This volume of poetry, written in the early eighties, portrays the agonies, dreams and fluctuating moods of a sensitive soul in a teeming metropolis of a postcolonial Third World country. Cairo, the cosmopolitan city to which the poet moved, offered opportunities and estrangement to the young villager from Minufiyya governorate in the north. Muhammad Sulayman came to study Pharmacy at the University of Cairo in the sixties--a decade that witnessed the height of revolutionary fervor as well as the defeat of the national project that sought to establish an independent and prosperous country. The military defeat of 1967 was followed in the seventies by capitulation's and renunciation of the Arab dream in a just peace and in national integrity. These disappointments were accompanied by soul-searching among the intellectuals who tried to probe into the failure of the promising national project. The post-revolutionary mood is captured by Muhammad Sulayman in a Janis-like mode, of despair on one face and hope on the other. This ambivalent state of mind is reinforced by an urban setting which combines squalor with splendor, loneliness with potentialities. To express the effect of these sudden discontinuities on him and his generation, Sulayman often makes abrupt shifts moving from the confessional mode to the confident posture. The singular pronouns--first, second and third--are interchangeably used to refer to the modulation of the self. This technique creates variations of distancing and overlapping with one Is identity.
To depict the economic and social turnabouts of this period with all the psychological destabilization that they incurred, Muhammad Sulayman opts for mixing not only "memory and desire" as T. S. Eliot did, but also heritage with actuality, collective ethos with private divagations. The ups and downs of the homeland converge with personal experiences giving rise to feelings that alternate between resignation and resistance, impotence and empowerment.
Sulayman's poetic strategy lies in evocation rather than narration. The story of Solomon the king is not replayed, yet it informs the entire volume calling on both Biblical and Koranic images of this fabulous and historical king; and granting this distant figure an existential reality, For once we can see Solomon from the inside: a human being with anxieties and wishes, vulnerabilities and strengths, whims and wisdom. Intertextual echoes of certain books of the Old Testament (1 Kings, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastics and Proverbs) and chapters of the Koran (Surat Saba', Surat al-Naml and Surat Sad) are orchestrated to evoke a lofty ambiance. The scriptural narratives of Solomon as well as the legendary lore that grew around them constitute the subtexts of this volume. But Solomon Rex here diverges considerably from the original Solomon: he Is recycled into a hero of our times, al.most, verging on the antihero with his tramplike existence and chronic unfulfillment. He is a Bedouin prophet and a gypsy seer, as he is presented in the first poem, entitled "Faces". Solomon becomes a metaphor for every citizen, expressing the dilemma of a patriot whose faith in the homeland has been shaken. In a manner reminiscent of Kierkegaard's rendering of Abraham in -Fear and Trembling, Sulayman reinserts Solomon in present-day problematic, activating his pertinence. In Solomon Rex--our contemporary hero--a component of failure and rebellion is part of his spiritual constitution. Muhammad Sulayman uses the mask of Solomon to lyricize the notion of "shaken faith" just as Kierkegaard uses Abraham to philosophize the notion of "leap into faith". The choice of Solomon for this role is appropriate enough; just as Abraham was known as the "father of faith," Soloman was known for his religious laxity and even lapse into idolatry. The Koran mentions that Solomon was divinely punished by losing his kingdom, and a double occupied his throne until he asked pardon and was then re-enthroned, Solomon's departure from his kingdom is a kind of spiritual alienation, which is reexperienced in the secularized version of Solomon Rex as marginalization and as intellectual exile.
In the Islamic tradition the profound wisdom and visionary knowledge of king Solomon is associated with his command of the languages of birds and animals, and his magnificent power is indicated in his subjugation of the wind and the jinn. Solomon had the evil jinn imprisoned in lead bottles and the rest serving him. When the hoopoe brought the tidings of Bilqis, the beautiful queen of Sheba, the jinn brought tier from her distant country in a split second. And yet the death of this majestic king went unnoticed at first. Leaning on his staff, no one realized his death until worms bored through his staff and he fell down. This incident becomes an emblem of man's loneliness and aloneness in the poetic discourse of Sulayman. As for Bilqis, the legendary queen of Sheba, she becomes the emblem of the dreamt of muse: "But Bilqis remained on cloud's edge/ A pearl for whom the heart yearns". Her poetic function is shared by Buraq, the legendary mare mounted by Prophet Muhammad in his beatific vision of ascent to heaven. Referring to a woman's figure, the poet writes in "Kingdom III": "She becomes the Buraq/ He mounts her and gyrates splitting the clouds".
In Solomon Rex, there are many allusions to the Koran and the Bible which are fused in Solomon's trajectory. Bilqis/Buraq intertwine, so do Abraham and Solomon in the opening lines of the first poem, where the divine speaker addressing Solomon announces: "O -fire be peace/ And in the chest's closure be a generous opening," alluding to Abraham who was protected from fire because of his faith. One should also note, that in the Islamic tradition, both Abraham and Solomon are considered prophets. Such fusion of figures can also be detected in the case of mythic heroes such as Oedipus and Sisyphus when the poet compares the night to a "blindman rolling a stone". This tendency can also explain the hidden link between Sulayman the poet and Solomon the king (who was also a poet), namely their homonym, since the name Sulayman is the Arabic form of Solomon.
Sulayman's allusions stretch in time and space, from ancient Egyptian history--Ahmose the pharaoh who fought valiantly against the invading Hyksos--to Chinese proverbs, "And wait at the river for your enemy's corpse". Some of the evocative charge of such allusions may be easily recognized by someone immersed in the culture of the poet, such as the Koranic verses associated with the angel who sounds the trumpet on the day of Judgment referred to in section XIV of the last poem in the volume, entitled "The Book of Revelations and Epistles," or to the Arabian Nights in section XIII of the same poem,. "In each spike a -thousand doors/ With the Buraq on each door/ Will you push the door?". In "Kingdom III" the significance may be obscure to some one unfamiliar with the Arabic alphabet in the lines where the poet says "Putting the letter Nuun/ Next to the letter Jeem". These two consonants constitute the word jinn in Arabic.
Rich and diverse as the references and allusions are, the volume possesses a poetic spine that holds this diversity together and allows any reader to capture the ambivalent and haunting moods, the sublime aphorisms, and the twinkles of hope amidst gloom., Even if the reader misses the significance of one or other of the connotations in this grove of symbols, the structure of the book with its multiplicityi-in-unity core points to the meaning and helps integrate the parts. Solomon Rex is divided into four major poems, each of which presents phases of the experience or state of mind. The reader may be at a loss In the beginning as the poet seems to shuffle his images at a bewildering speed and variety, but soon the inner eye will assimilate the frequencies, cadences and rhythms of such poetic serialization. Then the reader will discern the delicate patterns in this kaleidoscopic arrangement and hear the subtle and radical variations in the moods.
Ferial J. Ghazoul