A welcome invitation from my friend, the Egyptian novelist and academic, Dr. Bahaa Abdelmegid, led to my first visit to Egypt, a new poem, a chance to follow up my father’s story and the opportunity to read my poetry at the 50th Jubilee of the Cairo International Book Fair and Festival which ran from 23rd January to 5th February 2019.
Bahaa, who teaches at Ain Shams University in Cairo (his PhD was on the poetry of Seamus Heaney and he has written extensively on English Literature including on James Joyce and Sylvia Plath) arranged for me and Adnan al-Sayegh to go to the pyramids at Giza. This was especially exciting as I have a photo of my father on a camel in front of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background. It was taken in August 1918 when my father, aged 20, was presumably on his way home from India, from where he had been invalided out of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War in 1917. I showed the photo and read several poems from Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, 2014) including my poem, ‘Father’, at our reading on Sunday 3 February – much to the audience’s delight.
I had written a new poem for the festival – A Love Letter to Egypt – which was translated into Arabic by Ruba Abughaida and edited by Adnan – my first new poem since finishing my latest book, Gilgamesh Retold (Carcanet, 2018) and the start of my next book (hopefully). At an earlier event, I‘d had the chance to discuss poetry and translation with the hugely engaged and attentive audience who requested more such events in the future.
The trip concluded with a magical evening in downtown Cairo (The City that Never Sleeps) with Bahaa and Adnan and several poets and friends that we bumped into as the evening progressed. Standing by the Nile in the moonlight I reflected on how poetry has changed and enriched my life beyond measure – and was grateful.