Bringing In the Past: Q+A with Yousef Atta

Yousef Atta is not only a great poet at Modern English School Cairo, but also a very interesting student with interests in politics and bringing historical themes into his work. We asked him more about his ideas and inspiration. 

How did you find out about Passports?

I first learned about Passports when my IB coordinator messaged us on our IB Whatsapp group (the best medium of student-teacher communication) about the creative arts competition, if we can call it that. I was hooked onto the idea of showcasing your creative arts skills to your fellow IB students across the world, to see how my knowledge companions expressed themselves in the arts. 

Why did you begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a natural affinity for poetry. I like how a complex thought or feeling can be expressed through a few lines of verse, with the tone and rhythm helping to emphasize the thought or feeling. Encrypting the meaning of a poem, or writing my own line of coding, is always a challenge I’m willing to undertake, and have undertaken. I occasionally write some lines of verse to ‘exercise’ my poetry skills but with this competition I’ve submitted three poems to put my skills to the test.

Where do you find inspiration?

To be honest, I write when I feel like I can produce something. If an idea or a thought pops in my head and i’m in the mood of writing and I have some time to write, I head straight to the keyboard and start typing. If I write when I don’t feel like it, what I produce is relatively sub-par. When I write poetry, I search for context in the atmosphere around me to base my poetry on. Is today a special event to commemorate something? What’s happening on the news? What are people talking about today? When the poem is an assignment or a classroom activity, I expand my topic filter to things related to the lesson (I remember writing a poem about business integration as part of a poem writing activity in IGCSE Business. IGCSE, by the way, is British for Middle School). I also sometimes write from personal experience and thoughts, such as a writing about a crush of mine or a situation in my family or my school life.

Your poems have religious or historical themes. Is there any reason?

I love history. It’s one of my Higher Level subjects and the only subject where I am scoring a level 7. I try to keep an international perspective when writing historical poetry in accordance with the IB lifestyle, which isn’t hard because the world is filled with all kinds of history from which to base my poems off of.

As for religion, as a believing and practicing Muslim, I sometimes find myself expressing my faith through my poetry. Although my religious practices are in line with Sunni orthodoxy, I find Sufi literature and practices very intriguing. One of my favourite Sufi poets is Rabia Basri, an 8th century sufi poet, mystic and feminist figure. She was known by her community to be extremely pious and virtuous, to the point where several of her male colleagues did not see themselves as men or her as a woman, but they saw themselves as spiritually bankrupt compared to her spiritual affluence. I even have a recitation of one of her poems downloaded on my phone! (its called ‘I knew your passion’ (عرفت هواك) if you’re interested).

What do you hope to express with your poetry?

 I hope to express whatever the message or theme of my poem is. To use an example, the theme of my ‘Christmas Truce’ poem is that of tragic irony and the grimness of war. The poem describes in detail the atmosphere of the battlefield before describing the famous football matches that occured on the December of 1914 as part of an unofficial ceasefire. The briefness of the final two verses emphasizes the tragic normalcy and irony of the day following the truce as the British soldier recalls his killing of a German he had just played football with the day before with the simple, objective statement ‘I shot a German in the head’, void of any emotional afterthought.

How would you describe your poetic style?

I would describe my poetic style as ‘unchained and unbound’. That is, I find whatever structure that I believe suits my poem best. In a sense, my poetic style can be described as ‘free verse’ although I always try to maintain the structure I have decided upon for each stanza and not verge off this structure (unless a fantastic idea for a structure pops into my head). I always experiment with different verse lengths, how many verses are in each stanza, even what type of rhyme I should use, all of this with the end goal of crafting the perfect poem. I like my poems like I like a car, custom designed.

How have your experiences impacted your poetry?

Not by a lot, I must say. My IB life has obviously affected my poetic activity (more on that later) and there isn’t a lot of inspiration in my personal life and experiences from which to draw from, although there are a few golden nuggets here and there. I once wrote a poem dedicated to my grandfather (god bless his soul) on the anniversary of his death (he left this world when I was three years old). My father and grandmother always recounted stories about how much he loved me and I just felt like expressing the love for him I could never express to him directly has a child through poetry. I also once wrote a poem in Year 10 dedicated to a crush of mine on Valentines day, which I never gave to her out of my own shyness. Even one of the three poems I presented to the competition was dedicated to the life, regrets and gratefulness of an IB student, partly inspired by my own perceptions!

How will poetry carry into your future?

To be honest, my future aspirations are not in the world of the arts of literature. Poetry for me is more of a hobby than a future life choice. A writing related goal for me would probably be to write up a political manifesto, since I aspire to be a political leader in my country. However, perhaps one day, I might see myself publishing a poetry book in the distant future.

What is the IB Program like at your school? How has it affected your work?

The IB is a new idea for my school, having been introduced in 2010, I believe. Previous cohorts have been quite small, with only a dozen or so students in both 11 and 12. 2017-2018’s DP12 are around 10-13 students. However my cohort has been the subject of a surge of IB popularity in school and there are currently 32 students in 2017-2018’s DP11! Our coordinator is very involved with our day-to-day lives at school, sometimes to our dismay and never has a shortage of in-school and after-school related work with which we can fill up our CAS-o-meter.

Despite my active involvement with the IB, the program has had little influence over my work (although to give credit, a diverse number of things have an influence on my work, each with their own little share). How the IB does affect my work is with how it provides and takes away the opportunity to write. Had it not been for my IB coordinator, I would have never gotten the chance to present my poetry to Passports. However the workload is piling on and I’m finding it increasingly time-consuming to sit down (or wander around) and write some poetry.

What other hobbies do you have?

 I’m an avid videogamer, with strategy, simulations and sandbox games ranking among my favourite genres. I’m fond of animals (although I haven’t had any pets thanks to my mother’s objections) and firearms, owing to my father’s service in the ministry of interior. I have quite a collection of coins and paper notes, most of them from an MUN trip to Russia. I enjoy my fair share of sports, especially football and basketball, and reading, mostly non-fiction. Political, historical and crime genres are my main courses when it comes to netflix and chill, with a side of comedy and family sitcoms.