A TALE OF TWO DISCIPLINES – INTERVIEW WITH SALAH EL NAGAR

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By Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

Since the Norwich poetry scene largely consists of current or former students and local writers, a chef originating from Cairo doesn’t seem to fit the mould. But Salah El Nagar has achieved local fame, both for his widely translated Arabic poems, and for his cooking. By day, he runs Ramses Egyptian Food, usually located in the market in the heart of Norwich city centre (he also runs pop-up stalls at venues around the city). By evening, you can find him at the Birdcage, promoting acceptance, diversity, and gender equality through his poignant and witty poems.  

I meet Salah at UEA Students’ Union, good-naturedly packing up his stall after a long day, clad in his chef’s outfit. We find a quiet spot away from the bustle of students getting coffee to chat about his poetry, adjusting to life in England, and the importance of an Egyptian writer – and Egyptian food – making a mark in the culture and cuisine of Norwich.

Let’s start by talking about your poetry. When did you first start writing poems?

I began writing poems around the age of nine, and in my teens I sent some to websites and had them published. I started to perform, in Tahrir Square, and then once I moved to England I began translating my poems into English.

That’s amazing – so you translate your poems yourself?

Some, yes, but my friends also help me – one of my friends teaches creative writing at Open University, he sometimes helps translate. Arabic as a language is very different from English, and it is not just the language, but also the cultural context that must be translated. But capturing the original essence is so important – otherwise it won’t be the same poem.

What are some of your main concerns in your writing right now? Do you write about your experiences of Egypt, or about moving to England?

I have written a book of short stories about my journey from Egypt to England. But mostly I write about England, my experiences, because this is where my life is now, I have left Egypt behind. And also, I just like to write about people and relationships – things many people can relate to.

Yes, I remember seeing you perform one poem about unfair expectations on women in relationships. What inspired you to write that poem?

I think relationships are hard for women now, especially when it’s harder to meet someone, because people are so isolated, you end up always meeting people online. I think generally we have too many expectations, we don’t give chances. We think people can’t change. But I think, if you want to, you can often help someone change, by talking to them. We don’t talk to each other anymore. That’s a big problem.

Tell me how you started Ramses Egyptian Food?

That’s a good story – I met these guys a few years ago and came up with the idea of a stall, because I knew Egyptian food was popular in this country. So we set it up in the Norwich market, started a Facebook page. And things get around so quickly, it spread like wildfire – within one day we had 200 likes, 200 shares on our first post, people getting all excited by Egyptian food. We started getting long queues. So then gradually, we began doing pop-up stalls around the city. But you have to work hard for this kind of success, I don’t think everyone realises that. I sometimes get only two hours’ sleep before working the stall, I have to get up early.

Do you find you’re more focused on the food at the moment rather than poetry, or is it more of a mix?

Definitely a mix. Certain times of the year when the stall is very busy, I’m on the stall all day and write and perform in the evening. But then other times like April, there’s no point, say, having a stall at UEA, because no students are there. So then I find more time for writing.

I think that’s so important for writers, that we can take advantage of quiet time to really get into the headspace of working.

Yes, absolutely. And there’s another reason I do this – Norwich needs more creative foreigners. That’s one thing I feel strongly. There are not enough of us right now. And really, what I am trying to do is to share different aspects of Egyptian culture that people can enjoy – Egyptian food, Egyptian poetry – and these have proved very popular. So that is really important to all my work.

Yes, I completely agree – the Norwich creative scene is nowhere near diverse enough. Have you lived anywhere else in England?

Yes, several different places – London, Dover, Ipswich – before moving to Norwich. I love London, there is so much to do. It is the second Cairo!

There is a lot of hostility towards migrants in the UK, though, especially since the Brexit vote. Do you feel you have experienced that hostility personally, anywhere in England?

It’s always been hard. I find it’s different in London, there are a lot more migrants – it is easier, people talk to you more. But here in Norfolk, people hold back. They won’t start a conversation, you always have to approach people, and eventually they talk to you. And that’s very hard for me coming from Egypt, because we live in communities there. Here people are isolated; it means they can only think of themselves.

Absolutely. It’s a cycle – everyone’s in it for themselves, and you end up taking that approach just to get by.

Yes, exactly. You become isolated. But I think that’s such a shame – because after all, without people, what is life?
Salah’s new poetry collection, ‘Hope and Bear’, will be out in the next six months. He is also currently working on several projects for London theatres. You can find out more about Salah and his different types of work here, and about Ramses Egyptian Food here.

Featured image: Ramses Street Food Facebook page


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