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Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan awes in Arabic and English alike

By Emily Beker

Section: Arts

October 5, 2012

Thursday evening, the creative writing department presented a reading by poets Fady Joudah and Ghassan Zaqtan. Dr. Fady Joudah, an accomplished poet, physician and translator, won the 2012 PEN USA Literary Award for Translation for his Arabic-to-English translation of acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “If I Were Another.” Dr. Joudah also works as an emergency room physician, and has already made appearances at Amherst, Boston University and Harvard within the past three days.

Ghassan Zaqtan is considered the most important Palestinian poet of his generation. His most recent collections of poetry, “Like A Straw Bird It Followed Me” was translated by Dr. Joudah and published in April 2012. Aside from his work as a poet, Mr. Zaqtan has worked as a novelist and as an editor of multiple publications, including the Al-Ayyam daily newspaper in Ramallah, a Palestinian city located in the West Bank.

Set in the Mandel reading room, the presentation was intimate, fostering a sense of connection between poet and audience. Although the reading started late, the poets stuck admirably to their schedule and were able to read a large portion of their work. There was room for commentary and time for engagement with the audience as the speakers answered their questions.

The two Palestinian poets received a warm welcome from the small crowd of students and faculty, and began reading immediately, without any introductions or information offered about themselves. The two poets read together in conjunction: Dr. Joudah would read his translated version, and then Mr. Zaqtan followed with the original version in Arabic. The contrast between the two made the reading an engaging and unusual experience, providing the audience with an understanding of the poem that did not sacrifice the experience of listening to its rhythm and flow in the original language—which is an important aspect of experiencing poetry.

The poems read by Dr. Joudah and Mr. Zaqtan included “Just A Song,” “Neighboring Sounds,” “Not Yet,” “The Orchard’s Song,” “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman,” and “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman and His Son.” Each of these poems, with the exception of “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman” and “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman and His Son,” Mr. Zaqtan followed with the Arabic version.
In between the readings of the different poems, Dr. Joudah made sure to speak about his favorite lines and discuss his perception of Zaqtan’s style. For example, Dr. Joudah mentions how he particularly enjoyed “Not Yet,” in which Mr. Zaqtan elegantly weaves together the poem’s varied topics. At another point, Dr. Joudah spoke about his collection “Biography in Charcoal” from 2003, in which he focused on setting by including places and dates with each poem. Joudah elaborated that, that was a “lovely way of writing one’s narrative by place and year, and where it takes the creation.”

The final sequence of poems, “The Orchard’s Song,” “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman” and “Song of the Orchard’s Watchman and his Son” provided a strong end to the reading. A strong sense of closure was created by repeating the first line of the first poem at the end of the final, as well as providing a sort of bookend for the reading as a whole.

In the question and answer session following the reading, the audience was able to learn the story of how Joudah and Zaqtan first began working together as poet and translator. Toward the end of the reading, Zaqtan was asked if he felt more connected to any one type of writing, given his varied portfolio. He replied, through Joudah, “writing has different domains, and as he defines his domain, it is poetry.”

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