We often come across words like “pyramid,” “deserts,” and “pharaohs,” accompanying Egypt. In academic circles, we hear words like “from Africa to the rest of the world,” which speaks of Egypt as the cradle of civilization. Whoever goes to Egypt will be visited by sights of native trees like the Phoenician juniper, and domestic animals like the buffalo, camels, donkeys, sheep, and goats – the last of which are particularly noticeable in the Egyptian countryside.
According to Britannica, “one can also see the largest wild animal – the aoudad (a type of bearded sheep), which survives in the southern fastnesses of the Western Desert. Other desert animals are the Dorcas gazelle, the fennec (a small, desert-dwelling fox), the Nubian ibex, the Egyptian hare, and two kinds of jerboa (a mouselike rodent with long hind legs for jumping).
Following the Muslim conquests, both urban and rural culture in Egypt had begun to adopt elements of Arab culture, and an Arabic vernacular eventually replaced the Egyptian language as the common means of spoken discourse. Moreover, since that time, Egypt’s history has been part of the broader Islamic world, and though Egyptians continued to be ruled by a foreign elite—whether Arab, Kurdish, Circassian, or Turkish—the country’s cultural milieu remained predominantly Arab.”
Out of this historic nation – which was often believed to be an entirely flat country – are poets like Amirah Al Wassif. She is not just phenomenal, but she has shown herself to break free from hundreds of stereotypes about Egyptian artists at first, and female Muslims at best. In this interview with David Francis Effiong, an author and consultant for the Ray of Thought platform, she dares to demonstrate how her narratives could be of benefit even to other poets and creatives from places termed “minorities.”
- ROT: Tell us about your background.
Amirah: I am an Egyptian Muslim woman – one of those women who belong to a minority. Of course, like all those people who belong to a minority, I struggle every day when other people know that I am a ( woman) or ( Egyptian) or ( Muslim).
The world treats minorities harshly. Even in my own society (the Egyptian society) we as women still struggle because people here in my country believe that women’s rights must be buried and no woman has that right to talk or to write.
- ROT: When did you realize you would turn out a poet?
Amirah: I didn’t realize anything. I just felt that everything around us is poetry. We breathe through poetry. We learn from poetry. Our bones are made of poetry. We live in a poetry bubble. I just felt it and sink in a continuous desire to discover how to express it.
- ROT: How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem.
Amirah: My poems develop through reading and writing. I read every day and I write every day.
I will be a big liar if I said that I write my poems step by step. I just write what comes to my mind. I just write what I feel naturally without taking note of stages – without steps.
- ROT: Tell us about your book(s) please, and what influenced it/them.
Amirah: At the present, I have two English published books. My first book is a poetry collection called (For Those Who Don’t Know Chocolate). The book was released in February 2019 by Poetic Justice and Arts Independent Publishers in Florida. And the second book is a children’s illustrated book called (The Cocoa Boy and Other Stories) came out this year (2020) by the same publisher.
I have 5 published Arabic books too.
Actually, what influenced me to write them are minority issues like pangs of hunger/ poor/ Africans/ women who suffer just from being who they are; just from being women.
- ROT: Anyone who comes across you on social media, would be wondering how it is that you get a lot of acceptances/publications. Tell us, has it always been that way? Was there any time, or times your poems were rejected?
Amirah: When I started my writing career in English, I struggled from receiving many rejections from publishers, literary magazines, and journals that I never ever felt disappointed or despaired. I always talk to myself that I have a goal and I will achieve it despite facing all these rejections. I don’t love to repeat what others said but I believe that thatword “giving up” mustn’t be in the writer’s dictionary. Now, I am a writer who is totally surprised to have huge acceptances in her inbox. I still have rejections letters in my inbox, but I know all these rejections will be turned into acceptances soon.
- ROT: Tell us about your process: Pen and Paper, computer, notebooks…how do you write?
Amirah: I write naturally without having a plan. I write every day in pen and paper, as well as with the computer, notebooks, and on my phone.
- ROT: Do you have any favourite living poet(s)?
Amirah: I have many favourite living poets, but I will tell you two of them. Maggie Smith and Alice Walker.
- ROT: Is there a writer or poet you would love to have a drink with, and why?
Amirah: Oh!! This question really touches the heart of my heart. I am in love with the idea because I really long to have a drink with Elizabeth Gilbert. I think Elizabeth is a fantastic writer and an excellent learner through life’s waves.
- ROT: Tell us about the biggest mistake you’ve made as an artist/what scares you the most?
Amirah: The biggest mistake I made is that I didn’t begin my writing career in English. I began my writing journey in Arabic. It wasn’t a bad journey, but it wasn’t my purpose, my real one, because my heart and my soul and my bones needed badly to be expressed in English not in Arabic.
Although, English isn’t my first language, and I haven’t had an international education, yet I felt so attached to learning English. I didn’t take courses in writing in the English language either. I had just that full determination to write in my all-time favourite language. So, I decided to educate myself.
- ROT: You had shared at one time on social media that “if you are a true artist even a log of wood could inspire you.” Can you tell us more?
Amirah: Indeed I wrote that sentence once. And I really believe in that meaning. I believe that the honest and true artist should be inspired be every single detail around him or her. A piece of wood would inspire you to write a whole book. If you just smell that wood and fall in love with it you may listen to a full poem in your ears.
If you touch it softly you may paint your masterpiece of art.
If you listen to it, you would figure out how silence plays music. Yes, you can make art if you’re a true artist. Don’t trick yourself. Don’t make excuses.
- ROT: There is a lot of activism going on in the Western World today. As an African, are there things you see yourself speaking against?
Amirah: Yes, of course I have many and many of the issues that I speak against.
The world is full of injustice, racism, the minority issues, poverty, starvation, and many other issues which need me and every writer to speak against.
- ROT: What are the clear challenges you have encountered as an African writer?
Amirah: This is such a good question. As an African writer I face many challenges. And being an African in itself would drive many writers into a big troubles.
We as African writers and artists struggle everyday politically, and we suffer from a lack of justice.
Here in my country, no consideration is made for those women who write, as they only consider the male writers. The female writers here are writing for the fashion, beauty, cooking and about how to be a plain housewife.
- ROT: When reading a poem for the first time, what ingredients strike you first?
Amirah: I love to smell the poet’s writing style. I hate to read it boringly or have a read that doesn’t focus on the intriguing ingredients that make poems comes into life. I love to imagine how the poet wrote the piece that way.
- ROT: Would you say that your religion and your environment (Egypt) has greatly influenced your art, and the way you look at reality?
Amirah: My religion and my environment influenced my art. Also I am a vivid reader and a lover of literature.
- ROT: How receptive is your environment towards poetry or arts in general?
Amirah: At the present, my country doesn’t appreciate the artists. In the past, Egypt had a leading role in arts and cinema, but now Egypt doesn’t play a major role in the world at all. And you can imagine how the cultural scene also changed.
- ROT: Gone to any book festival, readings, or some moments with other writers and poets?
Amirah: At the beginning of my writing journey in Arabic, I went to many public events, but when I decided to complete my writing journey in English I didn’t have a chance to attend such events. Because I need to travel around the world too with my art, I now apply to many residences and scholarships to have that chance.
- ROT: What do you want the world to know about you?
Amirah: I want the world to know that I am a writer, a true one.
- ROT: Sometimes we forget that writers and poets, though co-creators, are also humans. Can you do us the honour of telling us what you do for fun aside writing? Do you even eat food? Tell us…
Amirah: Fortunately, I don’t forget to eat, lol! I love to listen to music and do some exercises and travel to weird and exciting places in my head.
- ROT: Any advice to someone wanting to write and publish poetry?
Amirah: My honest advice is read alot, and express what you feel truly, be that poet whom you will admire a lot.
Amirah Al Wassif can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org