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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Dima Khatib: the reluctant poet who has become well versed

The former Al Jazeera journalist now hosts roving Arabic poetry recitals in an effort to break down 'elitist boundaries', she says.
‘An evening with Dima’ in Sharjah. Courtesy Abdul Qader Al Ani
‘An evening with Dima’ in Sharjah. Courtesy Abdul Qader Al Ani

When Dima Khatib decided to take a break from her long-time job as Latin American bureau chief at the news channel Al Jazeera, she never thought she would end up conjuring poetry from young people, housewives and just about anyone with a knack for self-expression.

The 43-year-old Palestinian is becoming known for her roving Arabic poetry recitals and was invited to have a stand at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in May. She moved to Abu Dhabi from Caracas in Venezuela two and a half years ago, and also lectures at the American University in Dubai.

“I never intended to write poetry,” says Khatib. “I wanted to write books about Latin America and my experiences there. I wanted to write a book about women ... but every time I sat down to write, there would be some kind of overpowering passage that I couldn’t get out of my head. It stopped me sleeping on many nights.”

From Abu Dhabi to Doha and Sharjah to Paris, Khatib’s poetry gatherings – there have been 12 since the end of February, dubbed “an evening with Dima” – have been a hit, attracting people from all over the region.

Born in Damascus, Khatib has never adopted foreign citizenship and travels with Palestinian documents to highlight the difficulties this brings. Most recently, she was turned away from the Omani border where she had intended to give a workshop on writing, as well as lead a poetry session, on the invitation of a group of enthusiastic Omani youths in Muscat.

The recitals are always held in classical Arabic, though she accepts contributions in other Arabic dialects, including Bedouin and other languages. Khatib herself speaks eight languages.

“Ironically, in my first-ever congregation, only men showed up,” she says. “I then had a women-only recital in Abu Dhabi, where the flow of words culminated in life-changing emotional breakthroughs for some participants. One woman broke down in tears as a Syrian woman recited a poem about a friend who had died. Others got inspiration in their personal lives.”

Such public displays of emotion are unusual and traditionally looked down upon. “I dream of poetry breaking elitist boundaries and flowing in the streets like floods,” she says. “Poetry is therapy, a form of self-reflection.”

But what inspired Khatib to become a travelling poet and storyteller? The Arab Spring brought with it a feelings of hope and optimism, she says: “With prospects for renewal and human dignity came a newfound sense of creativity within me.”

“The second was that my work had made me very masculine,” she says. “Having to sustain the physical power to stay up for nights on end, whether in the mountains or in the desert, severed chords from my essence.”

The former Al Jazeera journalist, who counts interviews with Hugo Chávez among her credits, made a huge impact reporting on the Arab Spring from Egypt, Libya and via Twitter on which she has more than 300,000 followers.

“My follower base, which I’d developed covering the region’s recent turmoil, got to know my more feminine and personal side. Simply put, they got to know the real me.”

Khatib used to recite well-known Arab poets’ work back in Venezuela and before that, in Hong Kong.“I sometimes recite poetry in public places, such as airports, buses and malls.

“I used to do it in Venezuela and people would stop to ask me about the language and the meaning. No one has stopped me yet in the UAE, but some have looked in my direction and some have even stopped to listen.”

Khatib’s success has not come without its critics, particularly when she writes verses about men or physical attraction. “Many opposed my change in direction,” she says. “They found it strange, even unbefitting, that I was instead writing about love, food, flowers. They knew me as a serious reporter and didn’t want that to change. Some of the poems were too out there for them.”

“Some have branded us amateurs. Others have called it group therapy. They are not used to the concept of non-selectivity in this field because deviating from set styles in the Arabic language is controversial. Still, contrary to what ‘classicists’ say, this is an ever-changing process.

“What might not have been considered poetry back in the day is now considered so because boundaries have been pushed and rules have been broken. Not every poem has to have phonetic intonation, for instance.”

The veteran writer still has her doubts about being taken seriously among her peers.

“I showed my book to big names in the field and I was warned that many of my passages could not be considered poetry, especially since they don’t rhyme, but even critics differed among themselves as to what are and aren’t poems within the book.”

Her first poetry collection Love Refugee, will be available in the UAE later this year but she is modest in her ambitions and expectations: “Even if I manage to cause a breakthrough for two, three or four people, that is enough for me. As I say in one poem: ‘Standing like a statue amid a storm, my defeat is sweet victory’.”

Samar Al Sayed is a production journalist at The National.