Arif Gamal, selected by Idra Novey

Introduction to the work of Arif Gamal

When a book of poems published in the U.S. evokes an earlier era, it is usually no more than a thousand years into the past.  We are a relatively young country and our sense of history tends to reflect that

Enter Arif Gamal, born in Sudan to a Nubian family whose history along the Nile dates back to the worship of Nor.  How long ago was Nor?  "As long as Nubia was Nubia," one of the stunning poems in this debut explains, or about eighteen thousand years.  That ancient Nubian culture is the clay of Gamal's poems, over which he sees "Islam is like a glaze." Gamal told the lines in this unprecedented book to E.G. Dubovsky, who the title page says "recorded it in verse." The book doesn't explain how closely the two of them worked to edit the poems once they were on paper, but however this sequence came into being, it is an astonishing book, at once intimate and epic.

In the opening poem, a grandmother feeds a bowl of daily milk to a snake.  In a later poem, a relative swims by some crocodile.  "There were one or two," the poem continues "around the watery neighborhood/and they were shy." Gamal has a spectacular ability to create an indelible scene in no more than eight or nine words delivered in the most elegant, understated tone.

His lines about complex emotion are equally spare and assured.  In the poem "Responsibility," he speaks of trying to help an ill cousin whose condition keeps worsening until the cousin swallows the food his sister makes and miraculously recovers. For years after, people approach Gamal, assuming it was he, and not the sister's food, who saved the cousin. The poem ends:

     in a way you're horrified
     and tell that you did nothing
     for that cousin whom you loved
     except feel a responsibility

     what sacred key is this
     of being

There is such humanity in these closing stanzas, in their honesty and questioning, and in capturing the way a community will often cling to a storyline that isn't particularly true.  

Gamal brings that same masterful lyric restraint to the book's central tragedy: the displacement of the Nubians again and again for the creation of dams along the Nile. Gamal is an environmentalist and has devoted his life to fighting for "the children of all dam-affected people," as he states in the book's dedication. His knowledge of the Aswan Dam and its destruction of Nubia add depth to the poems without taking them over. Of the mass exodus from Nubia, he doesn't speak of where the migrants go or how many they were, only that "the train cars were packed with people/ all weeping where they sat." At the end of this gorgeous epic, when Gamal evokes the "high unhindered Nubian stars," I felt that physical ache that only happens with the poems that will matter to you for the rest of your life. 

—Idra Novey 

 

Baobab
Arif Gamal

and then there was the baobab
the baobab enjoys to live alone
unlike the redwood or the pine or date palm
that fling up new young beside the grown

and baobab is the thickest tree in the world
next to sequoia
yet not too tall
with winding branches at the top

every bit of baobab is valuable
for food or medicine or wood

it is hallowed out down from the top
to hold from within its girth large store of water

and a little trap door
is cut through the bark at bottom
from which water can be taken

in Sudan each baobab is owned and cared for
by someone or by a family
although a person passing by
may open the door to have a drink

white clustered flowers grow from the baobab
so massive and weighty
that if they grew on a date palm
that tree would crack in half

and then the luffa- looking fruit
is filled with pearly sweet white juice-covered seeds
so good to eat

. . .

and then one day
although the baobab enjoys to live alone
you came upon a forest of that kind
and slept there overnight

at dawn the woods were filled
with a tremendous and mind-boggling din
in every varied mode of joy or threnody
and myriad colour shape and form
of varied kind of bird

of green and blue
yellow and white
black violet
long tail or short
straight beak or curved
bright dim great small

and also through the baobab wood
swung many an equally loud monkey
and gazelles were in the neighborhood

then traveling on through softening sand
the Land Rover went down a little farther
than it had been wont to sink before

taking with it you and Sayyid
a thin lanky pair with not a lot of musculature
and then the driver who was bigger
than the two of you together
and needed all his strength
to keep his many pounds upright
without more extra work to do

it became clear you needed help
and Sayyid told you how you must walk
beyond the acacia trees
and go west for five miles to find a village
which in not too long you did

several people sat outside
drinking tea with lots of sugar
that they urged you to share with them

and then they all decided that they'd help
to pull the vehicle out of the sand
but looking around
you struggled how to tell them
they were mostly old
and of the few who weren't
they were much too young

and finally understanding
they proposed you go to that more formal building
different from the huts since it had corners
and you found another group of people
sitting outside on the ground and drinking tea
they too all invited you to share
though they had nothing
they would give you everything
and sugar was especially expensive
but they wished for you to have a lot

and all these men held out their hands
so many that you didn't know which way to clasp
and when one took your hand
they held on tight even with both of theirs
and then they had to ask
how was your family and how were you
oh fine
and how was your father
fine
your mother
fine

and each asked all about each one
although they didn't know them
and then you had to sit and drink
some cups of an extremely sweetened tea
until at last both groups were ready
and you all went off together
although you noticed
there was something odd between the two
and they did not communicate each with the other

soon the vehicle was freed from sand
and everyone piled in the back
roomy and open
and you asked an older man
to take your place in front
but no he wouldn't hear of it

and then Sayyid it seemed knew some of them
and asked did you pay for the goat yet
or how long now will you stay
and it grew clear that the formal building which had corners
was the prison and the people sitting out
before it were the prisoners
being confined for mostly misdemeanors
or small incidents

. . .

then he asked the others of the planting
or the sanding
the women did that work
and they had many kinds of seed
for different kinds of years
sorghum and for millet many others
ready to withstand drought or an infestation
or ready to surge forth in a long rain

or else the woman said I'm sanding
and she meant she is not planting
the whole set of seed but only half
to see what the conditions are
and if they're good then she'll plant all
but first she's sanding
or she'll look up at the sky and say
see how the clouds are pregnant with  rain
and then she'll plant the whole

the growing season was quite short
but when it came it did so
intensely and so thoroughly abundantly
that west Sudan was known
as the bread basket of the world

that is until the long destroying drought
from the mid-nineteen seventies
through the mid-eighties
when all who could left

a parent might say I cannot pay to ride your truck
but take the child anyway
and there were maybe a million of them
with the oldest about fourteen years old
arriving in Khartoum

and people found they had to put bars
on the windows and the doors
even after some came to set up camps or schools

it is a terrible thing
you said
to have to live without love

you told so well how it might have been
if from the start the government had cared
for all those farmers to the west
and sent them grain they needed
no matter what the cost
it never would have been as high
as what they had to pay

for those exiles in misery
longing for their desert home
and lonely for their country
where sweet desert rain fell softly
'rash-ash'
every dawn for about half an hour

 

On "Baobab"
Arif Gamal 

This is one of the most important aspect of Serra Mattu as my love for nature is unequal to anything that I know. As a young adult, going around with my uncle; Saiyyd/Said, to Kordofan, was an eye opener experience of a world that I never knew existed, an experience that affected me enormously and I think changed my view on humanity and human beings.

My uncle's job was to identify regions where water wells were to be dug or digging enormous holes in the ground that are able to retain rain water for summer days or become a source of water during drought time. I enjoyed the savanna and its forests. I also was able to appreciate the worth of water as an essential resource for all the living.

In that trip, our car got stuck in the sand. I had to walk for few miles to find help. The village I got to was a small village, where all the young left for the city either to work or study. I understood that one of my college colleagues came from that village. The fact that I saw his father and sat with him gave me an immense trust that I was in good hands and that our problem will eventually be resolved. Whatever the case was, these farmers would have risen to the occasion and resolved any passer-by call for help. They walked me to another place not far away; I later knew that those were prisoners. Prisoners with no prison or a prison with no prisoners I have never heard of let alone…seen. I do not know if this is still the case, with all the war and war machine that is raging in the region. I think I have seen the last of humanity on top of those sand dunes, in a remote village surrounded by thorny acacias, long time ago in western Sudan.

The Rash Ash Land is one poem that I cherish and one that speaks to that land, the word literally means the "land that is sprinkled". It is true, as every morning there is a soft sprinkle of rain that sprays the land before any of the farmers get to their fields.

The good people of the village helped us push the car out of the sand dunes and amidst an enormous insistence that we should stay and have a meal with them, we were able to extract ourselves, get them to their village and the prisoners to their prison and on our way to complete my uncle's mission of making sure that humans and animals find a water source during summer dry and drought. As for me, to this day I am bewildered at the generosity, kindness and tolerance of those villagers. It left a lasting effect on my mind and soul and I think it changed my outlook on life.

 

 

 
 

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