The Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, La Vegas, announced its 2013-14 fellowships at the beginning of this month. Their “City of Asylum” residency was granted to Syrian poet-translator Abed Ismael:
Ismael will be one of three residents at the Institute, along with historian-reporter Sally Denton and memoirist Matthew Davis. All three, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “are slated to work in offices provided by the university, participate in BMI programs and potentially visit UNLV classrooms throughout their fellowships spanning from late August to mid-May.”
Ismael was born in 1963 in Latakia, Syria. He spent his early years there, later moving to Damascus, where he completed his high-school education and went on to teach at Damascus University. Just before the uprising, he spoke with poet Nathalie Handal about Damascus, telling her about places in the city he treasured, including:
“A famous café in downtown Damascus called ‘Havana’ built in 1945, where poets and politicians used to meet. The place is often associated with the poet Mohammad al-Maghout (1934-2006), widely acknowledged as the spiritual father of the modern Arabic prose poem, who used to sit there, drink his famous Arabic coffee and compose poems and plays. Although the place has been renovated recently and lost some of its iconic glamour, it is still referred to as the birthplace of many novels, poems, and even “ideologies.’”
In the interview, he pointed to one of his poems about the city, “Mirrors of Damascus,” which was trans. Issa Boullata and published in the collection Unbuttoning the Violin. From the poem:
The life, which walks at the end of the night
and sees with its own eyes the perforated barrels
and the rifles trained on our backs
and the telephone receivers hanging down on the pavements
as if a crime has just taken place,
is our life. . .
The life, which passes in front of Parliament
heavily armed with applause. . .
The life, which enters the bedroom
with dark sunglasses
and a revolver at its hip. . . (read the complete poem here)
Ismael’s publications include four collections of poetry and thirteen translations from English into Arabic of works by Walt Whitman, V S Naipaul, Jorge Luis Borges, Noam Chomsky, Harold Bloom and others.
His poems, according to the International Literature Festival Berlin, “are characterized by dark colours which exude human pain. The poem appears as a place of dreams, and his voice, shifting between the first person and other narrative perspectives, conveys a sense of the profound isolation of an individual who retreats from society for self protection and to avoid the enormous demands placed on them.”
Poems by Ismael:
A number have been translated by Issa Boullata and are available online, including: “Mirrors of Damascus,” “Where does it come from?”, “Statues”, “Don’t wake him up”, “…Days fly”, “Past dates”, “A mere ghost”, “Sorrow”
Three poems are available from Banipal, trans. the author: “Against Romanticism”, “A School Hobby”, “The Damascene Bird”