x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An Emirati poet translates the work of his British mentor

The poet Wael Al Sayegh has translated into Arabic some of the work of his mentor in the UK, author and martial artist, Geoff Thompson.

The Emirati poet and author Wael Al Sayegh at his villa in the Jafiliya area of Dubai.
The Emirati poet and author Wael Al Sayegh at his villa in the Jafiliya area of Dubai.

"Have you ever heard the story about 'catching the crab'?" asks the Emirati poet and author, Wael Al Sayegh. "When fishermen catch the creatures, they put them in barrels without a lid. But they don't escape because each time a crab attempts to leave, all the others pull him back down."

Thirty-six-year-old Al Sayegh believes the crab story is a metaphor for his early career in finance. Having come from a long line of academics and professionals, he returned to the UAE in 1997 after graduating from Glasgow University and embarked upon a career in insurance and private banking. After eight years however, he had to admit to himself that his passions were in more creative fields and resigned.

"I was doing well and so when I said I was leaving, I was called in by the board members who said: 'We have plans for you Wael, it's not secure out there,'" he says.

Despite the warning, he found both security and fulfilment as he forged a successful career in literature, publishing four books as well as numerous essays and articles. A Poet's Oud was released in 2005 and 12 months later Al Sayegh published his second poetry collection, I Often Wonder. Last year he issued his third and best-selling book of poetry to date, There Is an Elephant in the Majlis, in Arabic and English.

The man he credits with helping him ‘escape the crab barrel’ is the British-born writer and revered martial arts expert Geoff Thompson. A judo practitioner himself – currently in training for his black belt - Al Sayegh discovered Thompson’s work in 2000. The philosophies and life lessons he found had a huge impact.

"There are plenty of motivational books out there, but no other writers have connected to 'the physical', and that's why I love Geoff's work," says Al Sayegh. "I took encouragement from his words and started living the life I was supposed to be living. I went to the UK to meet him, to say thank you but also to do his master class, which qualifies you as a basic-level instructor in his format of 'self-perfection'."

But the biggest thank you of all was delivered in 2009 when Al Sayegh decided to translate a selection of articles from Thompson's three books that make up the Everything That Happens to Me series. It comprises one Arabic volume.

The translation, dubbed Articles by Geoff Thompson: Volume 1, has just hit the shelves of Magrudy's bookstores across the UAE. Thompson's self-help literature highlights the importance of a strong body and mind - teaching the individual how to control self-doubt and fear of failure.

"I get so excited when I think that I don't have to do anything but harness the power I have within," says Thompson, during a phone conversation from London.

"You just need certainty to be able to get what you want. The only thing you have to overcome is the self."

He admits, however, that this didn't happen for him overnight.

Now 51, he worked through a plethora of menial jobs - from glass collector to floor sweeper - until he was 30. He also spent a decade working as a nightclub bouncer. Determined to live a more fulfilling life, he focused his energy on martial arts, learning karate, aikido and kung fu, among others.

He soon learnt, however, that their techniques weren't necessarily the most effective forms of self-defence. He went on to develop a more pragmatic, all-encompassing discipline and was eventually voted the world's top self-defence instructor by the respected American industry publication Black Belt magazine.

Having also always harboured a desire to write, Thompson realised his ambition by going on to pen 40 books, three stage plays and hundreds of articles.

He enjoyed film success, too, scripting five multi-award-winning movies and scooping a coveted British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for his 2004 short film, Brown Paper Bag.

In the translation of Thompson's works into Arabic, Al Sayegh found himself retracing the steps of his initial journey to self-discovery.

"A key message is 'befriend fear'," he says. "Fear is not your enemy; you mustn't believe that you have to get rid of it before you are ready to start living. Geoff was the first person to awaken that within me."

Thompson's teachings forced Al Sayegh to step outside of his comfort zone and confront what he calls the "dark side".

"Until 2009 I had been a pure English writer," he says, "and one of my biggest fears was not living up to my writing potential in Arabic - not the form Emiratis speak every day - but the traditional. That wasn't good enough for me, and there's no growth in comfort."

The book, which took two years to complete, was a labour of love for Al Sayegh. A total of 17 "final" drafts were submitted before it was ready for publication.

"You should have seen the original paper of my classical Arabic when I got it back from the editor - it was drenched in red ink," he said. "But he told me what needed to be done and I knew the end was in sight."

With Al Sayegh's book, Thompson's works are now available in 16 languages. The biggest challenge, says Al Sayegh, was translating northern English humour in a way that wouldn't alienate Arabic audiences.

"I'd say it's probably 95 per cent Geoff Thompson's work," he says, smiling. "Look, nobody is going to understand what 'having it outside the chippy on a Saturday night' means, are they? Geoff's trying to say, - in the most pressurised situations, like when you are outside a chip shop on a Saturday evening with an aggressive monster confronting you - do you know how best to deal with the situation? It's a pressure test."

Thompson's method involves verbal dissuasion. He teaches that posturing is often a sound method for avoiding physical conflict and emphasises that violence shouldn't be the instinctive response.

Al Sayegh believes Thompson's writings about martial arts and self-improvement will resonate with the Middle East's youth of today.

"This book has the potential to shape a generation, as it shaped me," he says. "As an Emirati I feel I have to say this because locals won't get it from another source. For those who are open to it, it will cause a revolution from within."

Khalid Al Ameri, a 27-year-old Emirati, is a case in point. The associate at a development company, who practises martial arts, is currently reading Thompson's 2001 book Live Your Dreams: Ten Secrets to Loving Your Life.

"This has helped me increase my focus on the things that really matter to me - how I will achieve everything to become a better father, husband and human being," he says.

Al Sayegh's translation is next on Al Ameri's reading list.

"I'm a big fan of his work," he said. "All of my family and I have also read Wael's poetry book There Is an Elephant in the Majlis, which we loved," he says.

Thompson's work is likely to do well in the region, says Al Sayegh, for another reason, too: Thompson's keen cultural awareness and the fact that his books "bridge faiths".

There is a reason for that, Thompson says. "I've read most religious books. I relate to the Quran when it talks about God favouring those who strive to achieve. It mirrors what I believe and have read elsewhere about humans having all the potential they'll ever need within. If you don't use what you've been given, you'll lose it and only have yourself to blame."

The appreciation between the two authors is mutual, with Thompson referring to Al Sayegh as a "great inclusion in his life".

Future collaborations seem inevitable. Indeed, the coming weeks might inspire Al Sayegh once again to put pen to paper.

"Lots of things have happened to me in Ramadan," he says. "It's a very special time - the stars align. I was born in Ramadan; I first decided to write my poetry during Ramadan. And two years ago during the holy month, having made up every excuse not to sit down and start the translation for a long time, something happened."

"I said right, I'm going to do this and I don't care how long it takes or whether it sells or not, but I have to do this. And here we are today!"