Ehab Lotayef was born in Cairo and moved to Montreal in 1989. He writes in English, classical Arabic and colloquial Egyptian Arabic. Besides writing poetry, he is also a photographer, Juno Award-nominated songwriter, and playwright. His play Crossing Gibraltar was produced in 2005 by CBC Radio. A fervent activist for the end of conflict in Gaza and the Middle East, Ehab makes frequent trips to Palestine, and recently organized the Gaza Freedom March in Montreal. Ehab works as an Information Engineer at McGill University.
BCP: Why poetry?
EL: The true answer is I do not know. The philosophical answer is that it is concise, comes from the heart and can reach the heart.
BCP: What is your process?
EL: The idea of a poem with some key phrases knocks on the door of my brain. I write down what comes. Then I keep writing, never refusing a word. I would probably let the first draft sit for hours or days then work on it more, shortening it and cleaning it. Sometimes there are more “sessions”, sometimes two is it.
BCP: Does your poetry inform your photography or vice versa?
EL: Photography informs poetry more often than the other way around. In most cases though, an “issue” drives both the photographer and the poet in me but the photographer is consciously driven where as the poet is subconsciously driven.
BCP: Many of your poems use repetition. Why do you like to use this poetic device?
EL: I imagine how the poem would be read, and how it should sound, and write it as such.
BCP: Today I Shall Write was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Tonight I Can Write. Which Arab poets have influenced you?
EL: Nizaar Quabani in classical Arabic poetry and Ahmed Fouad Negm in colloquial Egyptian poetry had the most profound influence on me, not only in poetry but also in ideas they advocated.
BCP: How and why did you choose the title of the book?
EL: The title is the title of one of the poems in the book. My publisher suggested it for the book title and I agreed.
BCP: How did you gain the trust of the people in the photos in your collection? For example, the man holding the gun in Baghdad, Iraq.
EL: Unfortunately, people in occupied countries (Iraq, Palestine, etc.) accept to become photographed as a part of their life. I believe they understand that someone like me is taking these photos to use them to get the world to understand their plight. By the way, the man with the gun in Baghdad was not a “militia” member or anything of the sort. If he was it would have been a more tricky issue and I do not know if he would have let me photograph him. He was a guard at a road block leading to the French embassy. I am not sure if he worked for the embassy or the Iraqi government.
BCP: Many poets play with language and change the names of peoples and places to make a point. Maya Angelou calls the White House the “White Out-House”. You spell America with a “K”. Why?
EL: I do not do that often. In this case I had seen America spelled with a “K” on an Anarchist banner in an anti-war protest at the American consulate in Montreal in 2003, and it stuck in my head. For some reason I decided that the “America” depicted in that poem is the same Amerika protested against in 2003.
BCP: You are not Palestinian. Why the focus on the Palestinian struggle?
EL: The Palestinian cause was every Egyptian’s cause in the 60s as I grew up. On another level I now see fighting for the Palestinian cause as fighting for the conscience of humanity itself. It belongs to all of us, not belittling any of the many other just causes worth fighting for in today’s world.
BCP: Your introduction states that your activism has influenced your poetry. How do you see poetry influencing activism?
EL: I became an activist due to poems I read as much as due to principles I learned through my religion and my parents. Poetry moves me from static objection to dynamic objection. I can only assume that I am not unique in that way.
BCP: You have a powerful poem about Rachel Corrie, a white activist killed by the Israeli army in 2003. Why is there no poem dedicated to the many Arab women who have also been murdered by the Israeli army in Palestine before and since Corrie’s murder?
EL: This is a poem not an essay. I do not decide what moves me and what makes me write a poem. This does not diminish my great respect to the sacrifice of the Arab women, and men, and children, either. There is one important point I have to say though, Rachel decided to leave the comfort of her home and go to face the Israeli occupation in Palestine, which is different than being born in Palestine and having no choice in the matter.
BCP: Most of your poems are about the horrors in Palestine and the Arab world. Why are there no poems about the many resilient people who rise to the adversity of occupation via different means?
EL: To each their experience and their exposure. I was exposed to the Palestinian struggle more than other peoples’ struggles. Also the Palestinians continue to resist in so many ways and against many odds but I am sure if I had a Tibetan background, or if my life would have brought me close to the Tibetan cause in any way, I would have been writing more about Tibet than about Palestine.
BCP: The Ocean Of Wisdom is about the Dalai Lama’s trip to Israel. You ask:
can a liberated celebrity
bring freedom to a people?
You then write to the Dalai Lama:
They’ll hide the sun under your crimson robe
drown the truth in your words of hope
BCP: Many peace activists and sympathizers with Palestine are Buddhist and followers of the Dalai Lama. Please comment on your statements.
EL: This is not about the Dalai Lama as much it is about how his action will be spanned. I do not know if he identifies with the plight of the Jewish people more than with the plight of the Palestinians. What I know is that his participation in commemorating the Jewish “return” to Palestine disregards what that “return” did to the Palestinian people; it’s flawed. The media reported that he went to commemorate David Ben-Gurion’s return. He may have spoken in support of Palestinian rights during, before, or after that visit but I did not hear about it. Which is exactly my point: the “spin” is what counts and when you are the Dalai Lama you should take that into consideration. What the world took home is that the Dalai Lama supports Israel’s takeover of Palestine.
BCP: Uranium is written for Bob Lovelace of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. You wrote the poem at the open pit uranium site in Robertsville, Ontario, Canada, January 2008. You support Palestinian and First Nations struggles; do you see a connection? As a non-white settler what role do you see in supporting First Nations peoples?
EL: I see a very strong parallel. The main difference is that we now live in a much smaller world. If the Europeans settlement in Turtle Island had been covered by near real time media as much as Palestine is today history would have not been the same. This said, there still are great similarities between the two cases. Palestine today resembles the Americas 200 years after Columbus (my assumption, and I am no historian, is that the takeover is progressing at half the speed). Letting the Zionist project conclude is a double blow to the Natives of the Americas and stopping it, and hopefully reversing the injustices it caused, gives me hope that we can fix the damage here on Turtle Island as well.
As for the 2nd part of the question, I do not see a relevance of being white of brown. As a post-state, or recent, first generation settler I still have a responsibility towards First Nations Peoples. As long as I stay in Canada I have a responsibility to support them in every way I can.
BCP: My observations and consequent critique of the Palestinian movement, and many other movements, is that white and non-Indigenous activists tokenize First Nations peoples and their fight(s) so as to further their own causes. Can you comment on this common and horrible practice?
EL: I do not know what you mean by “own causes”. If you mean getting involved with the goal to gain notoriety or advance our own artistic, political or academic careers (most probably the later two) through affiliating ourselves with these causes then it is deplorable. If you mean otherwise then please clarify.
BCP: You describe a verse in The Poets, the 26th chapter of the Qur’an, (“And they say what they do not do”), as helping you to hold yourself accountable in your activism. What advice do you have to activists for them to hold themselves accountable in their activism?
EL: Activism is very tricky. There are a few pitfalls I am aware of and probably many others I am not. Here are a things try to tell myself, before any one else: 1) the organization you work through is the means not the goal 2) do not make it more important than the cause 3) you cannot defend a principle through unprincipled ways 4) you should not accept crooked personal behavior to avoid internal conflicts, it will come back to bite you.
BCP: What advice do you have for other poet-activists like yourself?
EL: This is easier, in addition to the above, same thing I always remind myself of: “Do not say what you do not do.”
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday October 8, 2010 for a recording of Toronto-Arab poet Wael Qattan reading his poetry.
Come see Black Coffee Poet read his poetry tonight at the launch of Descant 150: Writers in Prison.