Quest for transcendence

Art in the time of coronavirus

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

Corona Chronicles: 20 April – 24 April

By Anne-Marie Bissada

Posted on April 24, 2020 14:39

In the midst of this pandemic, holed up in our homes, many forget that the world of art hasn’t taken a back seat. It continues to inspire, to express ideas and to capture moments to comfort or entertain us and make us think.

One poet in particular, Moncef Ouhaibi, was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, for his collection of poetry. He wants to remind us that art, no matter what the medium, has the power to help us.

For the first time of its 14 year history, the Abu-Dhabi based Sheikh Zayed Book Award for literature went to a poet– and a Tunisian one at that.

“Oh, we have much art here!” he tells The Africa Report, citing a grand poet from the early half of the 20th century, Abou el-Kacem Chebbi. He adds to the list of noteworthy achievements, such as Tunisian cinema, music and visual arts.


His collection of poems, Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera (The Penultimate Cup), explores the relationship Tunisia occupies within the Mediterranean, its ties with its Arab neighbours and with those countries to to the north of the sea. It also touches on timeless themes of love and death, war and family.

“These are the stories that form our memories and create our identity,” says Ouhaibi. He finds inspiration from daily comings and goings – or simply put, “I am a poet and an interpreter. I listen to the world not only with my eyes but also with my ears.”

The language of poetry

Arabic is a language rooted in poetry. Oral and then written poetry are considered to be the earliest forms of Arabic literature. Its rich vocabulary and melodic rhythm are reasons why poetry in particular continues to flourish in the Arabic-speaking world.

“Arabic is a poetic language,” confirms Ouhaibi, when asked about if his work translates well into other languages. His poetry has indeed been translated, especially into French. “We can always translate it, but you must be a poet to interpret it,” he says. The French translator who recently translated some of his work is a poet himself. “He listened to my poems in Arabic, the rhythm of the lines; he understood something.”

It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what is important is to have an understanding of the melody of the words, which in turn deliver a message.

Art in a time of crisis

Undoubtedly great works of art have arisen during times of crisis. Think of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish civil war, Edward Hopper’s paintings during the Great Depression in the US, Henrik Ibsen’s play The Dollhouse at a time of growing women’s liberation or Naguib Mahfouz’s novels that questioned modern Egyptian society.

“Of course, art has a role to play, and not just poetry. Art doesn’t respond right away,” notes the poet.

But in this current time, art “is very important, especially after COVID-19”. He adds that this post-pandemic era will be helped by art, “and not religion … because art has the capacity to draw us into visions that transcend the cruelest of realities.” And in those cruelest of times, “art is not there simply for those who want to make-believe; it’s to give hope back to man and to relight his faith in constructing a better world.”

And in this post-crisis future, humanity will need artists, all kinds, says Ouhaibi.

“But I’ll add, we are often confused during these moments of humanity … but ‘there is still a candle dancing in our hand’, as the great French poet René Char once said.”

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