Yahia Lababidi

Desert Songs: An Ode to Egypt

A poet and aphorist, born to an Egyptian mother and a Lebanese father, Yahia Lababidi grew up in Cairo and went on to study at George Washington University in Washington DC. He worked at the United Nations in Cairo for ten years before moving to Florida in 2006, where he has written ten critically-acclaimed books of poetry and prose to date. eniGma’s Rawya Lamei chatted with Lababidi to find out more about this award-winning poet and the inspiration behind his work.

Yahia Lababidi feels a tremendous spiritual connection to his home country and refers to his new bilingual book, Desert Songs, as a love letter to his Egypt written in appreciation for the meditative state that he always feels in the desert. “I would go on these retreats to places like Nuweiba or Farafra, in the desert away from the city, away from the noise. My mind still often wanders back to the desert,” says Lababidi.

“The desert is a large space that hushes you, you’re in the middle of nowhere and have nowhere to go, nowhere to run,” he says, adding, “Whichever country you’re in, the desert is the desert.” The pictures in Desert Songs are actually of the Moroccan desert, taken by Moroccan photographer Zakaria Wakrim. Lababidi also collaborated with the Syrian poet, Osama Esber, on the Arabic poems in Desert Songs.

Lababidi speaks a great deal about how his grandparents inspired him to write poetry. “My paternal grandmother, who lived to the ripe old age of a hundred, was a wise old friend that I would turn to in times of need. She and my grandfather, after whom I was named, bonded over their shared love of music,” he explains. Yahia Lababidi, the grandfather, was a renowned artist, musician, and writer who wrote many songs for iconic singers like Farid Al Atrash. In fact, Lababidi often feels self-conscious about sharing the name of his illustrious grandfather. “Who am I to use the name of such an icon, a great artist?” he modestly asks.

Both of Lababidi’s grandmothers loved old sayings and “spoke in them,” as he puts it. It was thanks to both his creative grandmothers that he was introduced to proverbs. “I was fascinated by the fact that you could say so much of life’s wisdom, in just one sentence,” he says, adding that he learned so much from them even though neither of them was conventionally hyper-educated, as they both married at an early age. He recalls that his paternal grandmother in particular, was someone who would burst into song and dance, reciting poetry; even on days when she wasn’t feeling well and on the verge of going to the hospital.

“It was as if my ear was trained from a very young age to recognise the encapsulating wisdom all around me, which eventually became extremely present in my poetry,” says Lababidi. He adds, “My wife is half Colombian, and I love collecting sayings in Colombia as well. Sayings are the invisible books that everyone reads.” Lababidi emphasises the richness of language and that no matter how banal or trivial something someone might say is, there will always be a degree of musicality and poetry to their words. “It’s people playing with language. No matter how coarse or obscene, it will always be reflective of the local culture and values,” he explains.

According to Lababidi, the artist’s words of truth and wisdom speak for others, not just the self. He adds that he is a reader before anything else. “I read to lose myself, to find myself, the same way I would when going to the desert.” Lababidi describes the immense inspiration he felt when reading Gibran Khalil Gibran as a teenager. He did not realise just how meaningful certain things were to him until he picked up the work of Gibran.

There is a universality in Lababidi’s poetry that is unmatched. “There are prophets not mentioned in the holy books–who bear witness universally, and deliver the Divine messages entrusted to them,” is one of Lababidi’s aphorisms that he holds near and dear to his heart. Asked whether he was referring to poets, or to artists, he responds with, “possibly… or scientists, or anonymous people. They are a certain strain of people whose work shows the beauty and miraculousness of the world we live in.”

Lababidi notes the popular Arabic saying, “He places his secret with the weakest of his creation,” and explains how people who are overlooked as being not too bright, or are shy and reserved, may actually hold immense wisdom. “There’s divine wisdom in unknown places, you have to leave room for mystery,” he explains.

Lababidi recalls his experience reading Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafiz who brought him to a deeper appreciation and understanding of faith. Their religiousness was not rigid or bound by straining commands, but rather, a joyful celebration. “In contrast to this angry, hypocritical manifestation of religion, here were these people celebrating a great union, an open letter to the divine through dance, through song and poetry, going beyond all dogma, with great freedom,” he exclaims. “I see these mystics as the antithesis and the antidote to fundamentalism,” he adds.

Lababidi is seriously concerned with fundamentalism. As a US citizen and resident, he is increasingly faced with the political hardening at his current home. He finds that people are forgetting the humanity in others and, despite his very apolitical nature, he feels the need to speak up about it because of how harmful and unmissable it’s become.

In conclusion, Lababidi says that the life of an artist entails “a sense of sacrifice, vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. It’s not solely about self-expression, but has an altruistic value,” Lababidi explains. “The personal becomes universal.”

Desert Songs is available at Diwan Bookshops.