The beautiful terror of poetry

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To showcase Arabic culture beyond its salient associations of grief and war and displacement, Zeina Hashem Beck writes poems about Arabic things in English.

For Zeina Hashem Beck, the cities she grew up in and the stories of the women around her who raised her were her first literature. | Hind Shoufani

If we believe poets are ruled by obsessions, then Zeina Hashem Beck’s obsessions are language and place. “I write in English the way I roam foreign cities — full of street light/ & betrayal, until I find a coffee shop that speaks Arabic.” These are the first lines of the first poem in her latest collection, Louder than Hearts, and they set up a riff that she explores throughout the book, constructing bridges between English and Arabic, the living and the dead. In 'Ode to My Non-Arabic Lover', she writes, “It’s one thing to make love/ and say yes say more/ in your language, but how will I ever translate/ my Arab anger, my alliterations, those rough sounds/ that scratch their way out of my throat…”

Zeina grew up in Tripoli, Lebanon, and when we meet in Dubai, where she currently lives, she talks about her hometown as an inevitable point of return. “The city I grew up in and the stories of the women around me who raised me were my first literature,” she says. In her poems, Tripoli is “the mother of stories”, “the mother of orange orchards”, a place where “children sell Chiclets and barazeq on the streets”, where “trees seem to remember the human parts in their branches”.

 

In 2013 her cousin was shot and killed in the streets of Tripoli, and she tells me that after this happened, she began writing grief poems, which weren’t just about the loss of her cousin, but about other losses — the loss of land, the loss of homes. But she grew tired of writing these poems after a while. “I didn't want to reduce Arab culture in all its multiplicities to just one thing, which was grief and war and displacement. Yes they’re there, we can’t hide from them, but there’s many things to celebrate and this is when my obsession with Arabic songs began.”

Many of the poems in Louder than Hearts make reference to the great Arabic singers Zeina grew up listening to. The litany of their names is a song in itself: Abdel Halim Hafez, Samira Tawfiq, Warda Al Jazairia, Umm Kulthum. “Girls threw/ themselves off balconies the day I died,” (Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez); “I haven’t been called a planet for nothing/….Has love ever seen such drunkenness?/ Everything around me orbits. Even my coffin/ has sailed the streets of Cairo for hours.” ('Umm Kulthum Speaks').

Celebrating the song and the singer is part of Zeina’s resistance to claim back the beauty of the Arab world. Much of her poetry is free verse, but she frequently employs the ghazal (a form she says she was drawn to by reading the ghazals of Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati). She likes the rhyme and repetition of ghazals, the fact that the ghazal is a musical form in itself, so content and form are connected, but also, that the ghazal allows for jumps and leaps between couplets. “Spare me this city made of tibr. ‘I will desert this castle,/ go back to that house of poetry’ and sand—my heart.”

The politics of language and otherness runs throughout Zeina’s poetry. “It took me some time to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay that I’m writing in English, it’s okay that English comes easier for me. I've forgiven myself,” she tells me. “I happen to be tired of being/ an Arab,” she writes in a Neruda-inspired poem. And elsewhere, “Spare me this Arab love for dictators tonight./ Come closer, listen—Warda is singing.”

 

Do the identity politics bear down too heavily? Arab. Woman. English. “I guess what I’m trying to say is yes, I’m writing in English, but I’m going to write about things that are absolutely Arabic,” she says “and we’re going to build that bridge, so it’s an act of defiance, and for someone who has never heard of Umm Kulthum but reads about her, maybe something will sink in beyond both English and Arabic.”

Zeina tells me that she’s been writing love poems recently, something she sees as an act of defiance to herself. “I tell myself, Zeina you will not put yourself in that category of the writer who writes about politics in the Arab world. I’m happy to do that, I am that writer, but I also want to constantly mess peoples’ minds up… and maybe part of me just wants to celebrate the body and love. Yes, I’m an Arab woman. Yes, let’s look at all this destruction and grief around, but you know what, let’s write a goddamn love poem too.”

I ask Zeina a question I ask myself a lot: does anything about writing poetry terrify her? She laughs. “I’m thinking about the word 'terrifies'.” The opposite, she says. “It calms me down, not in the sense of inner peace and Zen and all that, not in the sense of finding any answers, I think poetry is always about questions… but the writing and reading of poetry gives me that sense of ah, this beauty, it awakens me, makes me pay attention to the world.”

Reading Louder than Hearts, it struck me that Zeina has invented her own language, something between English and Arabic. There are Notes at the end of the book, which offer explanations, such as shafaq is Arabic for twilight; and side-stories, such as when Umm Kulthum was young her father used to take her singing dressed as a boy — but the poems themselves flow unimpeded. The reader is expected to interpret, to have more brio than the non-Arabic lover, to get beyond, “your curse words, your Beiruts, your Niles,/ your street names and your yallas…”

 

Sometimes while writing a poem, I say, you arrive at something that shocks you, and you can’t quite understand how you came up with it, how you arrived there. While reading Zeina’s poems I felt that a lot — a sense of uncovering, a sense of urgency. She tells me a story of how earlier this year, in a friend’s apartment in Philadelphia, holding the advanced reader’s copies of this book, she flipped through the pages and had a kind of fit. “I had to sit on the floor and start crying. Not, ‘Oh my god, It’s my baby, it’s published,’ it wasn’t that, but it was because I went through some of the poems and told myself, shit, I told these stories and these stories happened, and this is happening. My cousin died, and my aunt is in mourning, and oh my God what’s happening in Syria? I don’t know why it happened, but if a poem doesn’t shake you it hasn’t done it’s job, and what I’m trying to say is that this book broke my heart and maybe I just realised it when I held it. And it’s part of the beautiful terror of poetry.”

 

ODE TO MY NON-ARABIC LOVER

I couldn’t love you, you see, even though

I love you. Soon it will be too late, too dark,

even at midday, and I will forget

my English. It’s one thing to make love

and say yes say more

in your language, but how will I ever translate

my Arab anger, my alliterations, those rough sounds

that scratch their way out of my throat,

which you will merely find sexy?

And yes I know you could learn

your Fairuzes and your Umm Kulthums,

your curse words, your Beiruts, your Niles,

your street names and your yallas. But what will happen when

 

I begin to lose this English I’ve trained myself to speak?

I’m already old and walk night corridors,

whispering things even I don’t get

in a language you don’t understand,

following sunlit Sundays to long tables

under the shade of grape vines and the smell

of raw meat and arak. You will get bored

of all these songs stamping their dabkeh

inside my head, Walak ooff ooff ooff

do not call me cruel,

say I love my language more than my love,

my love. I don’t. You see?

I’m already tired and you already

mistranslate.

 

 

AFTER THE EXPLOSIONS

 

For Tripoli, Lebanon, August 2013

 

After the explosions, I’ve been having ash-dreams;

everything’s grey, even the children’s pencil cases.

September with its play of light and possibilities

burst in unnoticed. My dead cousin

comes to me smiling, tries to pinch me, laughs.

Two days after the explosions, the pharmacy parrot

who wouldn’t keep quiet was found alive;

he doesn’t speak, but meows from time to time.

The owner jokes, “This country will have him

barking soon.” The trees seem to remember

the human parts in their branches.

Some elevators have sprung out of their places

like frightened hearts. I try not to think

about the three children who died holding

each other in a van, after a day at the beach.

I take my mind past the broken balconies,

into my friend’s shattered house, stare at the frame

still hanging on the cracked wall: a fishing boat, a calm

sea. The volunteers are sweeping the street, the kid

who sells chewing gum is helping. The survivor

with an eye patch says it sounded like glass rain.

My aunt sings good-bye to her son from the window,

the red tarboosh on his coffin in the distance,

her white handkerchief taking flight.

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