A Conversation with Jazra Khaleed
March 2010 WLT
Jazra Khaleed, born in Chechnya in 1979, lives today in Athens and writes exclusively in Greek. He is among the first of a new generation of Greek writers who were born beyond the borders of Greece, with roots in other cultures and languages, bringing new ideas, directions, and rhythms to Greek poetry. Khaleed is a poet and boxer from Athens’ harsh inner city; his poetry is an indictment of everything that is unfair and unjust in today’s Greece. For millennia Greece has sent out its citizens as immigrants to the four corners of the globe, but in the past decade has become for the first time in its history a beckoning magnet for immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands of Kurds, Somalis, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans live in difficult, even desperate, conditions in Athenian slums. As Khaleed says in his poem “Self-portrait”: “I write in the name of all vagrants, barefoot indigents, / Those who are last.”
Peter Constantine: Greek poetry has traditionally been considered very “Greek.” Greek poets have always been Greek—at least in the Modern Era. How do you see yourself fitting into the Modern Greek picture, the modern poetry scene in Greece?
Jazra Khaleed: That depends on how you define the Greek poetry scene. I’m certainly not part of the establishment as it is defined by most Greek poetry magazines and publishing houses, which tend to be run by individuals whose priorities are profit and influence. The poetry invariably plays second fiddle, while an old-boy network and string-pulling are the norm. A stench of death rises from what they publish. But there’s also another side: literary magazines such as Teflon, of which I’m an editor, are exclusively interested in poetry as poetry and have rigorous editorial standards. Teflon seeks to support new poets, to present original ideas, and to relate poetry to what’s happening in Greek society today. As a poet, I stand with all those who are trying to invigorate the Greek language, to turn it against itself, and to attack the police patrolling it. If I am part of a movement, it is one that uses poetry to launch attacks on conservatism, fanaticism, and the nationalistic tendencies that flourish in Greek society, which has the blood of immigrants on its hands.
PC: The blood of immigrants?
JK: In the 1990s, Greece’s economic boom and the sham prosperity of the Greek bourgeoisie was to a large extent the result of illegal immigrant labor. Thousands of immigrants, mainly from Albania, worked in inhuman conditions, without work permits or safety regulations, and for slave-labor wages. There were many deaths on the job. Twelve-hour or longer shifts, at times without adherence to even the most basic safety standards. Every month, dozens of immigrants drown in the Aegean attempting to reach Greek islands. Greece is an international center of human trafficking, and women from Africa and Eastern Europe are raped every day. Racial profiling is rampant: police squads check the papers of anyone who looks suspiciously non-Greek. Those rounded up are thrown into prison-like pens, where they are held pending deportation. A few weeks ago a Pakistani immigrant was tortured to death at a police station. All this takes place with the approval, or at least the passive acceptance, of the Greek public, the silent majority. On buses I often hear: “Go back where you came from!” There are, of course, also people in Greece who show solidarity with the immigrants and their struggle, but unfortunately there are very few poets who will touch the problem.
PC: Have you, as a young poet who left Chechnya and lived in Germany and now live in Athens, personally experienced the violence and ostracism of the immigrant in Greece?
JK: On streets and on buses, when people realize you’re not one of them, that you’re foreign, they look at you with daggers in their eyes. But these people can’t touch me. Words are my Praetorian Guard. At a sign from me they leap into the line of fire. Whoever comes at me will feel their spears.
PC: Much of your poetry has appeared in Greece in samizdat. It is surprising that collections of your work have not been published in Greece, whereas you are being extensively translated into English, Japanese, Spanish—even various Philippine languages.
JK: I don’t know why publishing houses in Greece aren’t interested in my poetry. It’s something that no longer concerns me though. I know that thousands of readers have read my poetry on my blog, and on blogs and in literary magazines worldwide that publish or republish my poetry. In this way I reach my readership without the mediation of a publisher or other tradesmen. I’m not interested in publishing a book or poetry collection in Greece—at least not right now.
PC: Poetry in English is a poetry of many nations and peoples. Beside the national poetry scenes in the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, poetry in English is also being written in South Africa, Nigeria, and India, and by indigenous writers in the United States and Australia. With the great wave of recent immigration to Greece, is there also a new internationalization of Greek poetry?
JK: I am in fact currently reading Aboriginal poets of Australia, particularly Mudrooroo and Lionel Fogarty. In the 1980s they mounted an insurrection against the English language, bringing Aboriginal oral traditions to the fore. Mudrooroo and Fogarty use elements of their indigenous languages in their work, words and phrases that make it a challenge for non-Aboriginals to understand their poetry. English, the language of the invaders, is used in a way that undermines its own supremacy, creating a new anti-language free of rules and limits, a language full of creative ambiguity. In Greece, most immigrants who write poetry are part of the hip-hop scene, which has become the global language of youth. Like the Aboriginal poets, the young immigrants write poetry that mixes their mother tongue or English with Greek. These are the new street poets, whose poetry is performance, a way of expression that shakes up the bleak reality of life in Greece. Their work targets a wider audience. Some of them revivify the Greek language by questioning its rules and inventing new words. In that sense, Greek poetry is becoming internationalized as part of the universality of hip hop.
PC: As a teenager you lived for a few years in Germany. Has the German literary scene also affected your writing?
JK: I believe I’ve been more influenced by German philosophy than German literature, particularly by Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Their writing on the arts, on language, and everyday life introduced me to dialectics and has to a large extent influenced the way I think and write. Elfride Jelinek has also had a vital effect on my work. In fact, I’ve recently translated into Greek some of the early poetry she wrote—a little-known aspect of her work. She is a writer who distorts the language of power, rendering it ridiculous, compelling it to tell the truth. She mocks it and derails it, giving it a subversive quality. I’ve been particularly influenced by her dialectical descriptions of violence and the mechanisms of dominance prevalent in society and sexuality.
PC: Your Burmese translator Yi Yi Mon has said that you are as much of a writer of love poetry as a poet of protest. Would you agree?
JK: I would prefer to avoid such classifications and categories. But it is true that a number of my poems deal with love within the violence of everyday life and the barbarity of our system. My poem “Still Life” touches on how society imposes on us a specific division of time, something we have come to perceive as a natural state of affairs without questioning its legitimacy. In fact, this boils down to just another aspect of everyday life that further adds to our alienation, our estrangement from our own bodies, and also from the people around us. A poet will often believe that he will find a safe haven within love, a place where he can feel secure, but he soon realizes that it is just another deception wrought by language. As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, the particular is not capable of realizing the true generality in this society; neither is the limiting duality of love capable of this. In the end, words prove disloyal to the poet and love reveals itself as just another noun frozen on the tongues of men.
PC: You live in the center of Athens, specifically the neighborhood where all the recent riots and car burnings have taken place. Poems like “Still Life” seem to reflect that violent Athenian reality. To what extent does your everyday life color your poetry?
JK: I live in Exarchia, Athens’ inner city. The area is down-at-heel, dirty, and loud, without public spaces or a single strip of green. What sets Exarchia apart is its history and its people: the area has played a vital role in the history of Greece for the past 40 years. Athens’ Polytechnic University is in Exarchia, and it was the student protests there that triggered the fall of Greece’s rightwing Junta in 1973. My neighborhood is the area in Athens where people will gather to protest, a concrete wasteland where people, ideas, and practices outside the system strike root and grow. In all of Greece, Exarchia is the one area under the most stringent police occupation. Hundreds of armed officers, many carrying automatic rifles and shields, patrol the streets on foot, on motorcycles, and in cars, arresting people, throwing them in lockups, beating up innocent citizens. They spray tear gas at the drop of a hat. In December 2008, a policeman murdered a fifteen-year-old boy in cold blood, which triggered riots and uprisings throughout Greece. This is my daily life under a regime that often smacks of a military dictatorship, and this is the life that I describe in many of my poems. My aim is not only to testify against the violence and lawlessness that comes from the state and its organs of oppression, but to add my voice to all who rise up and fight back.
PC: How do you see your future a poet?
JK: I want to focus more on the improvisational side of poetry: a group of musicians and poets getting together on stage without rehearsals, no one knowing what the other will do. We did something like this recently at two events we organized in Athens for the launching of the new issue of Teflon magazine. It was the first time I felt language to be so intimate and warm. I am interested in poetry improvisation, creating word clusters that resemble fireworks: words and phrases discharged, exploding, disappearing without a trace, visible only to those who are there and can raise their eyes to the sky. Only a memory remains, a memory different for each one of us. A poetry without future.
Translated by Peter Constantine