‘Justice, Equality, and Freedom are Words in Arabic, Too’

"Can You Hear Me?" by Bahraini artist Fawaz Alolaiwat

When I can’t make sense of narrative, I listen to poetry. At the moment, it happens that the collection at hand is Gathering of the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry, ed. Patty Paine, Jeff Lodge, and Samia Touati.

The opening section is from Bahraini poets: Qassim Haddad, Fawzia al-Sindi, Ali al-Sharqawi, Hameed al-Qaed, Ahmed Alajmi, Laala Kashef Alghata, Ali Abdulla Khalifa, Hamda Khamis, Ali al-Jallawi, Karim Radhi, and Adel Khozam.

Qassim Haddad’s poems, trans. by Khaled Mattawa, open the collection. I have read them before; they are available online (in English translation  / Arabic audio). But they often struck me afresh, as here:


I see the wind playing with the banner
of this place,
while people go without air.

And here I laughed out loud:


Pigs are useful too.
They sing about the garbage bins.

But there is much more beyond Qassim Haddad. Fawzia al-Sindi (trans. Joseph T. Ziedan) shouts into the wind:

Awaken, for a sweet numbness gathers in my limbs and sharpens me
like a spear plunging in the heart’s folds, exploding arteries
of words. Awaken, my voice is not capable of whispering.

Her work can also be found online in Arabic, English, and other languages.

Perhaps because I was feeling the ironies of language, I returned several times to Ali al Sharqawi’s “Beyond Language,” trans. Hameed al-Qaed, which begins:

Speech has a third hand
Seven lungs
Five eyes
Speech has a mouth
Similar to that of a wolf at the moment of devouring
Weaving an opinion of drought
In a memory
That is speeding now
Between what has happened and what will come
Speech has a speech

Online, a somewhat disappointing and abrupt interview with al-Sharqawi.

Hameed al-Qaed, the translator of the poem above, also has a section (he translates his own work) and a website with work in Arabic and English.

Laala Kashef Alghata (a university student and Bahrain’s youngest published author) can be read online as well, at her journal Write Me a Metaphor.  One of her poems in the collection, “Roadside Flowers,” is strikingly different from the others in Gathering in its attention to a scene from everyday life, where:

He stands by the side of the road,
his arms draped with jasmine chains,
wearing a button-up shirt unbuttoned
and exhaustion in his eyes.
His friend sells roses
long stems, offering up love
or maybe just a chance.
And the heat slides over them,
like blindness, dizziness and dehydration.

Keep reading.

Ali al-Jallawi also has a number of poems online, trans. Ayesha Saldanha, as well as an excerpt of his prison memoir, God After Ten O’Clock.

Generally, the work in the collection is “humanistic” and not political. Although al-Jallawi’s work here is more broadly philosophical, it is he who said, in a September 2011 interview, that justice, equality, and freedom are words in Arabic, too. He told Ayesha Saldanha, “Just days ago a policeman killed a fourteen-year-old Shi’ite boy. When that happened I put my hand on my heart; I was afraid for my son, who is only ten. I began to understand better that the next generation is a different generation: a generation that stands bare-chested in front of a gun barrel, a generation that rises like a phoenix every time the regime tries to kill, torture, or imprison it.”

Bahraini poets not included:

Ayat al-Qurmezi, who was imprisoned for reading a poem explicitly critical of Bahrain’s king. She was released mid-July.

Jaffar AlAlawy, who was recently detained.

His poem, “Regular Customer,” was translated by Mona Kareem and @FreedomPrayers for Artists Speak Out:

Three days on the same chair
were not more important than a whole lifetime,
during which I moved on several chairs
with the same butt
From the school chair
to the amusemuent park chair,
to the interrogation chair,
to the barber chair,
through the psychiatrist’s chair,
all the way to this cafe chair where I am speaking to you from now.

On all the chairs, I was stuck with the same butt,
opening the same mouth,
sometimes out of unwariness, and sometimes out of surprise
or fear or pain,
and often to search for a trace of my lifetime,
which is passing fast
every time I open my mouth.