Local poet (and 2013 Stranger Genius of literature) Maged Zaher describes the birth of his new anthology of Egyptian poets as "an act of friendship." In 2010, he befriended Cairo poet Ibrahim El-Sayed, and the two began exchanging poems. Zaher translated one of El-Sayed's poems into English "to understand it more" and sent it back to him. The translation became a ritual. During a trip to Cairo, Zaher met six other poets through connections established through El-Sayed—"Cairo's downtown is very small," Zaher explains, "so most people know each other"—and began translating their work out of "friendship more than anything else," but also as "an act of communication for me."
When Zaher visited Cairo, he'd meet with the seven writers in coffee shops and they'd discuss poetry, translation, and the parade of changes that rolled through Egypt during the Arab Spring. (He says all seven writers participated in the revolution.) Though at first he admits to "butchering" the poems in translation, he quickly became better at it, and soon he decided to formally translate and edit their work into an anthology of young Egyptian poets. Finally, five years after that first clumsy act of translation over the internet, Zaher has published The Tahrir of Poems, a slender collection of short works. (Tahrir also marks a significant milestone for another Seattle literary treasure: It's the first bound volume from local chapbook publisher Alice Blue Books. Zaher is pleased with the editorial collaboration with Alice Blue publisher Amber Nelson, and he's glad the authors and publishers of the book are "the same generation," with everyone ranging from 25 to 35 years of age.)
Now that he's undertaken a five-year intensive course in translation, what has Zaher learned? Firstly, he says it's important to address each poem completely in one sitting. "There is a moment when you become one with the poem," he explains. It's a "poetic moment when you get the poem deeply," and when that moment happens, you have to translate every single word. "You don't leave anything undone," he warns, or the moment—and maybe the entire translation—will be ruined. Once the first pass at translation is complete, he would let the poem sit for a time before reinvestigating and revising. Finally, he'd collaborate with the poets and incorporate their notes. Zaher has grown to enjoy the process; he has several translation projects in the works right now.
The only connections that bind all seven writers in Tahrir are their age and country of origin; they don't even share a single language. One of the poets, Amira Hanafi, writes in English. Zaher defends her involvement by noting that Hanafi was a participant in the revolution, but he wants to make a broader point as well: "I am arguing in the book by the inclusion of Amira that we are looking for something beyond language," and affirmation that "we live in a global world in a specific way."
The poems in Tahrir don't share much in common except for a general sense of horniness ("It seems to me that all poets of the world are trying to have sex and avoid masturbation. It's a universal truth," Zaher explains) and a longing for cigarettes (he confirms: "In Cairo, we didn't get the memo"—about smoking being bad for your health—"that people in Seattle got. All the poets are smokers, except Aya [Nabih]. Smoking is a significant part of the daily life"). Zaher agrees that the poems all vibrate with a certain "ecstatic" sense, but in almost every other way—form, subject, scope—they're radically different. He praises Hanafi for her "conceptualist" poems, Ahmed Nada for his inclusion of folk references, and Malaka Badr for her "punk, blue collar, angry nature."
If you're expecting didactic revolutionary tracts or stentorian prose about tradition, you'll be shocked to open the cover of Tahrir and find yourself staring back. Tamer Fathi examines lives in the context of the fabric that we wear from cradle to grave ("Clothes choose the bodies that wear them:/They decide to fit tightly,/Loosely,/Or exactly right./They can be the hunter/Or the prey"). In his poems, Hermes is a war correspondent in the ongoing battle that is corporeality ("Yesterday, I decided to fall into artificial sleep/I took several colored pills/I slept long and without dreams/I feel much better"). That central revelation of the book for Seattle readers—the celebration of familiarity even at tremendous distances—is identified most clearly in Badr's short poem "Did you know."
That people could have hid in
After God created the Earth
A big ball
The Tahrir of Poems proves this corner-less world to be a comfort, not a curse.