No. 37: Majda Gama
Q. Fairy tales are oral in nature, and you capture that with how the headdress is from a time “when tongue trumped ink, skin and skull held words; words held worlds.” Which is more powerful, the oral or the written word?
The orally transmitted word is more powerful than the written. I do believe the human race is still growing an oral tradition, I was certainly raised in a culture and religion that places great value in the transmission of our group knowledge this way. That’s not to say Arab culture doesn’t value the written word, it absolutely does, but the power of an Um Kulthoum song, or Mahmoud Darwish poem or even the popularity of a reality show about traditional Arabian spoken poetry (called Sha’ir al-Millyoun, Million’s Poet) proves to me the spoken word is still the gum Arabic that holds our society together. Words have power, say the word Andalucía to a person from the Middle East and see what happens.
Q. If the curators of the British Museum asked to use your poem on the information plate of their “red deer antler head-dress,” how would you react?
First, I’d take a quick trip “over the moon” then once I’d come back down to earth I’d probably burst into tears. And I’d thank them for incorporating contemporary poetry into the exhibit thus reinforcing the point of my sonnet: that a dialogue between ancient artifact and a modern artist can give the piece dimensionality. In a way, I imagine it would complete a very ancient loop as the person who wore the headdress was undoubtedly a Poet. Beyond that, it’s so important to note that symbols like the headdress are not static, I saw the power of that mask every time I opened my door just this past Halloween.
Q. The connection of the headdress to both “crown and tool” shows how something representative can also be highly functional. What other object do you think has the same sort of symbolic practicality?
I’m not sure this piece was meant to be functional at all otherwise it wouldn’t have survived to be in the British Museum. In the Arabic language a word in a poem can operate on a couple of different levels, it can create a triple entendre instead of a double. Although I write in English I often try to use the aesthetics of Arabic poetry when placing words in a sentence. The Old Norse root word for tool is “taw” and means “to transform the skin of an animal into white leather by the application of minerals, emulsions, etc.” The headdress isn’t a tool as we know it to be now but more as we understood a tool to be in a time when we had less portable objects. I like that one simple word can cause a little confusion.
Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Editorial Assistant Lucille Randazzo.
Majda Gama’s poem, “British Museum, Neolithic Deer Antler Headdress” can be found in The Mauve Issue of Fairy Tale Review.
British Museum, Neolithic Deer Antler Headdress
Here is age, dim word, the warp of it
In a glass case of remains from a time
Of flint and bone, when tongue trumped ink,
Skin and skull held words; words held worlds.
The red deer hide, knapped white, with slit
Eyes and horn points is both crown and tool;
The one who wore this mask took vows.
The God changed the Face, the Face
Lost the words. One God lost his head
But sang on, in halls below hills, hills
That birthed this city. Once I kneeled
In the dark, bound with a cord, my eyes
Then opened to the tools of my order.
I was naked, I was named, I put on that mask.