blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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One Poet’s Story

The work of Gulf poets is deeply rooted in the pre-Islamic oral tradition of sharing wisdom, thoughts, stories, joys, and trials. The long oral history of the region from the pre-Islamic era accords poets a special place of honor in Arab culture. Poets were the historians and oracles of their tribes—very much the voice of their people. Poets continue to be held in high esteem, and events, both formal and informal, are often initiated with passages of poetry.

The poetry of this region offers a window into a world teeming with creativity. Even for a Saudi Arabian poet originally from Mecca (now known as Makkah), the spiritual heartland of Muslims, discovering the work of Gulf poets is exhilarating. The unique voices of the poets collected here in Blackbird and in the forthcoming anthology Gathering the Tide create a tapestry that stirs the heart and soul and offers insight into the rich culture and history of the region.

Gulf poets, like all poets, address universal themes such as love and loss, but they also encompass themes that are uniquely Arab, and uniquely Khaliji, or Gulf-related. The identity of Gulf poets is multilayered, and the result is a poetry that is complex, dynamic, and distinct.

The role of faith in the lives of Gulf poets cannot be separated from our work, as religion forms a major aspect of our identity and voice. Even with evolving spirituality and the rise of liberalism, faith still remains an irrefutable aspect of who we are. Our sense of identity is also influenced by nationalism, political circumstances, and the complexity of life in this volatile region. This region has endured political unrest, and this upheaval is often explored through poetry. Alienation, patriotism, pride, and even tribalism are often expressed as loss, frustration, bitterness, and pessimism in the wake of wars, such as the latest Gulf war. It is interesting to note how some poems are overtly political, while the politics in other poems is submerged and relies on metaphor and allusion.

Non political poems, in general, are a unique combination of romanticism melded with Arab culture and nationalism. These poems take on themes of love, relationships, family, and social life, as well as offer praise of certain figures in present or past history. In both political and non political poems, intense emotions drive poetic expression.

The oil boom and sudden wealth have led to a contemplation of the westernization, the technology, and the rapid development that is taking place in this region. Poets who once composed poems about the desert, hunting, and pearl diving now also write about the challenge of balancing tradition with modernity. Now there are poems about shopping malls, trips abroad, the gender gap, and the job market. Although a great deal has been written about the massive development in the Gulf by journalists and scholars, poets offer a unique, and necessary, perspective. As Aristotle said, “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”

From afar it is easy to assume that Gulf poets lead lives of ease and are constantly sought out and published. However, the reality is that like poets elsewhere Gulf poets search for sources of inspiration, strive to produce good work, and hope to publish poetry that will withstand the test of time. Arab poets, however, face some challenges that western poets may not.

In middle and high school, most students generally read the classic poets who are part of the required reading in literature classes; however, we are not taught the rudiments of creative writing as a craft. The lack of MFA programs at the university level is another impediment in the pursuit of poetic studies in the region as a whole. Literature studies are inclusive of all types of literature, but the study of poetry falls within the study of literature as a whole; it is not a separate discipline. A program to write poetry formally is not offered at any university in the Middle East, unlike journalism, for example. The lack of poetry workshops, conferences, specialized poetry publications, and established networks also creates gaps that need to be filled to help nurture established and emerging voices. There is also a serious lack of mentoring, and this is a major problem because one-on-one attention to craft is very much needed.

Although Arab poets lack established networks, it can be argued that poetry is much more popular in the Middle East than in the West. Popular songs by celebrated male and female singers have for centuries included the verses of renowned poets. In this way the general populace is exposed to the work of master poets and the beauty of the Arabic language. Popular magazines, newspapers, and women’s journals often include poetry features by amateur and established poets. Even children’s magazines include poems by classic or modern poets.

An extremely popular television show called Millionaire Poet has led to a phenomenon where the media and public play a role in assessing a poet’s work in a competitive, public arena that includes poetry judging and audience feedback. The pros and cons of the show have become subject of much debate in the region. Some argue that it has led to a rise in pride and tribalism as poets often sing the praises of their local tribes or political figures while seeking to gain fame, fortune, and votes. The caliber of the work is also a note of contention, and this has resulted in debates over classic, spoken, and modern Arabic trends in poetry and the strength of each.

This show has drawn a massive audience and hundreds of competitors and has created another link in the history of the primacy of poetry in the region. Pre-Islamic poetry competitions at renowned sites such as Suq Ukaz drew poets from all parts of the area as they engaged in poetic battles that often included work composed on the spot. This chain in the history of poetry is one that most poets will continue to draw on for the foreseeable future as new voices join established voices to prove the Arabic saying  “Poetry is the mirror of the ages.”

Personal Journey
My journey as a poet is not a typical one for a Gulf poet. It began in 2000, after meeting the wonderfully versatile writer, essayist, songwriter, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whom I have since called “My Inspiration.” I studied English literature, and despite my fondness for Shakespeare, I never attempted poetry, thinking it beyond me, and the forte of masters such as Shelley, Lord Byron, Keats, Wordsworth and Tennyson. Meeting Naomi with her sense of inner peace and calmness, seeing the way she wrote about ordinary people and even such small things as a button or broom, imbuing them with a philosophy of life, made me want to attempt poetry.

For many years I had been a translation specialist, an English writer and reviewer, and I also combined writing with photography. I wrote pieces for international magazines on a range of topics, but I had never tried to write poetry. But meeting Naomi prompted my first four poems on family, and later my first political poem in response to the murder of the young Palestinian Muhammad al-Durrah. This poem became my first internationally published poem.

Following four years of writing poems on women, youth, Arabia, politics, and freedom, I began to compile a collection of poems. During that time I contacted poets in the United States and Europe, began experimenting with style, and became interested in modern poetry. In addition to the poems of Naomi, I soon become familiar with modern verse through the work of Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz, Pablo Neruda, Joy Harjo, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Robert Bly, Carolyn Forché, and Jane Kenyon.

The first time I began to seriously consider publishing abroad, I wrote an email to Naomi Shihab Nye. She immediately responded and detailed the chronology of first publishing in journals, followed by chapbooks, and then possibly having a book selected by a publisher. What she stated was the reality that all poets have to live with: it could take many years to publish a book of poetry, if it happens at all.

I began to seriously revise my work, writing and revising sometimes up to fifty drafts per poem. My composing habits have remained the same for many years: I work from midnight until dawn. Some nights poems flooded in, while on others, they trickled. The journey to publishing a full-length collection took an unexpected turn. I wrote a letter to a U.S. publisher specializing in the Middle East inquiring about a technical matter unrelated to my poetry. During our correspondence he asked what I was working on. I sent off a few poems, and he then asked to see the entire manuscript. I sent off the manuscript, without even entertaining the possibility that it would be picked up. A day later I learned that my book would be published. That day was the first day in a series of surprising days. Poetry took over my life.

The adventure continued in a very unexpected manner. My book, The Unfurling, sold over five thousand copies and had three printings in the first six months. My publisher and I worked on a systematic plan of tours, readings, and speaking engagements, what one heading in the media called a “historic tour”: the first time a Saudi female poet would give readings in the United States. But before I left for the United States, I wanted to hold a book signing in Saudi Arabia. Unexpectedly, this had never been attempted, and it led to what was dubbed “a leap in the literary scene in the Gulf,” a new phenomenon, as poets and writers of both genders weren’t in the habit of meeting with readers in such a fashion. Having a signing in a public setting at the largest bookstore in Saudi Arabia in the coastal city of Jeddah was a challenge in terms of logistics, but it proved to be well attended. This was followed by another first: a book signing by a Saudi Arabian poet at a Barnes & Noble in Washington, D.C. The tour ultimately evolved to include the whole United States and was followed by international tours.

The Unfurling has received positive notice and reviews and was featured by Newsweek International and BBC World News. The unexpected media attention was a challenge for a very private young female poet from a highly private family in a society where the image of fully veiled women often working behind the scenes is the norm.

My work as a poet and activist also led to being nominated as a Young Global Leader, where I have been able to combine my own love for the arts, a belief in humanity, and a sense of mission to mentor emerging voices. I have endeavored to be a voice for Arab women and youth, and as such I have been active with issues related to youth and women and have campaigned for causes such as working with orphans, mounting a relief campaign for flood victims, and advocating for human rights.

Gathering the Tide, with its overarching themes and its combination of the work of established and emerging voices, is an invaluable resource on the intricate and evolving reality of life in the Gulf and in the Middle East. Above all, it, and the sampling here in Blackbird, shows how poetry can build bridges in this global world and how we can transcend limits and cross boundaries.  end

   One Poet’s Story
   Freedom Writers
   Illusions and Realities

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