Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Memory's Homeland: Agha Shahid Ali and the Hybrid Ghazal

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Memory's Homeland: Agha Shahid Ali and the Hybrid Ghazal

Article excerpt

Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland-- Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali, "Arabic," Ishmael

Writes Shammas: Memory, no longer confused, now is a homeland-- his two languages a Hebrew caress in Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali, "In Arabic," Ishmael

THESE COUPLETS ARE EXILES, EMIGRES from a pair of ghazals where the laws of refrain hold sway: the last words of each ("Arabic" and "in Arabic," respectively) end every one of their home-poem's couplets. There, those laws are related in turn to a characteristic postcolonial thematics of cultural trauma, loss, memory, return, and cultural identity. Or, to be more precise, they embody two stances toward that thematics: one dominated by nostalgia and the desire for return, and one dominated by an anti-nostalgic acknowledgement of cultural hybridity. The differences between these two stances are subtly marked in the couplets. Arabic, though not one of Ali's languages, is the "mother tongue" of the ghazal; the form, as Ali points out in the Introduction to his anthology, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, "goes back to seventh-century Arabia, perhaps even earlier" (1). To look back to "a graceful Arabic" as Ali does in the first couplet is thus to look back through English, through the Urdu ghazals of Faiz and Ghalib that Ali knew and translated, through the Farsi of Rumi and Hafiz, and toward the origins of the ghazal. And the retrospective territorialization attributed here to the noted Arab-Israeli novelist, Anton Shammas, reduces a hybrid oeuvre and identity--Shammas is an Israeli-born Arab Christian who writes in Hebrew, Arabic, and English--to a single component. Of course, this first couplet is not a purely "nativist" artifact: it is written in English; it advocates "return" only in language and memory; and it promises not to eliminate "confusion" but to territorialize it in "a graceful Arabic." Yet it remains strongly marked by a thematics of nostalgia and return and does not explicitly acknowledge the gaps that divide its content, form, and language. The second passage is a revision of the first (Ravishing 8-10), and takes up an unmistakably hybrid position. Now, Shammas's search for a homeland leads only to the interstitial territory of two of his languages while being written in the third, thereby affirming a fundamental cultural and linguistic hybridity. In the revision, then, there is a more satisfying (if paradoxical) harmony between the content of the couplet and its dual cultural allegiances (Eastern form, Western language).

Since the second couplet is a revision of the first, one might think that Ali had shifted from a largely nostalgic to an anti-nostalgic stance by the time he wrote "In Arabic." (1) But Ali's reasons for revising "Arabic" complicate such a reading. Ali writes that he "made matters much too easy for [him]self" (Ravishing 8-9) by omitting, in "Arabic," the rhyme-words that should appear immediately before each couplet's terminal refrain. He describes his revision as a "more honest attempt" (10) at the form, and offers a playfully polemical explanation of such "honesty":

   For a seemingly conservative, but to me increasingly a radical,
   reason--form for form's sake--I turned politically correct
   some years ago and forced myself to take back the gift outright:
   Those claiming to write ghazals in English (usually American
   poets) had got it quite wrong, far from the letter and farther
   from the spirit. Of course, I was exercising a Muslim snobbery,
   of the Shiite elan, but the ghazal floating from so many
   monthlies to quarterlies was nothing of the kind. And wasn't
   the time ripe for stringent, formally tight disunities, not just
   arbitrary ones? (1)

Some ghazalists still refuse to toe the line; Lorna Crozier, at least, after describing Ali's plea as "impassioned and cranky" (Bones in Their Wings 62), insists that the "real ghazals" of Ravishing DisUnities suffer from a "predictability" and "monotony" inherent, for her, in the form itself. …

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