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Yemen poet has a line on the region

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The poet’s glasses slide down his nose, his hair is combed in front but not in back, white patches of missed stubble glimmer on his cheeks. He sighs:

“You’ll have to excuse me -- I am in despair.”

Abdel Aziz Maqalih pauses. Conversation is like verse, it needs rhythm to pinch and sting. He begins a winding sentence, moving through the troubles and civil war in his native Yemen to the wider Arab world, which he says is attacking itself like a family bickering in a house of broken dreams.

There is a culprit.

“All the bad in the Arab world emanates from the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” he says. “This has created a state of imbalance, not only among nations, but among peoples. It’s created a hatred of living. It represents a great defeat for Arabs. We are scattered.”

Maqalih is careful. Years ago, when he was a rising poet, winning acclaim and modernizing Arabic verse, he criticized the region’s corruption and authoritarian regimes. But in his role as cultural advisor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Maqalih is more circumspect these days in reciting Arab countries’ failings, at least to a Westerner with a notebook.

He sits next to fake flowers in a big room at the Yemen Center for Studies and Research. Histories are preserved here, cultures bridged. But the divide between the West and the Arab world is not narrowing as quickly as many had hoped after President Obama’s election. A wise poet from a seething land seemed a good person to ask why.

Like many Mideast intellectuals, Maqalih bemoans U.S. foreign policy, which is not blameless in this part of the world, but is less bold in chastising his region’s own transgressions. Speaking with him is a dance; he politely evades, whether the topic is the threat of Al Qaeda or refugee camps in the northern mountains. He longs for an Islamic renaissance, but says that cannot happen while U.S. intervention robs Muslims of their pride.

“The Arab world needs freedom and true democracy and unity between all Arab countries,” he says. “We must fight poverty and illiteracy. We need books and scientific labs. We are scattered and it must stop because it affects the whole world. . . . The Arab is in torment with himself over the despair spreading from the Iraq war, and the danger is that countries will collapse one after the other.”

That’s how he feels too about Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Yemen, which he says is a “neighbor to rich countries that are watching the hungry starve.” But he circles back to Iraq, so much ill rippling from there, and he recalls centuries ago when Baghdad, home to caliphs, poets and traders, flourished during the Islamic Golden Age. Now, it is a city of bombs and bodies and pigeons flying through smoke.

The poet in him yearns for rebirth, but if his country -- or Egypt, Sudan, Algeria or Syria -- is any indication, it is a long way off. They are victims of authoritarianism and battered ambitions. Even Dubai, that inspiring flash of finance and skyscrapers by the sea whose ruler once boasted that it symbolized a rising Arab world, has tumbled into debt. Maqalih repeats the word “scattered.”

In the title to one of his poems, he chose another word, “Enough.” Enough with corpses and words. Enough with sleeplessness enough with anger and rows. Enough with the dark years gone by with the tears they have brought with the orphans they have made. Enough, O unconsidered words and fights and chaos enough with revenge, O dust of words.

Half the population of his country cannot read that poem; the illiteracy rate is that high. A diminutive man in an ash gray suit, thick glasses magnifying his eyes, he has the cut of a poet, yes, but also of a goldsmith or a jeweler, a man who has spent a lifetime hunched over valuable things. He goes silent, the poet in him wrestling with the presidential advisor. He thinks.

In the hall outside, writers and critics mingle amid a few soldiers. The morning traffic is heavy and the sun has not yet warmed the foyer, where a photomontage on tolerance depicts children from different cultures and religions. They are from a splintering nation: war with rebels in the north, marches for secession in the south, poverty, corruption, a resurgent Al Qaeda, and growing disenchantment with the man Maqalih advises on art and literature.

Again, he is asked about Yemen. And, again, he sidesteps. America is on his mind. When describing the Afghan war, he chides U.S. policy, but mourns the loss of U.S. troops:

“Why does Washington feel the need to police the whole world?” he says. “Look what America has created. I know the Taliban are extremists, but what’s the difference between before and now? And why should America’s sons and daughters die for this? I feel like they’re my brothers and sisters too. But they will not create democracy and freedom in Afghanistan.”

He tells a pretty story to soften the edge.

“My grandfather was a shipbuilder in New York,” he says. “I was still a child when he brought games and mirrors home from America. Back then, America served the world well. Not today. America should go back to her isolation of the past, not economically, of course, but politically.”

He stands and walks out of the big room to the photos of tolerance. Muslim, Christian, Jewish children; the children of tribesmen, families in yellowed snapshots of a Yemen long past; he stops in front of each as if in every face there are new words for new poems. The pictures make him smile. He offers a page of verse written a while ago. It is called “Village”: The village still sleepy from its eyelids drives away the traces of the nightmares of the vanishing night. Sweet and beautiful this transparent horizon is, nothing is darkening the azure of this morning only flakes of wandering clouds searching for shelter.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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