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.

* Published in FENCE magazine

Jun 15, 2021

Bidoon: A Cause and Its Literature Are Born

 In a brilliant and personal essay on the history of Bidoon literature, Mona Kareem shows why literature cannot be thought along national lines.

Translation from ArabicAlice Guthrie


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.[1] 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

How Ra’ad Abdulqadir Changed the Iraqi Prose Poem Forever

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

From Rap to Trap: The Khaliji Migrant Finds his Aesthetic

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.

The article looks both at tracks and videoclips produced by the rappers as well as some of the discourses held about them– in the media and in the comments section of YouTube videos or online forums. It also points toward a number of issues – the question of how ethnicity and social class are mobilized in the lyrical, linguistic, and parodic creativity of the songs, and in controversies and discourses surrounding the artists; the question of state intervention, either through financially co‑opting the cultural industry or through censorship; the question of migrant experiences, that are rarely expressed elsewhere, and how they are made visible through hip hop productions.

* read the full paper at Arabian Humanities

Feb 16, 2021

على أطلال الأدب القومي أو عن أدب يكتبه الغرباء

 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.

Feb 3, 2021

The Exact Number of Stars: André Naffis-Sahely Translates Ribka Sibhatu

Last year, I was asked by an American editor to submit a selection of my poems for an anthology of contemporary Arabic poetry. “Self-translations are not allowed,” came her disclaimer, predicated on the assumption that a poet is effectively monolingual, and reinforcing a modern understanding of translation, and by extension other cultural practices, to be neutral and objective. “We think self-translation poses a threat to the art of translation,” she added. As I come close to completing a decade in American exile, I have accumulated many examples of how monolingualism enacts the violent politics of the publishing industry and its literary apparatus­––“self-translations are not permitted,” publishers and magazines declare on their submission pages with no effort to embrace the multilingual possibilities of a contemporary American literature. It pushed me to embark on a search for “poet-translators,” whose practice does not separate writing from translation and who often don’t even deploy the term “self-translation,” as they have come to realize that the author and the translator are inseparable.

Now at this distance, having understood the racist nature of monolingualism in the literary context, I find myself in the company of a nation of multilingual poets and translators––from Western pre-modernists like Goethe and Pessoa and Rilke to the émigré writers of modern and contemporary literatures. One would think that our literary conceptions and visions would adapt in light of mass displacement being the new norm–that publishing practices, whether editorial or translation-based, would work on expanding what is a national literature, or do without it altogether. However, the gatekeepers continue to guard the rusting gates, while the poet-translators make their attempts to jump in through the windows.

Ribka Sibhatu and André Naffis-Sahely are two such versatile literary artists. Sibhatu is an Eritrean poet and activist who writes in Italian, Tigrinya, Amharic, and French. She has been fighting Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorship at home, writing poems that imagine diaspora as the hands of a nation, and reclaiming refugee literature from its ghettoization to create a promise for a new literature. For Sibhatu, the refugee is the so-called “renaissance man” who has crossed landscapes, lived multiple lives, shed tongues, and acquired new ones. With such ethos, Sibhatu writes each of her poems, against linearity, against frontiers, and against amnesia.

It is no coincidence that Naffis-Sahely found Sibhatu’s poems, becoming the first to introduce her work to English readers. He grew up in Abu Dhabi with an Iranian father and Italian mother before his family was exiled from the emirate, but his maternal country was not any welcoming either, facing him with xenophobia. When encountering Sibhatu’s work, Naffis-Sahely discovered himself as a literary translator––seeing the possibility of another Italy, narrated and inhabited by the strangers within. In 2011, Andre was asked to translate Sibhatu’s poems for an Italian documentary film. Twenty titles later, Naffis-Sahely has now finally been able to publish his English translation of Sibhatu’s work.

Dec 16, 2020

حول ترجمة رواية “نسب” ﻷوكتافيا بتلر

قضيت في ترجمة هذه الرواية ما يقارب العام من العمل اليومي. خرجت منها بشعور من مر برحلة تحول ميثولوجية مزقتني إلى أشلاء لتعيد تشكيلي من جديد. لا أكاد أصدق أني نفدت بجلدي من هذا العمل الروائي العصي والمتقن والذي يقدم هذه الكاتبة العظيمة لأول مرة لقراء العربية. ولدت أوكتافيا إيستيلي بتلر وترعرعت في باساديناكاليفورنيا في العام 1947 لتصبح لاحقًا من أهم كتاب الخيال العلمي ومن بين أوائل النساء اللواتي خضن هذا النوع من الكتابة الأدبية، بالإضافة إلى كونها أول كاتب أمريكي أسود يتخصص في هذا النوع وأول كاتب خيال-علمي يتوج بجائزةماك آرثرالتي تمنح سنويًا لخيرة الأدباء والفنانين والعلماء في الولايات المتحدة.

أقدم لقراء العربية أحد أهم أعمال بتلر والتي قد يتم تصنيفها ضمن ما يسمى بـأدب العبودية الجديدالذي بدأ بالظهور في ستينيات القرن الماضي (ويستمر حتى اليوم) على أيدي كتاب مثل توني موريسون، مارجريت واكر، ديفيد برادلي، شيرلي آن وليامز، تشارلز جونسن، وإشمائيل رييد والذي يرجع له الفضل في إطلاق هذا المسمى. لكننسبتختلف عن أقرانها في مزجها بين جماليات الفنتازيا وأدب الرحلات ومذكرات العبودية. كما أن بتلر ليست بروائية واقعية، إلا أننسبتأتي كعمل واقعي تشكله الكاتبة باستغلال أداة خاصة بالخيال العلمي ألا وهي السفر عبر الزمن. 

كل أعمال بتلر السابقة واللاحقة تدور في مستقبل متخيل مظلم حيث البشر والكائنات الفضائية يتصارعون ضمن استعارة مسرحية عن التاريخ وواقع الهيمنة والاضطهاد. بذلك، اخترقت بتلر حدود الأجناس الأدبية وجاءت بمخيلة كاتب الخيال العلمي لتعالج تاريخاً شائكًا وقاتمًا بحساسية فذة وجديدة. نلاحظ كيف توظف الكاتبة خاصية الترحال الزمني لالتقاط مفارقة فلسفية كبرى ألا وهي إشكالية قراءة الماضي من موضع اللحظة الراهنة، حيث تمر سنوات الأمس وكأنها دقيقة أو صفحة أمام الإنسان الحديث. تركز بتلر على استعادة التجارب المريرة لإنسان الأمس عبر السرد المكثف والشخصيات المتعددة ولغة الجسد والحوارات التفصيلية للكشف عن الأبعاد الاجتماعية والنفسية للاضطهاد والقمع على الإنسان والجماعة. لا تكتفي بتلر بتقديم هذه الاستعادة من أجل القارئ الأسود الذي ما زال يموت ويعيش ويقاوم، بل أيضًا كمشروع إبداعي نقدي لكيفية التعامل مع الاضطهاد من الداخل عبر تقاطع عبقري بين قوة الخيال وحقيقة التاريخ، متمثلًا في التفاصيل والأصوات والأجساد.

Oct 25, 2020

Two Poems


It's been a long night tonight; I have sent in 

my application for a sleep permit hours ago, 

I-444. I got a notification it is being processed 

at the Nebraska Center for Insomniac Aliens. 

They first returned it saying I checked 

the wrong application type in my answer 

to question F-2. They even returned 

the check VOIDED. 

I've put on my nightly dress

thirteen times, trying to trick my body 

into tricking this 24/7 capitalist cycle 

into pausing. I refiled my application, 

this time ticking the right choice. 

I folded the clouds into paper planes, 

I waited for the rain to cum in my mouth,

I counted all the sheep in this nation.

Maybe I licked the wrong stamp,

maybe the postman is still at the trap 

house. Or maybe they don't speak

English in Nebraska.

Sep 24, 2020

أغنية الأغاني


ماذا سنفعل بالمغنّية؟

ها هي تقف في غرفة العرض الضيقة

اختارتها بعناية

لتلتصق ذبذباتها بنا

تستأمننا هذا السر


ندخل الحفل

كما يدخل اليائس بيت قارئة الطالع

الصوت من أمامنا

والحانة من خلفنا

لا تسألنا عن مصادر الندم

بل عن حضوره الثقيل

كل ما تقوله سؤال وحقيقة


لا ينتهي النص بالهروب

كما لا ينتهي الليل بالنعاس



على جسر الكاروسيل

الذي رسمه فان غوخ

وقفت أرواحٌ ثلاث

في افتتاحية حكواتية ناعمة:

واحدة تسرد

وأخرى تستدعي

وثالثة تستقر


صعود وسقوط إيقاعي

يحجب الأسطورة واللون


بصيرة ضعيفة وعقل خجل

أغنية عالقة في المرآة

ولغة متفجرة بالعالم