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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Zeina Hashem Beck: Seeing Beirut in a poetic new light

Dubai-based poet Zeina Hashem Beck's collection To Live in Autumn, which won the Backwaters Prize last year, will be launched by poetry collective Poeticians in Dubai.
Zeina Hashem Beck. Lee Hoagland / The National
Zeina Hashem Beck. Lee Hoagland / The National

In a poem by the Dubai-based writer Zeina Hashem Beck, a woman is drawn by the Arabic music she hears from her balcony in Dubai and is almost instantly transported to a time when she used to hear the same tunes in Beirut.

Titled Dance, it is one of 40 poems dedicated to the Lebanese capital in Beck’s debut collection To Live in Autumn. She won the 2013 Backwaters Prize when the collection was in manuscript form, and it has now been published by Backwaters Press.

The book will be launched by Dubai’s poetry collective Poeticians on Sunday at the Ibis Hotel. The event will also see 10 UAE-based poets sharing their work and reading some of Beck’s works.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Lebanon,” says Beck, who moved to Dubai four years ago, and has lived in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “Writing about the place came out of when I moved out of Lebanon, and all the memories came flooding back.

“That does not mean that I gush about Lebanon being perfect in all my poems,” says Beck, 33. “I love the place and miss it, but my version of it isn’t all flowery. There are poems in there about homeless people, children begging on the street right next to people clubbing on that street.”

As a teenager, Beck wrote poetry in Arabic and French and began publishing her work in English after acquiring a master’s degree in English literature at the American University of Beirut.

Her poems have featured in literary journals in the United States and the United Kingdom, including Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, The Common and Mslexia. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year.

“I began writing full-time and sending my work out to literary magazines in 2006,” says Beck. “The idea of a book came to me then and it has taken me seven years to put it together.”

She says memories have a crucial place in this collection of poems.

“Most of what I’ve written is fished out of memories from my university days. When I decided I wanted to write a book, I consciously went back to the people, streets, neighbours and events from that time,” says Beck, who is from Tripoli.

“Sometimes the news sparked something. For example, the poem Spring was born out of all this exposure to the news about Syrian refugees. There are also poems as a reaction to what people call the Arab Spring and so there is a mention of Egypt, too.”

But her writings aren’t steeped in political themes. “What a good poem does is takes something familiar from daily life and makes it unfamiliar. I don’t label what I write, but through my words, you see things in a new light.”

At the centre of the book, Beck says, is this turmoil of going back to an unfamiliar Beirut and reconnecting with a country where she spent most of her life.

“I am constantly toying with this idea – is my version of Beirut true? It is weird when you go back home and you feel like you belong and you don’t belong all at once. I’ve lived there through the explosions as well as when it thrived. Now things have changed more rapidly, not just in Lebanon but the entire region.”

Beck is also a spoken-word artist, performing many of her pieces at events in Dubai.

Last year, she started Punch at BookMunch cafe, near Safa Park. Punch is an open-mic session held every month for aspiring poets.

“While I do like to sit down in a quiet place and write and rewrite for hours, I also like performing what I write,” says Beck.

“But not all poems can be performed and I choose them very carefully. Some poems are great on the page but might be too heavy for a general audience.”

She says such performances make poetry more relevant to a wider audience. “Very few people read poetry. Performing it creates this passion and directness, and speaks to them easily. Spoken word might be doing page poetry a favour by creating an interest among more people.”

The poet has already begun working on her second collection, but hasn’t decided the theme of the book yet.

“Home will feature, but I’m also writing poetry that is rooted in my experience with motherhood. They can be in two completely different directions or converge. I’m not sure yet.”

• To Live in Autumn will be launched at the Sublime Bar at Ibis Hotel Dubai today at 8pm. The book costs Dh50 at the event and will soon be available for purchase at BookMunch cafe and Kinokuniya in The Dubai Mall. For more information, visit www.zeinahashembeck.com

aahmed@thenational.ae