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Doves Wailing in the Same Great Tree: An Interview with Khalid al-Maaly, Founder of al-Kamel Verlag

By Safwan Khatib
Translated By Safwan Khatib

Born in 1956, Khalid al-Maaly is an Iraqi poet, publisher, and translator. After leaving Iraq in 1979, in the wake of the Ba'ath regime's crackdown on leftists and intellectuals, he spent time in Lebanon and France before settling in Cologne, Germany, where he began the publishing house al-Kamel Verlag (Dar al-Jamal) in 1983. In the nearly forty-year span that followed––an era that has seen the United States commit and abet a horrific series of war crimes in the Levant––al-Kamel Verlag has managed an incredible feat of aesthetic vitality and independence. It is through the efforts of this press (which opened a distribution center in Baghdad in 2008) that the voices of many Arab poets and novelists of all time periods have remained in print and readers of Arabic have gained access to accomplished translations from German, Spanish, French, English, and other languages.

Since 1979, Khalid has published over a dozen of his own poetry collections and numerous translations from German to Arabic and Arabic to German, presenting the work of such writers as Badr Shakir al-Sayab (1926–64), Saadi Youssef (1934–2021), Hans Magnus Enzensburger (1921–), and Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) to new audiences. In 2016, twelve of his poems appeared in Sinan Antoon's English translation in Banipal's 56th issue, dedicated to the “generation of ’56” in Arabic literature, known for its formal restlessness and refusal of fixed national and cultural paradigms. This interview was conducted in Arabic over email and has been translated into English by the interviewer.

—Safwan Khatib


Safwan Khatib (SK): When asked how you approach the work of publishing and writing, you've often insisted that you are "first and foremost a reader." So I'd like to begin by asking you about the act of reading as such: What is your understanding of reading? How should we understand the encounter between the reader and the book?

Khalid al-Maaly (KA): I strive to publish those books that are alive, that have been essential in my life as a reader, a publisher, and a writer. There are innumerable books whose nature I cannot easily pin down and which preserve for us an opening through which light breaks forth. Old and new, and from different languages. We cannot fathom the depth of the correspondences between these books, the ancient and the modern, al-Hallaj and Nietzche. Nabatean Agriculture, written in Aramaean Syriac and translated into Arabic in the fourth century Hijri (tenth century AD); the Jabirian corpus; and the modern sciences . . . they are all doves wailing in the same great tree.


SK: How do you see the transformations of literary culture in the societies in which you've lived, between the 1960s and today? What have been the major shifts in the relationships between writers and publishers––or even between writers themselves?

KA: If you mean Arab societies, then of course there have been many transformations. Previously, political loyalty was the most influential force in the publication and distribution of books, but this no longer applies today. Readership has greatly diminished, perhaps due to the loss of ideological commitment, so it falls upon the poet or writer, in a general sense, to reach readers without ideological fertilizers.

“Suddenly, it was all torn down, all of that past I had carried in my memory for so long.”

Also, the process of publishing has become popularized in a completely different way—in previous decades, there was, in fact, someone who published books and sold them, but these days most of what is published in this way does not circulate widely. Even the process of reading manuscripts and editing has taken on other forms, and after the spread of social media platforms in the contemporary moment, the situation has completely changed. Cultural journalism, for example, has lost its long-beleaguered credibility and has become insignificant. The opposite is the case in other cultures, at least in Europe.


SK: Many have noted that your own poetry remains inseparable from the land of Iraq, where you grew up, despite the fact that you've now lived in Lebanon and France and Germany. And yet, your poetry does not confine itself to any modern understanding of Iraq. We find a hint at this, for instance, in the title of your collection Ana min 'ard Gilgamesh (I am from the land of Gilgamesh). Why this return to the land of Gilgamesh?

KA: I cannot truly respond here or provide an explanation for all of these details. The only thing I understand is that I am an individual person, that I write of what I have lived through, what I have seen or savored. And all this comes by way of memory and from the circumstances of life, which, in turn, may play a part in the opening up of memory and the birth of images. Nothing comes freely.


SK: You returned to Iraq after a long period of absence. What did you find upon your return?

KA: I found the country, a country in which the people, the crowds, the trees, and even the stones had been laid to waste. I was searching for the Iraq of memory and for the contemporaries of mine I could remember . . . suddenly, it was all torn down, all of that past I had carried in my memory for so long. How intense is my horror when I return now and sit alone, immersed in it all, unable to write a single sentence or enjoy any given moment. Everything is grim, dust-covered. Perhaps I am a person from the past living outside of my time!


SK: Turning to the publishing house you began in 1983––why did you choose the camel as a name for your project?

KA: The environment in which I lived was the wellspring of my writing—its images were stored in my memory—and thus it became the source from which I culled the name. Perhaps the esteem in which the camel is held as an animal that is essential for the people in the desert has diminished in recent years, and this is why I turned it into a symbol for the venture of publishing. There are, of course, other factors that compelled me to choose it, such as contempt for the dominant ideological culture's drive, in that era, to "invent" empty names and slogans.


SK: What are the particular challenges of running an Arabic press during a time in which the English language has come to dominate many international cultural institutions? Should we, regardless of our national identities, refuse the lure of English as a so-called global language?

KA: All languages, including the dead ones, are treasures of which we must avail ourselves. And every language has its range of possibilities. No single language can ever dominate literary publication. All writings––literary, philosophical, sociological, and even psychological––bring across the lives of their writers and the various societies to which they belong. English is a wonderful language; its status is equivalent to that of all other languages.


SK: You are known for publishing the work of Arab writers alongside non-Arab writers in translation, such as Isabelle Eberhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche. You also focus on visionary Arab writers of all time periods who, for various reasons, have seen a limited readership, such as Samir Naqqash and Sargon Boulus. What did you see in these two authors that made you want to publish their work?

KA: In general, al-Kamel Verlag publishes writers who we believe write well, without concern for how famous or widely known they are. The Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus (1944–2007) is perhaps one of my most important teachers, in poetry and in life, among all the living writers of that era. Publishing his poetry, prose writings, and translations has been a fundamental part of my life. The books of his that I published were received with interest, but they did not find widespread popularity in their time. He was a different kind of writer, a writer of an unfamiliar sort . . . and this issue was not really significant for me, since he and I lived in another world, outside the sphere of our language, dispersed in various countries . . . though we did live together in Cologne for many years. Sargon Boulus is a true Iraqi poet. His books didn't meet with great success in his lifetime, but they are a testament to his rebirth after his passing.

“[Sargon Boulus] would never wait for the poem, for it will come willingly, even if it arrives late.”

As for Samir Naqqash, he is perhaps the last of the Iraqi Jewish writers who kept writing in Arabic, and this alone is the principal reason for my interest in republishing his writings, as he presented us with astonishing novels about Iraq prior to 1948, a life that has been hidden completely. With his unrivaled genius, Naqqash brought that life back to us in his captivating novels and managed to represent the dialects of that era in a capacious prose unmatched in our recent history. He is difficult, both on a personal level and in the nature of his writing, and perhaps we require another, altogether different way of thinking to be able to truly rediscover him. I never met him, but we exchanged many letters, some of which will see the light soon.


SK: What do you remember of the time you lived with Sargon Boulus? What did you learn from him?

KA: What I think about when I remember Sargon Boulus is the devotion to poetry he maintained up until his last breath. Does this mean that I was not devoted to poetry? Of course not. Rather, I think about the particular manner of his devotion, the way he would leave the poem waiting . . . his attention to that accretion that precedes the poem's arrival, the way he would never wait for the poem, for it will come willingly, even if it arrives late . . . his attention to the moments in which poetry is born, how he was never bogged down by whatever happened to constitute the immediate present. All of this, perhaps, strengthened my own resolve and ability to trust myself. And he was a person who pursued a thousand and one projects—every evening we sat together, every long walk we took, more and more projects would arise. Perhaps he only saw a few of them to completion, but even this small portion comes to very many. We read a lot and dream even more, and then the poem may come to be.

SK: What are your dreams for the future of al-Kamel Verlag?

KA: The real dream is to find out who will carry on its mission . . . as of now, the matter isn't clear. We are in a relay race. We'll have to wait and see.


Khalid al-Maaly was born in as-Samawa, Iraq, in 1956, and currently resides in Beirut. He is the recipient of the 2021 Friedrich-Gundolf-Preis awarded by the German Academy for Language and Literature.


Related Reading:

"Music in a Baghdad Alley" by Sargon Boulus, translated by Sinan Antoon

On Fantasy and the Poetry of the Past: An Interview with Sofia Samatar by Safwan Khatib

The City and the Writer: In Baghdad with Sinan Antoon

Published Sep 2, 2021   Copyright 2021 Safwan Khatib

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