In this discussion, Nathalie Handal tells Ram Devineni of her experiences in Afghanistan as well as explaining where her fascination with the written word originally came from.
In May 2011, poet Nathalie Handal was invited by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the State Department to travel to Kabul, Afghanistan to participate in a literary tour, which also included National Book Award Finalist Joshua Ferris and essayist Christopher Merrill. While in Afghanistan, she taught a poetry workshop to young Afghani women students at Kabul University and participated in many literary dialogues with other poets from the country. The short film captures this unique poetic journey. Nathalie currently lives in New York City.
Ram Devineni You are probably one of the best-traveled poets that I know, and you have been to some difficult places. What is the role of a poet in the world?
Nathalie Handal I’ve always been fascinated by words and journeys. From a young age, I collected photos, postcards, letters, or whatever I could find that told a story about being on the road. When I was about fourteen years old, I found a letter my grandfather wrote. It was about my family members who immigrated to Egypt. Excited, I showed it to my parents. My father was amused. My mother was emotional. My grandmother thought we should throw it away—she didn’t want people reading about him. Everyone wanted the letter for different reasons. Finally, my mother hid the letter. During our many moves, we never found it again. At that moment, I realized that writing was risky. It could infuriate. I later discovered writers were exiled or imprisoned because of what they wrote. What we read could take us into different worlds—I couldn’t remember the story in the letter because I read it fast, so I created my own version. It took me to the cusp of my imagination and emotions, to illusion and disillusion, to where what’s real and surreal, and where the sacred and unholy collide. I realized that writing has power, and that was exhilarating. It seems impossible for poets to stay away from the debates that surround them or be indifferent to their ghosts. Poetry can show others what has happened to them, and what they have lost or gained. It explores the human condition. It is a meeting place of society, history, and self. And when we write, we not only use language, we use silence.