in the Poetry of Amal Dunqul

Ferial J. Ghazoul

The Arabs and Zionists have been pitted against each other since the colonization of Palestine, which culminated in appropriating its land and declaring it a "Jewish" state, while expelling, exterminating or subjugating its indigenous Arab population. Despite the hostility, Arab writers have been at pains to distinguish between Zionism as a political, racist ideology and Judaism as a scriptural religion and spiritual path. The ordinary Arab may use "Jewish" and "Zionist" interchangeably, but it is not for lack of distinctions usually made by Arab intellectuals. It is more often due to the dangerous obliteration of such differences in the discourse of Israeli spokesmen, for whom all Jews are and should unquestionably be Zionists -- so much so that Jews who have opposed or questioned Zionism, such as Noam Chomsky, to name an outstanding figure, have been called "anti-Semites," or "self-hating Jews," etc.

It is not surprising that with such deliberate blurring, people all over the world have come to confuse the two: the spiritual legacy of a religious community with the political agenda of a settler-colonial state. That distinction, however, has been insisted upon by Arab writers and Arab poets, whose resentment of Zionism, and their uncompromising opposition to Zionist expansion and the subjugation of the Arab people, have not prevented them from identifying with humanity's and spiritual cultural heritage, including that of the Jews.

Even a cursory reading of modern Arabic poetry will strike the reader by its inclusion of episodes from the Old Testament, and with its intertextual references to such books as Genesis, Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Job, Jonah, etc. The Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim are well-known for the incorporation of Biblical imagery in their poetry, but they are by no means the only ones. Several Egyptian poets have elaborated on themes from the Old Testament -- among them Amal Dunqul (1940-1983) and more recently Muhammad Sulaiman.

The narratives of the Old Testament are of course not exclusively Jewish. They are shared by Christians and Moslems alike (albeit with differences in modes of narration or interpretation), who see themselves as continuing the Semitic spiritual tradition and adhering to monotheistic religions. Furthermore, some of the narratives in Genesis hearken back to variants found in the earliest writings of Mesopotamian culture. The flood, for example, occurs in the famous Sumerian-Babylonian epic Gilgamesh -- which is the earliest extant literary text in the history of the human race.

The modern Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul integrated a number of mythic, legendary and sacred motifs in his poetry. For example, he used Arabian legendary history as the poetic frame of reference to comment on present-day events and the humiliating deals to be made with the enemy, in his well-known, virtually prophetic poem entitled "Do Not Make Peace" (La Tusalih), written before Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, in intuitive anticipation of the compromising settlement made with the Zionist state. While it is not surprising to read poets calling on their own history to sensitize and mobilize the readers, it is somewhat unusual to find the sacred texts of Others, with their specific styles and headings, to express the tensions and aspirations of the collective Self. Dunqul succeeded in poetically assimilating the texts associated with Judaism while still maintaining a healthy distance from Zionism.

Amal Dunqul was born in Upper Egypt, and like many writers known as the Generation of the Sixties, migrated to Cairo from the countryside. He came to be known as the vagabond poet. He moved between cheap hotels and apartments, sharing with his artistic mates not only meager meals, but also taking turns wearing the only outfit they had for social and literary gatherings!1 Not surprisingly, Amal Dunqul became a legend in his own lifetime. He combined the traits of the poËte maudit with the passionate flare of the native son (ibn al-balad); He was undomesticated but loving, irreverent but honest, uncompromising but humane.

Amal Dunqul wrote six collections of poetry, apart from dispersed poems which were collected in his Complete Works. From his first collection, Weeping Before Zarqa' al-Yamama (1969), to his last collection, published posthumously, Papers of Room 8 (1983), his gift for simplicity and outspokenness made him the darling of rebellious youth and the bÍte noire of the Establishment.(2)

The two poems translated here, "The Book of Genesis" and "The Book of Exodus" are from Dunqul's collection, The Coming Testament (1975). In her fascinating biography of Dunqul and the account of their unconventional relationship entitled The Southerner (1985), Abla al-Roueni, drama critic, journalist and the poet's widow deems this collection his best.(3) Significant as these poems are, they have not before been translated into English, although some of his poems have been co-translated into English by the Palestinian poet Sharif Eimusa and tote Canadian poet Thomas Ezzy.(4) His poems have also been translated into German, Spanish, Turkish and Greek.

In 1983, at the age of 43, Dunqul died tragically of cancer complications after a long agony, as depicted in his last collection Papers of Room 8, named after the room he occupied in the terminal cases ward in a Cairo hospital. In a documentary film made about him, the talented director Atiyyat al-Abnoudi captures a full portrait of the artist, including his rural roots and his poetic persona. A few of his poems were set to music by the young Egyptian operatic composer Sharif Muhiyy al-Din and sung by the Egyptian soprano Nevine Allouba. The composer and singer Ahmad Khalaf has sung and set to oud music Dunqul's "The Book of Exodus." Dissertations, books and articles on Dunqul have been regularly coming out, including a book by the Egyptian critic and professor of literature, Sayyid ai-Bahrawi, entirely devoted to an analysis of only one poem of Dunqul's poems, "The Son of Noah".(5)

Dunqul's poem, "The Book of Genesis," uses the language and idiomatic phraseology of the first book of the Pentateuch, popularly known as the five books of Moses, but the poet humanizes the speaker in the poem. The act of creation fuses God with mankind, the Old Testament with the New Testament, and the sacred past with current events. God is seen in the poem -- as in a mystic mirror -- at one with His creatures, without the usual male-female hierarchy: "In the beginning I was man, woman and tree." Swarms of bees, flocks of sheep and groups of geese complete this idyllic setting and intertwine with the arboreal, zoological, human and divine -- constituting a union of the living and a unity of life.

The pastoral and primeval setting reveals not only the bliss of Being, but also the sorrow of Becoming: "I gazed in the water's depth/ I gazed / And saw my face adorned with a wreath of thorns." God is presented not as a vengeful being, but as loving and just: "I said: / Let love be on earth[...], l said: / Let justice be on earth." And yet the absence of love and justice becomes conspicuous. Son of Adam shows a perverse streak for possessiveness and tyranny. Rhetorical questions and apocalyptic scenes in the poem evoke the Biblical text as well as modem conditions. The divine wish to have reason on earth, "I said: / Let reason be on earth," has been reversed. Instead madness reigns, polluting the environment, holding on to deadly atomic weapons as if for dear life, and spreading discord. This visionary panorama of a world gone mad and of ecological disasters demonstrates once more the poet's prophetic sense of where things are heading. God, then, lets loose wind and blood -- the wind to purge the world from its "rot" and exploitation ("The rich who mint from the sweat of laborers / Adulterous coins"); the blood to purify the land by reaching down to the roots, like life-reviving rain -- as in The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. God/Man identifies himself with the wretched and the hungry, with the cross and the crucified, with innocence and suffering.

The poem, "The Book of Exodus," was first entitled simply "The Song of the Petrified Cake," (which has now become the subtitle), when it appeared in Sanabil,(6) the cultural monthly magazine (published in Kafr al-Shaykh ward, in March 1972. The poem describes the student demonstrations which took place in early 1972 in the Square of Liberation (Maydan al-Tahrir) in the heart of Cairo. The image of the "petrified cake" comes from the central stone monument in the Square, made up of circular pedestals, resembling a multi-layered cake. The Egyptian government closed down the magazine Sanabil, whose editor was the poet Muhammad Afifi Matar, after its publication of Dunqul's poem!

The title, "The Book of Exodus," was added when the poem was included in Dunqul's collection, The Coming Testament. Although the poem does not depend on the structure or style of the Biblical Exodus, in contradistinction to his poem "The Book of Genesis," it does borrow the pregnant term "exodus" (khuruj) to indicate a mass departure -- that of the rebellious students -- from the social norm. The departure motif is reinforced by the farewells enunciated in Chapter III of the poem, just before the massacre of the youth by the police force. Thus the nature of the departure is a march out and forward. The patriotic thrust of such an exilic move from one's community is crystallized in the unfolding of the poem.(7)

In both poems, Amal Dunqul, recalls Biblical events to the mind of the reader by the positioning of key terms and evocative language. Yet, he is able to humanize the sacred narratives and make them pertinent to the present day and actual events.

Ferial J. Ghazoul

Dept. of English & Comparative Literature

American University in Cairo

1. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, "Introduction," in Amal Dunqul, Al-A’mal al-shi’riyya al-kamila (Beirut Dar al-Awda, 1985), p. 28.

2. For more details on the works of Dunqul, see Sarnia Mehrez, "Amal Dunqul," in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, vol. V (New York, Continuum, 1993), pp. 190-191.

3. Abla al-Roueni, Al-Janubi (Cairo: Maktabat Madbouli. 1985), p. 28.

4. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed., Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (New York Columbia University Press. 1987), pp. 214-217.

5. Sayyid al-Bahrawi, Fi al-babth 'an luluat al-mustahil (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr al-Jadid, 1988).

6. Sanabil, March 1972, pp. 24-25.

7. I am grateful to Abla al-Roueni, the poet's widow, for granting me the permission to translate the two poems of Dunqul and for providing me with factual information. I am also grateful to the American poet John Verlenden for his careful reading of my translation and for his valuable comments and suggestions.