The Worlds We Inhabit: Home: New Arabic Poems

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I felt I had no choice but to pick up a copy of the anthology Home: New Arabic Poems (Two Lines Press, September 2020) on a brief visit to my favorite bookstore this fall, a rare adventure in an ongoing pandemic. The book demanded my attention with its bright yellow cover framing a black-and-white image of a single palm tree, its square shape, and even its title, encased in a thin outline, a house of its own.

Inside this bilingual anthology of Arabic poems, the title page is black, and emblazoned across it in large white font is the Arabic translation of the book’s title: Al Bayt. There is no introduction or preface, no editor’s note—only an immediate encounter with the poems. In the absence of written guidance on the editors’ perspective, the book’s design itself frames the experience of reading the poems. The Arabic translation of the English title tells me that “home” is rendered in this volume as interior living space, the intimate landscapes of the domestic. The word “al bayt” encompasses many of the meanings of home—a physical dwelling (house), a place of belonging (bayt as reference to family), a place to stay—and gestures to Arabic’s name for a line of poetry.

The design of the book continued to be an audible voice as I read the poems. Each section’s title page was also printed in white ink on black, a line or phrase from a poet’s work in large font spilling across the pages. The Arabic words on each of these title pages function both as text and visual art. Their effect is that of photographic negatives, wherein the darkest area of the photographed subject is flooded with light. Inside each section, the poems and their translations live side by side. The design underscores the fact that many of the poets in the anthology are themselves translators and write in multiple languages. The book is a kind of structure, housing a community of translators and multilingual writers. These writers expand the meaning of the word home by virtue of their lives and their writing.

The poems in this collection are described as “new,” but this is only true of the gathering of these English translations in one volume. The anthology brings together new translations by several of the most accomplished poets writing in Arabic today, like Egyptian poet Iman Mersal and Iraqi poet Fadhil al-Azzawi, both of whom have had volumes of poetry translated into English in recent years. The anthology also contains some younger voices with deservedly fast-growing readerships. Like many of the accomplished translators featured in this volume, almost all of the contributors are multi-genre writers: poets, academics, journalists, novelists, essayists, and critics. The anthology is not limited to one region of the Arab world; instead, it brings together voices from North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Gulf, and the Arabian peninsula. Without exception, the poems are written in free verse. Many of them are experimental or avant-garde, like the works of Samer Abu Hawash and Iman Mersal. The poems are all written in formal Arabic, though they employ the syntax of daily speech.

“I want nothing more than wings / or my soul to cease yearning for flight,” writes Kuwaiti poet Saadiah Mufarreh in her long, sectioned poem “My Dreams Often Humble Themselves”—a couplet that lingered in me long after I read it. The speaker’s sardonic voice, the braid of longing and ennui, are a signature of several of the poems in this book. Mufarreh’s poem presents the reader with a litany of desires and dreams that distrust their own possibility:

I want nothing more than a comfortable pillow
and dreams whose events unfold
in accordance with scenarios written in advance.

I want an old story with a happy ending
to tell the children
while pointing at pictures of its heroes in the family album.

“My Dreams Often Humble Themselves” attends to the personal, the comforts of days and nights ordered and spent at the speaker’s will. From these intimate spaces—dreams, the pillow, and the family album—its lines gesture toward communal themes of freedom, agency, and memory.

In his poem “One Last Selfie with a Dying World,” Palestinian poet Samer Abu Hawwash, echoes these themes. It is a long poem divided into short, imagistic sections, each like the click of phone camera capturing a mundane instant that expands outward:

In every speck of dust
another sacrifice will arrive.
In another kitchen
one of them will enter a simple family discussion
about the customary shortage of bread,
or happiness.

The short lines slow down the poem’s movement for up-close examination. Rising from sleep, the speaker’s morning coffee ritual stretches back through their ancestry, and the sounds of daily life that take on fantastical shapes around the speaker—each of these is both an intimate experience and an engagement with the world in which the home abides.

The poems in this anthology brought to mind a sentence from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” I think of the absence of shelter and the fragility of dreams implicit in Syrian poet Riyadh Al-Saleh Al-Hussein’s poem “A Marseillaise for the Neutron Age”:

It’s our neutron age
The age of tattered shoes and clamps
The age of slow exhaustion from 00:00 hour to 25:00 hour
From our neutron age
Our penultimate age
We invite you—come
Your wretched bourgeoisie,
Come and share in the wailing, the prisons, and the songs.

Al-Hussein’s poem is born of his own suffering with illness and botched medical procedures but his poetics are forged in the Syria of the 1970s and 1980s where he lived, a disabled person, a poor person, imprisoned and tortured by the state for his activism and his poems. His work foreshadows the tragedy of so many in his homeland and across Arab countries who suffer the twin oppressions of poverty and political repression. In a cascade of short lines and stark associative leaps, he composes a damning critique of life in a police state that begins and ends with the condition of the heart: “In the epoch of gas heaters and gas asphyxiation / I smell my lover’s fingers / and drink her dull memories.”

Tunisian poet Ines Abbasi also writes of love in her poem “Lace,” and of the lover in Bordeaux for whom the speaker traces the letters of the Arabic language: “the shadda, the damma, and the dotted letters startled you, / the ‘ayn is a rounded letter that lingers in your throat, / I embrace you in silence.” The speaker longs for her lover across the Mediterranean and remembers the way in which he called her “his Arab love,” and mispronounced the Arabic words for “I love you.” What’s implicit in this poem is that even the most intimate spaces are political, or perhaps that the desire to see them as anything else does not translate.

As mentioned above, several of the poets in this collection are themselves translators, working across languages and cultures, diasporic or expatriate, writing from one home of language with the textures of another remembered one. In turn, the translators animate the poems with their own particular knowledge of literature and language.

I quibble here and there with some of the translators’ choices that, to this reader, soften the edge of a line or favor one valence of meaning over another, but I suspect this is an affliction that is shared by many bilingual readers. In Abassi’s poem, for instance, the translators write: “You sighed and said Arabic is a difficult language / But ukhibuki my Arab love.” I am partial to something closer to the original, “my Arab woman,” which suggests a claiming of the beloved but preserves the distance between the speaker and the foreign lover who struggles with her alphabet. In Iman Mersal’s poem “They Tear Down My Family Home,” the speaker, watching the home as it’s demolished, imagines it transformed. The door recalls the women in black jalabiyas that used to visit, crossing its threshold with gifts that are now trampled: “a door of gifts and sorceresses, now a door to nowhere.” The translator chooses “nowhere,” but Mersal’s Arabic reads “to itself.” The door becoming a portal to itself seems a surrealist turn worth preserving in the poem.

Home: New Arabic Poems is an impressive gathering of voices across generations, poetics, and homes of origin. Each section in the anthology is an invitation to encounter, with as few barriers as possible, the work of nine celebrated Arabic-language poets whose work shapes the modern literary landscape of their homelands. These poems illuminate the familiar spaces of contemporary life. In doing so, they expand our understanding of the homes and worlds we inhabit.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book of poems, Water & Salt, won the 2018 Washington State Book Award. She is the author of two chapbooks, Arab in Newsland, winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize, and Letters from the Interior, finalist for the 2020 Jean Pedrick Award. Her essay “Muhammads in Gaza,” won 2020 Best of the Net. You can learn more about her work at More from this author →