Poetry that sings in Ara­bic and English

Zeina Hashem Beck’s sym­phony of words is the mu­sic of Umm Kulthum, the taste of kibbeh and the grief of Aleppo, writes M Lynx Qua­ley

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In the past year, Zeina Hashem Beck has gone from a writer beloved and cel­e­brated in Dubai’s tight-knit poetry cir­cles to one lauded on the front cover of Poetry magazine.

Last April, her col­lec­tion 3arabi Song won the Rat­tle Chap­book Prize. And, just as 3arabi Song was be­ing dis­trib­uted to book shops last au­tumn, Beck heard her man­u­script Louder than Hearts had won the May Sar­ton New Hamp­shire Poetry Prize. Louder than Hearts, Hashem Beck’s sec­ond full-length col­lec­tion, carves out a shat­ter­ing, sonorous new lan­guage from the in­ter­leav­ing of Ara­bic and English. It brings to­gether not just words from the two lan­guages but their po­etic forms, songs, stock char­ac­ters and col­lec­tive memories. It bor­rows from the poetry of Iraqi poet Al Mu­tan­abbi; the mu­sic of Umm Kulthum; the taste of kibbeh; and the grief of Aleppo. From the English, we hear echoes of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance, Nina Si­mone, Wil­liam Shake­speare, Homer, a Greek cho­rus, ABC News and Franz Kafka.

The col­lec­tion is ar­ranged like a sym­phony, with its four sec­tions ti­tled solely in Ara­bic: Shafaq (Twi­light and also, Sym­pa­thy/Af­fec­tion), Ya’aburnee (You Bury Me), Ah­wak (I Love You), and Ad­han (Call to Prayer).

The first sec­tion cen­tres on the Tripoli, Le­banon, of Hashem Beck’s child­hood. In the deeply per­sonal 3amto the poet clothes her­self in the voices of five age­ing aunts. In this visual work, there are pauses in the text where we imag­ine one of the aunts paus­ing for slow, asth­matic in­takes of breath. This sec­tion in­cludes the breath­tak­ing “Ghazal: This Hi­jra,” which calls out “Ya Sayyab! Sing us the song of the rain, of this eve, this hi­jra.” It weaves in both the Prophet Muham­mad’s hi­jra, or mi­gra­tion, and oth­ers. And for read­ers fa­mil­iar with Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), it is im­pos­si­ble not to hear the elec­tric “drip, drop, the rain” of his fa­mous Rain Song un­der­neath Hashem Beck’s lines, with both po­ems un­furl­ing in one au­ral and visual space.

In the third sec­tion, there is an in­can­ta­tory love song to the Ara­bic word for sleep (yanam). Singers and song fea­ture promi­nently through­out the col­lec­tion, as does dance. The poem Car­i­oca gives voice to Egyp­tian belly dancer Ta­heyya Car­i­oca. But, here as else­where, beauty and grief are fused. Di­rectly af­ter Car­i­oca comes Body, ded­i­cated to Hasan Rabeh, a young Syr­ian dancer who killed him­self by jump­ing from a sev­enth-floor bal­cony in Beirut.

Un­like in Car­i­oca, the nar­ra­tive voice in Body does not come from an imag­ined Hasan Rabeh. In­stead, it comes from a nar­ra­tor read­ing the news about his death. Rather than put us in Rabeh’s body, Hashem Beck cre­ates a double space where we look at our­selves look­ing at tragedy.

Yet con­nec­tions are also pos­si­ble. In the mov­ing Mes­sages in the Dark, text mes­sages scroll across the bot­tom of a TV screen while the ce­les­tial Umm Kulthum sings above. The star­tling and the ba­nal reach out through scrolling mes­sages. Some are shout-outs to friends and family, while oth­ers are cries to the un­known, as when “Hind the Wounded pines for true love so does Uni­ver­sity Teacher.” Sev­eral are sweetly painful, as, “My life is tor­ture Salaam from Pales­tine” or “Rami says Baghdad is sad today”. This poem con­tains the en­er­gies of an enor­mous Ara­bic-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion liv­ing across a broad, var­ied re­gion – with each per­son in their in­di­vid­ual room, hold­ing their in­di­vid­ual phone, des­per­ate to be heard. Still, Kulthum’s voice also soars, con­nect­ing them all and the “in­vis­i­ble wheels of hope trans­port us be­yond th­ese small liv­ing rooms of long­ing”.

The col­lec­tion’s fi­nal, an­chor­ing work is Ad­han. Inside its few lines, the reader is in­vited to reimag­ine the dawn call to prayer. We hear how it “lifts / your head from your pil­low; how it pulls / you from sleep like a bucket from a dark / well”. The muezzin calls out that “prayer is bet­ter than sleep / (and there’s some­thing Shake­spearean / about it, and some­how mod­ern)”.

In fewer than 100 pages, Louder than Hearts in­vents a fear­less new lan­guage that shel­ters within both Ara­bic and English, bor­row­ing from the two bod­ies of words and their mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping cul­tures.

There is no need for English-only read­ers to un­der­stand Ara­bic or re­sort to Google trans­late, much as we can en­joy Junot Díaz with­out know­ing Span­ish, or An­drea Bo­celli with­out know­ing Ital­ian. Close your eyes, speak the words and lis­ten.

M Lynx Qua­ley is an edi­tor and book critic. She ed­its the web­site arablit.org.


The mu­sic of Egyp­tian singer Umm Kulthum in­fuses much of Zeina Hashem Beck’s poetry.

Louder than Hearts: Po­ems Zeina Hashem Beck Bauhan, Dh57

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