Maged Zaher: Building poetry between Egypt and the US [Faces of Egypt]


“I dream of writing a dual language poem,” Maged Zaher says. “But it needs to be for a reason – it can’t be just a gimmick.” The Egyptian poet, who published his first collection just a few years ago, has been attracting wider attention in English-language circles since the release of his third book, Thank You for the Window Office (2012). The collection, which was warmly reviewed in the L.A. Times, investigates cross-sections of place, time, and identity. It follows Zaher’s debut, Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer (2009) and his postcard-shaped The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me (2012), written mostly in Cairo in 2011.

Zaher, who is a software engineer by trade and a poet by vocation, crafts his work from the materials of two languages and overlapping cultures.

It was 1995 when Zaher moved from his native Cairo to Seattle, where he works as a software engineer. For the first five years, he says, he continued to write creatively in Arabic. But then, by chance, Zaher shifted to writing poetry in English. Despite this, Zaher still calls himself a “hybrid poet.” He explains, “The rhythm in my body is mostly Arabic language” while “the words and thoughts are English.”

He began writing poetry while attending high school in Cairo. “I had an Arabic language teacher, his name was Mustafa Ghoneim, he understood poetry well and he didn’t treat [it] like a precious thing as most high school Arabic teachers did and do. His passion was contagious, and I picked it [up].

These first Arabic poems were bad, Zaher says, as they were “under the weight of the poets I read.” In the beginning, Zaher read ancient Arab poets. Although he quickly shifted to reading modern and contemporary poetry, he was still influenced by the Udhri poets, known for their classical love poetry. Initially, the switch to English was freeing for him, allowing him to shift the weight of tradition.

But Zaher, whose second collection is an intimate conversation with Cairo, continues to bear the weight of layered worlds: of software engineer, poet, observer, Egyptian, traveler. His first collection brings together poems he wrote between 2000 and 2007. Here, he re-invents visions of love, media, and corporate software design, often with a playful humor. In the poem “What if we offended your employees?” Zaher writes:

         What language do you do business in?

         This landscape was once offered to Eros

         And he declined it citing lack of ambition

         Later he ventured into Persian carpets and bridging

                intellect and passion

Zaher’s poetry is certainly influenced by his appetite for humor, and he also admits being influenced by his engineering background. He sees an elaborate schematic of poetic scenes in Egypt and the US, although he doesn’t place himself in any of them.

Others have likened his work to the New York poet Frank O’Hara, and Zaher shares O’Hara’s keenness of observation. The very short poems of Zaher’s second collection, The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me are arranged billboard-style, with just a few lines of text on each page. They follow his life in Cairo and Seattle between July 2011 and February 2012 and offer an intimate, surrealist portrait of individuals amidst societal change.

Much of the collection shares the hot and stalled feeling of the summer of 2011: “Inside the square, a gondola/We are on a coffee break / While the prosecution presents its case: “Sir, I’m here” — the journalists are jetlagged/ And the graffiti artists are carrying the burden”

But Zaher doesn’t only work with his own poetry. He is also a serious translator of contemporary Egyptian poetry into English.  Zaher translates in part for himself, because, “Once you feel how close of a reading a translation is, the act of reading a poem without translating it to another language feels inadequate somehow.” He adds that the process also creates “a dialogue within myself between the aesthetics of Arabic and English.”

But Zaher also translates to forge a bridge from poet to poet, world to world. “I think I am bringing the poets to English to point to a complex world that gets reduced to backwardness and terrorism in political speak – but also because – language and politics aside – poets in general really love to share what they like with other poets – and translation is one way of doing that."

Photo: Maged Zaher

Image: maged.jpg