x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Leaves of gas

Saloon At a petrol station in the desert, a poet serves coffee by night and writes verses on love by day. Zoi Constantine drops by.

Sayed Mohammed Ali: "It is too hard to think about my life without music and poetry."
Sayed Mohammed Ali: "It is too hard to think about my life without music and poetry."

At a petrol station in the desert, a poet serves coffee by night and writes verses on love by day. Zoi Constantine drops by.

When Sayed Mohammed Ali wants to clear his head, he steps outside his small one-room home and walks to the nearby sand dunes, armed with a pen and paper. Then he writes. Seated in between the curves of the dunes, preferably at night, under the stars, Sayed pours his feelings onto blank pages, writing poems and songs primarily on one theme - love. I first met Sayed, an introspective, soft-spoken Egyptian, when I stopped for a much-needed caffeine fix on a recent drive along the desert road between Dubai and Al Ain. His workplace - a remote service station near the town of al Faqaa - is about as isolated as they come here. It it this isolation, he says, that gives him the time and space to do what he enjoys most.

"My favourite shift is the night shift, because I can never sleep early anyway," he told me. "At night I like to make coffee, sit outside, look out at the desert and write. Sometimes I'll go out at around 6am and just sit on the dunes." In between his shifts at the service station's coffee stand and cash register, Sayed writes to express feelings which he thinks would otherwise consume him. "It's my nature," he said, sitting at a small table in the back of the service station, surrounded by sheet upon sheet of his poetry.

"Life is not easy, especially in love. When I finish one song or piece of poetry, I go directly to sleep. If I have an idea in my mind, I have to get it out and find the right words. You have to get it out." Sayed, who is 30, lives in one room with an Indian colleague and another Egyptian he refers to as "uncle". Their home is in a block of rooms just behind the petrol station, surrounded by high sand dunes.

"I am very happy in this place," he said. "You have time here, it is quieter and you can relax. Nothing disturbs you, only the sand storms. But, if the rain comes, it is so beautiful here. When you see it you feel as though there is nothing bad in the world anymore, everything looks so clean. "Here you have different nationalities with you, Asians and Arabs, and you learn so many different things. I think I have learnt more in the last three years than in the previous 27."

Sayed was born in Sohad, a town in northern Egypt. Whereas he says he cannot contemplate a life without writing, his father and mother cannot even write their names. He went through school and studied Arabic at a college in the area. After graduating, he went home to work on his father's farm and teach at a local school. In 2002, Sayed married his cousin, Noha, who two years later gave birth to their son, Mohammed. In 2005, Sayed followed his brother and uncle (and hosts of fellow Egyptians) to the UAE in search of better economic opportunities.

"The salaries in Egypt are very low, and I need to give my family a good life, so I had to leave them," he explained. It is his remorse at having to leave his family, especially his son - "the best gift in my life" - that inspires his writing. "One time," he recalled, "I was talking to my son and he said 'Baba, please come home.' I felt so sad I walked outside and found a bird with a broken wing." This experience produced a poem, Janah Maksur (Broken Wing).

Sayed started writing poetry when he was in college. but he still has not finished the very first poem he started. "It is about what happens when you lose hope in love," he said quietly. "I don't know if I will ever be able to finish it." Some of his poems take weeks, others days, others just hours. Most focus on one theme: love: unrequited, unfulfilled, lost. "My idea about love," he said, "is without it there is nothing in this life. There are many types of love, but without any love, we would be worse off than animals."

One of his poems, Inti fi Oyouni (You in My Eyes), is "about how I see the one I love in my eyes and what would happen if I lost her; my future would only be my past and I would just have to close my eyes." In Zifaf (Wedding), Sayed images how tortured he would be if the woman he loved was marrying someone else and he was invited to the ceremony. Umi al Aziza (Dearest Mother) is dedicated to Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. "She always tries to help, not only in her country, here, but also in Egypt," he said.

In addition to poetry, Sayed also pens songs, such as Hiya Maadi (She is Past), but is careful to stress that he is only a songwriter, not a singer. His own musical taste does not stray far from the Arab classics - Umm Kulthoum, Nagat, Fairouz. But Abdul Halim Hafez, the legendary Egyptian singer, is his favourite. Why? Because he sings from his heart. "It is too hard to think about my life without music and poetry. I don't think that I could sleep, as I would always be talking and trying to tell people about how I feel," he said. "Life without love means nothing."