Travel Enriches Poems of Basim Furat, Winner of the Helmy Salem Prize for Poetry
The Iraqi poet Basim Furat’s poetry collection “Joy in Legends” recently won first prize in the Egyptian Poetry Forum’s Helmy Salem competition for 2022.
The Moroccan poet Abderrahim Elkhassar won second place for his collection “Isolation Is a Family Member”, and the Egyptian poet Hoda Omran won third place for her collection “Cairo”.
In an interview, Basim Furat talked to Al-Fanar Media about his experience with various literary genres, and the impact of his wide travels on his writing.
As a poet and travel writer, Furat is interested in identity and cultural diversity. He has published several poetry collections, including “The Vehemence of Cooing” (1999), “The Autumn of Minarets” (2002), “Me Again” (2006), “Reaching the River” (2012), and “Early in the Far Morning” (2019), among others.
In travel literature, he has published: “A Resident Traveler” (2014), “The Bolivarian Dream” (2015), and “Places Waving to Strangers”, among others.
“My travels stuck with me; they are the most important spring that enriches my knowledge treasury and life and poetic experiences. Thanks to these trips, I got to know hundreds of linguistic and cultural groups.”
Honours that Furat has received include the Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Literature, which he has won twice, in 2013 and 2014, and the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Culture, Arts and Literature, which he won in the travel literature category in 2019. He has also won more than one award for poetry.
Awards Are Not a Mark of Distinction
Despite these honours, Furat does not think prizes are important and does not regard them as evidence of literary distinction.
“They lose their importance when years pass without critical attention to the laureate’s works,” he said. “What is the value of an award if the winner’s aesthetic achievement does not inspire critics to write about it?”
Studies, research, and articles on a writer’s creative output are what reinforce and maintain the awards’ relevance, he said.
“Too many prizes and writings are a double-edged sword; their best use is to motivate the writer to innovate, and to increase his responsibility in return for the praise bestowed on him,” he said.
Furat’s works vary between prose poetry, classical vertical poetry, and dactylic poetry. He began his poetic career writing classical vertical and dactylic poems, which he says came naturally because of a musical ear and because of his rich readings and early memorisation of old Arabic poetry.
Furat also writes prosodic poems that combine two meters (buhur). “I wrote a long poem, narrating the biography of the late poet Hussein Mardan,” he recalled. “It combined two meters: the ramal (trotting) and the hazaj (trilling).”
Places as Sources of Poetic Astonishment
Furat has spent many years in exile and has visited some 40 countries around the world. After overcoming the initial difficulties of reconciling with new locations, he began to notice a problematic aspect of exile in the works of Iraqi poets who, like himself, were forced to leave their homeland.
“Too many prizes and writings are a double-edged sword; their best use is to motivate the writer to innovate, and to increase his responsibility in return for the praise bestowed on him,”
He reconsidered his own poetic output to avoid this problem of “turning it into a weeping speech, and nonstop wailing for a paradise that slipped away from one’s hands.”
With this new vision, places became sources of poetic astonishment for Furat, along with interaction with all cultures, no matter how small, marginal, and forgotten. He cited his poetry collection “Reaching the River” as the first of this stage, before the features of this trend became clearer in later collections, especially “The Herdsmen’s Inkpot”, which embodies his experiences in the Nile Valley, Sudan and Egypt.
He continued this trend in later collections. His “Early in the Far Morning” is a vision of the first place and other places, while his “Joy in Legends”, which won first place in the Helmy Salem Award, is the epitome of his poetic, travel, and reading experiences, he said.
During his travels, Furat has undertaken some difficult and harsh excursions, such as climbing the top of the Pichincha Volcano, overlooking Quito, Ecuador, where he suffered from breathing difficulties because of the high altitude. Other trips helped him learn what he could not learn at school or from books, he explained.
Travel writing is a “beautiful creative art that employs the art of novel writing, journals, autobiography, and investigations. I feel sorry for this confusion between travel literature and the other mentioned writing arts.”
“My travels stuck with me; they are the most important spring that enriches my knowledge treasury and life and poetic experiences,” he said. “Thanks to these trips, I got to know hundreds of linguistic and cultural groups. They, along with books, of course, taught me to differentiate between many terms, like the difference between writing and blogging, and nationalities and ethnicities. They taught me that blogging collective memory of a place is to be the owner of the place.”
Travel Literature as an Art
Furat thinks that awards can boost the status of travel literature in the Arab world.
“Just as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the “Arab Booker Prize”, stimulated the art of the novel,” he said, “the Ibn Battuta Prize has significantly and greatly helped the development of travel literature.”
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When the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Culture, Arts and Literature dedicated a branch to travel literature in 2019, he said, “it tempted many to try this beautiful creative art that employs the art of novel writing, journals, autobiography, and investigations. I feel sorry for this confusion between travel literature and the other mentioned writing arts.”
For a sampling of Basim Furat’s poetry in English translation, see several poems on the website of the New Zealand publisher HeadworX. Other examples are available here and here.
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