vein that can easily be abused.
I happen to have visited all the major sources of the Nile. In Ethiopia, the Blue Nile crosses a lake (Lake Tana) to get to Sudan to meet with the White Nile. My wife and I hiked up the mountains of Rwanda to see the first drop of water that forms the White Nile on its long journey through Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and finally Egypt. I pulled a chair under a willow tree overlooking Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and sat in a colonial botanical garden overlooking the same lake in Uganda, before the White Nile enters the Sudd region in Sudan. I washed my hands in the Abbay waterfall in Ethiopia, source of the Blue Nile. It was an unstoppable rush of water from behind the sculpted rocks. As I visit those places every year I find the lakes (Tana and or Victoria) are shrinking, while the lush waterfall at Abbay is now but few braided streams of water shaking in the wind. At Khartoum, I was shocked to see that at some places you could walk across the mighty Nile. Something has to be said about all of this.
Love of nature and its respect is a pedestal, principal and a way of life that I try to follow as much as I can as there is no other solace that I find but in nature. My writings would be meaningless without mention of that vital element, these forces. If good, they are generous, and if bad, it is but nature’s prerogative.
AM: The voice of the speaker is extremely wise but also unobtrusive. It is not a detached voice; it feels. But it doesn’t force emotion on the reader. How were you able to maintain such restraint while dealing with deeply personal subject matter?
AG: I meant to stir emotions, as I value them, but did not mean to invoke mundane ones, those of pity or condescending sentiments that might distort the narrative. I meant to appeal to an intelligent emotion that commands shared concern and sympathy. I visualized an aware reader on all matters that concern human tribulations and triumphs. I certainly approached the personal matters with care, as I meant for my emotions to be understood in their right and appropriate context, and in no way were they meant to glorify or idealize a certain person, personality or situation. It is difficult because I appeal to readers in the first world and others in the third world. For the former; I wanted us to walk together into a land and era that they’d never seen or heard of, while for those in the third world, who are familiar with the stories and the environment, I meant to bring a certain sense of pride and generate appreciation of their lives.
The most difficult to consider was that my book would be read by my family, friends and Sudanese in general. Here, I found I myself vulnerable and extremely exposed, as the culture lends itself to modesty in success and discourages display of any form of public emotion. An aspect that I considered was the political mention in some parts of the book, like the killing of my cousin; Magdi. Time alone will tell how those forces will manifest themselves to me or to my family. My greatest solace is the good reception of Serra Mattu from Nubians in both Sudan and in the Diaspora, and that those who read the book in the States “got it” as a friend told me.
AM: While there are many forces at play in this book, I think there are three central ones: familial history, political and national history, and environment. What was your method for maintaining a balance of the three?
AG: As I grew older and as I had my own family, I started to look closely at my relation to my family in the context of history that influenced the shaping of my characters and gave them the humanity that they deserved. I had many questions with regards to everything that concerned my upbringing, my beliefs, my convictions or my true faith. These were important questions I needed answers for, especially as I was getting older.
Not knowing one steady place for a length of time to call home, the notion of family becomes, if not reality, a quest. The slightest mention or contact with family or family members is never taken for granted and each memory is cherished. Travel and residing or working in foreign countries leads to great experiences, but it can be quite destabilizing for a child if the period is too long.
Another reason relates to my own curious nature about persons in my life, their history, and the circumstances that make that history. My grandmother played a role in the formation of three formidable and successful men. Her story is one that you would like to listen to. Likewise, the three men she bore were completely different from each other, and icons in whatever they did. Their story is also interesting to hear.
The political and environmental aspects of the book impose themselves on the characters that I write about. They would not have been who they were if not or one incident or another that dealt with the government and the forces that be, while the environment was a passion that I made a profession out of to practice what I really value in life.
AM: One of the most powerful moments of the book for me came during “It is a Dream,” in which you write about a new possible map of Africa that is made of fluid boundaries that take heed of the gathering of tribal people. You write “man is the measure / not abstract geometry.” Can you speak about the relationship between person as a living, breathing, feeling thing versus person as a subject of political rule and how it plays a part in the book?
AG: The plight of Africa since slavery and colonial rule is the fact that it is a multitude of non-nation states; i.e. a government that relates in many instances to only one faction or group of people in the state. This is one of the worst legacies of colonial rule; one that Africa is still reeling from. Some states, like Gambia, were so arbitrarily traced that it is so difficult for them to survive as sovereign states. Sudan had its share of that irresponsible division and we saw South Sudan finally become an independent country in July 2011, only to fall in the same trap again, as the two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, are in continual conflict and combat. It is where tribalism, coined by the colonial rule, shows its ugliest face. There was the euphoria of independence, led by Kwame Nkrumah at the end of the 50s with regard to African unity with his known book “Africa Must Unite”. Unfortunately, post colonial rule in many parts of Africa, if not military rule, was that of a dominant group subjugating the other groups and denying them access to resources and opportunity. Sad reading, as Africa, after more than half a century of independence, is still bearing the heavy yoke of such a legacy.
In the book visits to the land of baobab or Kordofan and to Abeyi in the South (now an independent country) reveal to the reader that they are crossing to a completely different country with completely different people who espouse different culture. Rural Africa is the soul of the country yet it is the most ignored. Uprising and regime change is the prerogative of city dwellers, hence political attention is to only that sector of the society. This explains the massive migration for upward mobility and, unfortunately, the urban poverty and sun children that populate the city streets.
AM: Each family member that appears in the narrative feels like a distinct representation of a certain set of values. Fatima, for example, is so memorable in the way that she is fierce and demanding of others but also commits herself unwaveringly to the ideas of family that she believes in, even if that means facing great difficulty. What was it like to place all of these disparate characters in the same book?
AG: The themes of the book are so varied and different. That was my first thought, but as I looked closer, I realized that for me a book of prose or poetry, is a thought that guides without so much attention to format. It is how I think in a day, different thoughts and different emotions, like the colors of a rainbow that gives the arc its significance. It seems that you are coming with me on a journey that is to be taken seriously, like when Fatimareya was called to court where no woman dared But then I hope that you find it hilarious when she gets up and sports her nabut to beat her brother-in-law who has announced that she is his after her mourning days on her husband, are over. These two personalities are joined at the hip and I have no way to separate them. My uncle who never cracked a smile, gave us a scanty pocket money, but after his death it seemed that he had financially supported many households that would not have made it not for him. As for my father, love of my life, his friendship, not his fatherhood, tells about one of the most intelligent and interesting men I’ve known.
It would have been a boring book had it not been for the polarity of the characters. It seemed they had lives of their own, and they were the ones who imposed their being and place on each page and stanza of the book. I was only happy to comply.
AM: In “I Know Happiness” you write “Arif Said ‘I know happiness’ / he shared his composed name with you / Arif Jamal ‘I know the beautiful’ / it is true.” The idea of naming calls up a kind of chicken-or-the-egg fascination with whether one becomes the person they are because of the name they receive, or if a name comes fatefully to a person because of their character. Where do you think your poems stand in regards to this idea?
AG: Definitely there is the affection and need to memorialize a person when a name is attributed to a child. In many instances, it becomes a routine and mechanical way of giving names of parents or grandparents to a newborn, as in the Latin or Anglo names with the Roman numerals I, II and sometimes III. In Arabic, on the other hand, though the names of parents and grandparents are given to children, the names are mostly adjectives or adverbs, except for the Judeo-Christian names like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, etc. Interestingly enough in Nubia children could be called by their first name e.g. Jamal Fatmareya. It is a tradition that goes back to the Candice, the queen-mother of Nubian kings, as it was a matrilineal rule.
I suppose it is how a family brings up a child under the shadow of a great man or woman, but at the end of the day, it is the character of this boy or girl and their circumstances that will forge their destiny and make their name a prize to hand down through the coming generation.
My father happened to like the name he gave me (he used it as a pen name before) and by coincidence the combination of names gave a sentence that we both like. Jamal, my son is held to higher standards and hopefully he will find his own, but little does he know about Jamal, his grandfather, as he never saw him. He knows, at the end of the day, he will be judged on his own merits. I believe there is a truth to this.
AM: What role does the idea of language play? What was it like to write these poems in a different language then the memories themselves occurred in?
AG: I speak three languages; Arabic, English and French and am fluent in them in this order. Though I dream in Arabic, I am most comfortable in English. Memories come in English a wonderful and precise language. Each of those languages has given me some wonderful times reading poetry and poems. The Arabic language, the Koran is about prose and poems and ever since I can remember my father will break into reciting a poem or another, at home, in the car or anywhere. My father’s library is full of authentic poets, poetry books and translations of those poems from way before Islam, to the Islamic period, and all the way to modern times. I had the pleasure to serve tea in our home, to my father and his friends, some of the most celebrated Arabic poets of our modern times. Exposure to poetry in any language propels you to research it in any other language.
Without Baudelaire and Jacques Prévert, the French language would have been tedious for me. I was lucky that my French instructor, Madame Leduc, loved poetry and introduced me to the most important poets in modern France. But the language that I am most comfortable with remains English. English is what I was raised with and most of my schooling up to college was done in English. Some of my siblings were not that deft in Arabic, so English happened to be the medium we used. I find amusing that one language can affect another in subtle ways and as an instructor, my students sometime have a hard time following as, unconsciously, I translate from French into English in my mind. I find, a wonderful round sentence can be better expressed in French than in English. I think languages are complementary and the more we know, the better we understand our fellow human being, though after many years in France, I am still trying to figure out how a French man or woman thinks…
AM: How has crafting these poems altered, if at all, the way you perceive your memories or personal history?
AG: Crafting these poems gave me perspective not only on the memories, but on the person I was then and now, with all of my vulnerabilities, my strength and weaknesses. I am grateful to have had the chance to know all that I know, but I am aware that there are so many things that I do not know. Writing these poems was an enormous joy; all those memories of childhood and relations with my father, my travels, my friends and family, and so on. But also there were many somber moments, and gushing sadness overtook all emotions when I saw my aunt, a Nubian Candice in her own right, licking dirt as she was informed that her son had been unjustly executed. The dead, in my memories, passed on, horrible as it may sound but the living have to wake up with the memory every day. There is no “moving on” from this.
A multitude of emotions as each page scribbles a story. I never knew that there is this rushing feeling of euphoria that can make your eyes well as you remember the wonderful times, and unfortunately there is a lingering feeling of “guilt” as you look back and wish you had not taken them for granted or in such personal way. Those memories make me want to go back and correct some misunderstandings, but then I think again and decide against that….as truly, I can’t but live with what was, and what is to come.
The son of a career diplomat, Arif Gamal was born in 1949 and raised in Khartoum, Sudan. He left Sudan for France in 1975 to attend graduate school, returning after receiving his doctorate in environmental science. Following the 1989 military coup d’état in Sudan—and with his family under constant government surveillance—Gamal received an invitation to be a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and has lived in Northern California with his family ever since. Gamal has been a panelist and keynote speaker for many national and international conferences, seminars and workshops, from Nicaragua to Sweden, and in the early ’90s he lobbied in both the House and the Senate for the African Trade Bill.