Reflections on ‘Silence is a Sense’

Silence is a Sense is a 2021 book by Layla AlAmmar. Above: Book cover, showing the figure of a woman looking out from a dim room to the world outside.

I: Fear and Expression

Let me begin with a quotation, not from the book I’m about to consider but from another it called to my mind:

In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face. – 1 April 1957, Leningrad.  (From Requiem by Anna Akhmatova)

The conceptual duality of fear and expression seems to be rare in Western fiction. I don’t think the West really understands what true fear is (with the obvious note that, through imperialism, the West has usually been the perpetrator of fear). On an individual level, it is certainly understood: for example, the fears of the abuse victim is certainly present in literature and media. But the fear and expression (or lack thereof) of a whole community and society? And the impact that has on the psyche, the terrible physicality of silence and its effect on one’s sense of personhood? That is the domain of Eastern literatures.

Perhaps that is why I felt drawn to Akhmatova’s Requiem as I wrote this. Soviet-era Eastern European literature and Arabic literature often feel like siblings to my mind and so there is no strange stretch that Akhmatova should be one of the first connections I make with the book. The introduction to my copy, by translator D.M. Thomas, notes: From 1935-40, the period of its composition, to 1957, it is said to have survived only in the memories of the poet and a few of her most trusted friends. It was first published in 1963, ‘without the author’s knowledge or consent’, by the Society of Russian Émigré Writers, from a copy which had found its way to the West. The idea that the poem existed secretly for nearly thirty years, and that it was first published by looser-lipped exiles in the West, feels strikingly relevant.

I see fear and expression as the duality here. Not fear and bravery, nor silence and expression. When we express ourselves, we triumph over fear, at least in the moment (be it a speech, a novel, an unfurled banner). When we hold ourselves in silence, we are beholden to fear. Sometimes, I wonder at the things people say in the UK, wondering what it is like not to feel the clamping power of fear on a loose tongue.

Thus I felt drawn to Silence is a Sense from my very first encounter with its title and how it seems to immediately evoke a certain lived experience, that of the duality of fear and expression.

In fact, my own sensibilities seem confirmed by an article by the author, who writes on LitHub: We write of the pain and bear witness to trauma that resurfaces and plagues us. We write knowing how futile it is. We write to keep alive a grief that refuses consolation. We write in anticipation of decades to come when new revolutions will spring into being in response to the very same injustices.

II: Violence and Community

Silence is a Sense is the second book by Kuwaiti novelist Layla AlAmmar and follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates her life in the UK. Our protagonist is a Syrian refugee whose trauma has rendered her incapable of speech. She lives in an estate formed of two tower blocks that face each other and she watches the secret and not-so-secret lives of the denizens of these tower blocks and their surrounds. Among them are the Juicer; No-Lights-Man; Chloe and Helen who live with abusive Dad and their brother Matt; Hassan, the proprietor of the local corner shop; Imam Abdulrahman in charge of the local mosque; and there are many more besides. The book elegantly moves between her observations of life around her, her memories and nightmares, and her articles for an online magazine under the penname The Voiceless.

Though there are many people living in these tower blocks, and though they live ostensibly in peace – our narrator reflects on the rainy sky and the absence of bombs falling – they live without a sense community.

This contrasts with the narrator’s memories of Aleppo. There, a sense of community is torn asunder through war’s violence. Over the course of the revolutionary moment-turned-civil war, clear friends and family members turn into shadows of their former selves, the edges of their personalities frayed, as war brings each of them to their individual limits.

If the narrator’s Syria is a land where community is ripped apart by violence, then Britain is a land where violence gives cause for a community to stitch together. The violent isolationism practiced by the tower block denizens forces them to band together as individual and communal violence reaches a crescendo. The narrator dismisses activists in Britain as playing a low stakes and naïve game, and while the stakes are perhaps lower, there is a sense gotten from her flashbacks to Syria that her friends there were just as naïve as the ones she makes in Britain.

These two dualities – community and individualism, war and peace – are at play constantly in the novel. There is no community in peaceful Britain – and yet, it is not so peaceful. Helen’s husband is a violent abuser who she hasn’t the strength to leave. Racist thugs come to disrupt celebrations at the local mosque. It is supposed to be safe in the UK, and yet the constant trickle of not-so-petty crimes and personal violence swirls the protagonist down the whirlpool of her own troubled psyche.

III: The Voyeurism of the West

All the while, the narrator writes her column, The Voiceless, seemingly to stabilise herself. These Voiceless essays, peppered throughout the novel, provide stability for the reader too, giving us something familiar to read in her op-eds, more concrete than the journeys within her mind’s eye (more on that later), where reality can give way to dreams and traumas from one sentence to the next.

But who benefits from reading The Voiceless and her anonymous opinions? Josie, the narrator’s editor at the magazine, is constantly fishing for her ‘true’ story. At first the narrator avoids giving anything away, but when she relents and provides stories of her journeys through Europe, Josie flinches – her stories sound fictionalised, unbelievable, untrue. No one person could have experienced so many daily horrors. The more the narrator tries to appease the Western gaze, the more she herself encounters the violence of racism.

This relationship between the narrator and Josie brings out the crucial dichotomy of fear and expression. The more the narrator expresses herself through her column, the more Josie tries to control her speech. Gentle editorial nudges become appeals for the narrator’s ‘Journey’, become critiques of her portrayal of her own life. By the end, Josie is encouraging the narrator to use fiction as a vehicle to tell her own story. We are left to wonder: is she encouraging the narrator to use her voice to its fullest potential, through the medium of fiction, or is she trying to mould a refugee’s voice to be palatable for a British audience?

That question leads to another: who is the audience of the Voiceless? The narrator expresses herself through her articles because she needs the valve of expression. But her British audience is full of people who judge, ridicule, question, attack and dismiss her. She fears giving too much of herself away, in case family – wherever they may be – might somehow identify her.

More subtly, the novel seems to ask: to whom does a refugee’s story belong to, and what do they owe to explain to their audience? Does a refugee owe an audience anything at all? Does this refugee on your page owe you, the reader, anything?The narrator’s personal history is hemmed by the constant violence, illness, fear, cold and abuse she suffered. She does not want to unearth it, yet the constant requests of Josie, and triggers of traumatic memories around her, unlock memories of that journey.

These are memories she clearly does not want to share. So the beginnings of her life in Syria – which is a curiosity for the reader who naturally wishes to understand the protagonist – make uncomfortable reading the further we continue. The deeper into the book we go, the more we become privy to the narrator’s private thoughts and memories. In some of the most vividly realised nightmare segments, she and her friends are conducting their civil activism in a disintegrating flat. From the corner of one ceiling, a human eye watches them, constantly, like flesh-and-blood CCTV; at one stage, they even attempt to knock it down. The eye is a straightforward metaphor of Assad regime, its spies and its autocrat’s face plastered everywhere bearing down on activists. But on another level, I think the eye is us, the reader. We have infiltrated the narrator’s head, have invasively become her mind’s eye, and even in her sleep she cannot escape us reading on, demanding to unravel her mysteries with every next word read. Knowing the pain she suffers because people paint her by the labels of ‘Syrian’, ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘refugee’, the reader becomes an accomplice in peeling away her layers against her will.

In creating this discomfort, the book seems to hold a knife up to the voyeurism of so many readers who approach refugee narratives. Because there is nothing romantic about walking half the earth in search of safety. Anyone who knows a refugee, is a refugee, or has worked closely with them is familiar with that voyeurism. It is the white, middle-class mother who weeps at the screening of a film on their Plight and asks, “What can we do?” It is the journalist whose opening question to an unprepared teenager is, “What was it like to go on your Journey?” It is the exasperated liberal who sighs, “We welcomed them in, what more do they want?”

If the grotesque in fiction is often used to reflect societal ills, then here it is used to hold a mirror up to that voyeurism. As we enter the increasingly uncomfortable depths of the narrator’s psyche and bear witness to her traumas, nightmares and losses, the book seems to be addressing the voyeur: there’s nothing here for you, and there’s nothing to make you feel good about yourself.

Some of the characters in the novel seem to be that same kind of voyeur. They are complex individuals, and their goodness is not dismissed. Our narrator is flawed and requires these people’s goodness to grow. In the beginning, she sits outside society and largely rejects it. She is quietly judgemental and slow to action. Whether in present moments of conflict or in the remembered past of Syria, she is usually a passive bystander. Overcoming that passivity as the violence escalates around her becomes an imperative towards the end of the novel.

The people of the tower blocks are also flawed. Even as friendships develop with No-Lights-Man and Josie, I am left with a nagging fear for our narrator by the end, as these new friends reveal their own voyeuristic and flat perspectives of her, each in their own way. Do they actually see her as a complete human? It’s possible they do not: but their interactions with each other make everyone, from the narrator to those she grows closest to, fuller people.

Ultimately, my mind keeps returning to this voyeurism. My paperback copy includes a quote by the New York Times on its front cover: “This is not just good storytelling, but a blueprint for survival.” Perhaps this is unfair – the full review may provide valuable context – but it rather feels to me that this phrase, ‘a blueprint for survival’, is exactly the sort of voyeurism in refugee lives that the book turns on its head. Like Josie’s pressured editorial notes to the narrator, it speaks to the intoxication those of us living safe lives seek in the lived experience of the oppressed.

IV: Empathy and Appropriation

While the narrator finds herself in conflict with the Western gaze, AlAmmar as an Arab writing in the English language seems to elegantly deflect it. It feels like a book written for an Arab readership in English, not for a Western one. The metaphoric language is Arabic in character and flows effortlessly: “I swallow down the panic but my heart is a small, angry bird fluttering in my chest”; “My mind folds in on itself, like origami”; “all those eyes picking me apart like vultures”. References to jinn hanging from lampposts and malak almawt are never exposited for us: either you get it or you are trusted to do your own research.

As I approached the end of the novel and my reflections on voyeurism took shape, I found myself asking the next logical question: does AlAmmar have a ‘right’ to tell this story? AlAmmar is not a Syrian, nor a refugee. They are adjacent: a Kuwaiti women whose proximity in language and culture allows her to extrapolate and tell this story.

But is that enough license to tell such stories, or do they belong only to those with lived experiences? Are Syrians the only ones who should tell stories of Syrians?

An answer begins to form when we read the Acknowledgements, which ends on this note: “I must extend a special thank you to Faraj, a young man from Aleppo, who, on a beautiful Sunday in Hampstead Heath, shared his story with an unflinching bravery and honesty. The joy, love, and hope with which you approach the world, despite all you’ve seen, is as great a testament as any to the resilience of the human spirit.”

Another piece of the answer is provided in AlAmmar’s article for LitHub, which makes her awareness of this dilemma quite clear: “it was imperative to maintain a critical distance between feeling for someone and feeling as someone, even as I asked myself whether literature could be written from such a position. Writing demands empathy as much as observation: How can you awaken feelings in the reader if you haven’t stirred them in yourself? And yet, there’s a responsibility there, to resist slipping into the appropriation of someone else’s pain.

So does the novel appropriate another’s pain? The reader (or at least, this reader) is forced to address the voyeurism built into ‘Refugee’ genres of literature. Perhaps it’s because this struggle between empathy and appropriation (another duality?) was present in the author’s process that the book feels like a critique on voyeurism. In the hands of a different (probably Western) writer, Silence is a Sense would be a shockingly touristic vision of a Syrian’s life.

But I think this is not a ‘Refugee’ novel but an ‘Arab Spring’ novel. I found this idea confirmed by the author’s LitHub article (already referenced, and which names the Arab Spring in its title). Its position there is its strength, and its avenue of escape from being an act of appropriation. The experience of the Arab Spring, particularly in its most passionate early days, knocked down national identities invented by colonisers and came closer to realising a pan-Arab experience than anything since the mid-century anti-colonial movements.

While AlAmmar’s novel inhabits a specifically Syrian experience, the story exists within a broader Arab and West Asian experience: that of individuals and communities navigating between fear and expression. It is written from that deeper lived experience. Well-researched, and AlAmmar’s real-life inspirations acknowledged and thanked, the story never descends into exhibitionism or voyeurism. Instead, it emerges as a powerful reflection of the post-2011 Arab and West Asian experience. Silence is a Sense is fundamentally a novel about how authoritarianism corrodes our sense of self, both on an individual and communal level, and the violence that enacts on our ability to express ourselves. It does not claim that expression and community can negate the degrading impact of fear and violence – that would be far too neat – but it does powerfully claim that they can combat the effects.

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The Story of Nabih Saleh

Picture of Nabih Saleh shrine from its entrance. A simple arching gate with greens and whites. Two minarets in the background. Within, a tiled courtyard and an inner shrine.
The shrine of Nabih Saleh in 2022

I visited Bahrain for the first time in too many years this summer. On one day, we did a tour of historic mosques in the islands, visiting the resting places of Sheikh Maytham Al-Bahrani (Mahooz), Emir Zaid bin Sohan (Malchiyya), Sheikh Ahmed bin Sa’ada Al-Sitri Al-Bahrani (Sitra) and of course the Nabih Saleh. Each of those places and persons deserve their own story.

At Nabih Saleh, which is located on the island by the same name, we were lucky to meet the caretaker of the mosque. He gave us a tour of the place, its historic graves and the rock they were carved into and, most preciously, this little booklet: The Story of Nabih Saleh.

The booklet is intended as something of a visitor’s guide for the mosque and the shrine of Nabih Saleh. It was written in 1987 by Muhammad Ali Al-Nasiri (1919-1999). If you follow me on Instagram, you might know that I talk a lot about Al-Nasiri, who I consider to be one of the most important literary figures of 20th century Bahrain. Muhammad Ali Al-Nasiri was a Mullah (in Bahraini context a preacher, particularly around the stories of Ahlulbayt) and a poet. He was a student of Mullah Atiyya bin Ali Al-Jamri, my great-great-grandfather and one of the great religious poets of the Baharna, who popularised a form of dialect poetry that is still popularly recited today during religious events, particularly during Muharram and the ten days of mourning around Ashura.

It is for his work documenting culture that Al-Nasiri remains an essential literary figure. Last year’s issue of ArabLit Quarterly: FOLK featured his work, as both myself (“Waddle Like a Duck”) and Rawan Maki (“Wat Rainbow”) depended on his books collecting Bahrani folk poetry for our translations and articles. Al-Nasiri has books documenting Bahrain’s culture, folk poetry, jokes, colloquial sayings and more. And as a religious poet, we see him in many places. On the day of our tour, we first encountered a poem of Al-Nasiri that hangs above the shrine of Sheikh Maytham Al-Bahrani, and then bumped into him again in the shrine of Nabih Saleh. It is his great love and celebration of Bahraini and Bahrani culture that makes him so important twenty years on.

A painting of the old shrine against a marble wall. The painting shows a mudbrick building in an L-shape and a large graveyard. A woman walks between the graves, which stick out from the sand like jagged teeth. The sea is glimpsed in the bacround.
A painting of the old shrine prior to its renewal in the 1980s hangs inside the mosque

Nabih Saleh is a significant religious site for Bahrain. It was once on a secluded island just north of Sitra island and east of the main Bahrain island (Awal), though land reclamation has made it all one contiguous area. Until about 50 years ago, you could only reach Nabih Saleh by boat. There is little here except for the shrine. Back in the day, there was also a date grove and sales of its produce was used to maintain the ship that took pilgrims across. It was particularly an important site for female pilgrims as well. People would travel from far to have their prayers enhanced and fulfilled in this shrine. Tragedy has struck Nabih Saleh: in the 1940s, an overcrowded boat full of women and children capsized in the short journey to the island, with virtually no survivors. That event is recorded in a mournful poem by Mulla Atiyya, in which the poet demands answers from the sea, the wind and the ship captain for the avoidable tragedy – one which I hope to translate one day.

Pilgrims still attend to this day, and what is striking is how many of them are also non-Muslims – when we visited, there were two Hindu men respectfully attending the shrine, and people of all faiths frequently journey to pay respects to Nabih Saleh.

On the request of the shrine’s caretaker, Husain Al-Basri, I have translated the first two sections of Al-Nasiri’s booklet. The original text is longer than mine, as it includes two poems, some descriptions of other notable graves, and details on the shrine’s construction. But this is the juicy part.

Read on to discover the story of Nabih Saleh and the man it was named after.

Continue reading
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Jan-July 2022 Roundup

It feels like a very long time since any posts have come up here – and indeed, it’s because it has been. It’s been an incredibly busy year. I’ve completed my first year of teacher training (got my QTS, but one more year to go for the PGDE on the track I’ve chosen). Somehow, I have managed to keep afloat with my poetry and writing. I’ve not done much standard publications because I haven’t had time to put myself out there – but I have been lucky in many ways. A new role for the city of Manchester has allowed me to pursue my passion for multilingualism that cuts across all my recent work.

Please note: I keep my About page regularly updated with all my publications as both a writer and a translator (though I don’t typically list all the workshops and events I host or participate in).

Manchester Multilingual City Poet

In February, I was appointed as one of the 3 inaugural Multilingual City Poets of Manchester, working in both English and Arabic and alongside Anjum Malik and Jova Bagioli Reyes.

I should have made a bigger fuss about it than I have! This has been a lucky and amazing break. It is an honour to represent the city in this way, and to bring to it both my languages, mother tongue and other tongue. I’ve done several things as part of this – Al-Usra walSufra, which I’ll get around to beneath, a key part amongst them.

Our City Poet roles were announced on the 17th February – a hectic day, given I was teaching and had to leave my school early to rush to the Manchester Poetry Library.

You can watch my poem for the city, In Prisms of Knowledge, on YouTube:

The Arabic version, Fi Noori Bayt al-Hikma, is ready and will be published soon.

As part of my work as City Poet, I’ve also translated and performed the Arabic version of Anjum Malik’s poem This Here, and will be doing the same for Jova’s poem later in 2022.

Al-Usra wal-Sufra at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival

On 17 July, my art exhibition Al-Usra wal-Sufra featured on the last day of LAAF, at the Family Day festivities in Sefton Park. You can see pictures from the event here.

Al-Usra wal-Sufra, or Family and Feasts, was an attempt to bridge the language gap British Arab children face. I conducted workshops in two Arabic schools – the Manchester Arabic School and the Liverpool Arabic Centre. We played games with our language, enjoyed our dialects, and read the poem Good Morning Tea by Jawdat Fakhreddine, translated by myself:

We make good company with tea:
Greet morn with it, for that’s our way,
For tea must come up with the sun,
Just as the night’s tail drags away,
We meet with morn, all’s said and done,
Then part our ways for all the day.

The children wrote their own poems inspired by this, and the results were astounding! We wrote about food close to our nationalities, and the students wrote about maqlooba, mendi, koshari, aseed, baklawa, coffee and so much more.

These poems were displayed alongside a doll house which was made with local multidisciplinary artist Rosie Stanley to resemble a typical British Arab household, complete with a majlis where all the family and friends may gather for big weekend meals.

Inspired by the pupils, I wrote the following poem:

الأسرة والسُفرة
مقلوبة سيدو تقلِّبُ قلوباً فلسطينية
ومندي حبابة يولِّعُ عواطفاً يمنية
سمكة جِدَّة تقرِّبُ سواحلاً جزائرية
وكشري تيتا يفوِّقُ عجائباً مصرية
صالونة أمي العودة تلألِئ بحوراً بحرينية
وجدتي، كجدتك، جدة بلا مقارنة

كما نرحب القمر بقهوة المساء
كما نلتقي الشمس بشاي الصباح
لهجاتنا المختلفة بهارات ألسنتنا
عند السُفرة نستهلك قصص أصولنا

استلهمت القصيدة من حاتم، طالب في مدرسة مانشستر العربية، وقصيدته “مقلوبة تقلب القلب”.

Al-Usra wal-Sufra: Family and Feasts

As Sido’s maqlooba spins hearts Filistini
And Habaaba’s mendi fires passions Yemeni
As Jida’s grilled fish recreates coastlines Jaza’iri
And Teta’s koshari eclipses ancient wonders Masri
As Ummi al-Auda’s saloona sends me to seas Bahraini
And mine, like yours, is the world’s greatest granny

As evening coffee meets the moonlit night
And morning tea greets the dawning sun
As dialects reflect our Arabic varieties spiced
The feast on the sufra is our flavour of home

Inspired by Hatem, a Manchester Arabic School student and their poem ‘maqlooba tuqallub al-qalb’

Events, Workshops and Multilingualism

Multilingualism and translation really have been at the heart of what I’ve done:

  • January: A consultation with Young Identity and Manchester Poetry Library for an Over 26 poetry group which we are still working towards doing – this is something that we hope to be fully funded when it becomes a reality.
  • January: ArabLit Quartlery, FOLK launch event! Hard to believe that was so long ago now but yes, it featured presentations, excerpts, conversations and more. Check it out below.
  • February: I translated the opening of Ghazi Al-Haddad’s beautiful praise poem for Imam Ali, Are You The Moon Itself? Published in time for the Mawlid of Imam Ali.
  • March: Mother Tongue Other Tongue 2022 Launch Event with Manchester Metropolitan University.
  • March: Stephen Spender Trust CPD alongside Nisah Sajawal on doing translation workshops in the English classroom. This blended my school work and poetry work in a wonderful way.
  • March: In this time I was also a reader for New Writing North’s annual Northern Writers Awards, reading collections for the two poetry competitions and selecting towards the judges – a valuable insight into this process.
  • May: With Young Identity and Manchester Poetry Library again, I co-hosted a workshop with the masterful Anthony Joseph, who brought surrealism to our writing.
  • June: Performance at the 1st Street Festival with Young Identity.
  • June: Also published a short translation in ArabLit Quarterly: THE JOKE! You can see it here.
  • July: Two events at the Shared Futures conference for English teaching – one in a performance with Young Identity, the other in a panel with the City Poets.

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‘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
||R|A|Q|A|B|I|Y|Y|A||
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.

References

‘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.

Review

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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