My stay in Luxor and my travels between the two shores of the Nile these past few weeks have given me an opportunity to reflect on what the artist should do as he contemplates the relationship—his relationship—to his surroundings, and those who surround him.
During my stay in Luxor, I made sure to widen my senses as far as they go: my eyes, my ears.
Time has pushed me further out, and the homeland has become more distant.
I have been in Europe for two decades now. In sterile, cruel, silent Europe with its insular people and its silent dogs.
No friend, no companion.
Even my countrymen have become like the living dead due to the extremes to which they go to imitate the people they now live among.
I say: I made sure to open up my senses while I am in Luxor.
I sit in the three-pound cafes. I take in the faces, happy or wretched. I listen to the passing chatter and the cutting jokes.
I savor the eloquence of the people of Upper Egypt, how their dialect so closely resembles that of old Basra's before it was undone by migration and wars.
In the alleys of the western shore, which descend toward the great Nile, I meet children and women, and I am invited to tea at this or that modest house.
My strange-looking clothes pique the curiosity of the people and they ask about my identity. They try to speak to me with the English they use to address strangers. It's then that I remember the poet Al-Akhtal Al-Saghir, on his way to Baghdad
A flock of grasshoppers peeps through their burrow's eyes,
ask about the Arab boy dressed in foreign clothes.
They recall Qais al-Mulawwah seeing my pallid face
how the songs on my lips are tinged with dirge.
In the markets, between Television and Al-Medina Al-Munawara Streets, here in Luxor, I find myself among my kin. No incident shocks me and no scene phases me.
Even their assumption that I am a foreigner does not surprise me.
As soon as I speak Arabic, sweet laugher surrounds me.
So let me now after this long preamble, come to the idea that has been occupying me:
I enjoy the company of people.
But "intellectuals" repel me.
And when I look back at my life, I see that my most creative periods were those when I did not meet "intellectuals."
In Algeria, between 1964 and 1971
I met none of them. It was a deeply meaningful time, rich with experiences that brought about my book Far from the First Sky.
And in London now, where I live like a hermit in the suburbs and where I visit no one and I'm not visited by anyone, I have been writing with a productivity that I've never experienced before. I published my collected works in seven volumes, amounting to three thousand five hundred pages, which corresponds to the entire corpus of classical Arabic poetry, from the age of Jahiliyah to the third century after the Hejira.
In all this time I did not meet any "intellectuals"!
These days, "intellectuals" have proven to be the worst, by their actions and their character.
They are the tongues of the rulers and oppressors that flicker like snakes'.
They are the lickers of the rich sheikhs' and sheikhas' shoes.
They are the fiercest censors of free thought.
Double-crossers and snitchers who inform on those who write with a clean pen.
They are nothing!
It's true that when I meet them I am not meeting "intellectuals," but politicians!
It is so, because I know the golden rule, which says politics is the art of lying.
I know that I am in the company of liars. I let them lie to me again and again, to analyze what they said, later. This is the best way to deal with politicians.
I am with the people . . .
Therefore: I am the people!
Poets, remember that you are people as well.
But: Where are the poets?
Have they become "intellectuals" too?
Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa