x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In a bloody Middle East, can poetry really change politics?

The editor of an anthology of poems inspired by the Arab world asks if poetry can really change anything in a turbulent region

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

I wish there were words to describe accurately the jittery butterflies careening around inside me before every Poeticians event. I have been hosting and curating spoken-word and poetry performances for five years now, and every single time, the world feels like it is ending for a few hours before I go on stage.

Last week in Dubai was an extra special event, with extra feisty butterflies. We were launching our anthology Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow, our first collection of uncensored writing from 31 poets who are part of our group and have graced the Poeticians stage in Beirut and Dubai since 2007. I was a wreck.

In the end, I need not have worried. When Hajer Abdel Salam finished reading her exuberantly spiritual and yet decadent poem in Arabic, the house roared. When 18-year-old Farah Chamma, our brightest and youngest star, raged for Palestine, people looked like they wanted to rush the stage and engulf her in appreciation. Her mother beamed; I almost cried.

When Frank Dullaghan read observational and sweet pieces about mall life in Dubai, in a series of stories about men and women in consumer bliss, people grinned in recognition.

When Rewa Zeinati performed her poem about "the f-word", we loved that it was about freedom. She even had a placard to show us.

I ranted for 10 minutes straight about Syria: from old women being raped, to murderers coming home to their children, to the daily life of my ageing father alone in Damascus under the shelling, to the memories I formed there as a teenager.

No one looked away from me. I could see the teeth grit and the faces harden against unwanted tears.

A lounge tucked away in the Trade Centre district of Dubai was an unlikely place for a group of rambunctious and crafty wordsmiths to spew tumultuous yet sensitive images and experiences onto a mostly unsuspecting crowd. Yet we sold every copy of the collection we had and took more orders for future deliveries.

What's in the book you may ask? Why another book, among the millions of useless books that stack the shelves in nations that don't read, for people who can't tear themselves away from their smartphones?

I don't know. I asked my poet friend and mentor Ethelbert Miller about this book. It's our first anthology, I said. What the hell do I do? "Do what you want," he said. "Treat it like a book you would want to go to sleep with. Tell us why it's a historical document and not just a book."

I don't know if there is anything historical, life-changing or life-saving about poetry.

The Middle East at present is more bloody than ever. We are experiencing censorship, online and offline, more than ever. Syria is burning, Lebanon is burning, Palestine is burning; Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, too, and I have never been a fan of heat.

This book is not a cool breeze. It will not bring me back my beloved Galilee or Yasmine, my beautiful, deceased mother. It will not save the cities I was bequeathed. It will not combat colonialism, imperialism, Zionism, capitalism or any hegemonic "ism". I am a coward. I will not fight wars. But I will speak and I will speak poetry.

Despite my fear, I remember where I come from. I find it hard today to say that art can change anything. Not the way heroes do.

Some days I wonder why people send me intense emails about how their bodies are moved by words, and how grateful they are to have found, in our words, the dreams they feared, the mornings they suffered, fearing the day, fearing waking up.

Some days I look at the screens I write on and I am convinced there is nothing more frivolous than thinking that my resilient spirit can do any good. That war can be expressed in sentences. That being love-broken can be ameliorated by metaphors. That our words, mostly in English, can ever change the lives of Arab citizens, struggling to understand citizenship in places where our rights have been demolished and our duties have become blurred.

Maybe art cannot change the world, but it can change people. I have seen it happen. It can heal depression, because books are friends and they don't judge you when you collapse. It can seduce and soothe and smear light-reflecting glitter on all that has turned dull. It cannot bring back our lost ones, but it means they don't have to be forgotten.

Poetry cannot avenge crushed spirits from splintered romances, but it sure as hell can kick your ex's ass in public and point a finger and say: "I won't take this betrayal lying down!"

So, yes, you should read the book to follow Tina Fish as she ambles in the swaying and mysterious alleyways of Beirut; you should follow Frank Dullaghan on a trip through the dark hearts of the women of Afghanistan, blown apart by the loss of veils, husbands and light.

You should read Zena El Khalil's work on perverted men with guns on the street who offend everything sacred about being a woman and a lover.

You should listen to Mazen Zahreddine blast a 10-page manifesto on how the Lebanese civil war never ended and allow Justyna Janik to describe her father dealing with the loss of her mother, among mountains and chemotherapy in Canada.

I am under no illusion that the work we do, purely for joy, will make any difference on any grand scale in any turbulent region.

I am too old and too jaded to believe that art can bring peace, and that human expression can stop wars. I do not wish to promote peace with my enemies through poetry. Nor do I wish to claim, "Hey I am as human as you, listen to me, respect me".

But over time, as a curator and event maker, and shaker and mover, you can change the lives of individual people. That is somehow true.

I think I am changed, five years later. I think every poet I ever encouraged and supported and gave feedback to, is changed. And I think our audience is changed and feels different the day after an event.

I mentioned earlier that I am a coward. As much as I would love to be on the front lines of activism for Palestine, as much as a trip to Syria would heal me and maybe I could help some refugees, I am a woman of films and poems, and that is what I can offer. In the final analysis, I take a step back and am able to mock my useless desire to partake in the strife and do something concrete.

But, I also know this is what I can do, and I will do it. And if it helps only one person, mourning a life they once knew, in a city they once loved, then I can rest easier, knowing that language is important, as important as my love affair with it has claimed for decades.


Hind Shoufani is a Palestinian filmmaker and writer based in Dubai. She is working on her second feature film and her third poetry book, both due out next year. Extracts from the book can be found at poeticians.com

On Twitter: @hindoisms