Skip to content
Get your ticket to the Words Without Borders Gala and Globe Trot on October 29, 2019!

The City and the Writer: In Reykjavik with Mazen Maarouf

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Iceland 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Reykjavik as you feel/see it?

Reykjavik is a small city of big spaces. It is a place of visibility. A magnified visibility. Iceland achieved her independence through cultural means not violence. This is the third strand of DNA when it comes to the composition of Icelanders. An enormous number of people are involved in music, art, literature, theater, dance, and many are also activists, which makes them pay close attention to the values of any profession they have chosen. It is a city where a celebrity would meet a non-celebrity and tell him, Oh, I read an article about you.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Icelanders are all relatives. This is the most extraordinary, fascinating detail. Though it is known as a small nation, Icelanders, in fact, form the biggest family on Earth. A family of 320,000 members. Can you find that anywhere else? Every Icelander can trace his or her relation to other Icelanders through a Web site which plays an important role in the eagerness people have to know their ancestral history. Hence, history can always be revealed through an individual lens.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

This is hard. Reykjavik is full of writers—many prominent and important. For those interested in modern Icelandic literature, some must-reads: Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, Sigurður Pállson, Sjón, Auður Ava Olafsdottir, Gyrðir Eliasson, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Andri Snær Magnason, Gerður Kristný, and Kristin Omarsdottir. The list doesn’t end here.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Yes, I have heartbreaking memories in Reykjavik. Many in fact. But they are not related to Reykjavik or the people here but attributed to what I lived in Lebanon and what’s going on in the Middle East—Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Some memories haunt you regardless of how far you go or how different the new context you are living in is . . .

Is there a place here you return to often?

The streets in Reykjavik are cozy. Small streets. When you walk by, it feels like you‘re embraced by old houses lining up on both sides. It is a very subtle interaction that the place proposes. It isn’t overflooded with that form of history that tourists would love to buy or catch their breath and grieve over. Nor is it flooded with what we think history is—those places that institutions have decided are important for the nation. Reykjavik proposes another criterion when it comes to how you might interact with it as a city. It doesn‘t have the kind of history that is easy to commercialize. It only has history related to a non-loudness, whether individual, existential, or cultural. Icelandic people have suffered disease, hunger, poverty, and yet they won’t expose that part of their story on a banner saying “we are heroes,” or “we were victims,” or “we have suffered.” This is a kind of minimal history, but would tell you a lot  about human beings, but only if you are willing to go deep. It is a place that encompasses multiple levels of symbolism. They demonstrate their existance and their history in a very delicate manner. The cozy homes tell you personal stories, related to what they have faced over decades and decades. Without having to be loud about it, while staying discreet about their sufferings.

I also love to walk around the lake in Reykjavik, where birds stop during their migrations. The lake represents a waystation. Birds interact, eat, reproduce, breed, and then some leave. They are safe around the lake. During their stay, they also practice—learning how to get organized during their flight, and how to change leaders while in formation. The lake is very symbolic. I often ask myself, do these birds return home after stopping in Reykjavik? And if they do, are their homes as they left them?

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Gunnarshús, the center at the Writers’ Union of Iceland. It was the house of the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarson. A beautiful place, that has witnessed all the efforts to make writing in Iceland a profession of great significance and respect. This place hosts writers from all over the world for temporary residencies. There is also the Nordic House of Literature that contains a vast number of books by a number of interesting writers from the Nordic world. I see it as a space where Nordic literary memory resides. It was a main landing spot in Iceland for great writers from around the world like Jorge Luis Borges, José de Sousa Saramago, Paul Auster, Herta Müller, Günter Grass, and many others including Tomas Tranströmer, who was there once when it was quite windy, so he wrote the beautiful poem “Icelandic Hurricane.” 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes, there are. The enormous number of bookstores, in addition to the libraries in the city. And the accessibility to any kind of book. In Reykjavik, the relationship between the reader and the book exists outside of any commercial commitment. You can simply go to any bookstore café, grab a book and read it, without being obliged to buy it. Books are cities, cities that always seduce.

Where does passion live here?

What’s interesting about Icelanders is their sense of justice. A common nucleus that is found in many of them. Passion in Reykjavik lives in that nucleus.

What is the title of one of your works about Reykjavik and what inspired it exactly?

It is called “Póstkassinn í Austurstræti”—inspired by a mail box in a street called Austurstaræti.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Reykjavik does an outside exist?”

An outside can only but exist for me. I was born in Beirut as a Palestinian refugee, and I lived most of my life there. Being a Palestinian refugee, I am forbidden to go to Palestine. Hence, my personal memory is Lebanese, not Palestinian. But at the same time, I am expected to have a political position regarding the harsh situation imposed on Palestinians. Thus, I also belong to a collective Palestinian memory. Now I carry another memory, that of my double exile in Iceland. Being scattered between places and memories, an outside is always there.    


Mazen Maarouf is a Palestinian-Icelandic poet and writer, lauded as a rising international literary star. He has published three collections of poetry: The Camera Doesn’t Capture Birds, Our Grief Resembles Bread, and most recently An Angel Suspended On The Clothesline, which has been translated into several languages including into French by Samira Negrouche (Amandier Poésie, 2013). His work is currently being translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Nathalie Handal. Maarouf has read in festivals, universities, museums and cultural centers in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. He has written literary and theater criticism in various Arabic magazines and newspapers namely An-Nahar and Assafir (Lebanon), Al-Quds-el-Arabi (London) and Qantara (Paris); and he has translated numerous Icelandic poets as well as the following novels into Arabic: The Blue Fox by Sjón, Hands of my Father by Myron Uhlberg, The Story of the Blue Planet by Andri Snær Magnason and Dwarfstone by Aðalsteinn Ásberg. He resides in Reykjavik.

Short films:


For those of you in New York and Chicago:

Poetry Reading, Mazen Maarouf at Columbia University
For more information, Center for Palestine Studies


APRIL 25 & 26, Chicago
“Voices of Protest,” Mazen Maarouf and Manal Al-Sheikh at Facets Multimedia 

"Voices of Protest" draws attention to the plight of exiled authors and celebrates a global literature. The Guild will host Manal Al-Sheikh and Mazen Maarouf, two Middle Eastern poets currently living in exile in Scandinavia in a program that showcases their work as writers and journalists. “Voices of Protest” is a part of the Guild’s regular Applied Words program, which uses the literary arts to creatively describe and enhance our understanding of disparate subjects.

As part of this program two short films will be screened which are included in “Poets of Protest,” an Al Jazeera-produced documentary series by British filmmaker Roxana Vilk. The series focuses on six Middle Eastern authors and the relationship of their work to initiatives for democracy and social justice across the Middle East. The poets Al-Sheikh (Iraq) and Maarouf (Palestine) will be in Chicago to give readings of their work, and various auxiliary programs will be included.

Support for “Voices of Protest” is provided by the MacArthur Foundation International Connections Fund. It is co-sponsored by Facets Multi-Media, Al Jazeera America, Words Without Borders, and HotHouse.

For more information:

Published Apr 8, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.