Banipal 38: Emirati Modernist Poetry

Two days ago, I was at the downtown AUC Press bookstore and considered picking up a copy of Banipal 38. Yes, I’m a subscriber, but the magazine came out months ago, and I still didn’t have my copy.

But I didn’t buy it, and the very next day my Banipal 38: Arab American Authors finally arrived in the mail. (Next issue, maybe I’ll pretend to buy a copy at the bookstore right away.)

The focus is on Arab American writers—more on them later—but the issue opens with four Emirati poets, three of whom gave readings in London this July.

The first poet featured is Nujoom al-Ghanem, whose work I find the most interesting. There is a definite shift between her first two poems and the last three; the two batches not only have different translators (Khaled al-Masri vs. Alison Blecker) but are also from different collections (A Night Heavy on the Night vs. Angels of Distant Yearnings).

Nujoom al-Ghanem

The first two are richer in story, fuller, more “heavy on the night.” But poems on both sides are concerned with lives lived at the boundaries of love, death, sleep, darkness.  The poem that stuck with me the most is “She Who Resembles Herself,” which is dedicated “To my aunt who lies on her bed waiting for Him.

From the center of the poem:

Her soul is prepared to ascend.
She wants to leave swiftly
and she wants her body
to fall swiftly into coldness,
but he makes her seem like a liar
to herself, chasing her
like a pirate, wanting her to drown
in the ocean of life,
drown without dying.

The fish/sea metaphor continues (she also uses “fishbowl” elsewhere as a metaphor for society):

Despair is her refuge
and before the visitors come
every evening — hoping it will be
her last,
her lips turn white
her dignity fades away.
The spirit, hanging like a fish
on the hook of days,
roams through the house,
the wind shakes it and its top fins fall,
its tail fins fall,
its scales
and its eyes.

I can’t resist putting in the last lines, because I enjoyed them so much:

It is hanging in time,
dancing with the wind,
and forgetting whether death
has won her
or whether she will remain
being punished by life.

I think it’s the combination of cruelty and affection that snares me here (as well as the sharp images, the attention to a kind of despair not often attended).

Al-Ghanem, born in 1962 in Dubai, is also a filmmaker. According to her bio in Banipal, “She has directed four short films, and at the Fifth Dubai International Film Festival was lauded for Best Documentary in the Gulf and named the most promising UAE film-maker.”

Indeed, her poems also seem strongly visual. Oddly, I can see film in “She Who Resembles Herself.” (More of Al Ghanem’s work, as well as scholarly commentary about her work, is available online at Jehat.)

The other Emirati poets in the issue are Ahmed Rashid Thani (who didn’t go to London), Khulood al-Mu’alla, and Khalid Albudoor.

Khulood al-Mu'alla

Khulood al-Mu’alla‘s poems are intimate and personal, sometimes restless, often seeming to take place alone in a woman’s bedroom. As here, in “Every Year and I”:

On the night of my birthday,
I put on my loveliest nightgown.
Made myself up.
Read my diary.
Recalled my wish.
Lit a candle
and waited
so long,
just as in the year that’s passed.

According to The National, two years ago, Al Mu’alla won the Buland Al-Haidari Award for Young Arab Poets. She has published four collections of poetry.

Khalid Albudoor

Khalid Albudoor‘s poetry is concerned with the intersections of time and place, Bedouins and televisions, castles in the sand. He also has a sharp, small poem about a boy’s first primary lesson, titled “The First Lesson.” It ends:

As I stood like a soldier
awaiting death in the morning line
before me the enemy
and I without weapon
a boy not yet seven,
I stared at the school’s iron gate,
the gate closed

According to Albudoor’s Banipal bio, “He won the Al-Khal Prize for Poetry in Lebanon in 1991, and has published five poetry collections.” He is currently researching UAE history, it says, and cultural heritage. (You can also find some of Albudoor’s work on Jehat.)

Of course, to get a fuller experience of their work, you’ll have to get thee to a bookstore and pick up Banipal 38.