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Marvels and musing in Egypt

Kenyan writer and poet Khainga O’Okwemba shares insights and experiences gained during a visit to Cairo, for a conference organised by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture in collaboration with Egypt PEN.

Before I left for a writers’ conference in Cairo recently, that was organised by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture in collaboration with Egypt PEN and supported by International PEN, I had spent the last four days in Nairobi with Professor Okello Oculi, the Nigerian based Ugandan professor of political science and author of the poetry anthology, Song for the Sun in Us.

And when I told Professor Oculi that I was going to Egypt for a conference on the subject of ‘The African Writer and the Challenges of the Time’, the soft-spoken Ugandan scholar urged me on, ‘Ah, Africa’s intellectual well.’ And he gave me a gift of his poetry anthology, which I read on my flight from Nairobi through Khartoum to Cairo.

It was one of the most subtle orientations, a teacher can offer to a student – a latent preparation. He played the catechist – both European and Oriental civilisation drew inspiration from Ancient Egypt (Africa). And he wrote and spoke with angst – the Negro infusion of that civilisation is refused by all. And he urged me to read the works of the Senegalese nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop who had read antiquity texts in Greek, Arabic, and Latin and found out that the centrality of Negro role in human civilisation had been expunged from modern translated texts:

‘Why is Cheikh Anta Diop obsessed with genius in black peoples of Ancient Egypt? I find no melody in hieroglyphics, as I do in Arabic and Greek texts,’ Professor Bill Brown wondered aloud to dissuade African scholars from pursuing a study in the origins of civilisation!

I arrived at the Cairo International Airport at around midnight, where I met other conference colleagues from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Earlier, I had met the Ugandan delegate, Danson Sylvester Kahyana. We were picked up by our hospitable hosts and driven to the residence Hotel Pyramisa. In the morning, now joined with writers from other parts of the continent – Ethiopia, Zambia, Tunisia, Morocco, Ghana, Algeria and South Africa – we went to The National Museum in Cairo.

At the museum I saw the mummified bodies of Ancient Egyptian kings and queens such as Tete, Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun, and Akhenaton – best remembered as the first man in human civilisation to imbue the knowledge of monotheism.

The president of Egyptian PEN Ms Ekbal Baraka noted that these royals were Nubians. Of course this will interest both Egyptian and Kenyan scholars because there is a Nubian community in Kenya, but their dark complexion varies from the Caucasian complexion of those in Egypt. And I almost thought I had seen a mummy with Negro complexions – flat nose, hair locks, tropical teeth, a Negro face really!

Egypt is a country of 80 million people, about twice the population of Kenya. And Cairo, its major city, has a population of 25 million people. It is a big city. The city of Alexandria is the second with a population of 14 million people.

Cairo is an amazing picturesque, enticingly romantic and covertly seductive. What with the many historical sites, like the 13th Century Qalawon Mosque, which had a medical facility, a mausoleum, and a school of Islamic law, or the High Court of Fiqueh administered by four judges or sheikhs; Shafei, Malki, Abu Hanefa and Ibn Hanbel. Inside the mosque you get the taste of antiquity art; beautiful paintings and drawings on the walls, hieroglyphics with the inscription of the name of Prophet Mohamed, and you feel, well, modern art has not invented anything! Still wanting to learn the mystery embedded in these historical sites, you drive to the Zoo next to Cairo University, and you are mesmerised even more by the friendliness of the Egyptians.

In Cairo bypasses are all over the place, so much so that when driving, one gets a bird’s eye view of the city. That is if you have not had the opportunity to marvel at the city atop the splendid Cairo Tower! Then we went to marvel at the spectacle of the pyramids, the fairy tombs of the pharaohs, whose construction – the architecture, both inside and outside, the stones used, the plaster, their sheer size and the sphinx built strategically to protect the pyramids – remains a mystery to scholars.

After the site-seeing excursion, we went to the conference hall at the headquarters of the Supreme Council of Cultures for discourses. But first, let me digress a little.

A Kenyan literary scholar once introduced me to a friend as a poet who writes in Haiku, the Japanese poetry model. That description, however, focuses and elevates one of my three models of poetry, namely the celebratory model, which is born from a perpetual pilgrimage to the shrines of great African writers. It proclaims the non-existence of my love epic and poems of known tradition.

Be that as it may, it was in Egypt where I found the clearest definition of Haiku – brief, precise, and subtle. Such was the appeal of Dr John Ralston Saul, president of International PEN to a gathering of writers, students, and scholars drawn from the fields of literature, anthropology, sociology, political science, media, ad nauseam.

Indeed these faculties are broad enough to justify long discourses and polemics. The vexed question of a homogeneous African identity or the search for a continental paradigm, the problem of translation which inhibits access to literary texts from other places, the sore scars of censorship on creativity, leadership and the tendency of African heads of states to turn themselves into capricious gods susceptible to divergent views, and the danger posed by globalisation, which unlike slavery and colonialism which were overt, the former being covertly designed to obliterate other cultures and instal the Anglo-Saxon individualism and/or discourage attachment to ancestral pride, which is considered extant, et al, et al, came under sharp focus from variegated minds.

Dr Ezzedine Choukri Fishere the Egyptian academic and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science at The American University in Cairo, set the ball rolling in his keynote address titled, ‘Fighting Our Own’:

‘We have been taught that writing is an act of rebellion against hegemonic projects, or at least should be. Writing after all, is a subversive act. In societies rife with hegemonic projects, the writer is among those few who have the opportunity to escape control and – either from within or without – ridicule, unmask, and sabotage the hegemonic discourse.’

I have deliberately quoted at length this conference paper for two reasons; one, its enrapturing sounds, disturbing melody, and the war imagery, fighting our own, returns me to the tomb of Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, whose Negritude movement was necessary at a time when the English poet Rudyard Kipling had claimed the Negro race was half-devil, half-child, meaning, it was inferior.

Secondly, it confers the writer with a societal role, where other artists have been rendered impotent, the poet of yesteryear sang of his tribulations, and played cords of freedom of expression, before his arms were frozen, his limbs immobilised, and his tongue cut. Here is the poem (Haiku) I recited to introduce myself to the audience before taking my seat during a session on creativity and censorship:

And that romantic hour’s gone
After another poet’s born
Speak, when there’s someone
Where there’s none refrain

Other scholars presenting papers included Professor Nadia EL Kholy, chair of Department of English at Cairo University; our host, Dr Emad Abou Ghazi, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Culture; Professor Mona Anis; Hala El Badry, the free-spirited novelist and columnist; Frank Geary, director of Programmes at International PEN; Haggag Oddoul, the Nubian playwright and novelist; Khadija George, the UK-based Sierra Leonean poet and editor of Sable Magazine, who represented African Writers Abroad, and many more distinguished intellectuals.

A young Egyptian university student who also happened to be a polyglot had given me a rose on the third day of the conference, and as I debated the import of that gesture, I woke up to the realisation that she had vanished from my sight.

But what shall endure in my mind is the moment when the talented Egyptian poet Amina Addalla came to pick me up on the morning of my last day in Cairo and we drove in a private car out of the city, to Giza town to the home of the Great Egyptian poet Zein El-Abdin Foud Abdel Wahab, for an interview I had requested. Born in 1942, the distinguished Egyptian poet is an oracle.

During the interview he narrated to me the fairy tale of The Poetry Caravan to Gorée Island in Senegal, where there is preserved the slavery museum. The Poetry Caravan was mooted sometime in 1996 by eight distinguished African poets from Mali, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Tunisia, South Africa and Egypt. During a seven-hour ride on a boat across the Niger River, Zein took a poetry anthology by the great Malian poet Ali Bakari Osman Nkunda, who was seated in front of him. The Malian poet noticed that Zein was deeply engrossed in the book and was writing, so he left him undisturbed, upon which after, Ali Bakari asked, did you translate one of my poems into Arabic? And the Egyptian poet answered in the affirmative. Ali Bakari asked him to read the poem.

When he began to read, tears started flowing on the cheeks of the Malian poet and Zein was moved by emotions. Hidden in those tears, he would later discover, was a secrete desire and a dream – Ali Bakari, a great poet, a religious person, and a practicing Muslim, had been nursing a secrete desire of having one day even a line of his poetry being translated into the holy language of the Q’ran, Arabic, and the Egyptian poet had fulfilled that dream by translating a whole poem in his lifetime! To overcome that emotional experience, the sight of a distinguished poet crying, Zein El-Abdin Foud Abdel Wahab wrote a poem in honour of the Malian poet Ali Bakari and did a translation, and every time he read it aloud, Ali Bakari would say, ‘That’s me, that’s me,’ and he cried on.

It was then that the legendary Egyptian poet and historian wrote the poem ‘He Collects Roses From Tears’, offering insights into a rare inspirational totem to every poet. I recorded the interview where Zein reads the poems in Arabic and English. I will be unveiling the interview for the benefits of the Kenyan literati and poetry students. The Egypt excursion was refreshingly enjoyable, educational, and informative.


* Khainga O’Okwemba is a Kenyan poet and writer and the treasurer of International PEN, Kenya Chapter.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.