It is hard to believe that I met this Syrian/Kurdish poet two years ago in May 2011 as the crisis in Syria was only just beginning. It saddens me that it has continued to be so bloody for so long. When I met Golan we were in Beirut with Reel Festivals and he had no idea if he would be able to go back to his home as the borders were often closed and the road was dangerous. It was a stressful time to be in the region working on translations with these generous and embattled poets. Despite the strife, we managed to create a free e-book of new Syrian and Lebanese poetry in translation. Golan’s poetic grace and thoughtfulness continues to be relevant.
Golan Haji: I think that every writing is a translation. For me as a Kurd, I talk in Kurdish but I write in Arabic. But it’s not as simple as that, and I think that’s what’s going on in the poet’s head. Something is lost, and the writing is always incomplete. When you try to find the right word or the right image, and it’s not always possible, the poem takes its beauty from this process of imperfection. It’s always imperfect, and that’s why the writing never ends. Just as the idea of identity ends in death, when one is dead, that’s his final identity. One is always looking for others in other places and languages.
Translation is a process of changing places while you are in the same place. It’s not reincarnation, or just to imitate the others. It’s the stranger who comes to your house, is welcomed, is invited, and you know that he will change you in a very secret way, even through silence. And this deep, slow change that translation gives is very important. I think that writing, through the history of literature, was always influenced by translations. I cannot see the modern poetry of any place in the world [without] translations; that’s impossible. Modern Arab poetry is influenced by English, American, French, Japanese, and German poetry, and I think in Germany and England it’s the same. This translation makes poetry more precise to work with.
To translate poetry well, you need to know what’s going on in the world, and that your roots are everywhere, in all continents. Translation is not just moving the words from language to language; it’s also the movement of the shadow of meaning, how you must be precise to capture the sensations, the images. You are unaware when you have changed, and you don’t know how.
RVW: You can translate every word in a poem and still not have a poem. I like the notion that you’re translating yourself. As a Syrian poet in the current climate , you’ve said before that “being alive is a poetic act,” and I’m just wondering how the events in Syria are affecting your work?
GH: I think that poetry in general is a political act, anti-politics. When you write any poem, when you’re talking about anything, it’s a political act. But what’s been going on in Syria in the past two months is very new for the Syrian people. For the first time in four or five decades, people are in the street demonstrating. That is very beautiful and terrifying at the same time. You are in the street and afraid of being killed… I was amazed by such courageous young people in the streets.
And when I see the death of a young man, when I see that beauty pass away, I feel completely helpless. I’m unable to do anything, and that’s why my mind stopped for a whole month, watching television, the Internet, I was unable to write. I tried to arrange my ideas, just to control this big confusion, but sometimes I feel ashamed to be using words when such beautiful people are killed and you cannot do anything for them. Many friends and I who are writers, poets, and painters suffer from the same circumstances. People in the street do not know us; I write for them, but they do not read me. I write for some people who I dream of, and I know them like they are my brothers and friends. And they changed me.
It’s just two months but it feels like two years. I look at my own country in a different way: I know that Syria is going to change, and my only hope is not to see any more bloodshed, any more people thrown in jail, people who are afraid to talk, afraid to write. Actually fear is a great chain in the history of man. If you want to describe something that is unusual psychologically, it’s very impressive and at the same moment sad and cheerful; there are mixed feelings. Many people need time to see. Now, the situation in Syria is completely blurred and confused, but something beautiful is coming out, and coming out soon, I hope.
For the complete interview, you can listen to the original podcast at the Scottish Poetry Library.
Watch “Road to Damascus,” a short film by Roxanna Vilk featuring Golan Haji.
Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.