To find new value in war poetry, look to the Middle East writes Lisa Luxx
War poetry in England is a narrow band. It is Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other men who fought in the ranks for the British army circa the First World War. The genre here is about disillusionment and sacrifice. And you could be forgiven for thinking it was only ever written by the victors, or only ever written by men. To find new value in war poetry, look to the Middle East.
Throughout the 20th century, there was not a year without war, and is any region more synonymous with complex politics and conflict than the Middle East? Yet amongst its peoples, war poetry is hope. It is revolution. And women, exiles and refugees write it every single day.
Poetry in the Middle East is about more than the evocation of beauty. It is a decided risk one takes to time-capsule honesty. It is the loss of safety for the sake of dignity. As Egyptian revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, better known as Uncle Ahmed, said, “The job of the poet is to wake them up”; and they all sing his poems as protest songs.
Uncle Ahmed was imprisoned many times over his life for speaking out. His simple and blunt verse spoke for the people in a language they all understood and learnt from. He was also known as the ‘Poet of the Poor’ and lived for many years in collaboration with the blind oud player and composer, Sheikh Imam.
At the same time, we also had Mahmoud Darweesh, the legendary Palestinian poet. Darweesh’s work, unlike Negm, was full of passionate elegant imagery and an elegiac lyricism that spoke of politics through metaphor. He wrote over thirty books of poetry and won many prestigious prizes worldwide, including the Belles Lettres Medal from France. Yet, he was first put under a ten-year house arrest at age 22, when his poem ‘Identity Card’ became an anthem for resistance. He escaped into exile, and wrote heart-breaking verse about belonging: “he is a drop of blood looking for its wound”.
More recently, Ayat Al-Gormezi, who read a poem at a democracy rally in 2011 which criticised the Bahrain king, was arrested and tortured both mentally and physically, before being detained under house arrest. She was 20-years-old when that happened. Persian poet Simin Behbahani was 84 when she – one of Iran’s most loved poets – was interrogated and put under house arrest. One could start to believe these wars were waged against poetry itself.
Poets risk the safety of their family, their future and any hope that they may ever return ‘home’ when they write, but they still write. The currency of poetry is the ultimate act of revolution. It threatens the government because it galvanizes people into political action. Every poem is loaded with bravery, sincerity and dedication to an uprising. Mazen Maarouf, contemporary Palestinian poet forced into double-exile, says that because there is a big history of poets being hung, kidnapped and tortured, it “means the written poem might be a final word. The poet cannot deny it later”.
Of course, poetry will endure; it lasts longer than siege. It can be banished but it will never truly die. Forough Farrokzad was a young voice of freedom and feminism in Iran, mid-twentieth century, whose life was wrapped in tragedy and controversy. She gave up her only child for her art, and spoke of such everyday familiarity as the “alley that smells of urine” rather than adhering to the classical imagery Iranian literary critics preferred. Her poems were banned for more than a decade after the Iranian Revolution but how can you keep quiet that which has already been said? Today, though she no longer lives, her voice remains a most powerful feminist force in Iran.
The writer gets exiled. They become scattered across towns they’d never heard of in countries they never thought about. But now it is safe to write, so they write even more. Manal Al Sheikh can channel her anger in Norway in a way that was too dangerous in Iraq. She was widowed into single-motherhood and writes of her frustrations of exile through poetry. To write is to find purpose to chaos. That purpose might be the independence one declares by turning to verse. Hala Mohamamd, a Syrian poet who now lives in Paris, wears a wry smile as she says: “When I speak poetically, I speak with freedom”.
Poetry of exile is also about the transplantation of protest. It’s about allowing the resistance to keep living by spreading to places where it will not be extinguished. Poetry can cross borders in ways that people can’t. (Though, each poem might be a brick in a wall that keeps the writer from returning, until the regime is overthrown…)
Then there are those of us who are writing from the second generation in the diaspora; those of us who had parents settling in the west when the Middle East became inhospitable. We write what it is to be an outsider, to feel like a cat among the pigeons. None better than Suheir Hammad. A poet of Palestinian heritage, who spent her childhood in Jordan before her family moved to Brooklyn. Hip-hop has influenced her astounding poetry. Her piece ‘First Writing Since’ debuted on Def Jam, and it was a poetic response to 9/11 as an Arab woman living in New York City. Giving a tender yet angry voice to being seen as “enemy”.
War breeds poetry in a bid for empathy. I believe politics – as the father of war – plagues the head, whereas poetry comforts the heart. It refocuses our attention from thinking to feeling. And feeling is universal, it transcends time too, so it is the best hope we have for spreading truth.
At times of political dissent, poetry always rises. Lebanese Yehia Jaber postulates that this is because “poetry asks a question, and change begins with a question”. I would add that it is because poetry is not unlike a bullet. It hits you quick in the gut and can change you irrevocably. In urgent times, we need each individual’s wake up to happen sooner than it takes to read a novel, or study a history book. Poetry at once responds to urgency while promising to whisper words of rebellion to our grandchildren.
When Suheir Hammad wrote “Do not fear what has exploded, if you must, fear the unexploded”, I shook. And I still do. Seeing in that line all the resilience and strength that comes with facing forward when the past is a trove of grief. So if there’s one thing we could gain from including Middle Eastern poems on any war poetry syllabus, it is to teach the commitment of bravery.
Poetry has formed movements. If nothing else, this lens on war poetry can give you something to believe in when war has disfigured everything else. And in that case, maybe I was wrong, maybe Middle Eastern poetry was about beauty all along: beauty as the final weapon.
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Lisa Luxx is a British Syrian poet, essayist and performer. She is currently researching for her poetry collection about identity and the Syrian civil war. lisaluxx.com
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