East meets West in lyrical fashion

Local translation of Arabic poet on Cranbrook bookshelves

Poet Youssef Abdul Samad and translator Ghada Alatrash.

Poet Youssef Abdul Samad and translator Ghada Alatrash.

A two-and-a-half year project of Ghada Alatrash has come to full literary fruition, and perhaps made the world a bit more of an intimate, understanding place.

“So That The Poem Remains” is Alatrash’s translation of the poetry of Youssef Abdul Samad, a Lebanese poet living in the U.S., who writes in Arabic. Alatrash has published a bilingual edition of a selection of his work, with the Arabic and English versions of each poems on facing pages. The book is currently available at Lotus Books, and Alatrash will be giving a public reading from it — in English and Arabic — Friday evening at Heidi’s in Cranbrook.

Youssef Abdul Samad is the voice of the lover in exile. His lyrical poetry has an especial force in the original Arabic, certainly when read by Alatrash. He is passionate about justice, about the human heart. He loves women on all levels, scorns organized religion, despises oppression.

“He’s trying to tell the reader that we stand on common ground,” Alatrash said. “He’s the Arab voice that is misrepresented in Western media. He’s no fanatic. He cries for justice for all humanity.

“I feel the same way,” Alatrash said. “We are people who love, who love life, who have passion. We are just the same as you.”

Alatrash is originally from Syria, and immigrated to the U.S. In 1986. She currently lives in Cranbrook, but has returned to the Middle East for extended sojourns. She is thus has a good global perspectives on the divide — and similarities — between East and West.

“There is a huge presence of Western culture in the Middle East,” she said. “The opposite is not true. There’s the political, but not the aspects of Arabic that love peace, passion and culture. There is an absence of Arab culture in the West, especially a lack of Arabic literature and the arts. I’m hoping to fill that gap, even a little bit.”

Alatrash had worked on translations previously, and even excerpted some in the pages of the Daily Townsman. The 175-page, three-section volume containing 20 poems is the first English translation of Abdul Samad’s work.

“The Arabic was a challenge,” Alatrash said. “There is a rhythm in Arabic, a music, that doesn’t carry over into English. I had to find a music, a rhythm in English.”

Getting the bilingual edition properly set on the page so that the English poem complemented the facing Arabic poem took a global group effort. Her publisher, Bruce Batchelor at Agio Publishing House in Victoria, B.C., had no Arabic, so Alatrash contacted an editor in Lebanon (who had little English). With Alatrash acting as go-between, the pages were thus set up so the English and Arabic texts matched.

Alatrash said she gave the poet himself the option of choosing the Arabic typeface. The titles of each Arabic poem were written out by a master calligrapher.

“Poetry is an interpretation, and a translation of poetry is also an act of interpretation — an expression of feelings,” she said. “My voice is there as well. Some might think it could be a different interpretation, but that’s my feeling.”

In Arabic, poetry is sung. And the importance of poetry in contemporary Arabic and Middle Eastern culture is something that’s missing in Western culture, Alatrash said.

“Arabic youth can recite poems from beginning to end. It’s important institutionally, like in schools, but also in the hearts of the people. Today there is much revolutionary and political poetry. Some poetry that was sung many years ago is being reposted on YouTube today.

“Hence the title of the book. With the title comes something else.

“If it hadn’t been translated, the poetry may have eventually died. Children of Arabic immigrants in North America may speak Arabic fluently, but they don’t read or write it.”

Alatrash’s next project is a translation of a series of short stories written by a Syrian friend of hers, an obstetrician who has been doing work in refugee camps throughout the ongoing Syrian civil war. Alatrash’s Syrian hometown, Sweida, has a predominantly Druze and Christian population, so relative calm prevails. As result, there has been an influx of more than 40,000 refugees from other parts of Syria.

Heidi’s Restaurant will host a reading of “So That The Poem Remains,” on Friday, Dec. 14, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

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