The Emirati poet Hamdah Khalfan Al Mansouri tells how her craft helped inspire her dream to advocate for people with special needs.
Hamdah Khalfan Al Mansouri on the power of poetry
When Hamdah Khalfan Al Mansouri was 18, she decided to break out of her cocoon.
"If I can do this, I can do anything," she says.
And so she bungee jumped. And dangling over a lake in Arizona, the Emirati was reborn.
"I came back a stronger, braver, and much more social person. I was no longer afraid of anything."
Hamdah's legs were damaged during birth and she has lived her life in a wheelchair.
"I found out I had a chance to regain [use of] my legs up to age 7 through surgery, but my family didn't know about the cure and our doctors here didn't do anything to revive them," says Hamdah, who is soft-spoken and regularly gets mistaken for a child on the telephone.
Now 29 years old, newly married and with a baby on the way, she is finally content after spending much of her life secluded.
"I found my salvation through poetry. I was alone most of my life, isolated from people, and so I would sit and compose poems that comforted me."
From the challenges of a person confined to a wheelchair to her friendship with her pets (such as her favourite Russian Blue cat Evian) to her love story with her husband, Hamdah's poetry explores khawater, the deep emotions buried and tied to life's different scenes.
The Emirati poet will be sharing some of her work on Wednesday at Speak Abu Dhabi, an event at the Paris Sorbonne campus that will feature free live poetry performances.
"They will be mostly love poems, those I composed to my husband when I found somebody out there who loves me as I am," she says.
Hamdah met her husband, who is from Syria, while they were both looking for a spare mechanical wheelchair. He was looking for one for his cousin while she was looking for one for a person in need. At first, her family rejected the marriage proposal but her love story came to a happy ending last year.
"He is my best friend. He understands me and always stands by me no matter how crazy some of things I want to do [are]," she says.
While she is an unpublished poet, Hamdah has been writing poems since she was a child. It all began when she rescued an injured bird in the driveway of her house.
"My family told me to leave it there, that it will die and that will be it. They told me not to concern myself. But I love birds and animals; they understand me and I understand them," she says.
The bird eventually recovered and lived with her for a couple of years. It soon became a tradition for the little brown bulbul to sing to Hamdah as she sat in the garden or her room composing poems about love and friendship.
Hamdah has also rescued cats that had wandered into her place, raised hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and a bat. "My family of animals kept me company and we had a special connection. I just had to look into their eyes and I would know what they feel, and they would know what I felt."
When the bulbul died and she needed help to bury it, Hamdah wrote some of her strongest poems.
"The pain of loss, the pain of my inability to save it from death or even bury it, this sense of helplessness that we all go through at some point in time, all came out as a collection of poems that to this day makes me cry," she says.
Growing up as an introvert with strict parents, Hamdah rarely went to malls or public gatherings and had few friends.
"Most disabled people ... live like I lived, alone in isolation. Often it is the family that makes it difficult, as some are ashamed or just don't know how to deal with a child with special needs. Then you have the society and logistics like lack of transport or lack of access that make it uncomfortable for us."
But her life changed when she won a scholarship to study in the US and, against all her family's protests, she went. "I had a maid that helped me in and out of the wheelchair, but most of the time I was on my own. I would go to the mall. I would go to the bank. I would wander and stroll the streets in my wheelchair. I felt normal, like I was like everyone else. The US changed me. It made me independent and it gave me a new take on life."
She was at Arizona Sate University for three years, studying business, but her education was cut short when her family summoned her back.
"But I was different when I came back and my family had a hard time dealing with the new independent, outspoken Hamdah who could fly. They were used to the quiet, unmotivated Hamdah who couldn't move."
Hamdah started working as a receptionist at the Zayed Higher Organization for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs, where she often ends up counselling families that come into the centre.
"I tell the child, I tell the parents, the disability is in the mind. We are all normal. We are just normal differently."
Her dream is to have a special majlis-like centre where she is the "missing link" between the authorities and the families with special needs. Hamdah says that there is currently too much bureaucracy and paperwork.
"I would be the human link, as I understand both sides."
Hamdah broke barriers three years ago when she tried out for the Abu Dhabi poetry challenge show The Million's Poet, and was seen on screen reciting poems of courage and belonging.
"I said, we are not different. We are not to be pitied and shut away. We are active and giving members of our society. Give us the ramp and we will reach you," she recalls.
At the time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, happened to be sitting in the audience.
"His Highness came over to the room where I was, as none of the staff was willing to carry my wheelchair up the stairs to the stage that didn't have a ramp. It was a beautiful moment. I was in the clouds when His Highness congratulated me on my courage to come and speak out," she says.
Hamdah hopes her story and her poems inspire whoever hears them to be like her and to take up the challenge that is life.
"If you are sad or happy or unsure of yourself, try composing a poem. You would be surprised at the power of poetry."