Intermediality and Cultural Journalism.
Morsi's biography involves ethnicities and locales seldom depicted in canonical (European) texts about his native city, Alexandria. The series of neighborhoods in which he grew up--in the older, less privileged and largely non-Europeanized areas to the West and the South of the town--exhibited their own ethnic mixing and continue to feature prominently in an Egyptian imaginary of Alexandria. Morsi's recollections of his early years in Alexandria, while they project the sort of personal mythology that goes into a "self-portrait of the artist as a young man," also attest to an Alexandrian Bildung characterized by cultural diversity and, for his Arabophone generation and milieu, an enhanced eclectic fluidity. He received his secondary education at al-'Urwa al-Wuthqa--the name of the school tracing its genealogy, via philanthropic organizations, to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh. He then studied at Alexandria University. Though the university had a nucleus of colleges already functioning in the late 1930s, it was inaugurated in 1942 (under the name Farouk I University), with Taha Hussein as its first rector. Among the university's notable graduates of the period are Morsi's two lifelong friends, the novelist, poet, and critic Edwar al-Kharrat (1926-2015) and the playwright Alfred Farag (1926-2005), as well as modern Arabic literature scholar Muhammad Mustafa Badawi (1925-2012), the Lacanian psychoanalyst Mustafa Safwan (b. 1921), and the literary translator and short story writer Wadida Wassef (1926-1994).
The community cultural centers of the different colonies in this polyglot city were seldom frequented by young Egyptian writers and artists, and class barriers too were not half as porous as they may seem in nostalgic accounts. That said, spaces of interethnic encounter and exposure to artistic trends accessible to young people of Morsi's background and generation included such forums as: the Alexandria Atelier (Est. 1934); the Alliance Francaise at which Morsi participated in group exhibitions that included his fellow Alexandrian Abdel-Hadi al-Gazzar (1925-1966), an artist who likewise rose to prominence; the Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, established in 1955, the same year as the Bandung Conference, registering something of a Mediterraneanist orientation of the Nasser regime that often goes unnoted in favor of an emphasis on the more obvious pan-Arab, as well as Afro-Asian, orientation. This is not to mention the opera and ballet performances at a variety of theaters, such as the Muhammad 'Ali Theater, which provided much material for two older Alexandrian artists influenced by Edgar Degas, to become Morsi's friends, the brothers Seif (1906-1979) and Adham (1908-1959) Wanli.
Morsi's Alexandrian cohort--primarily Arabophone with access to European languages, middle to lower-middle class--benefitting from both solid academic training and an eclectic formation, belong to what I think of as the generation of the interregnum. Morsi repeatedly mentions that he or a friend was one of the first Egyptians to do such-and-such a thing. That motif metonymizes the interregnum, accompanied by a stepped up anti-colonial movement as well as subtle and not-so-subtle transformations, characteristic of the stretch from the eve of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty with its compromising semblance of granting Egypt independence, via the 1937 Montreux Convention which annulled the Capitulations that had secured for foreigners extraterritorial exemptions, all the way to formal independence in the 1950s. Within this sea change translation, journalism, and, I would emphasize, translation in conjunction with journalism, played important roles in the trajectories of Morsi and his cohort. The interregnum years, particularly the 1940s, saw the "[decreeing [of] Arabic as the official language in all dealings of foreign companies," a policy--"strongly felt in Alexandria"--that "provided the linguistically gifted of those from the lower middle class ... with a means to finance themselves through freelance translation" (Hafez 38). Translation, together with journalism, would form Morsi's livelihood in relation to his vocation as a poet and artist. Having supported himself as a university student and after obtaining his BA in English literature from Alexandria University by translating patents, Morsi would spend two years (1955-1957) teaching English at a senior school in Baghdad during which he contributed art criticism to an Iraqi newspaper.
On return to Egypt, Morsi joined a network of writers and artists from his native city who had moved to Cairo and would open doors for him. Together with al-Kharrat, he did translation work for the Cultural Section of the Romanian Embassy while the two of them stayed at the home of their fellow Alexandrian friend, Farag, then a rising star in the world of theatre. Indeed, Farag solicited Morsi to produce the stage set for his own play Suqut Fir'awn (The Fall of Pharaoh) at the National Theatre. Morsi went on to collaborate with al-Gazzar, who had likewise moved to Cairo, on designing stage sets for the National Theater and the old (Khedieval) Opera House: "we were among the first Egyptians to design stage sets; at the time, it was mostly Italians who did this work," he reminisces. Another Alexandrian, actor Mahmud Morsi, roped him into "Program Two" (Est. 1957), the cultural program on the radio. For "Program Two," he translated Arthur Miller's play A View from the Bridge and soon had his own show, "Jawla ma'a-1-funun al-tashkiliyya" (A Tour with the Plastic Arts), that would offer talks about artists and exhibition reviews.
One of the Nasser regime's media projects was MENA (Est. 1956), at which Morsi worked primarily as a translator, but, thanks to his skills as a writer, would occasionally be called on to contribute articles anonymously. It was there that he met his future wife, Amani Fahmy, a distinguished translator in her own right. Morsi continued to work at MENA even after the couple moved to New York with their two daughters in 1974 where Fahmy became the first Egyptian and the first woman to serve as the chief of Arabic Translation Service at the United Nations. From his New York base, Morsi contributed to a variety of Arabic publications, including: Ibda' (Creativity) in which he had a regular column entitled "Risalat New York" (Dispatch from New York) covering such topics as Allen Ginsberg, Jasper Johns, and Toni Morrison; the international edition of the Ahram which hosted a regular section by him entitled "Nafidha 'ala-1-funun" (A Window onto the Arts), in which he wrote about such topics as graffiti artists, Paul Gauguin, copies of paintings by Pablo Picasso and forgeries of Salvador Dalf's work. He also freelanced for the Kuwait-based journal 'Alam al-Fikr (The World of the Intellect), contributing, among others, a piece on Picasso.
His work in journalism, I posit, relates to his poetry and artistic output not merely by dint of his interests as poet and painter dictating the selection of topics addressed in his journalistic contributions. While it lies beyond the scope of this introduction to analyze Morsi's poetry, I note that many of the poems in his ten collections are metapoetic. Romantic tropes and the persona of the solitary, melancholic poet projected in the first collection Aghani al-maharib (Songs of the Altars; 1949) would carry over into the second, Qutufmin azhar huqul al-asbirin (Blossoms Plucked from the Fields of Aspirin; 1997), published after a silence of several decades, containing poems written between 1948 and 1968. This second collection included poems centering on the theme of social justice--in a section entitled "1954," the year of an anti-democratic turn of the Revolutionary regime in Egypt--perhaps in parallel with the folklorist themes in his paintings of that decade. Morsi has bracketed, without repudiating, these poems, professing himself to be apolitical. That position may well be a preference to err on the side of reticence when it comes to grand politics; in any case, it has not prevented him from expressing empathy with the victims of the politics of politicians in painting (the 2011 painting "Iraq's Weeping Women") and poetry (the "Baghdadiyyat" series written in response to the 2003 War on Iraq [al-A'mal 849-860]). But Qutuf also carries resonances of surrealism as would his later collections (see al-Kharrat, "Ahmed Morsi" 21-23). These, starting with third collection Suwar min album New York (Images from the New York Album; 1998) and the fourth, Marathi al-bahr al-abyad (Elegies of the Mediterranean; 2000), weave multiple relations--threaded with the themes of exile and alienation, frequently evoking lacrimae rerum--between New York and Alexandria. The first collection betrays a precocious formal experimentation with the traditional qasida, several poems adopting a single hemstitch form and varying rhymes, verging on free verse. Later collections include infusions of prose and more play on metrics of the sort that would lead a critic to observe that the gradual attenuation in Morsi's poetic corpus of the rhyme imperative is accompanied by the "musicality" at stake in a "rich, varied and vibrant" meter (Hadidi 1095).
A key feature I detect in Morsi's poetic and artistic practice that speaks to his journalism is "intermediality"--intimately related to intertextuality--"a generic term for all those phenomena that ... in some way take place between media ... designating] those configurations which have to do with a crossing of borders between media" (Rajewsky 46; see 54). Granted, literary intertextuality per se is rampant in Morsi's ten collections: Allusions to and intertextual dialogue with writers from different canons are too many to enumerate. The imprint of the plastic arts on Morsi's poetry has often been commented on, but I would draw out specifically his sustained use of ekphrasis, itself a subset of intermediality (Rajewsky 50,52). The most explicit example is the poem "Naht" (Carving): "Brancusi's bird is a captive in the shackles of space / Juan Miro's bird a prophet exiled / in the atemporal /[...] My bird is Picasso's guitar--/ Andalusian elegies--/ its eyes oriental / stars /[...] sparkling with harbingers of love's fruition, / the season of embraces, / the moon. /I carved the face of my beloved on the moon's marble / that the moon may not set" (al-A 'mal 449-50). The horse is a leitmotif in Morsi's paintings, while the bird is no less so in both his art and poetry (see Ahmed Morsi [Website]); if "Naht" is metapoetic, its ekphrasis is also not far removed from art critical interpretation. Picasso is a nodal figure in Morsi's intermediality, not only as an intertext of his paintings but also as the subject of several ekphrastic poems, such as, "al-Zaman al-da'i"' (Lost Time), which imagines his "Demoiselles d'Avignon" breaking free of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and returning to Montmartre, and "al-Bateau-Lavoir"--this, in addition to a monograph and articles that Morsi has written about him. Another nodal figure in Morsi's intermediality is C. P. Cavafy, whose poems he was to translate into Arabic alongside producing the "Cavafy Suite," a series of etchings inspired by the Alexandrian-Greek poet (see al-Kharrat, '"An 'Mutataliyat Kafafi'" and "Ahmed Morsi" 39-42; Halim, Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism 105-07 and "Of Infinite Variety").
The story of Morsi's art criticism published in Iraqi newspapers projects the ingenuous young critic who nonchalantly points a finger at the emperor. As the prominent Iraqi novelist and playwright Fu'ad al-Takarli (1927-2008) was to recall, in the Baghdad of 1956,
an obscure young man wrote art criticism of one of the painting exhibitions of the time. Strangely, his article caused a mighty furor in the cultural world, and in the milieu of Iraqi artists. What he wrote was not overly harsh; it is just that, in quietly and skillfully producing a lucid critique, he raised the hackles of imposters and pseudo-artists. His name was Ahmed Morsi. ("al-Madina" 1117)
In hindsight, Morsi's time in Iraq--against the backdrop of the last days of the Iraqi monarchy and protests against the recent Baghdad Pact followed by further protests against the Suez War--could not have been more opportune as a vibrant artistic scene was unfolding in what we may think of as a comparable interregnum. Artistic associations and groups were being formed, such as the Societe Primitive (known as SP), later renamed al-Ruwwad (The Pioneers; Est. 1950), the leading light of which was artist Faiq Hassan (1914-1992), and the splinter group Jama'at Baghdad li-1-Fann al-Hadith (The Baghdad Group for Modern Art; Est. 1951), founded by the painter and sculptor Jawad Salim (1919 [?]-1961) (Jabra 44-45; Shabout 27-29).
But what would have ruffled feathers the most is Morsi's underscoring an excess of imitativeness of European art, itself at times superficially understood, and several Iraqi artists' inability to bypass that predicament. The Ruwwad's exhibition showcased eleven artists, including the imitative amateur, the poor-quality imitator, and the academic, alongside the master confusedly torn between himself and Western schools that in many instances he managed, after agonizing attempts, to adapt to his living environment while that agonized struggle and destructive anxiety manifested itself in some works that reflect the character of well-known artists with whom he has no affinity except by dint of following the outward expression of their aesthetic discoveries without plumbing the depths of the psychological motive adapted to their Western environment and living circumstances. But there is no harm in searching incessantly and making agonizing attempts so that [the Iraqi artist] may finally crash into the wall of himself from which he had averted his gaze. Only then can Iraq be proud of having laid sound foundations of Iraqi pictorial art. (Morsi, "Ta'ammulat")
The criticism, however, was constructive as when, in the review of the Baghdad Group exhibition, Morsi writes:
As for Jawad Salim, there is no doubt about his abilities and intelligence ... in many of his paintings [we find] a folk lyricism characterized by limpidity of color, freshness, and something of the openness we encounter in legends and folklore.... The texture has been treated with skill and intelligence, all visible in his "Thousand and One Nights" and some of his "Baghdadiyyat" currently on exhibit at the British Council. He did not attempt in these paintings to offer an interpretation of the external world, but rather has given expression to the folk [sha'biyya] spirit or the unconscious by using the two essential elements of individual art, namely: 1-lyricism 2-symbolism. I believe the scope for Jawad Salim lies in this sound folk orientation. ("Hawl al-naqd")
Presciently, albeit this in an article that could not be accessed, Morsi detected talent in artwork by a certain Ardashis (later pseudonym, Ardash) Kakafian (1940 [?]-2000), then a schoolboy who, partly with Morsi's early support, would go on to become an internationally esteemed artist.
Morsi's Baghdad years also coincided with a likewise thriving literary scene that yielded long-standing friendships with, among others, al-Takarli, 'Abd al-Wahab al-Bayyati (1926-1999), one of the foremost proponents of free verse to be exiled from Iraq for a spell in the late 1950s, and Yusuf al-'Ani (1927-2016), leftist homme de theatre, involved in acting, play writing, and filmmaking, who also contributed to newspapers. These friendships were to lead to literary collaborations, not least in the context of the Cairo-based avant-garde literary journal Gallery 68, of which Morsi was co-founder and layout designer.
The collective Gallery 68 is far from being without precedent in Egyptian cultural journalism. One may wish to liken it to journals with an avant-garde orientation such as the ones published by Art et Liberte, al-Majalla al-Jadida, during the period (1942-1944) when artist Ramsis Yunan (1913-1966) took over its editorship from Salama Musa, and al-Tatawwur (1940), edited by Anwar Kamil (1913-1991) (see al-Kharrat, al-Hasasiyya 1315; Halim, "Scope" 445-46). But the context of publication of Gallery 68 was radically different and goes some way towards explaining its impact. Following pro-democracy demands and a government-sponsored backlash against them in what is known as the "March 1954 crisis," the regime dissolved "the executive branch of the Union of Journalists in April 1954 and, a month later, a decree was issued confirming the ban on forty-two independent journals," in addition to the imprisonment of "many leading literary figures ... as part of a crackdown on communists" (Kendall 65). A more crucial turning point was the nationalization of the press in the form of law number 1956 of the year 1960 "which turned privately-owned journal/newspaper publishers into institutions owned" by the National Union, later the Arab Socialist Union, the sole political party (Badr 40).
In all, Gallery 68 published eight issues from 1968 until 1971, with a hiatus in 1970. The collective initially comprised some ten key members, such as artist Hassan Soliman and writers al-Kharrat, Ibrahim Mansur, and Jamil 'Atiyya Ibrahim, with only these writers and Morsi remaining by the last issue. Morsi's role on the masthead shifted from editor-in-chief in the early issues to "artistic supervisor" in later ones. It is instructive to revisit the editorial to the inaugural issue, signed by Morsi:
The Arab world is currently undergoing momentous and excruciating birth pangs: the military Naksa [the Setback, or June 1967 War] that befell our nation was not the end of it, but rather the exorbitant price for fathoming the naked truth. This truth constitutes the solid grounds on which we stand today in anticipation of the moment of glorious birth.
In publishing the first issue of Gallery 68 under the historical circumstances Egypt is witnessing, the magazine has vowed to claim the honor of contributing a modest brick to the edifice of the new free, democratic, socialist nation.
Although Gallery 68 is not a political magazine, it carries the conviction that if it succeeds in revealing the truth about the innermost preoccupations of the current generation of writers, poets, and artists it will have fulfilled the vow of participating in the battle of liberation and construction. In this context, the editorial team would be remiss not to thank all those friends and colleagues among the intellectuals, poets, and artists who supported this magazine from the earliest stage when it was a mere idea, a dream. Without this support, both material and moral, it would not have been feasible to turn that idea and that dream into reality.
Ahmed Morsi ("Tasdir" 2)
The emphasis on "truth" thematizes the misinformation glaringly revealed by the defeat, and if "no manifesto about aesthetic value was given" in the first issue, this is possibly "because of self-imposed censorship" (Stehli-Werbeck 163). And granted, there is a contradiction between Morsi's editorial and the journal's later avowed opposition to the notion of iltizam (commitment) that had been so dominant in the late 1950s and 1960s (Badr 238). However, in addition to hosting much experimental writing, one of the features that lent Gallery 68 a long-lasting effect was that it made for a polyphonic forum, particularly in the extended debate over socialist realism the journal hosted (see, variously, Kendall 86-109, 120, and 163-76; Stehli-Werbeck 126 and 163-67; Badr 91-100, 269-70, and 327-30; Halim "Literary Manifestos" 98-99). Gallery 68 was attuned to the increasing importance of the short story--to which it devoted an entire issue (no. 6, Apr. 1969)--and to then young writers who would rise to prominence as the so-called 1960s generation. The journal also published literary texts that alluded to the Naksa. Al-Takarli's short story entitled "al-Samt wa-l-lusus" (Silence and the Thieves), in the third issue, is narrated from the point of view of a young boy who, together with his mother, is silenced, gagged, and beaten by masked thieves, while the father returns drunk from carousing on the town and the youngest boy drives away the thieves with explosives hidden on an upper storey of the house. Of a noir tonality, the story verges on allegory, the allegorical mode and somewhat more explicit allusions to the Naksa being present in al-Takarli's play al-Sakhra (The Rock), mentioned in the interview. In this play steeped in the absurd, a man whose living room is occupied by an ever-expanding rock calls a meeting with his neighbors who, rather than acknowledge the risk to them all and cooperate, indulge in sophistry before fleeing his house.
I first became acquainted with Morsi's work at the inauguration of an exhibition of his "Cavafy Suite" in Cairo in February 1991; although he himself did not attend, there was a panel discussion on Cavafy translations that included two of his Gallery 68 cohort, al-Kharrat and Mansur (see Halim, "Of Infinite Variety"). It was not before summer 2007 that I met Morsi, in New York, when he gave me an autographed copy of his Marathi al-bahr al-abyad (Elegies of the Mediterranean), the collection closest to his heart. This was to be the beginning of many conversations--his voice subdued, elliptical--in which Alexandria, Cavafy, al-Kharrat, and the "Elegies" became the points de repere. As the dialogue unfolded, it followed a trajectory from New York (2007, 2012, 2015) via Cairo (2016) leading to a long-anticipated get-together in Alexandria (2016); and then the thread was taken up again in New York (2016) and Cairo (2017); much of it recorded on cassette tape, parts of the interview are in long hand and took place over the telephone. With the exception of Morsi's answer to the last question (in English, via e-mail), the dialogue was oral, in Egyptian colloquial Arabic; it appears here in my translation. Likewise, all quotations in Arabic or French in the original, whether in the body of the interview or the introduction, are in my translation. I have reproduced some names following the standard spelling in English. In these conversations/interviews, I certainly did not quote Morsi's poems at him; since little of his poetry is available in English, extracts are woven into my questions below for the reader's benefit. The text of the interview, carved out of an ongoing conversation, is more the outcome of mise-en-scene and collage than of transcription and mise-en-page. It has undergone Morsi's authorization. I wish to thank Morsi for permission to reproduce his artwork on the cover of this issue of Alif. Morsi's wife Amani Fahmy and daughters Sherine and Maha facilitated this ongoing encounter. Sherine generously put at my disposal much of Morsi's material and expediently undertook fact checking of the interview.
Hala Halim: Would you recount your formative years in Alexandria?
Ahmed Morsi: My parents were Alexandrian. My mother's family is part-Moroccan. Her father was a contractor who worked in the cotton press in Minat al-Bassal [the cotton exchange and warehouses by the commercial harbor]. My father's family is from Upper Egypt; they owned a sandal [pontoon] and were involved in coal import.
I was born in Qabbari district but we moved to Anfushi neighborhood when I was in primary school. My paternal grandfather had bought a residential building where we lived in one of the apartments. The building was in the second row from the seafront: From the balcony you could see the sea, the fishermen and their nets being cast on the beach. My primary school was on the seafront, just opposite Ras al-Tin Palace. During art lessons, I would sneak off to the beach and sit and draw there. We then moved into a huge apartment in a building that my maternal grandfather had bought in Muharram Bey district, in Manuzardi Street. There was a mosque, a Baha'i temple right behind it, and further down a Jewish synagogue, and a Christian church--all on one street. Right in front of our building was a courthouse, and behind the building was a mound that we called Gabal al-Ma'iz [Goat Mountain], because there were Bedouins who lived on it with their goats. A very different world.
I started writing poetry early, while still a pupil. By then I was at al-'Urwa al-Wuthqa Association School in Chatby [district]. We were a big family and the house was always very crowded, so I took to composing poetry at cafes or while walking. This became a lifetime habit. The neighborhood around the main railway station was full of cafes owned by Greeks. Sometimes Fd get it into my head to walk to school but detour on the way, sometimes I'd board the tram and then change my mind and get off. The teacher would see me on the tram in the morning, but would find me missing from the first lesson--so he dubbed me "the poet."
HH: Is it true that as a poet you were born translated, as it were?
AM: Yes, my first published poem was printed, in Greek translation, in a Greek communist newspaper. I don't recall the name of the publication--it was translated by a Greek friend in Alexandria, an editor of the paper whom I met at one of the cafes. In fact, when I first began to write poetry, I wrote in French! I even translated the poetry of Valery, Verlaine, Claudel, and Laforgue. But that stage was soon over. I don't have any of my French poems--I've never committed to memory any of my poems, nor have I ever learnt anyone else's poems by heart. Mercifully! I used to get my poems typed at the patents firm where I worked as a translator and then I'd distribute them by hand. I used the same method as Cavafy, though I didn't know of him at the time. I used to go to the Municipality Library where I copied by hand a manuscript of [the eighth century Arab philologist's work that codified Arabic metrics and prosody] al-Khalil b. Ahmad's Kitab al- 'arud [Book of Prosody].
HH: In your fourth collection, you hark back to the scene of copying the Book of Prosody. The poem "Surgery on al-Khalil bin Ahmad al-Farahidi, Alexandria, circa 1945" is a mock apologia to the philologist for your "tampering" with meter: "in the wake of the defeat of an age /[...] your polished musicality cannot support / voices drawn to giddy polyphony / or the dialogue of the cobwebs. / Thus, I elected to dilate an artery / and did not wield my scalpel to assassinate you" (Marathi 156-57). But at which stage did you turn your hand to art?
AM: My English teacher at secondary school, Ahmad Fahmi, was an artist. He contributed the cover artwork to my first collection, the 1949 poetry collection Aghani al-maharib. When I told him I was planning to enroll in the Faculty of Fine Arts, he advised me against it, saying I wouldn't learn much and that my most likely option when I graduated would be to work as a schoolteacher. So I decided to study English literature. He and the Wanli brothers, Seif and Adham, shared a studio where I used to visit them. I became friends with the Wanlis who had trained at Studio Bicchi, under the artist who established it. They introduced me at the studio, but by the time I joined, it was run by the son, Silvio. The training I got was drawing classical Italian statues. When we reached the stage of drawing living models, I withdrew. I didn't want to be influenced. It lasted for a few months only.
HH: What were the channels of your exposure to the avant-garde in the Alexandria years? Was it the international avant-garde or were you familiar with the Art et Liberte group and their journals al-Tatawwur and al-Majalla al-Jadidal I know you later wrote an obituary for Ramsis Yunan ("Akhbar al-fann"). And did you frequent Librairie Culture?
AM: Alexandria during World War II, and even more in the late 1940s, was a thriving artistic center. At a time when Europe was devastated, Alexandria served as the external art market for the latest European trends, also because it had wealthy local European communities. I saw Modiglianis in such forums as Galerie Lehman and I also got to see Picasso's work in galleries and Alexandrian private collections. I found anthologies of poetry and literary books, as well as magazines, that the British army distributed to its soldiers stationed in Egypt. It was the international avant-garde that I was drawn to, and I related to it aesthetically not politically--I've never been involved in politics; I just don't like it. I may have seen an issue or two of al-Tatawwur. I met Ramsis Yunan through Edwar [al-Kharrat] in Cairo years later. I didn't go regularly to Librairie Culture, though I may have bought a few English books there--that was the communist crowd. Edwar used to go there; at the time, there were very few Egyptians [like al-Kharrat] in the communist movement. Hachette bookshop received the latest publications from France. Its owner, a Mr. Oscar, a Jew, was a sort of father to me. He'd let me pay for Eluard and Valery books in installments. And he'd offer me artists' notebooks--it's thanks to him I became acquainted with this genre I would go on to work with, as in the "Cavafy Suite." Sometime later, when I left for Iraq in haste, I realized I still owed him money and wrote to my father to ask him to settle with Oscar. But he refused and said Ahmed is like a son to me.
My first painting to be sold was bought by an Alexandrian, a young man from the Ades family who owned a textile factory. He'd stayed on to liquidate the family's assets and had seen the painting at my exhibition in Cairo--I'd moved there in the late 1950s. I wrapped it in a sketch of mine and gave it to him. On my next trip to Alexandria, he invited me to lunch: I saw my painting hanging beside a da Vinci! He'd even framed the sketch. The latest French and Italian films, and some American ones, were screened in the cinemas in Alexandria. The theaters hosted concerts, Italian operas, ballet, mainly French, and there were Latin American troupes; but the audience at these musical events was aristocratic. It was thanks to Alfred [Farag] that I crossed the class barrier. He and I attended performances at the Muhammad 'Ali Theater free of charge, courtesy of Alfred's father who held an important post at the Alexandria Municipality, that allocated seats to its high-ranking employees--he always made sure to save two seats for us.
When I was studying English literature at Alexandria University, I never attended classes as I was working as a translator at a patents firm directed by a Brit, Magri-Overend, to support myself--when I'd turn up for oral exams at university, the examiners would say, who are you? I shared a studio in the Attarine neighborhood with Kamil Salib, the first Egyptian to compose a true opera, who had a piano to work on there. When he moved to Cairo, I rented a studio in al-Saba' Banat Street [Rue des Soeurs] where Alfred often used to visit me and do some writing. Downstairs was the Muslim Brotherhood Association, and on the opposite side of the street a Black Cat Tavern, which Sayyid Darwish was known to have frequented. And then Seif Wanli introduced me to the sculptor Mahmud Musa, the only Egyptian who had a studio at l'Atelier d'Alexandrie, that was in the old premises on Rue Fu'ad--the rest of the artists, back then, were Italian and Greek. He arranged for me to have a studio in the Atelier. My work was exhibited at the Amities Francaises and the Fine Arts Museum, and included in the first Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries and several later rounds. Edwar did translation work at the first Biennale.
HH: Edwar al-Kharrat has a cameo of you, under the alias Ahmad Qandil, in his 2002 autobiographical novel Tariq al-nisr (The Way of an Eagle), where he describes your studio in the Atelier, the translations from Paul Eluard that he did there, and a model called Fatima--all this presumably during the "sabbatical" he granted himself in the mid-1950s (al-Kharrat, Tariq 57-60, 177-78,200-01, and 427-29). There is one instance in the novel when he uses your true name, in a list of "friends who enriched my life in both its old and new trajectories alike" (245; see also Muwajahat al-mustahil [Confronting the Impossible] 239). Several of al-Kharrat's books, such as Hitan 'aliya (High Walls, 1959) and Rama wa-l-tinnin, 1979 (Rama and the Dragon, 2004) carry artwork by you on their covers. When did you first meet al-Kharrat?
AM: Several common friends used to talk to me about Edwar while he was in detention [1948-1950], This was at the patents office, particularly Nasr al-Qaffash who was an avid reader whose books we borrowed, and then the group that formed around us, which included Alfred [Farag] and Nasr's brother, 'Abd al-Salam who studied philosophy and later worked as a psychoanalyst in the UK. I first met Edwar when he was released and started working with us as a freelance translator of patents. He and I used to exchange books and he'd spend the day writing at my studio at the Atelier. In fact, he wrote most of his first book, Hitan 'aliya, at my studio. Yes, he'd sometimes choose a drawing of mine and just use it for the cover of his novel. Sometimes he'd ask me to make drawings specifically for the book. Fatima was a model who worked for most of the artists in Alexandria, including Mahmoud Said. This was before the Iraq years.
HH: Would you address the context of your Iraqi journalism?
AM: I told you, didn't I, why I decided to move to Iraq to work there? I'd graduated, and was still working at the patents office and keeping my studio at the Alexandria Atelier. We had a friend who'd graduated and moved to Iraq, but for me, the decision was not financial because I was receiving a good salary as a translator. One day, Mahmud Musa suggested we go to Cairo for the opening of an exhibition by Hamid 'Abdulla, so we took suitcases with our pajamas and off we went. We checked into a pension close to the station and Mahmud said he had an errand to run. When he left, I found myself all alone. I felt like a stranger. I took my suitcase and asked the receptionist to tell Mahmud I'd gone back to Alexandria. The incident made me feel like a child tied to Alexandria by an umbilical cord. I had to get out of Alexandria-that's why I moved to Baghdad.
I taught English at a school called Tafayyud Private Secondary School in al-'Aquliyya in Baghdad and was lodged in a small room on campus--a Moroccan teacher of Arabic was also given boarding there. I was in the habit of having espresso in Alexandria, so I vowed that if I couldn't find a place where I could have espresso, I'd return to Alexandria. I went to Rashid Street and looked all over. Suddenly I spotted a glassed-in cafe with an espresso machine and went in. There was a group of regulars, writers and artists--'Abd al-Wahab al-Bayyati, Yusuf al-'Ani, and others. We got talking and became friends. They took turns hosting me every Friday, since I had no family--they were so nice--and Fu'ad al-Takarli, who was a judge and was married, would host us on Thursdays, and would invite a violin player to accompany the evening. When I left Iraq later, we all corresponded for years, and Fu'ad and I met up in Paris.
My Iraqi friends launched me into journalism--they basically forced me to write for the newspapers. That's how I started out, in Iraq, and later I made a living out of journalism. Yusuf used to write for al-Akhbar newspaper. He said to me, there's an exhibition by a group called the Baghdad Group that I want you to visit and review. I said, I've never written art criticism, but he insisted and said you can write whatever you like. He gave me a full page in al-Akhbar at a time when the most established art critics in Egypt, the likes of Kamal al-Mallakh, could barely get in a few lines. I went to the exhibition and wrote my article. It made quite a splash because it turned things upside down. I didn't know any of the names, so big names were demoted and budding artists were given a boost. Like that well-known Palestinian writer and artist who lived in Baghdad and used to work for an oil company...
HH: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra? You wrote, "Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, as he manifests in his paintings, is pretentious, or perhaps of the sort that T. S. Eliot in one of his poems dubs 'the hollow men' filled with nothing but straw" ("Hawl al-naqd")! But you do laud Jawad Salim.
AM: And I also praised Ardashis [Kakafian]--that's the name Ardash used at the time. Not long afterwards, a stocky, fair-skinned young man came into the cafe and introduced himself to me as Ardashis. It was the first time any of my friends had met him. He was very young, about 16 years old, and just out of political detention. He became their friend and mine--in fact, more than a brother to me. When I returned to Egypt and settled in Cairo, I rented an apartment in 'Agouza [district], and Ardash came and stayed with me there. He was very keen on traveling to France to study at the [Ecole des] Beaux-Arts, so he asked me to arrange for him to apprentice with a good artist. I introduced him to [Abdel-Hadi] al-Gazzar who gave him art lessons so that he passed the Beaux-Arts exam. Every year we'd visit him in France and he'd visit us, and when he moved to California, we visited him there. When Ardash died, his wife scattered his ashes in the Tigris, according to his will.
HH: "Perhaps the Tigris waters his ashes / even as it waters the shaded killing fields / of Baghdad" (al-A'mal 743), you write in one of the poems in the 2003 collection with the Rimbaudian title Birufa bil-malabis li-fasl min al-Jahim (Dress Rehearsal for a Season in Hell) that is in part an extended elegy to Ardash interwoven with a sense of doom at the turn of millennium. In your contribution on Iraqi art in the 1975 Larousse, you observed that, "Ardash ... after hesitating between expressionism and abstraction, accomplished a painting [practice] of markedly free forms steeped in surrealism" ("Iraq. Beaux-Arts" n. pag.). I know that the Iraqi material, literary and visual, in the journal Gallery 68 of which you were founding member owes its inclusion in part to your contacts. But let's talk about Gallery 68 itself first.
AM: Gallery 68 was established as a refusal of the defeat [in the 1967 War], a refusal to accept defeat. All the meetings as we were preparing for launching it were held at our house in Cairo--they all used to come over, Edwar, Ibrahim Mansur, and the rest. Once, when we were talking about translating [Harold] Pinter, Amani asked us to show her the plays, left us, and then came back a little while later and said, here's the translation! I designed the journal and the covers. There was one cover by Ardash, and illustrations by him to some of the poems. You see these drawings by Mustafa al-Hallaj? He was a Palestinian artist who met a very strange death. He'd studied in Egypt at the Faculty of Fine Arts and was living in Syria. One day his studio caught fire--he died, and most of his work perished.
Every time we'd print an issue of Gallery, it would be sent to the Ministry of Culture and I'd be called in. This was not Yusuf al-Siba'i's doing. Edwar had put us in contact with al-Siba'i and he supported us by publishing an advertisement in Gallery 68, although he would tell us openly he was against its content. Tharwat 'Ukasha was also fine, as was Badr al-Din Abu Ghazi, because he was an art lover and the author of a book about Mahmud Mukhtar. It was Muhammad Fa'iq who would call me in and I'd be kept waiting in his office as if the journal posed a threat to the country! Once at the time, when I was traveling to Paris, the minister called me in to ask what I was going to do there.
HH: It seems the license of the journal was withdrawn for a while, after the third issue, in 1968 (Kendall 161). Al-Takarli sent you an eloquent letter (dated September 4, 1968) about this incident where he wrote of being
saddened as the news of 68's disappearance gradually sinks in and I come to believe it in spite of myself--I who used to feel overjoyed whenever I remembered or even saw a reference to it in the magazines. And there I was working on establishing an ongoing correspondence between you and one of the young litterateurs who would have been delighted to contribute [to Gallery 68] on the local [Iraqi] literary news. But then angels die as children, don't they? ... It's ridiculous that you should be questioned about your funders! Don't the many typos and the quality of the paper speak of the journal's material poverty? Or is it the contrast between this material poverty and the journal's richness and glowing spirit that gave rise to this action, this unexpected reaction?! (Correspondence)
AM: Fu'ad al-Takarli had sent me a play for publication in Gallery. Like everything else, it had to be vetted by the ministry. I was called in and treated like a communist or some subversive element. The play was never published in the journal.
HH: Al-Takarli had this to say about the incident of the play:
When [Ahmed Morsi] collaborated on producing Gallery 68, he asked me to contribute, and I sent him my play al-Sakhra, but it was never published. Years later Ahmed told me that the text had so baffled the Egyptian censor that the latter submitted it to his Excellency the Minister of Culture, at the time Muhammad Fa'iq, to dispose of it as he saw fit. As it turned out, time was up for his Excellency the Minister, what with the death of the leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser and subsequent re versals of fortune; the text remained on the desk of his Excellency the Minister. ("al-Madina" 1118)
Why did Gallery 68 cease publication? Al-Takarli cites you, in a letter dated November 16, 1970, as saying that "its role is over"--and he tries to change your mind by pointing out its impact beyond Egypt (al-Takarli, Correspondence). Was the withdrawal of an advertisement that provided support (Kendall 120) one of the reasons?
AM: A new Minister of Culture was appointed [under Sadat] and he prohibited everything. But Gallery 68 had quite an impact, not just in Egypt but all over the Arab world.
HH: In Egypt, there was a spate of 1970s alternative culture journals, such as Ida 'a 77 (Illumination 77), both benefitting from the space Gallery 68 had opened and rebelling against it. Scholars have registered its impact in other Arab countries, particularly Iraq with the publication of al-Qissa and Fadil al-'Azzawi's Shi'r 69 (1969), its title echoing Gallery (see Kendall 116, 190; Stehli-Werbeck 164; Halim, "Literary Manifestos"). The first literary text, right after your editorial, in the inaugural issue of Gallery 68 was a poem by 'Abd al-Wahab al-Bayyati; in all he seems to have published four texts in the journal. I know you first met him in Iraq. In "Marathi," you write, "In this house on Manuzardi Street / in the summer of the year fifty-seven / al-Bayyati stayed as a guest. / (My father was chivalrous, open-handed / giving up his room to al-Bayyati / not out of admiration for the poet / but in honor of the guest who had fled Baghdad)" (133). Would you comment on your collaborations with al-Bayyati?
AM: In Iraq, I met several young Iraqi poets through al-Bayyati at the literary cafes. He had me illustrate the covers of some poetry collections, for which he wrote the introductions--'Abd al-Razzaq 'Abd al-Wahid's Tiba (Kindness) and Musa al-Naqdi's Aghani al-ghaba (Songs of the Forest). We stayed in contact over the years, and he visited us in New York during the spell when he was living in Spain. We collaborated on two volumes of translations of Aragon and Eluard. Later, when he was back living in Iraq, he called and solicited two books from me. That's when I did the Picasso book and I also sent him my translation of Cavafy poems.
HH: When did you first start reading Cavafy, and what is the backstory of your translation of his poems?
AM: I don't recall precisely when I came to know of Cavafy. But I remember that when I'd go with friends from the patents office, Nasr al-Qaffash and others, to Cinema Royal, we'd always mention that Cavafy's house was around the corner and once we went upstairs and saw his apartment. Amani still remembers that during our honeymoon in 1963, I showed her the building where he had lived. There was E. M. Forster's book [Pharos and Pharillon] which had an essay on Cavafy. I think it was before I left for Iraq that this book fell into my hands and that's how I discovered Cavafy. For a while, his poems were not available in translation. It would have been in the late 1960s or early 1970s that I came across the translation by Rae Dalven.
At one point, 'Abd al-Wahab al-Bayyati was a director of cultural affairs, or some such title, in Iraq. He called me and asked me to submit anything I liked for publication. So, I did the Cavafy book. Amani translated the Auden introduction [to the Rae Dalven translation] and I translated the poems. When I submitted the book, in the early 1970s I recall, 'Abd al-Wahab called me to say, Ahmed, I can't publish it, this man [Cavafy] is homosexual--what with the Ba'th Party [in power], he was afraid for himself. I couldn't do anything with the manuscript for ten years or so. Finally, I mentioned it to [the Egyptian poet] Ahmad 'Abd al-Mu'ti Hijazi who was living in Paris at the time. He arranged for the book's publication. And guess who published it? Al-Khazindar in Saudi Arabia, though it was printed in Egypt. By then, I had moved to New York, and that's where I made the etchings for the "Cavafy Suite."
HH: After the 1967 War, you would cease to write poetry, until 1996. Would you elaborate on that hiatus and the return to poetry?
AM: Although I started writing poetry when I was 16, after the Naksa I decided to give up poetry. It's not that I used to write political poetry, though in the mid-1950s I wrote some "realistic" poems--a sense of injustice and a protest against the curtailment of freedom prompted those poems. But that was soon over [see Morsi, "La shahada" 1129], No, in the 1960s, after the defeat, I felt alienated and decided not to write any more poems. And then in 1996, Edwar called me in New York to say that he had put down my name among participants in a celebration of his seventieth birthday that the Supreme Council of Culture in Cairo was organizing. "Just write something and fax it to me," he said. We were watching TV, and I said to Amani, I'm going to take a siesta. I went into the bedroom and when I left it, I had written a poem. It was my first poem in 30 years. When I faxed it to Edwar, he was amazed and said, "it's as if your last poem was written only yesterday."
HH: This is the poem "Tafsil min Jidariyya" (Detail from a Mural):
The sailors were sipping Stella beer bottle after bottle like mute statues, vendors of Mediterranean fruits de mer thronged the Corniche.
Black fish loitered soft-footed in the pathways, wearied by treading on asphalt. Was it evening? I recall the sky over the Eastern Harbor was a blank mirror dripping with the bodies of the dead, were they the bodies of the living? The birds of poetry roved silently, cunningly as they pecked the cafe windowpane. Who gnawed whom? Were they aware you were just then translating Laforgue? (al-A'mal 491-92)
AM: I used to feel bitter when I read of younger poets being celebrated for their experimentation--things I had turned my hand to many years earlier, except that the poems hadn't been published. But after that [1996 poem], Edwar said we need to get the poems you wrote between 1948 and the late 1960s published. That was my second collection, Qutufmin azhar huqul al-asbirin . Since then, poetry flowed--between New York and Alexandria. Every year I visit Alexandria--and find that it no longer exists.
HH: In "Marathi," you write, "Did it matter that / the traces of your early youth / were effaced amid the ruins of your sunken city / Atlantis / Andalusia of the dead poets / my Andalusia" (15). And your current plans, on both the poetry and artistic fronts?
AM: My complete poetic works were published by the Supreme Council of Culture in 2012--and I surprised myself by publishing yet another collection! That's Mawsim al-hijra ila-l-zaman al-'akhar [Season of Migration to the Other Time; 2012]. I don't think I'll write another collection. There were several exhibitions of my paintings in recent years. I participated in a group show, "Debunking Orientalism," organized by SYRA Arts Gallery in April 2016 in New York and in another group show, "When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965)," organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the American University in Cairo, which opened in Cairo in September 2016. March 2017 saw a retrospective, "Ahmed Morsi: A Dialogic Imagination," at the Sharjah Art Museum, in Sharjah, UAE, and also a solo exhibition at ART DUBAI, organized and curated by the Cairene Gypsum Gallery in Dubai, UAE. I'm now working on a portrait of Edwar.
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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