He is the "uneducated" rebel brandishing his spear of words. He looks 30 but is 52. He is the Rastafarian activist who was shot at in Gaza. He is the ex-burglar who performs in prisons and schools. He is the kid from the streets who turned down the Order of the British Empire. He is the dub poet ranting with a raised fist on stage. He is the world traveller spreading peace and justice. He is the author of 15 poetry collections, five novels, three children's books, two plays and six reggae CDs. He is shy. He is angry. He is true. He is Benjamin Zephaniah.
A guest of the Spring Festival organised by Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafi, during which the British Jamaican poet delivered performances at Cairo's Al-Azhar Park and Alexandria's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Zephaniah stepped on stage with more than just a rich repertoire of poems. First, there is his inexorable charisma, fuelled by a contagious positive energy and a larger-than-life sense of purpose palpably seeping out of him. Then, there are the endless tales he recounts -- "I am uneducated, so I'll just tell you a story," he repeatedly advances. A master of oral and performance art, his companionship transports the listener into a time capsule, where values of good and evil are impervious to world events and their consequent human metamorphoses, and where a simple vision of life finds resonance in Romantic ideals.
Having attended the performance, I refused to do more than the minimum homework required of any self-respecting journalist before an interview. The "juice", I wanted to hear straight from the horse's mouth. I was not interested in fleshing out Zephaniah's bio data with details, or with any information already accessible with one click of the mouse from an endless list of entries on the Internet. I aimed much higher: a casual chat in the course of which some kind of significant human exchange could take place, revealing another aspect of Zephaniah.
Zephaniah, who has very little need for sleep, was on his way back from Alexandria when the interview coordinator called to inform me that he would be just a tad late for our appointed 30-minute encounter; "he is trying to wriggle out of the schedule we have set for him -- he is quite rebellious -- but he will be there." I wasn't sure what to expect from Zephaniah as a person, off stage. Rebellious means different things to different people, and until I met him there was no way of guessing whether he would be a comrade in arms or a rude, holier-than-thou type throwing snide comments here and there just for the hell of it.
I began sharpening my own blades, epinephrine levels upped, in case I found myself caught in a surprise duel. "My name is Benjamin Zephaniah," he introduced himself with a warm chuckle a few minutes later. One look at his face up close and I dropped my guard -- modesty, kindness and respect shone in his eyes.
It is a pity that this interview is printed, rather than heard or seen, the way Zephaniah and everything he does should be. Everything about the man is expressive. Passion for all the rights he fights for, anger at the plight of the poor and the oppressed, a firm conviction that change is not only possible, but inevitable: it all fires up entire demeanor and yet he remains serenely in place, wrapped in a halo of tranquility, his voice low, a smile never leaving his face. This is a man of exuberant calm; yin and yang incarnate. Balance.
I wanted to start with whatever criticism is leveled at him, who he is not, just to ease his humility from the discomfort of immediately speaking of who he is. "Some of my critics say that I'm not romantic enough because I don't write about love. But I think I am romantic, in the true sense of the word -- Shelley, Byron-type of romantic. My poems are love poems about humanity... really true love. Hitler apparently was madly in love with that woman, he was a vegetarian, and he really loved animals. Some people say they're in love with this person and then they can hate the rest of the world. I love my mother and my mother loves me, but I also love people passionately and I want to remind them of all the things we have in common. When I talk to somebody -- and this is a really important test for me -- I ask them what they think of a particular situation. They begin to say "we Egyptians, or we Chinese, we Muslims or we Christians" and I say 'no, no, no, forget the 'we', what do you think? Some people can't do that because they find it so hard opening up; maybe they feel they're not being patriotic or that they have nothing to back it up with, except their feelings. I lost your question... [chuckle]... what am I supposed to be answering?" This is the storyteller par excellence: one train of thought latches onto the next, and there is always something more to tell. We crack up -- there is not a shred of tension in the air, nothing but ease, understanding and comfort.
Over the years, Zephaniah paid a number of visits to Egypt, and even spent eight months in Aswan during a soul- searching stint that took him around the entire region, and the world. "I haven't been to Egypt for six or seven years and the first thing I noticed was all those old cars have gone. There's always been lots of cars, but now they're new. I think a problem with many of what they call developing countries is that they think modernisation is westernisation and that really saddens me. Some developing countries are embarrassed by their own dress and their own food. They'd rather have McDonald's. I'm seeing it happen here too.
"What is my culture? I am the son of a slave. When we came from Jamaica, from Africa, they beat our language out of us; by the time we had a generation in England we didn't know what our language was or what our food was. Hundreds of years after slavery we just kind of reinvent ourselves. It's obviously different because what we went through was a very forceful, very brutal thing, but the point is to appreciate the good things in other cultures without losing your own. If I were Egyptian I would look at my culture and say there's something here that has survived so long, something here that's really important, what can I hang on to.
"Those people that saw me perform in Cairo the other night... I would love to put them with those who saw me perform in Estonia, just a week before, and those who saw me perform in China; and the poor kids for whom I've performed on the streets of Calcutta... because the same message is touching them all. And that's the great thing about poetry, art." What makes him write? "Oppression. Seeing other people, not myself, oppressed and depressed. If I can't help other people with my life, it's not worth living. I think there's something in me that knows that unless it's really catastrophic, I'm not gonna starve; I think I've lived longer than my father lived; I've lived longer than Bob Marley lived; I've lived longer than John Lennon lived. I get up every day and I like to go running and push my body and I am just grateful for every day. Every time I go to Gaza I can't believe that people live in these conditions and that the world is just standing by, watching. Gaza is not a remote place; three quarters of an hour and you're in Tel Aviv, and then it's another world. I've taken some people there, who are not necessarily political, and I've said to all of them, 'By the time you leave you will be political'; and it always happens. The last time I took a student, she was only 17 or something. When she came back to England she started a student union, she was like 'I can't believe what I've just seen'. The sad thing about the rest of the world watching, and especially the Arab world, is that it gives those who should be the common enemy an excuse. I talked to some Zionists who say 'Well look at the Arabs, look what they're doing to each other.' They use it against you."
The one word describing the biggest flaw of humanity today? "Capitalism, because it's so seductive; when you're winning you're winning and it feels so good. It's amazing for me how many people who've moved from poverty to lavishness forget about those who remain where they came from. It's not capitalism with a nice face. It's not like 'come up, I'm going, I'm making it, join me.' What about your poor relatives? They can do their own thing. It's all about me, me, me, accumulating my wealth and flaunting it. I'm not like a Marxist or anything like that, but in many ways I agree with Marcus Garvey. He believed in the united states of Africa. We don't need to put labels on it. Marx said he wouldn't be a Marxist and if Jesus came he'd be horrified by Christianity."
I probed this mention of Jesus, requesting his analysis of what so many have termed Zephaniah's spiritualism. "I went through a stage in my life in the mid-80s, travelled to all the holy places of pilgrimage and talked to people from all kinds of religions, read all the books. I came back less religious but with a stronger belief in God. We all have a direct connection with God. Many people have lost the ability, but you can find it through meditation, through really getting in touch with yourself. It's very hard, especially as the world gets more confusing and there are more things for us to do. But if you can block out the noise, God is inside you."
How does Zephaniah, who was told as a young boy that he was a "born a failure", guard against vanity, having so widely succeeded? It must be quite a challenge, keeping it aall from going to his head. "My uncle sat me down once, after I'd been in trouble with the police and thrown out of school. I was 13 or 14. He said, 'Look, you've got to behave yourself; you've got to conform more.' So I said, 'What do I do?' He said, 'You get an apprenticeship after school, get a job, find a nice dark-skinned Jamaican girl, and then you get married, get a mortgage and a house, and you make some babies.' Then he kind of paused and I asked, 'And then what?' He said, 'Then you die.' And I remember coming back from that meeting saying if that is why I am here, if that is the meaning of life, if I can't find anything better, I'm going to kill myself. Just cut through the chase. I was very matter-of-fact about it, and I was very serious. Then I realised I have a message for people, trying to get them to think outside of this box. This is my role in life. And since then, it doesn't matter how famous I get, as long as people are still killing each other, I consider that I've failed because I wanted to make it stop."
Zephaniah may not have stopped the killing, but the Queen of England offered him an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for working on it -- and he categorically refused to accept the honour. "How dare you offer me an OBE after all I've written and said? I always remember where I come from. People kept saying how turning down the OBE was brave, but it's not brave at all. I've been shot at in Gaza and I've run towards the soldiers -- that's brave, and that's what some people are doing all the time. With the OBE it is just a matter of staying true to myself, of saying 'I'm not interested' to Tony Blair. 'You're not the people I'm writing for, you're not the people I want to impress'. It's being sincere, rather than brave. To use the reggae term, it's 'keeping it real'."
Zephaniah constantly refers to the "Money" poem. "I am very proud of this poem because it talks of something that is very complex -- economics -- but in a way that even schoolchildren can understand. I always introduce this poem with a talk about my grandmother. Her currency was her relationship with her neighbours -- and when currencies break down people will have to start trading with each other in different ways again. In India once, a guy kept following me trying to sell me the usual tourist trinkets so I just said, "Listen, man, I don't want that stuff. I'll tell you what... talk to me for 10 minutes without trying to sell me something. So he told me about where he was born, his relationship with his children, that he'd trained as a tailor and that making clothes is his real love, but he can't make money out of it so he just sells things because he's got a sick child... he told me what some of his dreams are... we talked about poetry for about an hour and then he took me back to his house for a fruit juice. I saw his sick child, immediately bought him medicine, and to this day this guy makes my shirts."
There is so much out there to fight off, the "Rong Radio Station" -- as one of his poems is titled -- is everywhere, disseminating what is useful for a few to make the masses believe. Does Zephaniah ever feel beaten down? "Not really... though sometimes I feel a kind of intellectual loneliness. I see so many people who have given up. I always remember that some of the greatest people in the world have never seen the change happen in their lifetime. I talked to Nelson Mandela a lot and he told me how pleased he was that he saw the change in his lifetime though he always thought he would die in prison. I think sometimes we have to accept that some of the things we fight for will not materialise in our lifetime, but we shouldn't get demoralised. This is not scientific at all, and I have no evidence to back this claim, but I really do think that in the end good will overcome evil."