Abd al-Karim al-Razihi: Wounds of a Child Poet

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The Yemeni poet and journalist tends to speak with a loud voice even if he is sitting in a closed space. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Monday, March 5, 2012

“Running is good for writing poetry and stories,” says Abd al-Karim al-Razihi who cannot sit still in one place for a long time.

Its as if he were a child that you cannot confine in one small space or that he was born to be free and his freedom is not for bargain, no matter the price. “It is one life we live. That’s why we should come out of it with our head held high,” the poet says.

“But I am still a child,” al-Razihi says in a loud voice as we cross a busy street to go to a cafe where he likes to sit at noon everyday.

The Yemeni poet and journalist tends to speak with a loud voice even if he is sitting in a closed space. When we ask him why, he answers immediately: “I don’t know!” Then adds: “I think in this crazy world, loud voices are more persuasive.” But al-Razihi soon takes back what he said, assuring us that he’s joking.

The author of The People’s Throat (1996) sees life as “somewhat of a joke that one should not take too seriously.” And he employs the same approach to poetry.

Al-Razihi entered the world of poetry through his first book of poems titled The Need for a Second Heaven and an Additional Hell (1985) with a modernist tone that was not familiar in Yemen yet, prompting Arab and Yemeni critics to call him “the master of the prose poem in Yemen.”

That book was only the first step on the road of prose poetry. It was followed by Women and Dust in 1991.

It is enough to remind al-Razihi of this last book in order for him to read a passage aloud from it: “I swear/if she does not come out tonight/I will bomb this fence with my heart/I will open the city of Sanaa to the tribes of my passion/and seal its entrances with the epidemic of love and the plague of infatuation.”

There is unmistakable irony here. And it was confirmed by the Iraqi critic Hatem al-Sukr in his book Prose Poetry in Yemen – Voices and Generations, where he said that al-Razihi’s poetry is wrapped up in “a melancholic sense of humor and sarcasm, laced with pain and despair.”

The poet reached this state of cynicism and self-reconciliation after the many ups and downs that he went through since his days as a shepherd in his village of Hifan near the southern city of Taiz, before moving as a young boy to Aden.

There, al-Razihi went to middle school and worked as a baker at a factory that belonged to his uncle. Then he moved to Sanaa for high school and joined the Yemeni military. After that, he attended Sanaa University where he studied philosophy and sociology.

After graduating, al-Razihi worked as a director of the publications department at the information ministry, then editor of the The New Yemen magazine, before settling in his job as a full-time researcher at the Center of Studies and Research.

“I emerged unscathed from these vicissitudes,” al-Razihi tells us before qualifying his words as usual and adding: “Some wounds don’t heal but time will take care of it.”

We try to get closer to these wounds that haven’t healed yet, but the author of Sheikha Zaafaran – The Popular Tale of the Village of al-Akaber (2005) deliberately changes the subject.

Al-Razihi aims his gaze at a copy of his book of poetry Indian Conquest published days ago in which he recounts the details of his journey to India two years ago.

But even this epic in India does not allow him to feign forgetfulness of these wounds. He tells us the story of his friend who was imprisoned a few days after the unification of Yemen in 1990 and came out of prison a dead man. “He was the victim of a snitch,” says al-Razihi.

He says the unification of Yemen was not thought out properly but was done in haste and that is why four years later a bitter war broke out between both sides.

Al-Razihi remembers the words of his friend who died in prison: “They fight, you cry, they reconcile, you laugh, they unite, and you’re all alone.” This line is constantly repeated by Yemeni writers although most of them are not aware of the incident that inspired it. And Yemeni writers are not the only ones who repeat what al-Razihi writes.

The poet continued in his literary turns, leaving the prose poem behind and opting instead for the simple popular poem that relies on rhythm, meter, and simple compositions that make it easy to commit to memory.

“I was the victim of a major deception,” says al-Razihi. He explains his decision to abandon prose poetry: “I started at the end of the ladder, I did not climb it from the bottom.” He says he wasted a lot of time writing poetry that regular people don’t understand. This confession is fully consistent with his ideas that are partial to ordinary people.

Writing satirical articles – al-Razihi is considered one of the most prominent writers of the genre in Yemen – is proof of this bias. And regular people reciprocate by following what he publishes religiously. The newspaper that runs his weekly satirical column disappears off the shelves in record time, while vendors resort to xeroxing his articles and selling them individually.

Al-Razihi’s stories and short novels received the same warm popular reception and were turned into theatrical pieces by the National Theater Company before the troupe dispersed after Yemen’s unification.

Al-Razihi speaks with deep sadness about this theater and the culture of repression that affected everything.

“We expected the number of theater groups and other forms of cultural expression to increase after unification, but instead they shut down all the windows and doors to cultural life,” he says before reciting aloud again: “Your sorrow is your guest/it comes at night/lights up the house/bringing you closer to God/God is generous and provides sorrow for whomever he wills without measure/a heart not populated by sorrow is desolate/and the soul is its desolation.”

We ask al-Razihi if there is still any hope. He replies in a confident tone: “Yes,” before he elaborates – with joy radiating from his face – about the hope that the youth of Yemen created when they took to the streets demanding the overthrow of former President Ali Abdallah Saleh.

“They restored dignity to our lives which we thought had reached their final chapter,” says al-Razihi, who was pre-occupied in recent months with writing The Flowering Youth in the Squares.

Nevertheless, he does not hesitate to voice criticism of some practices in these “squares” by members of hard-line religious groups who committed hostile acts against leftist revolutionary women under the pretext of prohibiting gender mixing.

“These people are an impediment to the progress of the revolution towards achieving its goals in full,” says al-Razihi, who has been repeatedly accused of apostasy by the same groups because of his journalistic writings.

His sarcastic smile returns as he says aloud: “But we got rid of Saleh and that’s no ordinary feat.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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