Different Dialogues : Interview with Extended & Enlarged Version of Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s interview – Emirati Poet and Poetry Translator, Dubai, U.A.E.

Interview with Extended & Enlarged Version of Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s interview – Emirati Poet and Poetry Translator, Dubai, U.A.E.


Response received from Dr. Shihab Ghanem in March 2018.

1. What projects are you presently working on?

A. As usual I am working on several books. At the moment I am working on over a dozen books at different stages of completion. One of these is a selection of 50 of my father’s poems with more than 20 pages of introduction. I have dreamed of this book since the end of the last century. I did publish a book about my dad in 2008 and have published chapters about him in many of my other books. He was a great poet and educationalist, and was my mentor in life and poetry. He was the first university graduate from the Arabian Peninsula, and received many awards for his poetry and work in promoting education, including, a CBE from Queen Elizabeth. 


2. In today's tumultuous world where differences of many sorts have risen, how would you propose to unify our universe for the sake of positive advancement?
A. I think universal education is the bedrock of bringing nations closer. Building cultural bridges can also be through poetry, music and all other arts. The more advanced countries and richer countries should learn to give and give more and more. Greed, injustice, and selling weapons and drugs by evil organizations in some countries is a main hurdle tearing the world peace.


3. What is the thing that has had the most influence on you and your life?

A. Many things including the Quran, my parents and family and some teachers and friends, education and, of course, poetry.


4. What things in life is still a mystery to you?

 A. After reading the Quran with sufficient understanding, the big questions became more or less clear. The mysteries to me remain in the details. But with faith in Allah (the One and Only God) these mysteries do not really disturb ones serenity. 


5. From your point of view, how do you define success?

A. The real success is overcoming ones weaknesses and striving throughout your life to become better all the time. To feel that whatever you do is something that does not bring the wrath of God and hurt others, but rather the other way round. Success is to spread love, beauty and happiness around you through uprightness, giving, hard work, kindness and forgiveness.


6. How should we plan on teaching the present generation about the importance of philanthropy?

A. Each of us should do it in his own way. Giving makes a person feel better and more humanistic. The rich should give but also those with limited resources should give. The educated should teach and guide those around them. The poets and artists should spread beauty, love, values, tolerance and peace, etc.


I meet Dr. Shihab Ghanem often, but asking him questions about identity and poetry in this manner of a planned meeting was rather rare.  So, as the two of us settled down over a nice lunch of fish, at a café recommended by him – the leisurely afternoon time produced the best-written information of the great bard!


Like most poets, I was naturally filled with excitement to meet up with another fellow-poet to conduct the discussion over our common thoughts about life and poetry.  After all, poets are always expecting from each other an exchange of views produced by their verse.


Shihab Ghanem is a man of many facets.  Along with his poetic passion, his working career includes working as Deputy Permanent Secretary of Public Works & Communications in Aden, Chief Engineer of Eterno Supplies in Lebanon, Plant Manager of Gulf Eternit, Director of Engineering of Dubai Ports & Jebel Ali Free Zone, and Managing Director of Mohammed Bin Rashid Technology Park.  He is Founder & Managing Director of INDUSTEC Consulting.


We spoke of the poet’s childhood. I understand from his background that he was fond of poetry ever since he was a kid.  For poetry, he got influenced by both his parents.  He was guided by his father in the sense that he commented on and corrected his early attempts at writing poems.  In school, Shihab Ghanem was shy as an orator.  He makes a fond statement of his siblings: ‘They were always amongst the top of the class.’


While in school, he was editor of Aden College magazine (1957-60).  Later on, from 1983 to 1986, he was: Founding Member & Committee Member of Al-Muntada Cultural Magazine.  His role in the literary field continuously expanded as he was the member of Advisory Committee of Shunoon Adabiyah Magazine from 2003 to 2015; he was member of Advisory Committee of Al-Mishkat Magazine, Advisory Member of Kalima project from 2011 to 2015.


I began my conversation with Dr. Shihab Ghanem by asking him what his future plans were from the literary point of view.  He responded, ‘Two books of mine are completed.  These are 2 major books of mine.  Al Fatihi, and the second is 1500 English Proverbs with Arabic equivalents.  These equivalents are taken not only from classical and colloquial proverbs but also from the Quran, Hadiths, and from gnomic Arabic Poetry.’


It is interesting to note that Dr. Shihab Ghanem has published 62 books, including, 16 books of verse in Arabic, plus – 2 in English, and 24 volumes of translated verse (Arabic to the English),  along with 19 books in prose.  His book: Industrialization in the United Arab Emirates, published by Avebury, U.K. in 1992 is still a main reference on its subject.


I could easily tell that Dr. Shihab Ghanem is finding total fulfillment in what he is doing. On an average: from talks to interviews to poetry recitations to travelling – Dr. Shihab Ghanem is absolutely occupied right around the year.  In totality, he gets a deep sense of fulfillment in writing; if anything, the whole activity of writing poetry acts like a balm of healing for him at all times. For instance, when his spouse – Jihad passed away quite recently, his unending grief was partially healed by his continuous reliance on poetry. He shared the English translated version of a poignant poem which he wrote for his beloved wife.  It is obvious the poet in him has made him a pragmatic individual who sees life and death in a very philosophical relationship.  I share here a few lines of his poem, Teach Me Fortitude, which he composed as an ode for his late wife.


… I had always thought that I would go first, but that hope did not materialize
The arrows of death are in God's hands and he strikes as He wills
Praise to Him whether we are in joy or in suffering
We are temporary creatures created to be tested; to try to reach the "thresholds"…


As our lunch advanced, we proceeded discussing about poetry, our families, people and nations.  We were like one voice on the meaning of: universal peace and the importance of retaining our cultural roots.  We were sitting in the middle of this café absorbed in our mutual dialogue, and I was memorizing each line of my friend – before my pen went back to write his thoughts.  The flow of his thoughts never wavered.  Every once in a while, if we paused, we paused to compliment the fish preparations! 


Dr. Shihab Ghanem stated, ‘I think, it is the duty of poets, intellectuals to promote harmony and peace in the world.  We have too much violence in the world.’ 


At this point, he mentioned the name of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda – the Buddhist philosopher, peace-builder who is also a prolific writer, poet, educator and founder of a number of cultural, educational and peace research institutions around the world. He is the third president of the Soka Gakkai (value-creating society) and founder of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI).


‘My outlook in some ways matches with Dr. Daisaku Ikeda.  If you read his poetry, it is very focused on peace and universal harmony.  That’s the reason why I’m interested in Poetic Heart Connecting Humanity.  I want to strengthen – Poetic Heart in Dubai.’


I asked Dr. Shihab Ghanem on his views on the future of the world.  He is a man who has travelled to more than 50 countries.  He said, ‘In today’s world, people are becoming technically smart.  But, their knowledge of their own languages and grammar is deteriorating.  It is the happening in every country.  The young generations are losing the connection with their cultural knowledge of history and morals. This is not good. And the other thing which I will repeat again is the peace factor. I will re-endorse that it is the duty of poets and intellectuals to promote peace.  I want to promote peace.’   


I interrupted in agreement with him.  ‘It is the same in my own country – India.’  ‘Yes, this is becoming global,’ Dr. Shihab Ghanem re-endorsed.   He further expanded on the point. ‘Speaking about values, the youngsters are becoming more materialistic.  I want them to understand things on spirituality and the reason why God has created us. In the end, we must all figure out the real purpose of life – which is certainly not running for the materialistic race.’


The responses I was receiving from Dr. Shihab Ghanem seemed like I was giving the replies.  The two of us were on the same side with our inner thinking.  There was freshness and honesty in Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s dialogue.  He continued, ‘Because of explosion of population, people are getting violent, angry.  Some of them are becoming cheats. Greed in mankind, increasing materialism, destruction to environment are the signals which are giving us many warnings.  I try to keep an optimistic view – but I’m not sure where things are going.  I know they need to be checked.  Therefore, cultural values have to be adopted with improved morals.  I’m not leading an organization.  But through my writings, my poetry – as a poet-writer, I can promote values I believe in.  I believe in peace and harmony.’


Dr. Ghanem is clear on the subject of the big risk to humanity if we don’t value the ‘correct values’.  


In these hours, we had reflected on many things of life.  More apparent than anything was how Dr. Shihab Ghanem is looking at life in the present tense.  He replied; ‘I think, life is a stepping stone for doing good things to please Allah.  If what I write is good for humanity, this will be a bonus for my account.’  He went on to expand. ‘During this life, we are supposed to enjoy life by being kind, gentle and helping others.  I’m more conservative, I don’t drink or smoke.  As a Muslim, I have these good values and I cannot ignore them.’


He elaborated, ‘In my vast travels, I have seen much. I was impressed by different countries.  Europe’s countryside is beautiful and systems are very neat.  Aden was once beautiful back in the 1960s, then it got destroyed.  States in the African regions have natural beauty.  The monument, Taj Mahal, and Kerala are places to visit in India.  In Sudan, there are very kind people.  Japan is special and how well-behaved people are there.  Their city, Kyoto has a lovely character.  Egypt is crowded but has cultural heritage.’


It was wonderful to see the liveliness in Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s tone and eyes. 


I was thinking: is it not the precise truth that every country has positivity and beauty originating from its own culture and heritage?  Every nation has produced such wealth, and yet mankind goes into acts of violence, hatred, to crush the positivity and beauty. I felt my heart getting heavy for a moment and so I quickly prepared to get back to the interview. 


As if he had read my mind, Dr. Shihab Ghanem stated ‘If you see, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther – they did things from the humanistic point of view.  Our Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan did the same.  He was outstanding with his vision.  Similarly, Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum developed Dubai.  The present leaders of UAE – they are the best leaders of the Arab world.  Sheikh Muhammad works so hard!’


What Dr. Shihab Ghanem was saying was so relevant.  I nodded my head firmly – in agreement.  Yes, the leaders of UAE are outstanding! Yes, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther did things from the humanistic point of view.


It was notable that our conversation had the current of frankness.  Time was not crawling and neither were the bard’s thoughts of observation. 


I asked Dr. Shihab Ghanem what his more recent poetry is about, and to that he answered, ‘In my more recent poetry, I am ‘more’ spiritual.  Of course, I’ve always been philosophical and spiritual in my leanings but now the intensity for spirituality has increased.’


Over dessert, I was trying to recapitulate mentally the awards and recognitions which have come to Dr. Shihab Ghanem over the years.  He has received various awards and honourings, including, Tagore Peace Award – 2012, in Kolkata-India.  He is the first and only Arab to receive this prestigious award.  He also received an Honorary Doctorate for literature from Soka University in Japan, 2015; the Poetry Award for Culture & Humanism, 2013, World Poetry Society Intercontinental, Chennai, India; and the UAE Cultural Personality of the Year, 2013.He received several translation awards such as Al-Owais Creativity Awards, Dubai-UAE in 2012 and 2014, and Sharjah Book Fair  translation awards in 2003 and 2007.  He was voted by the International Poetry Translation and Research Centre (IPTRC, China) as the International Best Translator of the year 2014.  Honourings and awards go back to the 1980s – from Sharjah to Dubai to Saudi Arabia to Yemen.  The list is long!

As we walked out of the café towards the car, the late afternoon appeared much cooler than any April afternoon.  We drove to drop Dr. Shihab Ghanem to his residence with our chat still continuing with the same fervor when we began our meeting; we were still chatting about poetry and the varied cultures of countries. We agreed people are different, customs are different and we felt strife and conflict have got to be replaced by hearts coming together; one of the best medium to bring hearts together is through poetry.  Both of us had no doubt on that.


‘What’s your advice to poets?’ I asked.  Dr. Shihab Ghanem answered, ‘Poetry has to be an expression of your ‘real’ thoughts.  Poetry has to be very sincere. I take poetry very, very seriously.  Like my family, my religion – poetry is very close to my heart because my poetry has to be containing: truth.  I polish it, (poetry) by trying not making mistakes with words and expressions – they must match.  You have to be convinced with the words you use.  In Arabic, they say, some poets scoop from the sea.  Some poets carve into the mountains.  So there are ways and ways of writing poetry.  I believe if you cannot ‘scoop’ then you must ‘carve’.  It may be a little bit of each!  

I realized we had exchanged a wonderful dialogue through this session. 


For us, being comrades in poetry goes back to the years when Dr. Shihab Ghanem translated my English poems into the Arabic language and introduced my work to the Emirati public by my poems getting published in the well-known Arabic journals and newspapers: Al Rafed Magazine, Al Thaqafiah, Al Ittihad, Al Bayan, Al Khaleej Cultural Supplement and in Likai Tarsom Sawrat Tayer Book. 


Travelling back home, the landscape of Dubai appeared as pretty as it always is.  The sun sparkled softly.  Though stillness reigned in my heart, my mind was reclaiming an answer for my ever persistent query: Why is the world in conflict? Why can’t mankind live peacefully? Why can’t we make our world free of strife, poverty, ignorance? As these complex thoughts gathered in my mind, I also had pleasanter remembrances giving me company of when Dr. Shihab Ghanem began translating 40 poems of mine in the Arabic language to celebrate the 40th year of UAE’s Union. The result rewarded us the creation of a coffee table book: An Indian Ode To The Emirates. Yes, I was thinking, some memories when shared with others will leave their foot-prints, almost forever.  How nice!  


Interview with Extended & Enlarged Version of Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s interview – Emirati Poet and Poetry Translator, Dubai, U.A.E.


Educational Qualification:  Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering from Aberdeen (Scotland) in 1964, and a Master of Engineering degree in Water Resources Development from Roorkee University (India)  in 1975 and a Ph.D. in Economics from Cardiff (Wales) in 1989.


Before I spoke to Dr. Shihab Ghanem about the interview – in a very informal setting of our drawing room, the Emirati poet had just recited a favourite poem of his.  We were a small group; for us, the poem Bakhbookh, broke the barriers of a foreign language, because the poet had instantly reinforced the Arabic content of Bakhbookh by translating it into English.  On our enthusiastic requests, he recited a few more verses, drawing them from his memory.  The spontaneous backward and forward exploration of meanings converted the evening into a string of melodies.


Meet Dr. Shihab Ghanem.  He is a leading poet of the U.A.E and the foremost translator of Indian poetry into Arabic.  To his credit, he has more than ten anthologies of poetry in the Arabic language.  He has also published more than twenty-two collections of translated poems from Arabic into English, and from English, or, other foreign languages (through English) into Arabic.  His favourite English poets include Shakespeare and Auden. 


A widely traveled man, some of the countries Dr. Shihab Ghanem has visited on cultural basis are England (Cambridge Annual Literary Seminar), Kuwait (Al Babateen Seminar + Al Qurain Seminar + Invitation by Ministry of Culture to visit Cultural Institutions), Tunis (Al Babateen Seminar), Algeria (Al Babateen Seminar), India (Cultural visit to Kerala by Ministry of Tourism), Egypt (Translation Seminar), Saudi Arabia (Al Janadiriyah Seminar more than once), Bahrain (Poetry Seminar).


Dr. Shihab Ghanem comes from a very educated background.  Not only were his maternal uncles knowledgeable, his father also imbibed in studies. In 1936, his father, Dr. Muhammad Abduh Ghanem became the first graduate in the Arabian Peninsula receiving his degree from American University of Beirut.


Dr. Shihab Ghanem is a recipient of numerous high-ranking awards and a well-respected figure on the poetry and literary forums.  Some of his poems have been turned into songs by many singers, including, Sami Yousuf, Osama Safi and Dr. Nizar Ghanem (his brother) and Ahmed Qasem.


Always moving with his constant companions: the quill and books, Dr. Shihab Ghanem has continuously worked on literary projects.   He says, he will slow down the pace of his work – I doubt if he really can!  Poetry runs in his blood.


‘Who are the other favourite poets whose poetry you like?’  I asked him.  He said, ‘I respect my father M.A. Ghanem, Al Mutanabi, Ahmed Shawqi for their verse.’ 


Shihab and I first met when I cut out a clipping from a local newspaper in Dubai which mentioned about him.  I reached him; it was more than a few years ago.


At our first meeting, we talked about poetry and the harmonious cross-culture links between UAE and India.  Apparently we sat up late talking over our first lunch at the Capital Club.  During lunch, he read my poems and here I could not stop feeling happy that he liked them! There was a split-second of silence before the idea sank in my head when he said, ‘I can translate a couple of your English poems into the Arabic for my forthcoming books.’ What followed quickly was that Shihab’s translations of many of my poems were also readily accepted by reputed Arabic journals and newspapers.


In time to come, Dr.Shihab Ghanam translated 40 poems of mine for our coffee table book: An Indian Ode To The Emirates. The book celebrated the 40th anniversary of UAE’s union in 2011.


Shihab’s links with India go a long way back.  He remembers to tell me with fond pride, ‘My maternal grandfather, Mohammed Ali Lokman, was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi.’ 


Dr. Shihab Ghanem, himself, inspired, obtained a Master of Engineering degree from Roorkee University – India, in 1975. Additionally, he has travelled to India which has given him special dimension of the country and the Indians.


The Indian community residing in Dubai is fond of Shihab.  The ‘Indian connection’ started many years back when Indians began interacting with him on matters of literary themes.  A poetry that takes on the labour of such bonds, builds bridges of deep affection.  This has been the case with the bard. 


Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s poetic nature develops to be enthusiastic – composing and translating poems is an identification of what he truly is.


The story of Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s ‘Indian connection’ is reinforced with the fact that the bard received the Tagore Peace Award in Kolkata-India, in 2013. He is the first and only Arab to receive the award. Isn’t that something!


Moreover, the Dubai Kairali Kalakendram (together with Kamala Das Surayya and Yousuf Ali Ketchery) honoured him in 1996 for his role. In 2010, he was honoured by Kerala Sahitya Akademi.


Then I have found a sketch of Shihab with a list of more awards… and I will do my best to put the awards in a chronological order.  On my request, here is the list which I got from the poet, himself:


Translation Award, 2014, Al-Owais Creativity Award, Dubai, UAE.
Honoured by Al-Ithnainiyah of Abdul Maqsood Khojah, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 2013.
The Poetry Award for Culture & Humanism, 2013, World Poetry Society Intercontinental, Chennai, India.
Gala Award, 2013, Gulf Arts & Leadership Academy, UAE.
Translation Award, 2012, Al-Owais Creativity Award, Dubai, UAE.
Soka Gakkai International, Peace & Culture Award, 2012.
Honoured by House of Poetry of Yemen which named the 6 months cycle 2010-2011 by the name of Shihab Ghanem.
Honoured by Hayel Saeed Foundation, 2010, Taiz, Yemen.
Honoured by Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 2010.
Sharjah Government Book Award, 2007, Sharjah, UAE.
Sharjah Government Book Award, 2003 (Shared with Slovak Ambassador), Sharjah, UAE.
Al Owais Prize for Scientific Research, 1998, Dubai, UAE.
Book of Verse Prize, 1996, Abha Literary Club, Saudi Arabia.
Honoured by Dubai Kairali Kalakendram (together with Kamala Das Surayya and Yousuf Ali Ketchery), 1996.
Rashid Award for Scienfific Excellence, 1989, Dubai, UAE.
1st Prize for Poetry in UAE, 1984, Sharjah Dept. of Culture.
British Council English Essay Prize, 1959, Aden.
Ministry of Education Arabic Essay Prize, 1958, Aden.


Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s speech reveals the great unity he has with God.  Naturally, his inner vision brings together a wider life in his verse.  In my observation: in our poetic endeavors, our mutual experience was of tolerance towards our meditative beliefs. 


Someone has said… many a times, poets complete a circle which is left half-drawn.  Wider knowledge of poets would lead us to believe in the phrase.  The phrase could mean that poetry matures humanism; poets gain in stature: goodness, grace and harmony. 


Shihab! I wish you continue drawing ‘full circles’ with your rhythmic verses.
My friend! The platform is already established for you. 


Q1. What has been the turning point of your life?

A. Several incidents, I treat them as turning points in my life.  Reading the Quran for the first time.  Getting married and becoming a father.  Going away to study in UK and India.  Even the process of composing poems and subsequently seeing them in published form is in a way like being the turning point.


Q2. If you were not doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

A. I would avoid all the mistakes I have made in my life.  I would focus on one specialization in my studies and learn some basic useful skills.


Q3. What are your future dreams?

A. My dream is that the world becomes more peaceful, and that Palestine: the last occupied country in the world be liberated so that the Middle-East becomes stable and our children and grand-children and all the Arabs can then focus on education, economic, social and political development.


Extended & Enlarged Version of Dr. Shihab Ghanem’s interview – Emirati Poet and Poetry Translator, Dubai, U.A.E.


Q1. In your view, what is most important in life?  Accordingly, name three aspects, important in life.

A. The most important thing in life is to know the purpose of life. As a believer in God the purpose to me is to serve and worship Him. Not just through the rituals of prayer, etc, but also through trying to be good in all ones actions, words and also thoughts. Through giving rather than taking, or at least through give and take. Through leaving this world, as far as one’s existence is concerned, a better place than one found it, even by a very tiny bit.


Q2. If you were not doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

A. I would be teaching or volunteering for benevolent work.


Q3. What motivates you to achieve your goal?

A. Pleasing Allah. Seeking knowledge. Feeding myself and family. Striving to spread high ideals like justice, freedom, love and beauty. Spreading knowledge and creative work of beauty and value, both my own or that of others.


Q4. How do you handle stress and pressure?

A. Through remembering Allah and reading the Quran. Also through reading, writing and translating poetry. And through chatting with those I love such as my granddaughter, or with poets, intellectuals and friends. And through looking at beautiful green areas and trees, beaches and serene places.


Q5. Which of your qualities would you want to pass down to your child/children?

A. Perseverance and hard-work and forgiveness.


Q5. Who is your favourite author?  Which book of your favourite author have you enjoyed the best?

A. The most important book in my life is definitely the Glorious Quran.


Q6. What are you pursuing currently, by the way of a light hobby, or by the way of a serious goal?

A. I do a little bit of walking, mainly for exercise.


Q7. In the last 1 year, is your particular goal advancing?  Which is that goal/dream?

A. I have this year completed writing my 50th book and I am working on a few more books then I might stop writing books. But I think I will continue to write poems and translate some as long as I have the ability. My writing nowadays is less in quantity than it used to be a few years ago.


For more information on Dr. Shihab Ghanem, click on to http://shihabghanem.blogspot.com/ and http://www.shihabghanem.com


The diarist Geeta Chhabra, took the interviews in 2010, 2012 and July 2017.