Asmaa Abdellatif is a poet and an MA student of English literature, currently living in Cairo. Born and raised in the Egyptian countryside with frequent visits to cities across Egypt, she developed as an inquisitive individual with the awareness of the other worlds existing unbound to space. Her connection with the simplicity and the grandeur of greenery opened a window for her heart to follow its calling.
We talk to Asmaa about her motto soul over mater, the idea of having a creative mind as nurtured imagination and her future aspirations.
Can you tell us about your background and your journey into poetry?
Poetry is inherent; I found it flowing through me at some point with no premeditation. However, it took me years to get there—to be able to channel this inner voice that transforms experiences into words. Being raised in the Egyptian countryside and the third of four children in a very simple yet eventful household, I befriended silence as a child. I observed a lot; so my family said. My journey into studying English Literature was also guided and not premeditated—it was more of a call than a decision. The period when I had to apply for my undergraduate degree was full of trials and personal as well as international afflictions. In hindsight, everything comes into perspective. My familial and environmental circumstances, along with my education and some personality traits such as a love for contemplation and silence, conspired to guide me through this journey. I was driven by a quest for meaning, a spiritual yearning for connection, and an experience that transcends both place and time. And I found that in both reading and writing poetry. Fortunately alhamdulillah, I am currently pursuing a MA degree in English literature, in the hopes that it will assist me in bettering my craft and gaining more knowledge about the field.
Does your heritage and faith influence your creative practice?
My faith is the most powerful driving force behind my creative pursuits. Imagination, in other words khayal, is “the capacity of the heart to give forms to spiritual realities that don’t have any form, and to spiritualise material realities that do have a form,” according to how Dr. Samir Mahmoud defines it. To be endowed with a creative mind is to have a nurtured imagination. And I found no equivalent food for my soul and my imagination as my faith—more so than my heritage. In the larger sense, my heritage is surely a driving force, if we mean by that, Islamic, Arabian, and familial heritage. Each one of these aspects fuels my soul differently, and therefore finds a window through my writings. Nevertheless, my creative practice is not only concerned with the past or heritage, it is also perpetuated by a faith-inspired interpretation of current affairs and everyday experiences.
How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages and how you find inspiration?
I often surprise myself with the different ways in which a poem comes to completion. The process is non-linear and it is not the same every time. For instance, a feeling or a thought might haunt me for a while until I decide to find the words and codes for it. Other times, the words might be already there, in the sense that they are the final product of a processed experience—only requiring me to sit with them and let them out. Depending on how it started, the development can take different routes; sometimes it is instantaneous development, and others, it is a long process. In either scenario, I must seek and be surrounded by outward silence in order to be able to listen carefully. Followingly, I leave my poems untouched for a while in order to preserve and honor their rawness, then perhaps revisit them for edits in the future. Having been trained to become a literary critic, I usually revisit the poem through the eyes of a reader and not a writer. Thus, I may edit the choice of words or structure, but I do so carefully in order not to tamper with the essence of the experience.
Can you tell us more about your motto soul over matter?
An old parable saying “mind over matter,” referring to the capacity of willpower to overcome physical pain, settled in my literary reservoir. It was in a moment of clarity that this motto occurred to me, soul over matter. It seems as though I subconsciously manipulated this parable to fit my world view. In my writings, I am often concerned with what I call spiritual resilience; meaning, how can the heart achieve elasticity and become pain-proof? My conception of a pain-proof heart is not one that does not feel pain, but rather one that is capable of transcending it with no traces of malice. The only way this can be achieved is through the power of our souls, tuning into our innermost source of strength—that is, a resilient soul: a soul that is not neglected, starved, or covered underneath layers of oblivion and worldly distractors.
Do you show your work in progress to anyone?
I’d rather share completed work. However, I might share it with people who will honor it and give me sincere feedback, especially if it is the product of an immediate experience.
What is the intention behind your poetry? What reaction do you hope people have when encountering your work?
This question sparks the dialectic of do we write for ourselves, or do we write for others? In all honesty, I do not have an answer for that. Because poetry is usually a response to a relentless impulse. Something deep within me compels me to write poetry. In the case that I am intentionally initiating it, I hope that my poetry will allow its receptor to gain meaning and solace; that it will move and touch them on a soul level; that they will be able to see themselves in it, and remember that after all, there’s so much untapped beauty in this world—even in the moments of deep sadness and melancholy.
Who are your favourite poets?
It is hard to answer this question, because I have come across a plethora of wonderful poets. I will share with you the ones that come to mind now and who most definitely have a great impact on my work: W. B. Yeats, Maya Angelou, W. H. Auden, and Leonard Cohen among very few of the Western poets I admire. Mahmoud Darwish and Amal Donqul are among my favourite Arab poets whose poetry is political and loaded with resistance. The poetry of Hafez, Rumi, and Alkhayyam are also among my favourites, especially because their poetry is fueled with the spirituality I yearn for. They do not have to follow this order in terms of who is my most to my least favourite, because all of them have contributed to my molding as a poet.
Can you share one of the works you have written you are most proud of? Why did you choose this piece?
Habibi, weep as much as you can.
We're left here alone,
no human, no insan.
Habibi, I am your only relief
in this world of forgetfulness,
This world of nisyan.
Habibi, weep as much as you want,
My womb is a haven for your sorrows,
I am a haven for your ahzan.
I am left wondering how to protect you.
I am left confused, I am left hayran.
In my heart,
I will carve you a mansion.
full of kindness, full of hanan.
Weep not, habibi.
I will splint your wound>>
We'll overcome this time,
we will defeat zaman.
If we ever face danger,
I will thread you in my chest
where you can be safe,
where you can find aman.
Let's forget the smell of war,
and dance beneath the branches
to their heavenly alhan.
Sleep to my soothing voice,
I'll read you some prayers.
I'll read you some Quran.
Weep not, habibi.
I'll take you to the shores of Eden,
Where we can seek asylum;
Build our own garden,
Live in our own bostan.
I am particularly proud of this piece because it merges the political with the spiritual, achieving what I aim to transmit through my poetry. It is also innovative in its style, because I was aiming to capture the essence of the Arabic poem in English, preserving al-qafiyah (rhyme), and referencing the words in their original language. My aim was to establish the identity of the persona as a Muslim Arab woman (a group often ostracised and overlooked), whose beliefs and language are manifest in her affliction and in the way she tries to relieve her own pain and offer comfort from a place of profound pain. Writing through a compassionate tone also conveys how I aim to communicate my message, addressing all the metaphorically and physically displaced outcasts, ghuraba’. The poem serves as a reminder that the world is not dar-ul baqaa (our eternal habitat)—the space we occupy is much more profound than a physical place.
As an Egyptian Muslim, is the representation of Islam important in the literary world and why?
Being Egyptian and visibly Muslim naturally places you at the end of the literary ladder for some reason, or that is how my experience has been so far. It is unfortunate that many other Muslim creatives feel the same. Therefore, building a Muslim writers network that can collectievly work on the representation of Islam in ways that align with and reinterpret our tradition and suit the contemporary audience is very crucial to the wellbeing of the entire community and of the writers themselves. As a writer, it is a need for me and not a luxury to exist in a community that understands and supports my position as a Muslim Arab writer. Nevertheless, I was guided to the answers of my most piercing existential questions through Islam, especially the spiritual aspect that is often overlooked. And I found the solidarity and connection I was looking for within the worlds which poetry created for me.
In other words, creating the space through which the representation of Muslims can be condescended and shared is integral to a wholesome experience of the contemporary Muslim. Literature provides a cogent alternative for all the different unhealthy modes of distraction and entertainment we are currently surrounded by. Nevertheless, it is also an emblem and a transporter of knowledge as much as it participates in the molding of our perspectives and worldviews. And it is an area where Muslim production is very minimal however crucuial to Muslims. Therefore, I wholeheartedly wish to contribute to the creation and growth of this space.
What are your future hopes and aspirations as a poet?
I hope to continue producing more poetry, that’s for sure. And I pray to become a channel through which more wholesome poetry is transpired. I hope it doesn’t end with me. Therefore, I sincerely wish to create an enabling and empowering space through which like-hearted people are capable of finding their voice and sharing it with the world.
For more information check out https://asmaamah.wordpress.com/
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