‘Al-Baseet Diary’ – Teaching Myself Metered Arabic

At the start of 2021, I gave myself the goal of writing metered Arabic poetry. One year on, I have not managed to do that to any degree of satisfaction, however I have come a long way. I’ve read more Arabic poetry than any previous year, studied Arabic prosody, written a lot in Arabic, and the culmination of it all was perhaps my poem What The Date Palm Said to the Sea which you can watch me perform at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (1 hour 26 minutes in here).

As I reviewed my journal notes during the holidays I rediscovered a short diary I kept in April. Part of my journey through Arabic was reading Huda Fakhreddine’s The Arabic Prose Poem, a book I reviewed on my blog – this was part of my journey through Arabic, and I’m gratified that Huda’s work is some of the most readable, well-researched and applicable work I’ve read on Arabic poetry (in English, it must be said – I am sure there is a world of prosody waiting for me in Arabic).

After reading that book, I decided that I had to commit myself to learning to write metered Arabic poetry. Thankfully, I kept a short journal of how I went about it, and share it with you all now:

Al-Baseet Diary

  1. I focused on a single bahr or meter. There are many meters to choose from, and sub-meters within them. On a friend’s suggestion, I focused on bahr al-baseet.
  2. First, I learnt its code and key:
    • code: mustaf’ilun fa’ilun mustaf’ilun fa’ilun
    • key: in al-baseeta ladayhu yabsat al-amalu
  3. I learned the rhythm for this. I had three aids: a voicenote from a friend, and two videos I found by searching for “إيقاع بحر البسيط” on Youtube: 1 and 2.
    • I listened to this constantly, repeating along with the videos, until I could recall the meter’s key and repeat it on its musical rhythm with ease. Before reading any poem written in al-baseet, I sing the code and key to get the rhythm, then read the poem. This helps make sure I’m reading the poem right; it means I know where the long and short vowels are, and where the sukoons are.
  4. I collected poem ‘clippings’ in a notebook. I found poems from three locations:
    • a friend. He suggested a famous Al-Mutanabbi poem in al-baseet. He offered to find other poems, but this one clicked with me.
    • aldiwan.net. This website has thousands of Arabic poems dating back to the pre-Islamic era, and you can filter to search for poems in the meter.
    • my own books. Once I’d studied al-baseet long enough, I knew what to look for and found I could easily recognise it. Lines written in al-baseet always end with three short vowels; looking for that first, then taking in the full line to see if it fits.
  5. I learned poems off by heart and repeated them daily, like an anthem. At one point, the key was stuck in my head like an earworm, and I even had the Tetris Effect, experiencing auditory hallucinations of al-baseet.
  6. After a few weeks of this, I found myself thinking in al-baseet. For example, on a day where I went for a walk through the city, into a forest for a walk in nature, I wrote the following lines:
    • كنيْسةٌ حمْراءٌ تعْطي الناسَ البَرَكَ
    • مسْتشفى امامي تركيزهُ الصَّحَةَ
    • النهر الغريقُ تسبح فيه السمك
    • تفجر الغابة من أوسط الحضري
    • الشِعر والشاي والتمر يفرحني
  7. The quality of the above lines is beside the point; thinking in the metre is the important thing. Getting a hang of what units of thought can be expressed within that rhythmic metre, what level of complexity, etc.

This is where my experiments in al-baseet ended, but not my journeys in meter. My poem Prophecy and Prayers, published in Bahr Magazine, has a few lines written in the local Bahrani metre of Al-Fa’izi, something I’ve written about here.

I moved away from al-baseet because I found it wasn’t for me so much. I’ve since worked my way through other meters – learning al-taweel and al-mutaqarrab in particular.

I’ve discovered now that when I read Arabic poetry, regardless of the meter, I am able to catch the metrical rhythm very easily. This is true even if I cannot always identify the meter, or if it is one that I haven’t studied. I can sense the musicality of the words and derive a greater enjoyment of it.

There’s another side-effect, which is the aid in understanding. Since metered poetry has to follow patterns of long and short vowels, it means that poets have to order their word choices to match. I don’t know formal grammar well enough to express this idea very effectively, but basically, metrical limitations also narrow the grammatical formations ideas can be expressed in, this makes it easier to understand meaning once you can recognise the grammatical patterns. Figuring out the meaning of one line of poetry written in al-baseet helped unlock the meaning of other lines which used similar grammar to express wholly different ideas. Patterns somehow help language acquisition, and the patterns of Arabic poetry enhance that when you understand what those patterns are.

Self-studying Arabic prosody has been one of the delights of 2021. It’s made me have to reconsider everything I understand of both Arabic and English poetry, and of my role as a translation, poet and writer. There are a thousand things to unpack from that, but I hope that my little seven-steps in learning Arabic prosody will aid others on a similar journey.

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Between Two Islands – Round Up

Illustration by Fatema Al-Fanar
Illustration by Fatema Al-Fanar

It has been a bumper month for the Between Two Islands project. I’ve been too busy to even do all the marketing expected of sole artists in today’s market… So in case you missed it:

The Between Two Islands Shop – August
In August, we launched the Between Two Islands shop where you can buy copies of the anthology (shipping worldwide!)

Illustration by Mohamed Elaasar
Illustration by Mohamed Elaasar

Between Two Islands in Middle East Eye – 27 September
Read my article for Middle East Eye where I discuss the whole project – with quotes from the poets involved, what brought out the project, what direction we’re heading towards now.

My favourite extract, from towards the end:

What is it that we need?

I think the answer lies within the anthology itself. I was 19 when the Arab uprisings erupted in Bahrain in February 2011. That year, when so many friends, protesters, children, doctors, journalists and hundreds of others were arrested and tortured, some to death, left a traumatic impact on Bahrain’s psyche.

That single year has defined my generation, and it feels as though I have relived it across the last decade. The cousin imprisoned for life, the family forced to close their business, the friend rendered stateless. Often, I seem to exist as a reaction to these events, responding to waves of a storm my boat can hardly withstand.

Yet through poetry, we were able to reset our relationship to our homelands and to ourselves, able to reconsider and move forward.

Illustration by Fatema Al-Fanar
Illustration by Fatema Al-Fanar

The Future – 1 October
We published The Future, a poetic audio feature with the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Audiences are invited to enter a vision of the future in this free, bilingual digital audio experience exploring a seascape of a future Bahrain. Featuring poetry and narration by seven Bahraini poets, it has been set to music and sound designed by Yussuf Maleem. Listen to it on the LAAF website for free.

Between Two Islands Live – 30 October
Last weekend, we gathered at Liverpool (for the Arab Arts Festival again!) and performed in front of a live audience at Chapters of Us – you can watch the full show for free on LAAF’s feed. Support us by checking it out! I read two poems for the first time in the event – Hide and Seek and What the Date Palm Said to the Sea. Amazing conversations are had throughout the show with the poets of the anthology. There is so much to be said… but so much of it is said in the video, so go watch it.


I only regret that I don’t have much time to reflect on the project at the moment – that will come. Truly, the MEE article is a reflection – but another is needed after the Soundscape and event… all to come in good time, I’m certain. For now – please follow the links, support the project and the Festival which has supported us this October, and enjoy our words.

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New Poem: Prophecy & Prayers

A new poem of mine is published today in Issue 1 of BAHR // بحر magazine, a great new, bilingual En/Ar magazine.

My poem, Prophecy & Prayers, is best read on a computer (or ‘Desktop View’) due to its formatting. A couple notes follow.

Form – English

Over the past 18 months I’ve experimented a lot in bringing an Arabic feel to my English poetry. I associate Arabic with water, with its flowing sentences running on like rivers, its shifting emotion pushing forward and backwards like the tide. Full-stops are foreign to Arabic, which at its most beautiful can have an almost ethereal quality. My very cleverly named ‘sea form’, is a type of free verse with some set rules. The margins represent the shore line, that is, solid ground and certainty. Indentation in the central column reflects the sea, where the main poem occurs, where thoughts shift like the sea’s waves. Words are sometimes shaped like objects, floating like flotsam and jetsam in the midst of the poem’s waters.

I’ve written a few of these (including a poem in the sea form detailing the form’s functions – something I developed in one of Apples and Snakes’ Red Sky Sessions earlier this year). This was the first poem with two margins, with both an English and an Arabic shoreline. I hope to be able to share more of these in time. In essence, this form is a structured stream of consciousness, but it works for me.

Knowing that, of course I had to submit to a magazine literally called Bahr! And I’m so happy that the editor accepted this submission.

Form – Arabic

I’ve been learning my buhoor, my Arabic meters this year. The Arabic lines are written in an attempted Al-Fa’izi, which is a local meter that came out of Al-Ahsa in the early 20th century. This meter was very popular in Eastern Arabia and Bahrain and specifically for Shi’a Hussayni poetry. I’m quite certain there are some minor mistakes and breaks in the meter, but I’m proud of this attempt. And I think something can be drawn emotively between the broken meter and the desperate plea within the poem.

The Arabic lines form a sort of prayer for the ancient Sumerian god Enki, more on that below. When I was choosing which meter to write in, Al-Fa’izi made the most sense. The poetic persona is pleading to the ancient, local deity, so what else would suit but a modern, local meter? And so, the Arabic is written in dialect, in particular the final line.

The Fa’izi meter goes (مستفعلن مستفعلن مستفعلاتن) and when I started learning my meters in earnest, I surprised myself by how easily this one came to me – a childhood unknowingly surrounded by the meter in ma’atim suddenly revealed its hidden meanings to me as an adult.

Notes on Meaning

The poem is an expression of my climate anxiety in the face of the neoliberal destruction of the Gulf’s environment. I’m haunted by the disappeared freshwater springs, which existed for millennia and have all but dried up in the span of a lifetime. Some 4000 years ago, Dilmun (ancient Bahrain) worshipped Enki, who was a god for humankind and of water.

In the Sumerian flood myth, Enlil, the lord of the gods, decides to flood the world because humanity’s noisiness was disturbing his peace and quiet. The gods are sworn to secrecy when the plan is hatched, but Enki saves humanity by warning the reed-walls of Ziusudra’s palace of the coming flood, in earshot of the lord. Ziusudra builds an ark and thus survives. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ziusudra resides in Dilmun, an immortal being, and Gilgamesh dives into a secret sea-beneath-the-sea in search of a plant that will return him to his youth.

This sea-beneath-the-sea is instantly recognisable for a Bahraini/Khaleeji: pockets of freshwater burble beneath the sea, and in the past sailors would use these freshwater channels to keep stocked on water.

And so, here is a desperate plea, in the face of impending civilisational doom, brought on by noisy and destructive neoliberalism, for Enki to rescue us once more…

I hope you enjoy.

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RAQABIYYA, or Neck Tax

RAQABIYYA, or Neck Tax

Granny, chewing a date, transmits 
her soul, then presses it between 
the baby girl’s lips.

“[They] suffer from the tyranny of their masters 
more keenly than language can express,” 
observes Captain Robert Taylor of the East India Company
as he passes over our homeland 
like smog, the dull weight of his judgement unsettling 

our bones. Granny, holding the stone 
in her bite, soothes the pulp along the infant’s tongue. 
Granny and the infant share a sweet smile,

Dad’s in prison, the bars, his
its consonants wound around 

his neck. The keepers at the archives will fussily record 
the Sheikh trading our ancestor’s cadaver for a penny. 

Granny deposits the stone in a grave, 
tended to a garden. Shhhhh, 
she says, shhhhh. She stays, 

Fatima ya Fatamtam ya rabi’at gawm
Fatima, our Fatamtam, 
her face like a springtime bloom.
She went to sell our yoghurt,
she went, now twelve days gone.
Was she taken by a foreign man,
or kidnapped by a lord?

Mum, pitting the date, saves
the sweet flesh. Her daughter
shares a lullaby. Dad’s without

citizenship, his prison, 
an anti-terror law fit for the current century. 
Daughter, expectant, consuming a date 
whole, carrying, past the record keepers, the stone.


“RAQABIYYA, or Neck Tax” is included in the latest anthology by Young Identity.

Raqabiyya, or Neck Tax has been published in the past month in the latest anthology by Young Identity, titled “Ecosystems of Fury – The Scalpel and the Sledgehammer – Myth Restoration”. The first draft of the poem was scribbled out in a 5 minute freewrite exercise in February 2020; it was only much later, when the invitation to submit work came, that this poem came together. It’s one of my favourite pieces to come out of the past year (and I’m grateful to my editor Roma Havers, who guided me through a very fun editing session — and it’s rare to call editing fun).

The poem is about a few things quite important to me, all centred around history. Who’s telling our stories?

The Title – Raqabiyya

Raqabiyya is the name of an arbitrary tax that was levied on the Baharna peasantry by their lords. It, along with sukhra (forced labour), made peasant life unbearable. I’ve written about this way back in 2013, when I first started reading the British archives. In December 1921, so nearly 100 years ago, a deputation of Baharna arrived at the British Agency demanding help to end this injustice; the chain of events would lead to the abdication of the ruler in 1923. One of the records is this horrifying litany of abuses, which included abduction, rape, and financial exploitation of village men, women and children.

When I first learned about Raqabiyya, I called it ragabiyya, the qaaf becoming gaaf in my Bahraini dialect. A family member corrected me. “Not ragabiyya. RaQabiyya.

Why not ragabiyya?”

“You just don’t with that word.”

As if this word did not deserve to be pronounced in our mother dialect.

The Quote by Captain Robert Taylor

In 1818, a colonial agent by the name of Captain Robert Taylor wrote a lengthy record detailing the many states of the Gulf, which the British called the ‘Pirate Coast’ because the seafaring Arabs would sometimes disrupt the trade routes to India (by 1820, Britain would force the ‘Pirate Coast’ and Bahrain into submission through a very literal example of gunboat diplomacy, razing Ras Al-Khaima to the ground and forcing the Arabs into treaty relations. I’ve written it about previously here.)

Of the Baharna, my ancestors, Taylor writes: “The Chiefs of the Beni Itbah, a foreign tribe of arabs from Grane (or Koweit), have governed its aboriginal inhabitants for more than thirty-five years with absolute power … The aboriginal inhabitants, now subjected to a foreign power, suffer from the tyranny of their masters more keenly than language can express.”

This quote has stayed with me in all the many years since I read it. It is a disturbing, momentary reference to my ancestors (the ‘aboriginal inhabitants’), and skimmed over far too quickly. Yet oral family history does capture the suffering keenly. Stories of the ancestor born in Tubli to such poverty they migrated to Qatar, returning to Bahrain as an adult after the the end Raqabiyya and Sukhra in the 1920s. Other ancestors who had to flee to Basra and beyond. Debtors prisons and humiliation.

(Not all of life was suffering – I’ve just been reading the sarcastic poetry of Sa’ida bint Nasser, a witty woman who lived in the mid-19th century. Her rhymes included everything from conversations with date palms to a show of solidarity with a bed-wetting wife threatened with divorce. I mention this because our history shouldn’t be solely defined by traumas).

I’m drawn to this quote because it is the earliest references to the Baharna that I’ve read in the colonial records. It helps me understand my history. But it also reveals a lot about the colonial officer who wrote about it – he, who can write a book’s worth detailing the economic and political makeup of Oman, Bahrain and every emirate in between, lacks the vocabulary to explain the peasant and working class lives of the people he witnessed.

The Folk Poem

I translated Fatima ya Fatamtam in the summer last year after I first came across it. As with any folk poems, there are multiple variations, but this is the one that came down to me from my locality (Bani Jamra).

I’ve been collecting more folk poems since then and have more I wish to eventually share. What is striking about these poems are:

1 – They are often in a female voice. Although we don’t know the original poet, her voice is powerfully heard.

2 – They express the “the tyranny” more keenly than Robert Taylor’s colonial language ever could.

There are many of these poems. A large number of them are about the danger of women being kidnapped by aristocrats (as we know, from this record, was a real and recurrent threat).

Female and Male Voices

History tends to centre male voices over female ones. The historical record is made up primarily by the writings of men, focused on the issues of men. Yet the history of our emotional experiences, that is so often retained by women. In this case, it was captured in folk tales by women, passed down by mothers to their daughters; a chain of oral repetition. Fatima ya fatamtam is not a historical record in the sense that it tells us that “On such a date, a girl called Fatima, on her way to the market, etc…”. But it tells us that such things did happen, and that they happened with enough regularity that variations of this poem were told from the northwest coast of Bahrain to Sitra island.

In this poem, the female voice passes from ‘Granny’ to ‘Mum’ to ‘Daughter’ whose is ‘expectant’. The female voice is enduring – sidestepping the male stories and histories of trauma, not entirely safe herself, but passing on a record of her own which goes ignored past the record keeper.

I wanted to centre these stories in the poem. In a way, this poem acts as a personal manifesto, of my movement away from the study of history to the study of literature. And my efforts to ‘decolonise’ in practice – I’m committed to decolonising education, and what does that mean? It means raising folk stories like this to the same (or greater) level of importance to the standardised, elite, male historical record.


‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’ ‎23, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/R/15/1/732, in Qatar Digital Library https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100022870191.0x00003d [accessed 15 April 2021]

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Review: The Arabic Prose Poem by Huda Fakhreddine

I had the pleasure of discovering Huda Fakhreddine’s work a few months ago, just as I set myself the challenge to write more in Arabic. Her articles on the Arabic prose poem were insightful, and so I eagerly awaited her new book. In a way, it could not have come at a better time. The review is followed by personal reflections, the stirrings of my own theories that I am still learning to express, and an ars poetica – a poem on the art of poetry – of my own, which I wrote in the course of reading the book. Enjoy.


The Arabic Prose Poem, by Huda FakhreddineThe Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice by Huda Fakhreddine (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) is a thought-provoking contemplation of the prose poem, which has now occupied a transformative space for some 60-odd years. Well-researched and effectively paced, the book is a great asset for any poet engaging with the Arabic tradition of prose poetry. This review is aimed not at an academic crowd (for I am not in academia), but rather to other poets, particular diaspora Arab(ic) poets, for whom this text offers something useful.

A word on definitions before I begin. Arabic poetry may be distinguished into three main strands: Classical, which is bound by rules of metre and rhyme; Free verse or taf’ila poetry, which is bound by rules of metre; and Prose Poetry, which is not bounded by either. The terminology is complicated by ‘free verse’ and ‘prose poetry’ having different technical meanings in English. I will follow the author’s own terminology and refer to ‘taf’ila’ and ‘prose’ as distinguishing terms.

The book begins its study prior to the inception of the prose poem, in that early 20th century literary impulse which gave us poetic prose and the taf’ila poem. The prose poem, when it enters the scene through the work of Unsi al-Hajj and the Shi’r journal, is mercurial, difficult to pin and define. Fakhreddine explores the idea of ‘churning’ meaning and the appropriation of the Arabic prose tradition to justify the prose poetry movement; the internationalism of the Shi’r poets, and their metaphysical journeys into language reaches its heights, of course, in Adonis. Commentary on his two seminal anthologies, “Diwan al-shi’r al-arabi” (1964) and “Diwan al-nathr al-arabi” (2012) bookend the review of his works, which is centred around his “Mufrad bi sighat al-jam’” (1977). While these chapters present an interesting study of this modernist Arabic poetry, even Fakhreddine sounds frustrated by these intentionally esoteric poets at times (“But making sense of it is torturous and futile”, she writes of one Unsi al-Hajj poem which he himself described as “cursed and cancerous”).

Continue reading
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Between Two Islands — Out now!

Between Two Islands

Between Two Islands is OUT NOW and free to download: https://alialjamri.com/betweentwoislands/

For print copies, please enquire. Check the link above for full details.

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World Poetry Day – The Stories We Thread

Sunday 21 March was World Poetry Day, and I was delighted to be one of the poets featured in the film marking the day for Manchester City of Literature and Manchester Poetry Library.

You can watch the video below:

I appear alongside three other Manchester poets. Also featured is Imtiaz Dharker, whose poem was commissioned to mark the opening of the Poetry Library, as well as two poets in Granada (Spain) and Slemani (Autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq).

It’s a fabulous event, and I encourage you to watch it!

My poem celebrates doorways as portals – and specifically reflects on my commute in Salford to the local school where I work. I often pass through Albert Park, the view from which I stop to contemplate the city. I nearly wrote ‘admire the city’ there — but it’s the skyscrapers which always catch my eye, and I have personally never liked these buildings. To me, they represent unchecked capitalism and greed. I think of the skyscrapers in Bahrain, Dubai and London and how little they represent me – and how little these skyscrapers represent the Manchester I know. That disquiet is there in my poem.

But more than that, my poem is really a love letter to my grandmother, Zahra, who I often spend my journey to school talking with. During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot more time on the phone with family, and I understand better the value of every one of those conversations than I ever did before. That World Poetry Day should have coincided with Mother’s Day in Bahrain felt very meaningful.

Thank you Manchester City of Literature and Manchester Poetry Library for the opportunity.

Without further ado, my poem:

The Stories We Thread

Home has never felt so far away
as when the order came to Stay At Home,
yet my granny’s voice has never charmed me more
than when I could only hear her through my phone.

Standing in the mouth of Albert Park
holding, in the arch’s frame, the cityscape,
my gaze passing over the red brick homes,
pausing, daily, on my key worker’s commute to hear

my granny, Ummi Zahra, at home in Bahrain weaving
warm visions of her once-thatched village, pulling
together the distances, immense as all the stories
she threads of childhood memories.

To think that my tiny, far flung country
would fit neatly in a pocket of this city!
But in unprecedented times, pursed in this arch’s lips
not my city nor my country nor my granny seem so small.

Through Ummi Zahra I see the graveyard by her street
where our history sleeps, it remembers the cut palm groves
the litanies of stolen lives, the rumbling stomachs and splendour
of mullahs, serfs and weavers fighting for their futures.

In return, I tell her how Salford’s a city swallowed up
by a city. In this Victorian arch, skyscrapers
protrude, like anxious needles, into the city’s heart.
Perhaps it’s being cut from her cloth that makes me at home,

in Ummi Zahra’s stories, familial names become visionaries
no different to workers, Luddites and Suffragettes
mustering together to build better. And still building now:
when I loop through the park like a thread

and place Salford in the arch’s mouth,
I picture a quilt, its patches are the red brick
homes of migrants and Mancs, warmly woven
with Ummi Zahra’s village, still resilient in her memory,

a fabric threaded by shared history,
it’s texture the hope I hear in her voice.
When the hard times end, we will stay knotted,
she in her village, I in my city,

sharing our stories
in the lips of this arch.

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Resistance Is My Mother Tongue – Reflections

Today is International Mother Language Day and as part of the festivities planned in Manchester, I co-produced, with Nasima Begum and Young Identity, Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, a multi-lingual poetry event.

You can rewatch the event here:

Major thanks to Nasima, Shirley May, all the participating poets, Young Identity and Manchester City of Literature.

The event came out of conversations I had with Nasima and other poets (particular mention goes to Jova Bagioli Reyes and Amina Atiq) about our relationships to our mother languages starting in the summer of 2020.

Often, those of us from migrant, diaspora communities feel divorced from our mother tongues. This affects our confidence: we struggle to be accepted by the ‘host’ culture, and cannot fully fit in with our ‘home’ culture. So Resistance Is My Mother Tongue was very much about accepting the middle ground, the liminal space, we inhabit. Owning it. Positioning ourselves as powerful in relation to both home and host cultures.

Before the event, we held one workshop discussing our relationships to our mother tongues. As I said regarding my own relationship to language, there is pain as an Arab divorced from Arabic – unable to engage with the depth of its poetry to the extent I want to. My great-great-grandfather, Mulla Attiya Al-Jamri, is one of Bahrain’s most influential poets of the 20th century, and his religious poetry is still popularly recited today. I struggle, with my damaged Arabic, to fully engage with it, and I know I cannot write Arabic at his level. I can’t write poetry like he can.

But, I came to realise, were he alive today, he would not be able to write poetry like I can. That realisation gave me a confidence. I’m not claiming superiority to my ancestor, rather, acceptance that we are poets of different qualities, and that is not a bad thing.

There was another part to Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, which was to ask: what if we have a multilingual poetry that makes no apologies, that does not try to translate or cater to an English-only audience?

From this position of confidence, the project fell into place.

My poem In The House of Colonialism kicks off the event. The poem, which begins “severed” in London, surrounded by Jinn – Aladdin, Tony Blair, Harry Potter, Francis Fukuyama – rejects the overwhelming pressure of Western culture and chases after the shadow of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. It ends in Bahrain’s Salmaniya Hospital (“Where the walls remember the blood”) with an excerpt of a Bahrani folk song. (Publishing rules mean I can’t put the text in this post if I hope to publish it in an outlet in the future)

I’m proud of this dense poem. In conversation with my co-host Nasima, we focused on the poem’s attack on Disney’s Aladdin. I suspect that my British community will connect more deeply to the first half of that poem, while my Bahraini community will connect more with the second half. The poem makes no apologies for that and I don’t want it to.

The rest of the event was a pleasure. P.A. Bitez took us in a suitcase to Jamaica; Esther Koch took us to an Irish céilí for song and dance. From one céilí to another, Kayleigh Jayshree gave us an insight into her relationship with Gujarati (“We tick ‘other’ on most forms / visit Google Translate more than Twitter”). Ella Otomewo read a sonnet about her relationship to her two mother languages, Urhobo and Okpe. Meduulla gave a passionate address to Zimbabwe (“Being with you was like loving someone who only kissed me in public / but behind closed colonial doors, we were strangers”). Amina Atiq gave a heart-rending poem about the meaning of “بلادي” – “my nation”, culminating with that dreaded question, “Where do you come from?” Jova Bagioli Reyes gave us an epic poem in both English and Spanish (making no apologies for their Chilean accent), with too many brilliant moments to choose from (“I remember Henry Kissinger … acting as if Pinochet were a bad hook-up from his college years”). Shirley May, Young Identity’s CEO, rounded the night off with a poem from her collection “She Wrote Her Own Eulogy” (“Still I hear my mother’s voice in my head / ‘harsh words stir up strife, while soft words turn away wrath, he that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life'”).

The night was brilliantly hosted by Nasima Bee whose energy brought the entire event together. We worked hard to make the event run so smooth – the little touch that I think brought it to life was our decision to have poets and Nasima “face each other” during the conversation segments – a small touch that I think broke us away from the usual fare of Zoom events, where you the viewer hold unbroken eye contact with whoever is on screen over the course of an hour.

We have plans for a lot more. Nasima’s hinted at performing her own poem at a future follow-up event – so there’s one thing. Throughout, we worked with the value of bringing different diasporas together to celebrate the shared, complicated experience of our conflicted tongues.

Watch this space — and until next time, happy International Mother Language Day!

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Between Two Islands: Poetry Writing Workshops for Bahrainis in Britain

ما بين جزيرتين – ورش عمل حول كتابة الشعر للبحرينيين المقيمين في بريطانيا

I am excited to announce a new series of poetry workshops for the Bahraini community in the UK!

Click here to register for the events

(اضغط هنا للاعلان وربط التسجيل باللغة العربية)

What does it mean to be Bahraini in the UK? How does it effect our relationship to our homeland? What are the things we crave, the truths we have discovered, the things we have had to create for ourselves? Some of us see our time in the UK as temporary; some of us are as British as we are Bahraini. But for all of us, the British isles are our home today.

This project, funded by Arts Council England, is a first of its kind: a creative writing space for Bahrainis living in Britain.

Through poetry, we will unlock our creative voices. Each week, we will explore a different aspect of poetry, from form and function to editing and performance.

Beginners are welcome and encouraged to join – no experience necessary!

The workshops are FREE for attendees and will run over six weeks in January/February 2021. They are for you if you are:

  • aged between 18 and 81
  • a Bahraini who immigrated to the UK for work or study, was born to immigrant parents, or came to the UK as a refugee
  • an English or Arabic speaker
  • interested in writing and creative arts

They will be led by Ali Al-Jamri and Amina Atiq.

Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini and British poet and writer. He was a semi-finalist in BBC Words First 2020, and his translation of “The Desire of Life” by Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi was published by Modern Poetry in Translation. He was a notable contender in the Bristol Short Fiction Prize.

Amina Atiq is a poet, performance artist and activist from Liverpool’s Yemeni community, one of the oldest Arab communities in the UK. A BBC Words First 2019 Finalist and Young Associate for Curious Minds, she is currently a Poet in Residence for Queensland Poetry Festival 2020-21 and working on a new online project, Yemeni Women on the Frontline.

To join, complete our registration form by Thursday 31 December.

Further information:

  • The workshops are 2 hours each and will be conducted over 6 weekends in January and February 2021.
  • We ask that participants commit to the full six-week programme.
  • Workshops will be conducted via Zoom due to pandemic measures. This may be reviewed.
  • To be inclusive, we offer participants compensation and travel cost reimbursement. We value your time and want to make this event accessible, particularly if you have childcare, study and work responsibilities to juggle.

We would like to thank the Arts Council England for funding our project as well as partner organisations, mentors and supporters at the Arab British Centre, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Young Identity Manchester and Commonword and the community centre Dar Alhekma for making this work possible.

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The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (A New Translation)

My English translation was published in Modern Poetry in Translation, 3/2020

In November, Modern Poetry in Translation published my English version of The Desire of Life by Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi. Please do check out the magazine and buy a copy – it’s a fantastic edition and I’m honoured to have been featured alongside such great lists and translators!

Here’s the introduction I wrote for MPT:

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

The question captures the personal and political anguish troubling Abulqassim Al-Shaabi when he penned The Desire of Life in 1933. Personal, because Al-Shaabi was just 24 and dying of a heart ailment. Political, because he was expressing the bottled rage and resentment of Tunisians under imperial French rule. This is the heartbreak of a young, ambitious artist, bitter in the knowledge of his own mortality and his country’s exploitation, channelled into his finest poem.

Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (1909-1934) is the national poet of Tunisia

I translated The Desire of Life with the aim of celebrating its thrilling, lyrical energy. The poem’s opening lines compel the reader to action and echoes in the slogan of the 2010-11 Tunisian Revolution – al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham – The People Desire the Regime’s Downfall. This slogan was on the lips of millions of protesters, first in Tunisia then in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and has been heard chanted again in the streets of Beirut this summer. The Desire of Life heralded a decade of protest bookended by the Arab Uprisings and Black Lives Matter.

Keeping the “R” end-rhyme which runs through the original text was an exciting challenge. Desire trills through the verse, opening one line to the next, so that the entire poem itself is like the soft beat of a wing / its lift-off in reach.

Towards the end of the poem, the above question to the darkness is answered by the arrival of Spring, who kisses the lips of departed youth / with a passion that restores their colour. Today’s protests echoing Al-Shaabi’s poetry are like Spring’s kiss, restoring his memory to life, time and time again.


The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi
translated by Ali Al-Jamri

One day, when the People act on Life’s desire,
they’ll force the hand of a higher power,
Night shall flee at the sound of Dawn’s choir
and the chain, the chain shall finally shatter.

For if the People do not thirst for life,
why, they’ll shrivel and expire —
those who scorn the struggle for life,
Death shall punch with the force of a boxer.

So said Earth through her creations
when our sorry state roused the forces of nature.
From mountains, through valleys,
beneath my trembling feet, the Wind blasted his anger:

When destiny calls, I seize the day,
warn me of danger and I’ll shriek with laughter —
I’ll always take the path less travelled
I’ll always run through the blazing fire —
if the view from the peak makes you tremble with fear,
then crawl in a grave and await your maker.

If all youth are like me, then their blood’s run cold
and their heart’s drummed to the beat of despair.
I slipped in the slop and the mud, assailed by rains,
attacked by winds, condemned by thunder.

Earth, you hold us in such contempt,
how dare you call yourself a mother?

I bless of your lot the children of ambition
who chase and snap at the heels of danger,
but I curse the louts who waste this gift,
who aspire to live the life of a boulder.
The Universe is alive! He loves the living, He scorns the dead.

Does the bee kiss the dead flower?
Does the horizon embrace the dead bird?
Does the maggot distinguish the great from the lesser?
Were it my way, my dear, I’d not allow for burials,
but my tender heart breaks for the weeping mourner.

Spread my warning to those who accept a life in fetters:
When their story ends, Death alone emerges the victor.

On an overcast night one autumn,
as I watched Earth’s displeased clouds gather,
I raised my cup to see off the stars
and sang ’til Sorrow joined my stupor.

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

But the Dark’s lips did not part,
nor did Dawn voice her bewitching murmurs.
It was the Forest who spoke, like a lilting harp,
so delicate, so loving, so tender:

Here comes Winter, the winter of fog
the winter of ice, the winter of downpours
to snuff the magic, the magic of branches,
the magic of flowers, the magic of nectar.
The beloved blossoms of youth and yearning
are thrust unceremoniously in the air,
whipped this way and that by the hostile Storm,
drowned by the Flood, they are torn asunder.
Like a dream illuminated by the soul
then blotted out, all, all expire.

But in the earth remains the Seed,
springtime’s forgotten, hidden treasure.
Memories of seasons, visions of life,
ghosts of a world, its base and its tenor —
the Seed embraces them all, beneath dead earth
and thick fog, a shield against Winter’s icy spectre.
It grips Life in all its thrumming joy
and bears the promise of Spring’s green wonders.
It dreams of birdsong in flight,
the juice of a fruit, the scent of a flower.

Time marches on, with it an oppressor,
and when this one falls, there shall come another.
Dreams rouse from troubled sleep
in a twilight that will not disappear.
They ask:

Where is the morning mist?
The evening’s spell? The moonlight’s shimmer?
Where is the singing bee and the passing cloud?
Where does the elegant butterfly flutter?
Where are all the Earth’s creatures?
Where is the light and the life I yearn for?
I thirst for the sunshine dappled through the leaves,
I thirst for the shade of a tall tree’s shelter!
I thirst for the brook between meadows
that tinkles and dances with the flowers!
I thirst for the bird’s croon, the breeze’s murmur,
and rain’s gentle patter patter.
I thirst for the Universe! And yet, the world
I wish to witness, I must yet wait for.
For He, the Universe, is dormant, His grand awakening
on the horizon. Is it on me to make Him stir?

This longing is like the soft beat of a wing,
its lift-off in reach. As it grows stronger,
the Seed breaks the earth and, peaking out,
beholds the world. No view delights it more.
Thus dawns Spring, the Melodious,
the Fragrant, the Inspirer of Dreamers,
He kisses the lips of departed youth
with a passion that restores their colour
and says to them:

You have been granted life,
and the Seed has been your protector.
Bask in the Light that guides you, the restless youth
of this fertile land, to bloom together.
Whoever worships the Light in their dreams,
the Light shall bless them wherever it appears—
For you is this space, so radiant, so pure,
for you is this chance to truly prosper,
for you is all this resilient world’s beauty,
so firm, so flourishing, so clear,
so spread as you wish across the fields
by your supple blossoms and sweet nectar.

And thus survives the breeze, survive the clouds
survives the moon, survive the stars,
thus survives this exalted existence and its allures
thus survives Life and its desires.

The Dark slips to reveal a deep beauty
which electrifies and inspires.
Across the Universe a strange magic spreads
willed by the wand of a master spell caster.
Incandescent stars radiate across the sky
and there spreads the scent of a fragrant flower.
A soul, strangely beautiful, flutters
on wings formed of the moonlight’s shimmer,
and the holy hymn of life resounds
in a temple, bewitching every dreamer.

Across the Universe it is declared:
Ambition is the soul’s triumph and Life’s blazing fire,
When the People speak their spirit’s ambition,
Destiny must bow to their desire!

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