Dubai-based Le­banese poet Zeina Hashem Beck would like to es­tab­lish that po­etry is alive and thriv­ing, es­pe­cially in the re­gion. The award win­ner tells Shreeja Ravin­dranathan of the chal­lenges and beauty of be­ing an An­glo­phone Arab poet


Dubai-based Le­banese poet Zeina Hashem Beck makes a case for why po­etry is alive and thriv­ing in the re­gion.

First things first – po­etry isn’t dead, right? No, po­etry was never dead and will never die. Will we ever stop look­ing at the worlds around and within us, at­tempt­ing to ar­tic­u­late some­thing about them with words that move us? No! I won­der why peo­ple never ask, ‘is mu­sic dead?’ or ‘is dance dead? And po­etry is mu­sic and dance and song. Leave po­etry alone! But [do] read it.

Gen­er­ally, are peo­ple in­tim­i­dated by the lofti­ness of the form or do they find po­etry re­lat­able?

I wouldn’t frame po­etry within the ‘lofty’ vs ‘re­lat­able’ di­chotomy. Po­etry is an art form able to make you won­der, even when you don’t fully un­der­stand the poem at first or tenth read­ing. In my ex­pe­ri­ence in Dubai, peo­ple show up, lis­ten and al­ways re­act. They might get bored or cu­ri­ous or in­spired or ex­cited or stirred to their very core. From your po­ems be­ing re­jected, to the same verses win­ning pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary awards, what has the jour­ney been like?

I’ve learnt that re­jec­tion is part of the process, and it teaches you some­thing: to re-work a poem for ex­am­ple, or to not re-work it and trust your voice and sub­mit it else­where. The jour­ney is filled with won­der, anx­i­ety, dis­cov­ery, doubt, open-heart­ed­ness and daily work. I’m still learn­ing. I al­ways go back to/trust the work: read­ing, writ­ing, ex­per­i­ment­ing.

Why did you choose po­etry over other for­mats of writ­ing?

I feel po­etry chose me; I’m so ob­sessed with it I don’t have a choice. I find that read­ing and writ­ing [po­etry] al­lows me to pause, think, and find joy in lan­guage, and that it’s a lan­guage at its most con­densed and beau­ti­ful. In some sense, po­etry is my daily prayer. In terms of po­etry on the page, I re­mem­ber that, as a lit­tle girl, I found Vic­tor Hugo’s el­egy for his daugh­ter, De­main dès L’Aube, in a school an­thol­ogy and was very moved by it.

How are your two col­lec­tions – To Live In Au­tumn and Louder Than Hearts – dif­fer­ent from each other?

One has a pink cover and one has a blue cover! For real though, To Live in Au­tumn was my love/hate let­ter to Beirut. Louder than Hearts goes back to my child­hood in Tripoli, Le­banon, opens up to other Arab cities, mourns the loss and dis­place­ment all around us, and cel­e­brates song and love and daily beauty, de­spite po­lit­i­cal tur­moil.

There’s also the cel­e­bra­tion of cer­tain schools of Ara­bic mu­sic, like tarab or the qudud ha­l­abiyya and of Arab singers such as Umm Kulthum, and Ab­del Halim Hafez. It also in­hab­its and asks ques­tions about the space be­tween English and Ara­bic.

How did you nav­i­gate that space and cap­ture the beauty of Ara­bic ref­er­ences and ways of life through English?

It’s in­evitable that I write from an in-be­tween­ness be­cause both lan­guages ex­ist within me. I use both lan­guages when I speak to my friends and fam­ily, so this nat­u­rally echoes in my po­etry. I think speak­ing more than one lan­guage gives me a big­ger play­ground to stum­ble and have fun in – re­cently, I’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing with a form I call the Duet ,a bilin­gual poem in Ara­bic and English, where the two lan­guages ex­ist in­di­vid­u­ally and also con­verse/ar­gue with each other.

What about English al­lows you to ex­press your­self bet­ter than Ara­bic and French?

My writ­ing in English is a re­sult of my post­colo­nial ed­u­ca­tion. I went to an Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity and used the lan­guage more in writ­ing. But I do some­times won­der, has English given me a cer­tain dis­tance that has al­lowed me to ar­tic­u­late things I wouldn’t have ar­tic­u­lated in Ara­bic? I’m not sure.

Are we hear­ing enough Ara­bic voices in main­stream English po­etry?

I try not to be too both­ered with ‘main­stream’ [be­cause] it usu­ally means white and male, and prob­a­bly dead. Po­etry thrives in the mar­gins, and there are many [in­ter­na­tional] po­ets with an Arab her­itage thriv­ing in English, such as Naomi Shi­hab Nye, Lena Tuf­faha Kha­laf, Leila Chatti, Hayan Charara and many more.

And lo­cally?

I’d like to also point out that An­glo­phone Arab po­etry is bur­geon­ing in cities like Beirut and Dubai – Hind Sho­ufani ran Poeti­cians be­fore I started PUNCH (Dubai-based open mic night), Rewa Zeinati writes po­etry and also ed­its Sukoon (on­line lit­er­ary mag­a­zine), and po­ets Farah Chamma, Afra Atiq, Maysan Nasser, and Je­han Bseiso also come to mind.

Do you en­joy per­form­ing your po­etry on stage?

I love per­form­ing po­etry on the stage. There’s a cer­tain ex­cite­ment in shar­ing a poem and feel­ing the au­di­ence re­act and the grat­i­tude that there are peo­ple there, phys­i­cally, lis­ten­ing to your work. Most po­etry nights here are open mics and my favourite part about these events is [they] cre­ate a space where peo­ple can meet around the love of words. I host PUNCH Po­etry DXB that’s been run­ning con­sis­tently since 2012. Blank Space is an­other reg­u­lar open mic night, but it’s also open to mu­sic and standup. Dubai Poet­ics also host read­ings and work­shops.

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