When we die,
May 27, 2022
The Migrant Poet Slaughters His Voice
One scorching summer
—warmer than the previous summer,
and cooler than the next—
the poet journeyed from the upper south
to the lower south.
He descended, and at the fringe of a rock,
slaughtered his voice. Just like that, calmly,
his narrow eyes squinting in distress.
He did not read Al-Fatiha, nor did he pledge
this sacrifice to Allah.
The poet was exasperated that his voice had become a metaphor;
he wanted to see the blood of his voice, its lard and flesh,
its lineage—to hear its chords vibrating
even if a single utterance would cost him his life.
In our language, he finds himself placing nouns before verbs,
tainted by the lyrical I, perhaps. He picks words
that had wilted until they turned to gold. Wiping away
the dust of the centuries, he plants them in small pots.
The poet thinks he can
heal the dumb, and revive the dead.
Meanwhile, in their language, he crosses mountains and oceans
leaving a talisman on every tree
to find his way back.
He hauls a mountain from the slopes of California,
and flings it into the Gulf of Mexico
before it floats, once again, atop an oil pipeline.
Every morning, I wake up to his voice;
I slam the window in its face, and go back to sleep.
I let him jumble the clocks, talk to me about the prose poem—
how it stands like a bare trunk, interrupting the horizon:
They have stolen our music
and nothing's left but the voice
that reaches me across time zones
afflicted with insomnia, burdened with beginnings,
stuck—like an eternal cry—
in the chasm of time.
Jan 13, 2022
Mona Kareem on the colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation
Earlier this year, an English translation of Yi Lei, a prominent poet of the ’80s generation in China, was released by Graywolf Press. Tweets and headlines in the American press rejoiced, stressing how this Chinese Emily Dickinson has been brought into English by none other than the Pulitzer prizewinner Tracy K. Smith. They marvelled at such feminist collaboration, our best woman poet and their best woman poet, meeting in verse. ‘An encounter with Tracy K. Smith eased the late Chinese poet’s emergence into the Anglophone world,’ declared the New Yorker. The verb ‘eased’ struck me; like an unwanted pregnancy, her poems arrive in English—a ‘second life’ to use the article’s Benjaminian wording. Tracy K. Smith has no knowledge of Chinese, and as such, I doubt that she knows enough about Chinese poetry and where Yi Lei stands among her generation, or the place of her poetics within their literary domain. In the introduction, written without the co-translator, Smith makes no mention of any other Chinese poets, nor does she contextualize Lei’s work. She describes her as a revolutionary voice, tells us about her brief friendship with Lei, comparing her to one American master: ‘she was huge-hearted and philosophical, on intimate terms with the world in the way of Walt Whitman, one of her literary heroes.’
Smith does not hide her anxiety at the nature of this work yet she does not frame it as a non-translation, or perhaps an anti-translation: ‘I accepted the fact that the music of the original, which I wasn’t capable of recognizing in the Chinese, or gleaning from David’s intermediary translation, could not be a component of my concerns as a translator.’ After all, it is no strange phenomenon for Western poets, from Ezra Pound to Ted Hughes, to hire a linguist or a literary scholar to compose a ‘rough translation’ to then make an adaptation of the text. I hold no objections against adaptation as a form of translation, nor am I interested in guarding definitions of translation but am rather interested in examining how such co-opting of literary translation speaks of a larger attitude toward non-western literatures. Sometimes it is the author of the original text who partners in this process and, where not versed in the target language or its literature, this yields a collaboration distinct for its uneven power relations. Last July, Graywolf announced a new translation, or an adaptation, of Dante by Mary Jo Bang, another beloved woman poet of America. It announced in a tweet, ‘Congratulations to Jo Bang on her release,’ to which I couldn’t help but respond, ‘Congratulations to Dante!’
This phenomenon of Western poets calling their renditions translations has always baffled me. Everywhere else in the world, poets might commit the sin of translating a text via an intermediary language which they speak (a translation of a translation) but never would they hire someone to give them a rough draft of the original to then workshop the hell out of it! One can’t help but wonder, if the resources are available for a rough draft, if the enthusiasm is present to ‘ease’ a text into a new language, then what is it that stops western poets and publishers from leaving the task of translating someone of the caliber of Yi Lei to a qualified translator? After all, Chinese is not some obscure language of the Norwegian outskirts, it’s literally the largest language in the world when we count native speakers! In his review of Smith’s adaptation, Andrew Chan writes about the state of confusion he found himself in, wary of the ‘false conclusions’ that Smith’s ‘unfaithful renditions’ would leave the English-speaker with. Chan, who has read the poetry of both Smith and Lei (in the original), is able to tell how Smith’s renditions were decorated by an aesthetic contrary to Lei’s work, a musicality specific to Smith, a drastic difference in style and tone. What poets who are not translators fail to understand is that it is exactly ‘style, tone, and content’ that makes or breaks a translator. Chan too is aware of this phenomenon, offering examples beyond poetry, where the translator takes liberty in not only domesticating a text, but making of it a ‘loose’ adaptation. It is indeed a form of textual violence.
As an Arab poet, I can tell you that stories of what western translators do to our work make a favourite subject in literary festivals, late-night gatherings, and zoom events. One cannot miss the sense of ‘guardianship’ western translators practice over us—how they filter us, make us lyrical, oblique, politically-correct, or appealing. A sense of paternity is at practice by which the western translator takes your hand and guides you into the darkness of the abyss, especially if you do not speak their language. Often, you naively believe in them, after all this is not a matter of ill intentions, the two of you work on the belief that it is a ‘collaboration,’ and as so, whatever it yields, might be worth the while!
Dec 10, 2021
جالسة على أريكة خضراء في شقة بروكلينية باتت الآن موبوءة ببقّ الفراش، أدركتُ فجأة أن موعد رحلة طيراني للقاء عائلتي لأول مرة منذ خمس سنوات كان الليلة، وليس غداً؛ أي 12:30 بعد منتصف الليل، وليس 12:30 وقت الظهيرة. كنت قد خططت للاستيقاظ مبكراً في الصباح، أحضر فُنجاني قهوة، قبل ملئ حقيبتي الصغيرة بالقليل من الهدايا التي تمكنت من شرائها لإخوتي في آخر لحظة. ظننت أن لدي المزيد من الساعات كي أجلس مع ذاك الشعور الثقيل، الذي حسبته مزيجاً من الانفعال والشوق، ولكنه كان في الحقيقة مزيجاً من القلق والخوف – الخوفُ من أن تسير الأمور على غير ما يرام؛ الخوف من لقاءات لا يمكن لأحد أن يحضّر نفسه لها.
أمام الأريكة طربيزة مدورة، حُمت حولها بذعر، غير متأكدة من قدرتي على الوصول إلى مطار جون إف كينيدي في الوقت المناسب، أو إلى كييف، أو إلى تبليسي. على مر شهور، كنت قد جمعت أنا وأختي مبلغاً لكي نتمكن من الذهاب في رحلة لم الشمل تلك التي ستدوم أسبوعاً، في بلدٍ لا نعرف عنه أي شيء. بعد شهورٍ قليلة من وصولي إلى الولايات المتحدة، رفض الكويتيون طلب تجديد وثيقة السفر، فصرتُ بذلك لاجئة. قوبلت محاولاتُ عائلتي للحصول على فيزا أمريكية بالرفض المتكرر أيضاً؛ لذا بحثنا عن خطط بديلة. اتصلنا بالسفارات كل صباح، في الولايات المتحدة وفي الكويت. سألتُ، «هل تقبلون وثيقة سفر لاجئ من إصدار الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية؟ كم يستغرق إصدار تأشيرة السفر؟» أما هم فسألوا «هل تقبلون وثيقة سفر «بدون»؟ كم يستغرق إصدار تأشيرة السفر؟» وكانت جورجيا هي الدولة الأسهلُ للطرفين، المكان الذي أعاد العرب استكشافه خلال السنوات القليلة الماضية، هذه المرة ليس بصفتهم فاتحين، وإنما لاجئين مارّين، يطمحون للتسلل إلى القارة الأوروبية من جانبها الشرقيّ.
Nov 1, 2021
Jul 19, 2021
The lights are always on
in the room of escape & leisure.
If you're passing by, you might mistake it
for the dim glow of a falling miracle.
On its wall, a woman with her baby
and goat sit still on their knees
looking up towards the sky
painted in watercolors. They pray
in a cracked moment, as a spaceship
flies fired into freedom. A prayer
for modernity without the wet eyes
of a naive monk.
Even on the far corner, there are rosaries
hung for urgent use. In the room
of escape & leisure, there is no God
but there are believers– 6 shelves,
3 stands, & 4 stacks of butterflies
roaming around. Careful not to dance
too heavy, the landlord will put
the miracle to flames.
Jun 15, 2021
In a brilliant and personal essay on the history of Bidoon literature, Mona Kareem shows why literature cannot be thought along national lines.
Here we are in exile once again. We’re not the first Arab generation to cast itself into the labyrinth, and we won’t be the last. Sometimes they call us migrants or refugees; at other times they call us marginalized—then they invite us to talk, from the margin, about the margin: “How’s the weather over there on the margin?” They put us in anthologies that no one will read but the mummies in Middle East Studies, and they consider our poems and novels as documentaries, or treat them as confessions from the dark end of the tunnel. Perhaps there might be a little progress, consisting of a hyphen, tantamount to a mist-shrouded bridge, being placed between our identity and theirs: “Arab-American.” It’s a bridge not intended for crossing, one they take it upon themselves to guard; someday they’ll erect an electric fence on it.
I’ve spent ten years in the USA now. I haven’t obtained nationality yet, so I still travel on a twelve-month refugee passport, each annual renewal taking three months on the grounds that travel is a luxury. I am referred to, without hesitation, as an “Arab-American” writer; I don’t know when exactly this transformation occurred, shifting my classification from “exiled Arab” to “Arab-American.” By contrast, I was born in Kuwait and raised there until the age of twenty-two, by which time I had already published two poetry collections and worked for five years for local newspapers. In fact there was hardly a field I hadn’t dabbled in, from acting to theater criticism to literary translation to political organizing—feminism, workers’ rights, and the Bidoon cause. I also played violin, oud, and piano, and if my voice hadn’t been thin and ugly, you would even have found me singing in the shopping malls and on the polluted beaches of the Gulf. I lived large during a short life, succeeded and failed and grew, all of it without a denotation or a classification to my name.
In 2011, after the Bidoon movement was born in the streets, there came to be something known as “Bidoon literature.” Prior to that, “Kuwaiti literature” anthologies and encyclopedias had ignored our very existence, their raison d’être being to shore up the idea that Kuwaitis actually had such a thing as a literature—and that by extension they also had a nation, a history, and a state. They excluded us Bidoon from the Kuwaiti Writers’ Association and from all public benefit associations. Although these are supposed to be more democratic than the state, they are in reality even more reactionary, grim, and racist than the state is. We would chat with our migrant comrades—the Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and other Arabs wandering lost in petroland—and make friends with them in the knowledge that all of us existed on the margin, the margin of here and the margin of there, without knowing how to create anything out of this margin—a geography of our very own, say, or at least a space based on something other than His Lordship Mr. Citizen. “Bidoon literature” would never have been born without the birth of the Bidoon movement. Every political cause has an innate need for literature, for culture, to voice the suffering of a people and recount their progress towards their collective aspirations. Someone’s profile would be defined by the single vague line “born in Kuwait,” with the phrase “a Bidoon poet” deleted by the editor, because how can anyone be defined by a negation?
May 28, 2021
It’s late 90s Baghdad: with a trembling heart and weak joints, Ra’ad Abdulqadir, the editor of Aqlam literary magazine, would return from his office to his home in the western outskirts of the capital every day. He would change into his pajamas, lay down on the couch, and begin to write a poem for what would become his most notable work, Falcon with Sun Overhead. He would then doze off with the notebook resting on his belly. Like much of the rest of Iraq, Ra’ad spent the 90s suffering from health issues, and the hospital visits became part of his routine. He hated doctors and hospitals and chronicled their dreadful presence in his poems. “The poet used to be an angel,” he told novelist Warid Badir al-Salim in what’s considered his last interview in 1999. “Now he is a coal miner.”
And what does that mean for you, Mr. Ra’ad? “Well, I like to think of myself as the angel in the coalfield.”
And so he is—the angel in the coalfield, the cemetery, the empty classrooms, the white hospitals, the dark streets. For years, he was the kind of poet loved and envied by both his contemporaries and the generations that followed for his magical ability to keep the angel’s garb free of ash. Now, though, he has been underrated and forgotten.
Ra’ad began to publish in the 70s and reappeared again in the 90s “to save the Iraqi prose poem,” as his close friend poet Abdulzahra Zaki has written. He belonged to a generation overshadowed by those that came of age in the 60s, a generation that lives in exile, having escaped the authoritarian grip of the Ba’ath regime, and is celebrated across the Arab world, including poets like Sargon Boulus, Fadhil Azzawi, and Salah Faiq. Those poets that began to publish in the 70s and afterward, meanwhile, endured dictatorship and survived the Iraq-Iran War, the Gulf War, and sanctions. Literary historians describe this period of dictator-ship era literature (1979-2003) as one in which several generations of Iraqi poets—as well as their variety of poetic forms and practices—existed and developed side by side.
For Ra’ad’s generation, the 70s poets, survival came at a high cost. Those not already in prison or exile were required to serve in the military. For most people, the only hope was to be a woman, disabled, on reserve, or working as a reporter. Ra’ad worked as an editor and journalist his whole life, which allowed him to continue to write in relative safety. At the time, all forms of cultural production were run by state institutions (unless they were student-run or informal, in which case they would face censorship).
* continue reading at LitHub
This article explores the trajectories and artistic productions of Arabic‑speaking hip hop artists of migrant background in the Gulf countries (especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia). More specifically, the article describes the recent emergence of a new hip hop scene led by second‑generation migrants, whose lyrics appear as more politicized than those of citizen rappers. While these artists face criticism by local audiences on the basis of their foreign origins – often used to delegitimize their position – the article suggests that hip hop provides them with a language to express their specific experiences as migrants– the informal neighborhoods they grew up in; their critical takes on kafīl‑s, the police, and systematic exclusion; or their experiences of unemployment and discrimination. The article further suggests that these very experiences grant their artists the “street credit” that citizen rappers would lack.
Feb 16, 2021
ها نحن ثانية في المنفى، لسنا بأول جيل عربي يسّيب نفسه للمتاهة كما لن نكون الأخيرين، يسموننا مهاجرين تارة أو لاجئين ومهمشين تارة أخرى، يدعوننا للحديث عن الهامش من الهامش "كيف هو الطقس على الهامش؟" يضعوننا في أنطولوجيات لن يقرأها سوى مومياوات المؤسسات أو جيتوهات دراسات الشرق الأوسط، يتعاملون مع قصائدنا ورواياتنا باعتبارها وثائق، أو اعترافات من الجانب المظلم من النفق. أو قد يتطور الأمر قليلًا فيضعون شرطة هي بمثابة جسر ضبابي بين هويتنا وهويتهم "عربي-أمريكي"، جسر لا يهدف للعبور، يتولون حراسته، وسوف يبنون عليه حائطًا مكهربًا يومًا ما.
قضيت في الولايات المتحدة حتى الآن 10 سنوات. لم أحصل على الجنسية بعد وما زلت أسافر بجواز سفر لاجئ مدته 12 شهرًا، ويقتضي تجديده 3 شهور في كل مرة، باعتبار أن السفر رفاهية. يتم الإشارة إليّ باعتباري كاتبة "عربية-أمريكية" بلا تردد، ولا أعلم متى بالضبط حدث التحول في تصنيفي من "كاتب عربي منفي" إلى كاتب "عربي- أمريكي".
في المقابل، ولدت وتربيت في الكويت حتى سن الثانية والعشرين، نشرت خلالها مجموعتين شعريتين، عملت في الصحف المحلية لخمس سنوات، بل أني لم أترك مجالًا إلا وتمرغت فيه: التمثيل، النقد المسرحي، الترجمة الأدبية، التنظيم السياسي، النسوي والعمالي و"البدوني"، لعبت على الكمنجة والعود والبيانو، ولولا أن صوتي شحيح وقبيح لوجدتموني أغني في المولات التجارية وعلى شواطئ الخليج الملوثة. عشت حياة ضخمة خلال عمر قصير، نجحت وفشلت وكبرت، كل ذلك دون مسمى أو مصنف أحمله.
في 2011، وبعد ولادة حراك "البدون" في الشارع الكويتي، صار هنالك شيء اسمه "أدب البدون". من قبل، كانت أنطولوجيات وموسوعات الأدب الكويتي تتجاهل وجودنا، والتي لا هدف منها سوى تثبيت فكرة أن لدينا بالفعل أدبًا وبالتالي لدينا أيضًا أمة وتاريخًا ودولة، يقصوننا من "رابطة الأدباء الكويتيين" ومن كل جمعيات النفع العام التي من المفترض أن تكون أكثر ديمقراطية من الدولة إلا أنها في الحقيقة أكثر بؤسًا ورجعية وعنصرية.
نتصاحب ونتسامر مع رفاقنا المهاجرين، من المصريين والسوريين والفلسطينيين وغيرهم من العرب التائهين في بلاد النفط، نعرف أننا على الهامش، هامش الهنا وهامش الهناك، ولا نعرف كيف نخلق من هامشنا هذا شيئًا، جغرافية أخرى خاصة بنا، مساحة غير قائمة على السيد المواطن. لم يكن لـ "أدب البدون" أن يولد لولا أن حراك البدون قد ولد، فكل قضية سياسية بالطبيعة تحتاج إلى الأدب والثقافة لتسريد معاناة وحراك قوم ما نحو تطلعاتهم الجمعية. كانت النبذة التعريفية للواحد تأتي في سطر مبهم "ولد في الكويت" أو أن تكتب "شاعر بدون" فيقوم المحرر بإلغائها، إذ كيف يمكن تعريف الواحد بصيغة النفي.