Satirical, honest, an unapologetic apology, Don’t Forget the Couscous is a debut collection of poetry by British-Syrian poet Amir Darwish, published by Smokestack Books.
Darwish writes emphatically in response to the Islamophobia that is taking hold of Western society and to the war that has torn the Arab world apart. At times, he juxtaposes strange, sad, and shocking images, particularly in a poem about a female dancer performing for a group of men in a ‘fountain of blood’. Most of the poems seem to be structured in this way; building layer upon layer of images, continuing to reveal new meaning as the poem goes on.
Darwish’s own story is one of overcoming the odds; since arriving in the UK on the underside of a lorry, he has gained British citizenship and achieved degrees at Teesside and Durham universities, having just completed an MA in International Studies at Durham.
You cover some very personal topics in your collection. As a writer myself, I often find writing cathartic in order to make sense of experiences and emotions. What is your own experience of writing on matters close to your heart?
I am no different to you, my friend. I find writing cathartic. To write on matters close to [your] heart is to let off steam and recharge the battery for life. It’s worthy to point out here that I am not religious and yet to make up my mind about “religion”. I am rather confused and find it good enough for me now.
What I talk about is racism that comes towards anyone who “looks Muslim”. It is close to heart as I experience it myself and to write about it is to express disagreement with such practice, but more so to express the Muslim community’s disagreement.
So after all, it is not only a personal experience. Instead, it is to preserve the beautiful colours of multiculturalism and speak of its beauty. There is a fraction of society who decided to attack that beauty and found Muslim communities as their target. Some of my poems are to counter that particular fraction.
Tell me about your influences, Naguib Mahfouz, Muhammed al-Maghut, and Rumi.
For the first, Naguib Mahfouz, I find him unique in his touch on existentialism and the way he provokes that questions in his work. Like all writers who identify themselves with others works and life experiences, I did compare Mahfouz’s to mine. I am nowhere near the stage and quality of how he writes though. His childhood and religious restrictions are similar to mine and I often draw on how he breaks chains of upbringing to write free.
For the second, Muhammed al-Maghuz, the influence is more in poetry, particularly in its free verse form and the way he set the scene in his poems. Not far from where I lived in Aleppo, Al-Maghut was born in the city of Hama and gradually developed a vision to free Arabic poetry from the restrains that makes it elite specific. I suppose that is the main influence of him on me, where he wants to make the message simple, plain and understood by all, yet it is still “poetry”.
As for Rumi, he is possibly the most influential of the three on me. He writes about love. About how to create beauty. About how to live and depart in happiness. For me, he cracked it. [An] ocean of ink gone on people writing about love on the page, from Gibran to many others, but Rumi manages to put the message full of calm and ease.
Which pieces from the collection have you enjoyed writing the most? What were the difficulties particularly on writing on what could be considered sensitive subjects?
I guess the main piece for me but the least likeable for others is It’s All about Love. In that piece, I try to present the concept of love to be everywhere and always around. There is no particular aspect to it, no location, and no one can claim it to be his or hers.
Sensitivity of subjects is most evident in socio-political poems. At first, the process was too personal, perhaps with emotions that overwhelmed me but as I wrote, studied and developed thoughts, I came to realise that differentiations must be in place and clarity to be there at all times. What I mean here is for me to state poems’ aims when I get the chance, particularly to mention that pieces in the collection do not set two sides against one another. Instead, it’s about an identification of a group in society who is now under pressure and [an attempt] to express and demonstrate in words that a particular group is under pressure.
Don’t Forget the Couscous is published by Smokestack Books. You can now order it here on our website for only £7.95.