Bahraini poet highlights appeal of colloquial poetry to Arab readers

“I do not know when to write in Colloquial Arabic or Classical Arabic. It’s really the poem itself that chooses its language and style,” says Bahraini poet Ali Abdullah Khalifa.
Saturday 20/07/2019
A world of passion. Bahraini poet Ali Abdullah Khalifa.(Al Arab)
A world of passion. Bahraini poet Ali Abdullah Khalifa.(Al Arab)

Ali Abdullah Khalifa is considered one of the founders of the Bahraini modern poetry movement. He’s had several important literary and poetic experiences since the early 1960s. He’s also interested in popular culture and has published research on folklore in specialised magazines. His poetry has been translated into English, French, Persian, Italian, Romanian, Russian and Portuguese.

Khalifa, in an interview with The Arab Weekly, stressed that the first feature of the literary and cultural movement in Bahrain was that it is keeping abreast with the Arab cultural movement, both in culture in general and literature and art in particular.

He said there has been an educated elite in Bahrain who has been in contact with the poles of Arab culture and developments in intellectual and literary fields. That gives the Bahraini literary movement a vitality that allows it to experience momentum that marks the literary scene and other fields in the Arab world.

That momentum created an intellectual vitality in Bahrain in addition to developing an avid audience for literary works.

“This literary and cultural vitality in Bahrain has been constantly alive and renewed, especially through many Bahraini students who studied in Beirut and Cairo,” Khalifa said.

“This openness on the outside is part of the nature of the Bahraini personality. Bahrainis, like all islanders, are particularly keen on being open to the world. The Bahraini authorities have contributed to this movement by sending Bahraini students to study in Arab universities.”

Khalifa said Bahrain was a pioneer in the cultural movement and there are similar movements in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait.

“What is excellent about these movements is that they are in constant communication and interaction through conferences and other events, whether at the individual level or at the institutional level,” he said.

“As to cultural and literary magazines and publications, Kuwait was definitely a pioneer because of the great importance it gave to culture from the beginning of its modern history and of the resources it allocated to cultural development.

“Not only did Kuwait play a huge and pioneering role in developing its local literary movement, it also financed and supported cultural movements in other Gulf states and several Arab countries.”

Khalifa said a poet cannot plan a poem right from the beginning.

“In my writing, I tried to give a voice to myself, my surroundings and my environment. That is why I titled my first collection of poems ‘Anin al-Sawari’ (‘Lament of the Masts’),” he said.

“I wanted to paint, in words, the harsh life of pearl divers, the profession of my ancestors. I am the son of a diver. Therefore, I spontaneously talked about the exploitation experienced by people in the profession and wanted to show the existence of maritime feudalism, which is worse than land feudalism.

“In my ​​writing I was inspired by my own harsh life experience and by what I witnessed, so I wrote as a sort of paying attention to the hidden aspects of things.”

Khalifa maintained the same path in later poems. He wrote about his Bahraini environment, turning it into special poetic symbols. He said poetry still has charm and will be with us as long as there is a beating heart.

He said he agrees that true poets and true poetry are rare and that poetry is a divine gift. A pseudo-poet cannot make poetry. Talent, however, is not enough, because the essence of poetry requires care and refinement, in addition to giving it the appropriate importance in our lives. Poetry is a cause, a high art and we need to honour it. It cannot, for example, be used for profit or play, he said.

Khalifa said, however, we should not ask for the impossible from poets. If a poet happens to live in an illiterate society, what could he do? He is neither responsible for that illiteracy nor can he be a teacher.

“If a society does not appreciate poetry, you have to find a way to communicate with it first,” said Khalifa. “I wrote in the local Arabic dialect because this medium reaches readers quickly but I did not really focus on Colloquial Arabic.

“I write in both Classical Arabic and Colloquial Arabic and I published many collections in both varieties because I wanted to touch different parts of the society. When I write in the local dialect, I follow the mawwal style, which is the style of sailor songs in Bahrain, much admired by all because it is part of their heritage.”

He added: “I do not feel any contradiction when I am working on texts in Classical Arabic or in Colloquial Arabic. Colloquial Arabic is my mother tongue. I heard it in cradle songs and it seeped deep in my memory and soul.

“I also grew up in a Bahraini environment of sea workers who chanted poems daily and fluently in Bahraini Arabic. So, I had taken, as a child, big gulps of the spirit of those folk poems, which I consider important texts. When I was 6, I was placed in Quranic school and I memorised the Quran and that’s how I now have two wings to soar with.”

Khalifa acknowledged that he exploited the richness of vernacular and standard languages to strengthen his poetic talent and take on various issues. He said he did not plan to write in Colloquial Arabic, that it happened spontaneously.

He recalled that, when he published his first collection of poems, he was congratulated by many simple folk and workers in his neighbourhood but they said they did not understand what he wanted to say in his poems. He said this made him both sad and motivated. Motivated to continue writing in Bahraini Arabic but sad that it was exactly those he had written about who did not understand his message.

“I do not know when to write in Colloquial Arabic or Classical Arabic. It’s really the poem itself that chooses its language and style,” Khalifa said. “I don’t have a problem with either genre and I don’t feel any contradiction.

“I feel that a poem written in the local dialect is sweet and light but so is a poem written in Classical Arabic. I do feel, however, that Classical Arabic gives me a wider room for expression because of the multiplicity of the lexical items.

“I also love to recite my poems using body language as a very important means of conveying meaning. Whether I write in colloquial or classical language, the important thing for me is that I feel that I have expressed what I wanted to say and that I have conveyed a poetic experience.”

Khalifa noted that he has never written lyrics for a song but some of his poems have been put to music.

“When a singer or a composer likes one of my poems and asks for my permission to turn it into a song, I do not object,” he said. “Some of my poems were selected for songs, even though I have declined several requests for writing lyrics for opening songs for television series. Artist Khalid al-Sheikh, for example, selected some lines from one of my poems and sang them.”